For the past year and a half, GRAMMY nominated artist Joe Troop has been tirelessly traveling the backroads of America documenting injustice among communities throughout North Carolina, the Pacific Northwest, and along the US/Mexico border. With a new album, Borrowed Time, released August 20 on Free Dirt Records, Joe’s still moving, working to shine a light on voices yet unheard. Part of Joe’s drive comes from the inspiration he takes from his mentors, especially the legendary union organizer and songwriter Baldemar Velásquez, founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). That inspiration has come full circle now with the first episode of a planned documentary series on Velásquez’s life released today. Working together with tastemaker videographers GemsonVHS and Indigenous-led Iximché Media, and funded partially by a grant from UNC Chapel Hill, Troop and the filmmakers visited Baldemar at his headquarters in Ohio, interviewing him about his early influences and life on the front lines, and working with archival footage. The first episode of this series features an interview between Joe and Baldemar in Toledo, Ohio as well as old footage of Baldemar singing at union meetings and getting pushed around physically in the field. Joe and Baldemar speak about Baldemar’s childhood on the road with his migrant family, and the toll that organizing and activism can have on those fighting for justice and how music can help see people through. The episode also features Joe and Baldemar performing traditional songs together at The Holland Theater in Bellefontaine, Ohio.
“Becoming friends and playing music with my mentor Baldemar Velásquez has revolutionized my understanding of music’s role in mobilizing people,” Joe explains. “In this cluttered world it has become increasingly difficult to identify the real luminaries, and I am deeply honored to help spread awareness of this legendary organizer.” Working closely with Nashville videographer Anthony Simpkins of GemsonVHS and Roderico Y. Diaz and Emily Rhyne of Iximché Media, Joe and Baldemar explored the importance of organizing and the interaction between protest and music, an intersection that Baldemar knows well. “I’d compare him to Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger,” Anthony explains. “In fact, Baldemar worked with Seeger and performed with him on stage! It was incredible working with a 70 year old activist like Baldemar who still has the energy of a 20 year old with the motivation to change the world. From Baldemar, I learned how to use music in a way that changes people’s hearts and minds. You don’t have to be cynical, you can work towards real tactile, physical goals. Each day is a new day and the work never stops, that’s his concept. Each day you just work a little more and a little more until you have had a whole lifetime, like he’s had, to make real change.”
Baldemar Velásquez is an organizing luminary known for founding the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, going head-to-head in support of migrant workers, and fighting back against exploitative corporations. Velásquez was born to a migrant family in Rio Grande, Texas. Growing up, his family would travel to Ohio for work, as Baldemar relates in the episode, the wheels of the trucks lulling him and his siblings to sleep. In a powerful sequence, Baldemar relates the racism and discrimination they saw traveling through rural American in the 1950s, and the challenges of moving seasonally from Texas to the frozen lands of Ohio and living in a one-room shanty house for migrant workers. Throughout the challenges, Baldemar had music, his mother’s love for singing that she transferred to him. “I grew up singing my mom’s songs in the field picking crops!” Baldemar says. “Now, I use music to pick for justice. Working with Joe and the documentary team is like a perfect storm.”
Incensed by the injustices suffered by his family and other farmworkers, Baldemar founded the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in 1967. Under his leadership FLOC has set international precedents in labor history, including being the first union to negotiate multi-party collective bargaining agreements, and the first to represent H2A international guestworkers under a labor agreement. Baldemar is an internationally recognized leader in the farmworker and immigrants rights movements. His commitment to justice and human dignity have led to recognition by many labor, government, academic, and progressive organizations, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (Genius Grant), a Development of People Award by the Campaign for Human Development of the U.S. Catholic Conference, an Aguila Azteca Award by the Government of México, and several Honorary Doctorates from Bowling Green State University, Bluffton University, and University of Toledo. In 2009 Baldemar was elected to the AFL-CIO Executive Council.
Further episodes of this documentary series will air in coming months on GemsonVHS’ popular YouTube account.