Thursday, July 28, 2016


Photoessay by David Bacon
The Progressive Magazine, July/August 2016

COTATI, CA - 2009
Betty Johnson changes the diaper on a boy she's caring for. Over 300,000 California housekeepers, nannies and personal attendants provide support and care to seniors and people with disabilities, putting in long hours caring for an estimated two million households.  With no overtime protections, they suffer exhaustion, damage to their health and that of their clients, and can't earn enough to pay their own bills.  In a recent survey, 76 percent of domestic workers still reported working more than 45 hours a week, with 24 hour shifts being common.

AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka joined domestic workers and their children to lobby and rally at the California state capitol, to urge legislators to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. He talked with Sascha Bittner, a disabled person who employs domestic workers, and a member of Hand in Hand, an organization of domestic worker employers that advocates for workers' rights.

Domestic workers and their children marched and rallied on the steps of the California state capitol building.  California did pass the Bill of Rights three years ago, which finally gave overtime protection to the state's domestic workers.  But the Bill had a flaw - the Governor insisted that it had to come up for reapproval after three years or it would disappear.

Honorata Nono (67), a Filipina domestic worker, helps Michiko Uchida (94) in her home in Berkeley.  "Honorata is very important to me," Uchida says.  "She's funny, she wakes me up, she helps me exercise, makes breakfast and lunch, cleans the house and makes my bed.  What a difference in my life she makes!"   Nono belongs to Filipino Advocates for Justice. "Caregiving is overlooked and undervalued," she says.  "We take care of the most vulnerable people who need constant care.  The people under our care also deserve love, respect and dignity.  The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights means economic justice and permanent dignity for us all!"

Maria Reyes, an activist with Mujeres Unidas y Activas (United and Active Women) urges the State of California to pass SB 1015, finally making the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights permanent. 

Domestic workers and the disabled clients they care for demonstrate inside the California state capital as the state Senate begins debate on SB 1015.  The California Domestic Workers Coalition started fighting for the bill of rights seven years ago, and is determined that workers' overtime rights will become permanent. The State Senate has passed SB 1015, and the State Assembly has started to consider it.

Monday, July 18, 2016


Exhibition Review:
Photographs by David Bacon
Review by Lydia Gans
Street Spirit, Art of the Spirit July 18, 2016

A farm worker raises her young son in a tent on a hillside in Del Mar. There is no running water for washing her child or for cooking over the camp fire.

David Bacon's photographs of homeless people in cities and rural areas were born out of his commitment to social justice. They capture the uphill struggle for survival faced by millions living in the virtually invisible landscape of poverty.

Asian Resource Gallery, May 1 - July 22 2016
310 Eighth St., Oakland, CA

An exhibit of photographs by David Bacon, "On The Streets, Under The Trees," is far more than a picture show. The 50 photos, together with extensive captions, form a documentary picture that is deeply moving, as well as informative about the struggle of homeless people to survive in the cities and farmlands of California.

Bacon's compassion and concern for the people he photographs shines through, as does his commitment to activism in the cause of social justice. The exhibit will remain on display throughout the month of July at the Asian Resource Gallery, 317 Ninth Street at Harrison in Oakland.

Many people remain unaware that poverty and homelessness are not just hardships faced by those living in large cities, but also affect countless numbers of unhoused people in rural areas. Bacon's exhibit remedies that blind spot by giving equal attention to low-wage workers and homeless people in the countryside.

That is why the full title of the exhibit is "On The Streets, Under The Trees: Homelessness and the Struggle for Housing in Urban and Rural California."

The show offers compelling portraits of people who are homeless, or as Bacon terms it, "people living outside."

He traveled throughout California, connecting with people in the cities and on the farms, taking their pictures and hearing their stories. He is fluent in Spanish, enabling him to learn from the experiences of farmworkers and undocumented immigrants.

Homeless in the Cities and in the Fields

In words and pictures, Bacon gives viewers a sense of the lives of the immigrant workers on the farms and the homeless poor people in the cities, as well as the people and organizations that are reaching out to help them. His subjects come from San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, and from rural areas and farms in San Diego, Sonoma County and elsewhere in California.

The photographs are beautiful and visually striking, and capture the images and stories of "people living out of doors" - people who "don't have a fixed place to live, no apartment, no house."

Taking the photographs and creating public exhibits is an integral part of Bacon's work for social justice.

"It's the way I do my work as a photographer," he explained in an interview with Street Spirit. "I don't do my work as an individual person, I do it in cooperation as part of different social movements and social organizations. So the photographs, most of them, have been taken in long-term projects with other organizations."

He has worked in collaboration with the Los Angeles Community Action Network that works with homeless people on Skid Row, and with California Rural Assistance providing legal aid for farm workers.

The pictures are powerful, and the captions are also instructive and important. "The captions help people understand," Bacon says, "and also they are useful. I think photographs have to be useful, not just something to hang on a wall."

Bacon describes the value of "being able to combine photographs that show the nitty-gritty of what the reality is of living on the street with photographs of peoples' movements against evictions, for instance. I think that's really important because we want to show that people are active in changing their reality, changing the world. We want photographs that show that."

Erica in the plywood shack she built with two brothers, Fernando and Vladimir.  A grower allowed them to build it next to his field, in exchange for protecting it. Erica was born in the U.S.  Her parents are Huichol indigenous migrants from Nayarit, in central Mexico.

Clifford Brumley lives on the street in El Centro, in the Imperial Valley, just north of the border between the U.S. and Mexico.. His hands show a lifetime of work.  He lost parts of his thumb and two fingers to frostbite when the weather got very cold one winter and he had no place to go.

Wretched housing for farm workers

No housing is provided for farmworkers who work on farms in rural California. They are expected to manage as best they can. Bacon captures the challenges they face in his photograph of Enrique Saldivar, Leoncini Mendoza and Alfonzo Leal who come from Mexicali to pick grapes in the Coachella Valley every year.

Bacon writes, "At the height of the harvest they eat and sleep next to their car in a parking lot of a market in Mecca. There is no housing for the hundreds of workers at the height of the grape harvest and at night the parking lot is full of sleeping people."

Bacon exposes the wretched, inadequate housing endured by Erica, a farm worker who lives in a tiny, primitive plywood shack she built with her brothers.

"A grower allowed them to build next to his field in exchange for protecting it. Erica was born in the U.S. Her parents are Huichol migrants from Nayarit in central Mexico."

Mothers must raise their children in substandard - or nonexistent - housing. One striking image depicts a mother and child of the fields, a Mexican immigrant farm worker who lives with her young son in a tent on a hillside in Del Mar.

Bacon writes, "There is no running water for washing her child or his clothes or for cooking which is done over a fire. She keeps perishable food in a cooler. She speaks only Mixteco, the language in her home town in Oaxaca."

Some photos show the physical toll taken by years of hard work in the fields, and the punishing costs of extreme poverty and homelessness. One of the most revealing images is a stark close-up of the hands of a homeless man, Clifford Brumley, who lives on the street in El Centro in California's Imperial Valley.

Bacon writes, "His hands show a lifetime of work. He lost part of his thumb and 2 fingers to frostbite when the weather got very cold one winter and he had no place to go." Another photo simply shows a homeless man's feet, hugely swollen and calloused from always being on his feet.

A man sleeps on a San Francisco sidewalk as passers-by pretend he's not even there.

On Los Angeles' Skid Row a man posts a sign on the shopping cart holding his belongings, telling police and city workers not to take them.  The Los Angeles Community Action Network just won an order from the City Council, telling police not to take the belongings of people living on the street.

Homelessness in the Cities

Conditions in the cities are different. Homeless people sleep on the sidewalk, on bus benches, and in doorways. The only constant in their lives is that they are continually being forced to move.

Santa Barbara has a reputation as a pleasant seaside community. Yet the city has been harshly inhospitable to homeless people for many years, and the climate of repression has worsened despite the best effort of advocates to defend the human rights of unhoused people.

One photo seems to be a peaceful portrait of a homeless veteran asleep on a bench on Main Street in Santa Barbara. Yet, as Bacon writes, "Every so often the police come through and move him and his friends off the street so that tourists won't see homeless people sleeping there."

For the past 20 years, San Francisco has been one of the meanest cities in the nation for homeless people, and has criminalized virtually every aspect of their existence. Police have issued tens of thousands of citations, arrests and fines of homeless people for quality-of-life crimes.

Yet, homeless people in San Francisco face something that is arguably even more inhumane than police harassment - the public indifference to the highly visible suffering of extremely poor and desperate people.

In one of Bacon's pictures, "a man sleeps on the sidewalk on Market Street in San Francisco while people walk around him and pretend he's not even there."

Skid Row, Los Angeles

For many years, the Skid Row area of Los Angeles has been a place where homeless and hungry people could find a place to survive. Yet like so many inner-city neighborhoods, Skid Row is now being "developed" - and development means displacement for poor residents.

Bacon shows the clear connection between big business, real-estate development, and the mass eviction of poor people. A photograph shows a street scene on Los Angeles' Skid Row.

Bacon writes, "In the distance rise the office towers of downtown. The encroachment of development threatens poor downtown residents and has led to a big increase in evictions and people forced to live on the street."

Another photo exposes the police harassment faced by homeless residents of Skid Row, who often have their belongings confiscated by the L.A. police.

Bacon's photo is captioned, "On Skid Row, a man posts a sign on the shopping cart holding his belongings telling police and city workers not to take them. The Los Angeles Community Action Network just won an order from the city council telling police not to take the belonging of people living on the street."

Oakland activists protest the eviction of a family with four children in a foreclosure.

Defending the rights of the poor

Both in rural and urban areas, outreach workers from community organizations are talking to people and helping them secure their rights. Bacon's photos document the work of outreach workers from California Rural Legal Assistance who talk with migrant workers who pick wine grapes all day and sleep under tarps at night in the fields near Santa Rosa. CRLA outreach workers help them learn about their rights as workers and immigrants.

In urban areas, homeless and housed activists are carrying on protests against anti-homeless laws and the unjust treatment of people living on the streets.

Bacon photographed a cop giving a ticket to a poor bike rider on Skid Row, Los Angeles. He writes, "Community activists accuse the police of harassing poor residents in order to force them out of the neighborhood, to make room for more upscale development and residents."

Another set of pictures tells the story of an Oakland family with four children being evicted from their home. They had an adjustable mortgage and couldn't manage the payments when interest rates increased. Sheriff's officers came to evict them while supporters tried to hold them off.

Bacon captured the eviction on camera, and he described the scene: "Home Defender activists sit in on the steps of the home of Tosha Alberty, her husband, four children and two grandchildren, who were evicted after First Franklin Mortgage Services, owned by Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, foreclosed on the home."

Liberty City in Berkeley

Bacon took many photographs at the occupation set up by homeless activists at old City Hall in Berkeley as a protest against the draconian anti-homeless laws passed by the City Council last winter. He wrote a lengthy article on the Liberty City occupation that showed how homeless activists used the creative nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement and the farmworkers movement.

Bacon found this Berkeley homeless occupation to be a very meaningful effort to create a political movement for social change, while also building a self-governing community that could provide a safe space for those without housing.

Bacon dedicated his photo exhibit to the homeless people who created Liberty City. He wrote, "This show is especially dedicated to the homeless activists of Berkeley, who were first driven out of Liberty City last fall. Then they were drive from the Post Office Camp, where they'd lived for 17 months, just as I was printing the photographs shown here. Their vision is one we should pay attention to.

"Instead, the U.S. Post Office refused to listen or see what is in front of them, and used the brute force of the Postal Police to drive people away. Instead of the camp and its residents, the City of Berkeley now has this fence and empty, fenced-off space - a monument to hostility to the poor and an eyesore in this supposedly progressive community."

Liberty City was a self-governing community organized on the principles of consensus and grassroots democracy, and that involved many meetings of those occupying the tents. Bacon photographed organizer Mike Zint holding a strategy meeting while huddling in his tent.

Bacon writes, "In Liberty City, the camp outside the old Berkeley City Hall called by the residents an occupation, Mike Zint meets with camp residents. Liberty City was a protest against the Berkeley City Council passing an anti-homeless ordnance. Zint was a leader of the homeless protesters and a veteran of Occupy San Francisco."

In Oakland, a homeless woman sleeps on a bus bench while a homeless man watches protectively over her. Other homeless people brought her food and blankets. David Bacon photo

Images of Friendship and Love

Hardship and struggle is not all that the show is about. Bacon also witnessed many acts of friendship and love on the streets and in the fields - moments of kindness and mutual support in the midst of desperate hardship. There are housed people who care and will reach out to the homeless, and there are homeless people who will help each other in times of need.

One photo shows how vulnerable homeless women are on the streets in the dark of night. But the picture also shows the crucial acts of friendship that help sustain this woman - the protection and care offered by a friend who watches over her as she sleeps, and the gifts of food and blankets brought to her by other friends in the homeless community who help one another.

Bacon describes this mutual aid on the street: "A homeless woman sleeps on a bus bench while a homeless man watches over her. Before she went to sleep she got a bag of food and a blanket from Vinny Pannizzo, who cruises the streets of Oakland every night handing out bags he and his friends fill under the freeway."

There are many examples of homeless people looking out for one other. "Adam is a homeless vet who sleeps next to railroad tracks and an irrigation canal near the Fresno airport," Bacon says. "He sleeps in a tent and takes care of a dog whose owner was picked up for being homeless and thrown in jail."

He also photographed Jeremy White, his partner Kelly and their dog who live under a bridge by an estuary at the edge of the bay. Jeremy repairs bicycles and stores them for other homeless people, a kind of sharing among homeless people that the general public never seems to see.

There are other moving photos of friendship and good times. Two homeless veterans hug each other on Main Street in Santa Barbara. Three young men sit under the trees and play guitar. Bacon writes, "Three Mexican farm workers share a small camp under the trees. They called it living 'sin techo,' or without a roof."

Bacon photographed another young guitarist in a farmworker's camp who is highly dedicated to his music, despite the hardships he faces. Bacon explains, "A young Mixtec migrant plays the guitar and sings in Mixteco, in a camp on a hillside outside Delmar. Because of his commitment to the music of his home town, this young man carried his guitar with him on the long journey from Oaxaca."

A really sweet picture lets us see a loving relationship on the street. A homeless couple kiss tenderly in an image that expresses more than just a moment's affection; it expresses the longtime commitment they made to each other.

"Marcus Lego and Heather Sheppard live in a van parked in a city lot in Santa Barbara. They say they made a commitment long ago to take care of each other regardless of where they have to live."

Two homeless vets hug each other on Main Street in Santa Barbara.

Marcus Lego and Heather Sheppard live in a van parked in a city lot in Santa Barbara.  They say they made a commitment long ago to take care of each other, regardless of where they have to live.

Deportees take over hotel

Not long ago, some people had a brilliant idea about how to help each other survive. Hotel Migrante is an old abandoned hotel near the border in Mexicali. Bacon explains that people who had nowhere to live after their deportation from the United States, took the building over and they "now give other deportees a place to sleep and food before they go home or try to cross the border again."

"The work of cooking, washing dishes and cleaning the hotel is shared by all the people who live in it," Bacon writes.

This kind of mutual assistance was seen during the Dust Bowl when refugees helped one another. It occurred during the Depression when people joined together to defend families from being evicted.

David Bacon's exhibit shows that the spirit of solidarity is alive and well today in Oakland when people protest the eviction of families, and at the Hotel Migrante near the border when people help those made homeless by deportation.

People made homeless by deportation opened a hotel to feed and house one another.

"On The Streets: Under the Trees" will run until July 22 at the Asian Resource Gallery in Oakland.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


By David Bacon
The American Prospect, Longform

The entrance to the huge Cananea copper mine near the U.S. border.

In the afternoon of August 6, 2014, the water in the Bacanuchi River turned yellow. At Tahuichopa, where the Bacanuchi flows into the larger Sonora River, Martha Agupira was one of the first to see it.

"We had no warning," she remembers. "We just saw the river change color-yellow, with a really terrible smell, like copper or chemicals. All the fish died. A bull drinking in the river died right away. Other animals died, too."

Tahuichopa is a small Mexican town of about 200 people, situated where the foothills of La Elenita mountain begin to flatten out into the high plain of the Sonora Desert, about 60 miles south of the Arizona border. The town's cornfields line the banks of both rivers. "So people had to go through the river to get to them. The people were contaminated too," she says. 

From Tahuichopa, the Sonora River flows southwest through wide green valleys separated by narrow canyons. The yellow water arrived next at Banamichi, then Baviacora, and then Ures. 

Two days after Martha Agupira saw the fish die, Luz Apodaca was visiting San Felipe de Jesus, the next town downstream.  Like many valley residents, she liked going along the riverbank to collect watercress. "I went into the water," she laments. "That day, the river was dark brown, like chocolate. But I didn't pay much attention because we're used to going in and bathing there."

Martha Agupira, activist and community leader in Tahuichopa

In fact, the river is a big tourist attraction, or it was. Families on weekends would drive up from Hermosillo, Sonora's capital city of 700,000, which lies farther, between two big reservoirs. Visitors would fill the restaurants in the river towns, or picnic on the sandbars. 

But the river began to smell like ammonia, Apodaca says, and by evening her face began to swell. "Over the next two days, my skin began to break out, and ever since I've had sores on my face and arms and legs. My fingernails all fell off. For many days I couldn't sleep because of the pain in my face, and my knees and bones and nerves all hurt."

What the two women experienced, along with the other 20,000 inhabitants of the Sonora and Bacanuchi River valleys, was one of the worst toxic spills in the history of mining in Mexico. In her report on the incident, Dr. Reina Castro, a professor at the University of Sonora, said, "A failure in the exit pipe from a holding pond at the mine led to the spill of approximately 40,000 cubic meters of leached material, including acidified copper sulfate." On August 9, the Mexican agency overseeing water quality, CONAGUA, found elevated levels of heavy metals in the water, including aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, copper, chromium, iron, manganese, nickel, and mercury.

The contamination did more than harm the health of river residents. It undermined the economic survival of their communities, and damaged the ecology of the valleys in ways that could be permanent. 

But the spill also created a political movement of townspeople in response, in alliance with miners involved in one of the longest strikes in Mexico's history. That alliance is bringing to light the impact that corporate giants on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border have on the people of this binational region.

Antonio Navarette Vasco, an officer of the miners union in Cananea, spent months organizing the communities affected by the toxic spill, helping to form the Frente Rio Sonora.

The headwaters of both rivers rise in La Elenita, where the Cananea copper mine, one of the world's largest, has been slowly pulverizing the mountain for more than a century. By the time of the spill, the mine's workers had been on strike for nearly seven years, since July 2007. Since 2010, the mine has been operated by strikebreakers hired by the mine's owner, Grupo Mexico, a global mining corporation. Some workers are hired directly by the subsidiary that runs Cananea's mine operations, Buenavista del Cobre. Others work for contractors. 

In a press statement issued September 1, 2014, three weeks after the spill, Grupo Mexico blamed a contractor for causing it. "We recognize that, among other factors, a relevant cause was a construction defect in the seal of a pipe in the Tinajas 1 system ... [which had been] contracted to a specialized company in the region, TECOVIFESA." Grupo Mexico announced it was sending workers to clean up the river, and later agreed with the Mexican government to set up a fund, or fidecomiso, to compensate residents for damage from the spill.

Hiring contractors to replace the mine's skilled workforce, however, has been going on for many years, according to the miners' union, Section 65 of the National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Allied Workers. The Cananea mine contains 13 ponds holding millions of gallons of liquid left over from leaching metal from the rock. The work of maintaining them was originally performed by members of the union, before the company contracted it out. The use of contractors is one of the principle reasons for the strike. 

Grupo Mexico today owns mines in Mexico, Peru, and the United States. In the first quarter of 2016, the corporation earned profits of $406 million, on revenue of $1.9 billion. Even with the recent decline in China's vast appetite for metal and raw materials, the company is still one of the most profitable in mining. 

Sergio Tolano, general secretary of Section 65 of the miners union in Cananea.

The company was originally the Mexican division of ASARCO, the American Smelting and Refining Company, started by the Guggenheim family in 1899. Until 1965, ASARCO owned many mines in Mexico. Under nationalist development policies, however, ASARCO sold its Mexican subsidiary to Mexican investors, among them Jorge Larrea Ortega, Mexico's "King of Copper." Today, his son German Larrea Mota controls Grupo Mexico.

The Cananea mine, Mexico's largest, originally belonged to a U.S. owner, Colonel William C. Greene. In 1906, miners rebelled against the "Mexican Wage"-an arrangement paying white miners from the United States. higher wages than Mexicans. In the violent insurrection that followed, the Arizona Rangers crossed the border into Mexico and put down the strike. The battle is considered the first conflict of the Mexican Revolution.

Cananea afterward belonged to the Anaconda Copper Company until the Mexican government took it over in 1971. During the last years it owned the mine, Anaconda ended the old method of shaft mining, and began open-pit operations. That decision had an enormous impact on the area's ecology. 

In an open-pit mine, huge chunks of rock are blown out of the mountain, loaded onto giant trucks, and taken to a crusher. There, the ore is ground down into fine particles, and laid out on huge "benches." The crushed rock is then sprayed with acid that leaches out the metal, which is collected below in ponds. Big electrodes pull the metal from the solution, and the leftover liquid is channeled into those 13 ponds. The 2014 spill originated in one of them. 

Today, benches of tailings tower over miners' homes in Cananea. Part of the old town now lies buried beneath them. On a hot windy day, dust from pulverized rock blows into doorways, and miners' families breathe the minerals the wind carries. On Cananea's outskirts, the giant ponds line the southbound highway, parallel to the Sonora River.

One of the retaining ponds at the mine in Cananea, photo by Garrett Brown

In the late 1980s, the administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari first declared the Cananea mine bankrupt, and then sold it to the Larrea family's Grupo Mexico for $475 million in 1990. That's the equivalent of the last three months of Grupo Mexico's current profits.

Salinas also sold the neighboring Nacozari mine, almost as big as Cananea, to the Larreas in 1988. In 1997, Grupo Mexico partnered with Pennsylvania-based Union Pacific to buy Mexico's main north-south railroad for $527 million, and ended all passenger service. Two years later, Grupo Mexico bought ASARCO itself, its former parent, for $1.18 billion, gaining ownership of mines and smelters in the United States. 

Today, the corporation's board of directors has interlocking ties with many Mexican banks and media companies, and with U.S. corporations as well. Director Claudio X. González Laporte, for instance, is board chair of Kimberley Clark de Mexico, the Mexican subsidiary of the U.S. paper giant. González Laporte is a past director of General Electric, Kellogg, Home Depot, and the Mexican media giant Televisa, and was special adviser to the Mexican president.

By the late 1990s, Grupo Mexico had a history of labor conflicts, as it reduced payroll to increase profits. In 1997, railroad workers mounted strikes over plans to reduce their workforce of 13,000 by more than half. They lost. In 1998, Cananea miners struck over company demands to trim its directly employed labor force by 1,000 jobs, while hiring non-union workers at lower wages through contractors. Threatened with military occupation of the mine, miners ended their strike, but more than 800 were not rehired.

The miners were fighting a rearguard battle to keep the wages and conditions they'd won over decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mexican miners had better protective laws than miners in the United States, controlling exposure to the silica dust produced by crushing ore. They made good wages and lived in homes built with government loans.

The Sonora River, above Tahuichopa

After the miners lost the 1998 strike, however, Grupo Mexico disconnected exhaust ventilation pipes on the roof of its main ore concentrator building. Dust in work areas reached knee-high levels. Grupo Mexico also closed the Hospital Ronquillo, which had provided health care to miners' families. For 80 years, the mine had been responsible for providing water service to the town. After the strike, Grupo Mexico said the town had to fend for itself. 

When Grupo Mexico announced it was terminating 135 workers who maintained the tailings ponds, miner Rene Enriquez Leon warned that a spill could reach the headwaters of the Sonora River and the farming region downstream. "It would be an ecological disaster," he predicted. 

In 2006, an explosion in Grupo Mexico's Pasta de Conchos coal mine in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila, trapped 65 miners underground. After six days, the company and government authorities called off rescue attempts. The head of the union, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, accused those responsible of "industrial homicide." In response, the government charged him with fraud.

Gomez fled Mexico and was given sanctuary in Canada, where he's lived with the assistance of the United Steelworkers (the union for U.S. copper miners). After years of appeals, Mexican courts threw out the charges against him. Nevertheless, Gomez continues to stay in Canada, since the government won't guarantee his safety and freedom if he returns.

Antonio Navarette, who began working in Cananea in 1985, says that by the mid-2000s the lack of safety was producing "a psychosis of fear. Once you went in, you didn't know if you'd come back out again." The machinery wasn't given preventative maintenance, he charges, including collectors for evacuating dust. Accidents grew more frequent; workers lost hands and fingers. The accelerating problems, he believes, "made it clear that the company was pushing us to go on strike. But we decided things couldn't continue, because otherwise we were going to die there."

Domingo Molina Ruiz, a rancher in Tahuichopa

For the first three years of the strike, Mexican labor law kept the company from legally operating the facility. Then the government declared the strike illegal, and in 2010, federal soldiers and police occupied the town and reopened the Cananea mine. Despite that, Seccion 65 continues to organize strike activity. The union also continued to monitor safety issues. In 2009, the miners' strike committee warned Eduardo Bours, governor of Sonora, that "a spill that could have very serious consequences, since on April 14 the company withdrew its emergency personnel and with them the union workforce responsible for maintaining the tailings dam, which could put the population below the dam in danger." The committee got no answer.

Five years later, the predicted spill finally occurred. At one in the morning, Navarette, a leader of the striking union, saw an appeal for help on Facebook from a doctor in Bacanuchi, the first town on the Bacanuchi River below the mine. "We went there right away," he remembers. "The townspeople, even the children, were all crying. No one knew what could be done. Even Gila monster lizards and coyotes were fleeing from the danger."

The strikers became the primary source of information for the affected towns, he says. "We always worried conditions in the mine could affect the communities. We began to help them organize, because we needed to join forces to get the company to listen." That was the beginning of the Frente Rio Sonora-the Sonora River Front. 

Today, the Front is headed by Marco Antonio Garcia, a farmer and former union miner from Baviacora. Garcia, whose deeply lined face shows the impact of a life working in the high desert, farms 75 acres-more than most local farmers, who cultivate just a few. When the farmers had to throw away their crops because of the contamination, he lost $33,000. 

It wasn't just personal loss that pushed him into action. "If we don't win, we're lost," he says, "and the most important thing people on the Rio Sonora will lose is their dignity.

Antonio Garcia Martinez, the president of the Frente Rio Sonora, is a rancher near Baviacora

"The Frente was organized at the urging of Seccion 65 in Cananea," he continues. "They began visiting all the towns along the river. They had their problem with the scrapping of their union contract, and we had our problem with the river. At first, some people said the miners spent all their time fighting. But in reality, they're involved in a big struggle. And so are we, if we want to have a future for the people of the Rio Sonora. The contamination of the river is going to last a lifetime."

Protests first broke out in Ures, a month after the spill. "We started marching and blocking the highway," recalls Lupita Poom, who now heads the Frente there. "These were all peaceful demonstrations, and hundreds of people took part. That's when we began to meet the leaders from other towns on the river." And as Navarette and other miners from Seccion 65 helped local groups get started, a bigger plan took shape. "We decided to do another planton [an organized encampment, like Occupy Wall Street], but this one directed at the mine," Poom says. 

Martha Agupira says that when the miners came to Tahuichopa to invite people to the protest, "the municipal president told us that soldiers would come, and we'd be thrown in jail. But by then we had nothing, so why not go?"

On March 18 of last year, buses and cars caravanned up the river. Bypassing federal and state police guarding the mine gates, the buses instead unloaded hundreds of farmers and striking miners at the plant outside of town that pumps water to the mine. For several months, their planton cut the supply of fresh water to the mine, leading to a substantial reduction in its operation.

"We stayed there for a long time," Poom recalls. Her husband remained in Ures to take care of their children, while she and other women formed the backbone of the occupation. Poom even got a big tattoo on her back with the symbol of the striking union surrounded by a banner with the Frente's name.

Lupita Poom, leader of the Frente Rio Sonora in Ures, and an activist who stayed at the planton in Cananea for months

"The miners brought us three meals a day and materials for making our tents, so that we could have some shelter," she says. "We weren't afraid. To me, fear means sitting with my arms folded doing nothing. At the planton, we were raising our voices, making people listen to us."

When a group of U.S. health professionals and environmental and labor activists visited the river towns in April 2016, they found that the impact of the spill was still present. The group said they handed out a thousand health surveys, and got 500 replies. Cadelba Lomeli-Loibl, a nurse from Oakland, California, said at a press conference in Hermosillo that "we found children between four and ten years old who have painful rashes that haven't healed in over a year, and older people with liver and kidney problems."

According to Lomeli-Loibl and her coworkers, Olivia deBree and Garrett Brown, 76 percent of those surveyed had skin problems and 78 percent had problems with their eyes. Many had headaches and joint pains, or said their hair was falling out. The group pointed to the need for a complete epidemiological study of the people of the river towns. Many residents they interviewed said that various people from the government and local universities had taken blood and water samples since the spill, but had not reported the results to them.

One interviewee in Baviacora told deBree that her 13-year-old grandson had gone into the water after the spill, when it was still yellow. Later, he developed a lesion on his face that began to be eaten up from the inside. Tests in Mexico City found lead and cadmium in his blood. He now has chronic sinusitis and a tumor in his face. "At that point in the interview, she just started crying," deBree says.

Interviewed at the Cananea planton last year, Reyna Valenzuela of Ures explained, "Our kids had problems because, in the first place, we were all drinking the water, and then because we used it to bathe. Our water comes from the well and the wells are contaminated. As the doctors said, whether you drink or bathe in it, you're exposed from your head to your feet." Her 11-year-old son still has rashes on his legs, ears, neck, trunk, hands, feet, between his buttocks, and on his penis. "Doctors said it was because they were exposed to heavy metals."

Jesus Maria Cordoba Piri, a rancher near Baviacora, shows the rashes on his leg that won't go away

The river towns get their drinking water from wells, which were almost all close to the river. They too were contaminated. At first, trucks brought in bottled water, while new wells were drilled farther away.

In Baviacora, Jesus Cordoba, a local farmer, recalled, "After the spill they brought water in big barrels at first. But now we have to buy it. A container of 20 liters (5 gallons) costs 13 pesos. We use six of them in a week, just my wife and myself. I don't believe the river will ever go back to what it was before. They say contamination goes down 5 meters [15 feet]. How will they clean up five meters down, on all that land?  "In negotiations after the spill, Grupo Mexico agreed to provide funding for a clinic in Ures. Some residents reported getting treatment there, but others said they did not trust it. 

Brooke Anderson, a climate justice advocate from Oakland who accompanied the nurses, says residents told her they'd lost half their annual income because they were not able to plant or irrigate their crops, or because of the loss of tourist income in the towns.

"The people who came here before to buy the garlic don't come now, because they believe it's contaminated," Martha Agupira explains. "When we brought our beans to Hermosillo, no one wanted to buy them either. Families now go hungry because they have no income."

Problems multiplied in the month after the spill, when Hurricane Odile hit western Mexico. "When the river rose, it flooded the cornfields," Agupira recalls. "That brought the contamination into a much larger area on both sides of the river. The rains didn't clean the river, the way Grupo Mexico claimed. It spread the contamination. If you dig down into the earth, you find the yellow stain from the chemicals. The fields are drying up, and are full of this yellow dirt."

Domingo Molina Ruiz with water from the well he gives to his animals, but won't drink himself because he fears it's contaminated

As she sat in Tahuichopa's health clinic-a room in the small community center, bare except for a table and a small cabinet with a few bottles of pills-she twisted the hair that frames her oval face and falls below her shoulders. "I used to have lots of hair," she said sadly. "Now it's falling out."

Economic problems are leading to an exodus from the river towns. "People have left to try to find work elsewhere, so the majority of the people here now are seniors," Agupira says. "My father stays here because he loves the land. But we're struggling to make it."

While some people from the river towns used to get jobs in the Cananea mine, both strikers and river residents now say that the company no longer hires local people because it believes they would be sympathetic to the strikers. Meanwhile, some strikers have gone to the United States to earn money to send home to their families. One striker, who asked to keep his name confidential when he was interviewed at the planton, said, "I'm blacklisted here, and on the other side, I'm just another illegal. It's hard to keep your humanity, but I'm surviving, and there's no other way."

Cananea's impact crosses the border in other ways too. The San Pedro River flows from Sonora into Arizona, where it meets the Gila River and eventually the Colorado. It is the last major free-flowing desert river in the United States and hosts migratory birds, jaguars, coatimundi, and other endangered species. 

The river is already stressed by pumps that supply water to Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca, Arizona, which take 6,100 acre-feet more water annually than is replenished by rainfall. But its main problem is that its water comes from the Las Nutrias and El Sauz Rivers, which start near Cananea. 

The Sonora River, above Baviacora

In 1979, a mine spill flowed into the San Pedro, killing fish and animals for 60 miles, according to a report by Arizona State University. Both the Sonora and the San Pedro Rivers are threatened by the expansion of tailing ponds at the mine, according to a report by Dick Kamp and Laurie Silvan of E-Tech International, who visited the mine after the 2014 spill. E-Tech International is a nonprofit organization that provides communities with technical support on the environmental impact of large development projects. "A new tailings dam and a large catchment area are being constructed," their report said. "The existing tailings, coupled with older acidic discharges to ground and surface water, were suspected as sources of the contamination found downstream of the mine in the past."
E-Tech International and other groups have urged more systematic monitoring of the Sonora and San Pedro Rivers for contaminants, but "the contract for fidecomiso funds prohibits technical studies that address long-term monitoring," the pair reported. Nevertheless, since the spill, 27 sites have been monitored by the Sonora-based Research Center in Food and Development. But many river residents say the only person they've seen consistently collecting water samples has been Dr. Reina Castro. 

Water flow in both rivers is also affected by pumping from the mine. Grupo Mexico has 120 wells in the desert around Cananea. By contrast, the city itself only has 14. As production has increased, the mine's consumption of water has increased with it. Castro estimates that "in the decade of the 2000s, the mine consumed 23 million cubic meters of water a year, or 729 liters [almost 200 gallons] per second, from the sources of the San Pedro and Sonora Rivers." According to the Nature Conservancy, parts of the San Pedro no longer flow year-round.

"But the water belongs to the nation," declares Antonio Garcia. "We all have a right to it."

The Frente's immediate demands include a complete clean-up of the Sonora River, extensive health monitoring and treatment for river residents, and compensation from Grupo Mexico for lost crops and income. While the corporation budgeted $110 million for the clean-up fund and compensation, residents charge that much of it went to large farmers and businesses, while workers and small businesses received little or nothing.

The union in Cananea wants to return its members to their jobs. But many strikers doubt the company is willing to operate the mine safely, even if they go back to work. At the beginning of May, two workers and a superviser died when their pickup was crushed by a huge dump truck in the mine. Another worker lost his life a few months earlier in an accident. One possible reason for increased accidents is that workers in the mine have been working 12-hour days since it was reopened in 2010, instead of the eight hours mandated in the old union contract.

Dr. Reina Castro, at a press conference in Hermosillo reporting the continued impact of the toxic spill.  Photo by Olivia deBree

On June 30, the Permanent Commission of the Mexican Congress accused Grupo Mexico of lengthening the workday to 12 hours, and passed a measure demanding that the company account for its failure to remediate the damage done to the Sonora River by the toxic spill, and for the fatal May accident at the mine.

Cecilia Soto Gonzalez, a deputy representing Sonora in the Congress, from the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution, told La Jornada newspaper, "The families of the victims and the inhabitants of Cananea are deeply angry because, as always, Grupo Mexico has washed its hands [of responsibility[ and the authorities don't act impartially to determine the responsibility for the lack of safety and super-exploitation at Buenavista de Cobre [the Cananea mine[, where the workday has been increased from eight to 12 hours a day." 

Together, the Mexican miners' union and the Frente Rio Sonora have filed a complaint with Mexico's Human Rights Commission over the spill and the strike. United Steelworkers has supported them. When the Cananea strike started in 2007, the USW representative Manny Armenta brought food and money to the miners, and the union later put political pressure on the Obama administration to intercede with the Mexican government.

Both unions say they intend eventually to merge into one organization. The USW now negotiates with Grupo Mexico, since the company owns the ASARCO mines in the United States. But until now, the company has been unwilling to agree on a new contract, and threatens to close a smelter in Hayden, Arizona, which would cost 211 USW members their jobs.

Armenta and USW District 12 Director Bob LaVenture were both at the planton when it started last year. Together, the U.S. and Mexican unions filed a complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, accusing Grupo Mexico and ASARCO of violating workers' rights on both sides of the border. "Companies like Grupo Mexico, and other multinational conglomerates that attempt to silence workers, are precisely the reason why international solidarity among labor unions is so important," said Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers.

Striking miners burn a banner with the photo of German Larrea, the owner of the Cananea mine, because they hold him responsible for the deaths of miners in the Pasta de Conchos coal mine and the pollution of the Rio Sonora

As far as Grupo Mexico is concerned, the clean-up of the Rio Sonora is over. On October 9, 2014, two months after the spill, it said it had put 1,200 people to work on it, and declared: "As a result of the work controlling the acidity and cleanup of the Sonora and Bacanuchi Rivers ... the company has completed its surface cleanup work on 98.3% of the 250.4 kilometers it treated."

And on July 8, the Mexico daily El Universal reported that the UVEAS clinic funded by the $110 million had closed. The Federal Commission for Protection Against Health Risks said that the clinic, after 1,160 medical consultations, had only identified 360 people as having had health impacts from the spill. One of them, Patricia Velarde Ortega, who suffers from complications including frequent nosebleeds, filed a complaint with Mexico's Human Rights Commission after finding that the clinic's phone had been disconnected, and that she was no longer able to get treatment.

Dr. Reina Castro called Grupo Mexico's declaration irresponsible. "The spill of heavy metals into the Sonora River caused by Buenavista del Cobre is a problem that has not been resolved," her report concluded. "We should not accept this position. ... It's necessary to apply existing environmental and labor laws with all their strength."

Monday, July 4, 2016


By David Bacon
Playas de Tijuana, Mexico
Truthout, 7/4/16

In Playas de Tijuana, on the Mexican side of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., Catelina Cespedes and Carlos Alcaide greet Florita Galvez, who is on the U.S. side. The family came from Santa Monica Cohetzala in Puebla to meet at the wall.

It took two days on the bus for Catalina Cespedes and her husband Teodolo Torres to get from their hometown in Puebla - Santa Monica Cohetzala - to Tijuana.  On a bright Sunday in May they went to the beach at Playas de Tijuana.  There the wall separating Mexico from the United States plunges down a steep hillside and levels off at the Parque de Amistad, or Friendship Park, before crossing the sand and heading out into the Pacific surf. 

Sunday is the day for families to meet through the border wall.  The couple had come to see their daughter, Florita Galvez. 

Florita had arrived that day in San Ysidro, the border town a half hour south of San Diego.  Then she went out to the Border Field State Park, by the ocean two miles west of town.  From the parking lot at the park entrance it was a 20-minute walk down a dirt road to the section of the wall next to the Parque de Amistad.

On the Mexican side of the border wall Catelina Cespedes sticks her finger through a hole in the mesh so that she can touch the finger of her daughter, Florita Galvez, who is on the other side. 

At 11 that morning, Catalina and Florita finally met, separated by the metal border.  They looked at each other through the metal screen that covers the wall's bars, in the small area where people on the U.S. side can actually get next to it.  And they touched.  Catalina pushed a finger through one of the screen's half-inch square holes.  On the other side, Florita touched it with her own finger. 

Another family shared the space with Catalina and Teodolo.  Adriana Arzola had brought her baby Nazeli Santana, now several months old, to meet her family living on the U.S. side for the first time.  Adriana had family with her also - her grandmother and grandfather, two older children and a brother and sister. 

It was very frustrating, though, to try to see people on the other side through the half-inch holes.  So they moved along the wall to a place where the screen ended.  There the vertical eighteen-foot iron bars of the wall - what the wall is made of in most places - are separated by spaces about four inches wide.  Family members in the U.S. could see the baby as Adriana held her up.

Florita Galvez is on the U.S. side of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., and her family on the Mexican side can only see her through holes in the metal mesh

But only from a distance.  The rules imposed by the U.S. Border Patrol in Border Field State Park say that where there's no screen the family members on that side have to stay several feet away from the wall.  So no touching.

I could see the sweep of emotions playing across the faces of everyone, and in their body language.  One minute the grandmother was laughing, and the next there were tears in her eyes.  The grandfather just smiled and smiled.  Adriana talked to her relatives, and tried to wake the baby up.  Her brother leaned on the bars with his arms folded against his eyes, and her sister turned away, overcome by sadness.  On the U.S. side, a man in a wheelchair and two women with him looked happy just to have a chance to see their family again.

Some volunteers, most from the U.S. side, called Friends of Friendship Park, have tried to make the Mexican side more pleasant and accommodating for families.  The older children with Adriana sat at concrete picnic tables.  While family members talked through the wall they used colored markers, provided by the Friends, to make faces and write messages on smooth rocks.  Around them were the beginnings of a vegetable garden.  Later in the afternoon one of the volunteers harvested some greens for a salad. 

A boy walks past the Mexican side of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S.

Members of the Friends group include Pedro Rios from the U.S./Mexico Border Program of the American Friends Service Committee, and Jill Holslin, a photographer and border activist.  On the U.S. side, another of the participating groups - Angeles de la Frontera, or Border Angels, helped the families that came to the park.  "We're here seven or eight times a month," said Enrique Morones, the group's director.  "People get in touch with us because we're visible, or they know someone else we helped before."  Border Angels helps set up the logistics so that families can arrive on both sides at the same time, often coming from far away.

Weekend visiting hours, from10-2, are the only time the Border Patrol allows families to get close to the wall for the reunions.  Once a year they open a doorway in the wall.  Watched closely by BP agents, family members are allowed to approach the open door one by one, and then to hug a mother or father, a son or daughter, or another family member from the other side.  To do that, people have to fill in a form and show the agents they have legal status in the U.S.  During the rest of the year, the Border Patrol doesn't ask about legal status, although they could at any moment.  For that reason, Border Angels tells families not to go on their own.

Such carefully controlled and brief encounters are the ultimate conclusion of a process that, at its beginning, had no controls at all.  Before 1848 there was no border here whatsoever.  That year, at the conclusion of what the U.S. calls "the Mexican War," the two countries signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico was forced to give up 529,000 square miles of its territory.  The U.S. paid, in theory, $15,000,000 for the land, but then simply deducted it from the debt it claimed Mexico owed it.  U.S. troops occupied Mexico City to force the government there to sign the treaty.

On the Mexican side of the border wall Adriana Arzola brings her new baby, Nayeli Santana, to meet her family living in the U.S. for the first time.  Meeting families through the wall takes place every Sunday at the Parque de Amistad, or Friendship Park, in Playas de Tijuana, the neighborhood of Tijuana where the wall runs into the Pacific Ocean.

The so-called "Mexican Cession" accounts for 14.9% of the total land area of the United States, including the entire states of California, Nevada and Utah, almost all of Arizona, half of New Mexico, a quarter of Colorado and a piece of Wyoming.  Some Congress members even called for annexing all of Mexico. 

At the time, the city of San Diego was a tiny unincorporated settlement of a few hundred people.  It was considered a suburb of Los Angeles, then still a small town.  San Ysidro didn't exist, nor did Tijuana.  To mark the new border, in 1849 a U.S./Mexico boundary commission put a marble monument in the shape of a skinny pyramid where they thought the line should go.  A replica of that original pyramid today sits next to the wall in the Parque de Amistad.  On the U.S. side the road leading from San Ysidro to Boundary Field State Park is named Monument Road, and the area is called Monument Mesa.

Early tourists chipped so many pieces from the marble pyramid that it had to be replaced in 1894.  The first fence was erected, not along the borderline, but around the new monument to keep people from defacing it.  The line itself was still unmarked, fifty years after it had been created.

Adriana Arzola, her sister and her baby Nayeli Santana talk with her family living in the U.S. through the bars of the wall.  On the U.S. side, her family has to stay several feet away from the wall, so they can't touch each other through the bars.

The Border Patrol was organized in 1924.  Before that, there was no conception that passage back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. on Monument Mesa had to be restricted.  The Federal government only assumed control over immigration in 1890, when construction began on the first immigration station at Ellis Island in New York harbor.  Racial exclusions existed in U.S. law from the late 1800s, but the requirement that people have a visa to cross the border was only established by the Immigration Act of 1924.  The law also established a racist national quota system for handing visas out. 

In the 1930s the Border Patrol terrorized barrios across the U.S., putting thousands of Mexicans into railroad cars and dumping them across the border.  Even U.S. citizens of Mexican descent, or people who just looked Mexican, were swept up and deported.  Trains carried deportees to the border stations in San Ysidro and Calexico, but on Monument Mesa there was still no formal line to keep people from returning.

That changed for the first time after World War Two, when barbed wire was stretched from San Ysidro to the ocean.  Mexicans called it the "alambre," or the wire.  Those who crossed it became "alambristas."  Yet enforcement was still not very strict.  During the 1950s and early 1960s, thousands of Mexican workers were imported to the U.S. as braceros, while many migrants also came without papers.  In the Imperial Valley, on weekends during the harvest, those workers would walk into Mexicali, on the Mexican side, to hear a hot band or go dancing, and then hitch a ride back to sleep in their labor camps in Brawley or Holtville. 

At the Parque de Amistad, or Friendship Park, in Playas de Tijuana, children and families write on stones the names of other family members they're separated from because of the border.

In 1971, Pat Nixon, wife of Republican President Richard Nixon, inaugurated Border Field State Park.  The day she visited, she asked the Border Patrol to cut the barbed wire so she could greet the Mexicans who'd come to see her.  She told them, "I hope there won't be a fence here too much longer." 

Instead, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986.  Although many people remember the law for its amnesty for undocumented immigrants, IRCA also began the process of dumping huge resources into border enforcement. A real fence was built in the early 1990s, made of metal sheets taken from decommissioned aircraft carrier landing platforms.  The sheets had holes, so someone could peek through.  But for the first time, people coming from each side could no longer physically mix together or hug each other. 

That old wall still exists on the Mexican side in Tijuana and elsewhere on the border.  But Operation Gatekeeper, the Clinton Administration border enforcement program, sought to push border crossers out of urban areas like San Ysidro, into remote desert regions where crossing was much more difficult and dangerous.  To do that, the government had contractors build a series of walls that were harder to cross. 

On the Mexican side of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., the wall runs into the Pacific Ocean.

On Monument Mesa the aircraft landing strips were replaced in 2007 by the 18-foot wall of vertical metal columns.  Two years later a second wall was built on the U.S. side behind the first.  The area between them became a security zone where the Border Patrol restricts access to the wall itself to just four hours on Saturday and Sunday.  The metal columns were extended into the Pacific surf.

In Playas, though, the wall is just a sight to see for the hundreds of people who come out to the beach on the weekend.  The seafood restaurants are jammed, and sunbathers set up their umbrellas on the sand.  Occasionally, a curious visitor will walk up and look through the bars into the U.S., or have a boyfriend or girlfriend take a picture next to the wall, uploading it to Facebook or Instagram for their friends.

On the Mexican side of the border wall veterans of U.S. military service who have been deported gather to protest, and to remember those who died.  Their names are written on the bars.

The wall itself at the Parque de Amistad has become a changing artwork.  As the bars rust, they've been painted with graffiti that protests the brutal division. 

One section has the names of U.S. military veterans who've been deported to Mexico, with the dates of their service and death.  A deported veterans group comes down on occasional Sundays, with some in uniform.  In angry voices, they ask why fighting the U.S.'s wars didn't keep them from being pushed onto the Mexican side of the wall.

A man looks through the bars of the border wall into the U.S.