Sunday, December 26, 2021


Photographs by David Bacon
Las Cruces, NM  12/22/21


The Rio Bravo is the border between Mexico and the U.S. from El Paso and Juarez to Brownsville and Matamoros.  Just upriver from El Paso it passes through New Mexico, or it would if there were water in it.  Today, though, the mighty river is dry.
There are eight major dams on the Rio Bravo.  The big one at Elephant Butte, near Truth or Consequences, controls the flow down through Las Cruces and El Paso. Greeting the release of the water from Elephant Butte used to be an occasion, when people would come to greet the river as it came alive, submerging again dry sand and brush under the brown flow.
That flow, fed by the runoff from rains and snow in the Rockies, would begin in February and finally run dry in October.  But climate change is changing the pattern.  In 2020 water began to course down the riverbed in March, and petered out in September.  This past year the river only flowed from June through July - two months instead of nine.

Route 28 is the old two-lane road that follows the watercourse through the Mesilla Valley that extends from Las Cruces south to El Paso - the border between New Mexico and Texas.  It is pecan country, where rundown buildings line the highway as it runs through the old farmworker towns.  While its people may be poor, however, pecans are New Mexico's most profitable crop, worth over $220 million each year.  Today Doña Ana County harvests more of the nuts than any other in the country.
From late December through early January alligator-like machines snake through the orchards, grabbing each tree between rubber-coated jaws, shaking the pecans off the branches.  Another machine follows behind, sweeping the nuts into long rows.  
Then the workers arrive.  They clean out branches and debris, that would otherwise clog up the final set of machines in the groves - the giant vacuum cleaners that suck up the nuts, spit out the leaves, and haul the crop down to the sheds.
Pecan workers were some of the southwest's first labor activists.  Emma Tenayuca, a young Communist organizer trained at the Universidad Obrera in Mexico City, led twelve thousand young Mexican and Chicana women out on strike in San Antonio in 1938.  
This generation of pecan workers, however, may be the last.  The trees yield big profits for growers but they need water, and the river is drying up.  The aquifer below the valley depends on river flow, so pumping water is a solution that will only work for a while.


According to Kevin Bixby, director of the Southwest Environmental Center, "it's only a matter of time until people understand that growing pecans in the desert is not sustainable.  Water is a resource of public trust, which means that the government has the duty as an administrator to manage this resource for the benefit of all, including future generations."
Below the Mesilla Valley, just before the riverbed becomes the border between Mexico and the U.S., the new border wall stretches across the desert west of El Paso.  In El Paso itself, the city of Juarez is visible through an older section of the wall and its network of wire mesh.

The work of people arriving from the south produced the pecan industry and its profits. But the wall is a potent symbol of the hostility of Texas and U.S. authorities towards migrants.

Sunday, November 28, 2021


Photographs by David Bacon

If you drive straight ahead after passing through the cemetery gate, you soon find yourself among dark stone mausoleums.  These are the grey memorials to Stockton's Catholic elite.  Along empty tree-lined avenues leaves blow past the stones and their dark shadows.

If you turn right, though, you arrive at the corner of the graveyard where Mexicans and Filipinos bury their dead.  Innocencio Galedo, who migrated to work in Stockton fields in 1922, is buried here.  Next to him is his wife Sotera, who came from the Philippines to join him after the war.  Once a year one of their kids cleans off the two flat grave markers - picking away the crabgrass and putting flowers in the two holes in each one.  This year it's Lillian's turn.

On Thanksgiving the graves in this corner are a bewildering cacophony.  Many families clearly see visiting them as a part of the holidays.  November is just after Dia de los Muertos, and grave decorations are a jarring combination of pumpkins, skulls and babies.  Plastic flowers combine with real ones.  Votive candles bear the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A small statue, at first glance a dark figure from a surreal dream, resolves into a chubby infant holding a bird.

Against the fence at the edge of the cemetery, with warehouses and barrels visible through the slats, birthday balloons are the memorials left by families unable to afford elaborate gravestones.  Where the children are buried, dolls sit next to little figurines of elephants or cartoon characters, under photographs of smiling sisters and brothers.  The little pony, beloved by six-year olds, has become a blown-up metallic unicorn.

After putting her decorations on the flat gravestone in front of her, a girl sits remembering who's buried underneath.  In one large photograph a father stares out from the past.  Other families, unwilling to forget the faces of their buried dead, have set small photographic portraits into the stones of other markers.

Many tomb decorations celebrate life, as though the person in the ground is still there to party.  A bottle of brandy and a beer, a calacas with a guitar, and even a snow globe surround a flag, candles with saints, and the statue of a strangely pensive child.  It's an altar for Day of the Dead, in the campo santo, or the holy field that belongs to them.

Walking away, I notice a new burial.  An enormous flower decoration spells out DAD - another father receiving his family's tribute.  People say funerals and burial arrangements are for the living, rather than for the dead.  The dead, after all, don't live to see them.  But if they somehow were able to see what's come after they're gone, the ones buried under the flat stones and balloons are probably happier than the respectable folks in the grey mausoleums.




Wednesday, October 27, 2021


For a full selection of photographs, click here:

POPLAR, CA - 24OCTOBER21 - Farmworker movement activists celebrated the birthday of Larry Itiong at the Larry Itliong Resource Center in Poplar, and walked and caravanned to Delano.  Itliong was a Filipino labor leader, starting in the 1940s, when he helped organize farmworkers and Alaska cannery workers, and was dispatcher of UCAPAWA Local 7 (now the Inlandboatmen's Union of the ILWU).  He organized farmworkers through the 1950s with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, and in 1965 he and other Filipino workers started the 1965 grape strike, which led to the organization of the United Farm Workers.  A day in honor of his birth was declared by the California state legislature.

Among the people celebrating his birthday were California Attorney General Rob Bonta, UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, Sacramento LCLAA chapter president Desiree Rojas, Filipina academic Robyn Rodriguez, Central Valley Empowerment Alliance organizers Mari Perez and Arturo Rodriguez, longtime Filipino community activists Cyntia Bonta, Lillian Galedo and Edwin Batonbacal, members of the Itliong family, including Johnny Itliong, and many others.

Copyright David Bacon













Thursday, October 7, 2021


By David Bacon
The Nation, 10/7/21

MADERA, CA - Alejandro Santiago picks wine grapes and packs them into boxes.  He is a Mixteco indigenous migrant from Coatecas Altas, Oaxaca, and lives in Madera.  He wears a mask because of the coronavirus pandemic.--Copyright David Bacon

Madera County has been a stronghold for decades for the Republican Party in California's San Joaquin Valley.  Billboards this fall lined rural highways, urging the recall of Governor Newsom, pasted over peeling Trump/Pence posters.  If Newsom's fate had rested on Madera County he would no longer be governor - sixty percent of county voters went against him.  Fifty six percent went for Trump in 2020, slightly more than 2016.  In fact, the last Democratic Presidential candidate to win the county (barely) was Jimmy Carter in 1976.

But in the city of Madera, the county seat, changing demographics are producing political challenges to a conservative order.  That seemingly solid majority does not reflect the demographic reality of the county's 156,000 residents.  Almost 60% of county residents list their origin as Hispanic. African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans make up another 10%.  


LOS BANOS, CA - Equipment yard with U.S. flags and rightwing signs put up by the Madera County Republican Party, calling for recalling Governor Gavin Newsom.  Older signs urge votes for Trump and Pence.--Copyright David Bacon


MADERA, CA - Elsa Mejia is a candidate for Madera City Council District 5.--Copyright David Bacon

That challenge is colorful and young in the city's District 5, which combines a delapidated downtown with a large eastside barrio.  Here California's growing community of indigenous Mexican migrants has put forward its first candidate - Elsa Mejia, who is running for an open seat on the city council.

Mejia was born in nearby Fresno, to parents who'd come to the Valley from the Oaxacan town of Santa Maria Tindu.  A decade ago the Leadership Council of Santa Maria Tindu, an organization of town residents now living in the U.S, carried out its own community census.  They wanted answers because the government does no count indigenous migrants, even in the Census.  The Council found that migrants from just this one Mixtec hometown, living in Madera, already numbered 2,500.  Together with migrants from other Oaxacan communities, Mixtec-speaking people now are an sizeable part of Madera's people.

California communities of indigenous migrants maintain their ties with their Mexican towns of origin.  Growing up, Mejia would return with those family members who could cross the border to visit her grandfather in Tindu.  He would try to teach her Mixteco.  "But we didn't stay long enough, so I just learned a few words," she laughs.  Later she lived in Oaxaca for a year, working for Rufino Dominguez, a revered migrant leader in California who went back to Oaxaca to head its state Institute for Attention to Migrants.  Mejia later worked for a decade as a reporter for the Madera Tribune, and then edited Fresno's progressive monthly, the Community Alliance.  Today she works in the communications staff of Service Employees Local 521, the Valley's union for many public workers.

Mejia's laugh belies the many things her parents, and Mixteco parents like them, did over the years to make sure their children know and enjoy Mixtec culture.  They formed organizations to carry that torch, from dance groups to language classes.  

Every year the Binational Fronte of Indigenous Organizations (Frente Indigena de Organizationes Binacionales - FIOB) mounts a dazzling festival showcasing the dances of Oaxacan towns, called the Guelaguetza.  Its Fresno festival is just one of several.  California's indigenous Oaxacan population is so large there are more Guelaguetzas organized here than in Oaxaca.  In Madera itself FIOB has organized a yearly basketball tournament, the Copa de Juarez, on the birthday of Benito Juarez, Mexico's first indigenous president.  It organized protests against the celebration of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas, accusing colonizers of trying to destroy indigenous culture and people.


MADERA, CA - A home near downtown Madera in a neighborhood of many indigenous immigrant farmworkers.--Copyright David Bacon


MADERA, CA - Inside the Del Valle market in downtown Madera people can order and eat food or buy piñatas for their children's birthday parties.--Copyright David Bacon


MADERA, CA - A paletero, or ice cream seller, sells frozen fruit juice bars from his cart to mechanics in an auto shop near downtown's Yosemite Avenue.--Copyright David Bacon

Culture is a principal basis of organization in Mixteco communities, a key understanding for winning an election in Madera District 5.  Even if she has problems with the language, as many second generation immigrants often do, Mejia understands its importance in mobilizing her community.  "It's very important for people to have access to public services in their own language," she explains.  "We still don't have equal access, even in Spanish.  You can't take a driving test in Mixteco.  Everybody should have access in the languages they speak."    

FIOB fought over many years for language rights in the Valley.  It won interpretation in Mixteco and other indigenous languages in California courts before that right was recognized in Mexico.  But Fidelina Espinoza, FIOB's state coordinator who staffs its Madera office, says she supports Mejia because language is still a huge problem tied to the lack of city services in general.  "When our parents go to school for a conference with teachers, there are no interpreters, and sometimes even no conference," she charges.  "We have no translation to help us access what we need, and the city doesn't support cultural programs or even community gardens for our young people."

Downtown Madera could use a lot of community gardens.  The main street, Yosemite Avenue, is lined with small businesses, mostly with Spanish-language signs, that are clearly having a hard time.  One star attraction is Sabores de Oaxaca (Oaxacan Flavors) where a stream of Mixteco-speaking customers find a small cool restaurant.  Many come inside still in sweat-stained clothes from a day in the fields, in 115-degree heat.  

Nevertheless, other businesses on Yosemite Avenue could clearly use city support.  Across the freeway chain stores and malls get a lot more attention.  Downtown homes are mostly modest rentals, many in need of help as well.  

"The city has abandoned downtown," Mejia charges.  "Those little stores and restaurants were hit hard by COVID, but where was the help?  People in District 5 have the lowest incomes in Madera.  A lot of people have no homes and there's no city program to build housing.  The subsidies in the Federal bills for renters never got here."


MADERA, CA - Alejandro Santiago picks wine grapes near Madera, where the temperature can reach over 110 in the afternoon.--Copyright David Bacon


MADERA, CA - Juana Ruiz picks grapes for raisins early in the morning, in a vinyard near Madera.  She stands on a milk crate so that she can reach the grapes on the vines above her.--Copyright David Bacon


MADERA, CA - Cesilia Perez Lopez, an indigenous farmworker from Oaxaca, comes home from work.  She shows the card punched at work that gives her credit for every bucket of tomatoes she picks.  She is a steward for the United Farm Workers there.--Copyright David Bacon

"Things are going to change if Elsa is elected," promises Antonio Cortes, Central Valley Director for the United Farm Workers.  Cortes also comes from Tindu, and today works in the union's Madera office.  "Oaxacans are very numerous and important here," he says.  "We're always struggling with the city for resources, and we deserve representation.  She comes from a farmworker family, and has that commitment."

Out of an economically active population of 85,000, about 23,000 Madera County residents work in the fields, according to demographer Rick Mines.  His studies show that the median income for a farmworker is between $10,000 and $12,499 while for a family, the median is between $12,500 and $15,000.

In the pandemic, poverty translates into illness and death.  Madera County has had over 22,000 COVID-19 cases (14% of the population) and 266 deaths.   Only half of its residents are vaccinated.  Reporting Area C, which includes downtown and the eastside barrio, has the most cases, almost a third.  By comparison, in Silicon Valley's Santa Clara County, while it has more cases, only 7% of residents got the virus, and over three quarters are vaccinated.  Every day activists in FIOB go out to the fields to sign people up for shots.  UFW organizers visit members in the almond orchards, bringing masks, sanitizer and other protective equipment.

Mejia's chances of winning come from her connection to these campaigns and organizations, working on concrete community problems.  She's running for an open seat, and her opponent is another Latina, Matilda Villafan.  But in challenging the economic priorities of the San Joaquin Valley, Mejia doesn't have an easy path to election.  For instance, she believes that "farmworkers who work during the pandemic should be paid better since they're risking their lives.  And not just them, but their families as well.  This should be part of treating them with dignity as workers."  The growers who put up those Trump signs can't be happy about that.  


FRESNO, CA - Rolando Hernandez, a community activist with FIOB and the Centro Binacional, talks with Angelica Corona as she picks peaches about the importance of getting vaccinated against COVID-19.  Hernandez speaks Mixteco, and can talk with the many workers who only speak that language.--Copyright David Bacon


MADERA, CA - Vianney Torres, an organizer for the United Farm Workers, hands out personal protective equipment to workers in a pistachio grove at lunchtime to members of the United Farm Workers at the Wonderful Co., a large grower.--Copyright David Bacon


MADERA, CA - Carlos Cruz Victoriano lives in a rundown home in Madera with other Mixteco farmworkers.  In the summer of 2020 everyone in the house had serious cases of COVID-19 and were hospitalized.--Copyright David Bacon

She thinks there are about 2000 eligible voters in her district, but there's no precise number for those who come from indigenous families.  It is a complicated question for several reasons.  In the huge migration of people out of Oaxaca, the first wave of migrants to reach California arrived in the mid-1980s, and the arrival of people has continued ever since.  Because the last immigration amnesty in 1986 had a cutoff date of January 1, 1982, most of these migrants have been undocumented.  For them, citizenship, the ability to register to vote, and the political rights that come with that, are out of reach.

If all the immigrant farmworkers in San Joaquin Valley agriculture could vote, Kevin McCarthy would probably not be the Congressman from Bakersfield, and head of the Republican Congressional caucus.  Using citizenship to restrict the franchise has successfully prevented the formation of a voting base for more worker-friendly politicians, and more progressive legislation.  

Elsa Mejia represents the new generation of the children of these families, born here, and therefore citizens.  Her campaign is part of their entrance onto the political stage in communities where immigrant workers contribute the bulk of the labor, but cannot vote.  Over time, that could affect California politics as profoundly as the immigrant upsurge did in Los Angeles in the 1990s.  

But it does make it difficult to determine who the Oaxacan or Oaxacan-descended voters are in District 5, and how to mobilize them.  In an era of scientific election campaigns, like those already unfolding for 2020's Congressional election, lack of such concrete information is a cardinal sin.  

But sometimes what scientific campaigns lack is an organic connection to local communities and their struggles.  Mejia is not running against Trump, at least not directly.  She's running on her ability to speak to the concrete needs of her district, which in the end conflict with those of the ranchers, with all their flags and recall signs.  On November 2 this year, Elsa Mejia will have the chance to show that kind of strength.


FRESNO, CA - The Danza de los Diablos, performed by the community of Mixtec immigrants from San Miguel Cuevas, Oaxaca, at the annual festival of Oaxacan indigenous culture, the Guelaguetza.