Wednesday, April 10, 2019


Photoessay by David Bacon

Photographs from the Archives are occasional photoessays, based on images from David Bacon's film archive of photographs taken between approximately 1988 and 2005.

I saw my first immigration raid long before I became a photographer. I was an organizer for the United Farm Workers in the Coachella Valley. One morning I drove out to a grove of date palms to talk with the palmeros working high in the trees. As I pulled my old white Valiant (the only kind of car the union had) down a row between the palms, I saw a green Border Patrol van. The workers I'd talked with the night be- fore in the union hall were all staring at the ground, handcuffed behind their backs.

I felt helpless to stop the inexorable process in which they were loaded into the van. I chased it to the holding center in El Centro, two hour's drive south, but then stood outside the barbed wire, wondering what I could do to help the families left behind. It was one of the watershed experiences of a lifetime.

There were other immigration raids during the time I worked for the UFW, often and by no coincidence during the times workers were organizing. It was easy to see how detentions and deportations are not just violations of human rights, and cause devastating pain for families, but are a weapon in a war to keep immigrants from organizing.

I carry my camera as a tool to help stop this abuse, and to take photographs that will help people organize. Part of the effort is to give personality and presence to the people involved.  When I began working as a photographer I thought right away about going to the Coachella Valley and taking photographs of the communities where I'd worked as an organizer.  I thought especially about the palmeros, not just because of that raid, but because the work they do requires such skill and courage. 

The Coachella Valley, two hours drive north of the Mexican border, is the only place outside of the Middle East and North Africa where dates are grown.  Palmeros are a special, almost exclusive group among farm workers, bound together by pride in their skill, and their willingness to do dangerous work at great heights. "Only a Mexican," they say, "has the courage to do this work."

These photographs were taken in 1992, and since then the work process has changed a lot.  In this old process, the palmero steps off his ladder onto the fronds of the palm, walking around the crown of the tree as he works, about 30 feet off the ground. He pollinates and ties together the flowers of the palm, which will later ripen and become dates. Palmeros are paid by the tree, and have to work quickly in order to make a living. They wear no safety lines, and practically run as they work.

Taking these photographs (with the help of Doug and Debbie Adair) I met Pilar Sandoval, a palmero, carrying his ladder from one tree to another. He was not only a member of the United Farm Workers, but was working for a company where I'd helped negotiate the first union contract many years earlier.  Because of his union seniority rights, he'd been able to keep this same job for over 20 years by the time I took his photograph. This is rare for most farm workers, who are plagued by extreme job insecurity.

I took photographs that year of the rundown camps where some workers lived, and of the much better conditions in the Indio farm labor camp - one of those built originally in the 1930s under pressure from the unions of that era, as well as from people like Paul Taylor, Dorothea Lange and Carey McWilliams.  Some of the photographs captured the children of the workers, and others I took of the then-new wave of workers from Oaxaca coming into California fields.

I've been back to take more photographs and interview more workers many times since then. These are one series among many in my archive. The Coachella Valley and its people have become very important to me.  They changed my life and I hope my photographs do them justice.

Full selection of photos - click here.

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