Thursday, September 12, 2019

MORE THAN A WALL: 30 Years of Life Along the US-Mexico Border

MORE THAN A WALL: 30 Years of Life Along the US-Mexico Border
Photos and text by David Bacon
The Nation

Mexicali, Baja California - 1996
A worker is deported back into Mexico at the border gate, from a bus that has taken deportees from the detention center in El Centro in the Imperial Valley, on the other side of the fence.

Editors' note: "If it happened yesterday, we've already forgotten." -  an anonymous Nation editor.

What we see and react to in the media conditions us to view the present as a series of immediate crises, and to ignore their roots in the past.  For social justice movements, this can be deadly, cutting us off from an ability to weigh and learn from our own history, and to understand how that history shapes the ways we fight for justice today.

In this photo essay, David Bacon reaches into his photographic archive of 30 years, which are now part of the Special Collections of Stanford University's Green Library.  A Nation contributor and former union organizer, Bacon's photographs and journalism have documented the courage of people struggling for social and economic justice in countries around the world.


In 1971, Pat Nixon, wife of Republican President Richard Nixon, inaugurated Border Field State Park, where the border meets the Pacific Ocean just south of San Diego.  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, 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 anyone could peek through to the other side.  But for the first time, people coming from each side could no longer physically mix together or hug each other.  This is how the wall looked when I began photographing it, over 30 years ago.

That old wall still exists in a few places on the Mexican side in Tijuana and elsewhere.  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. 

That's partly how the US-Mexico border became more than mere geography-how it became instead a passage of fire, an ordeal that must be survived in order to send money from work in the US back to a hungry family, to find children and relatives from whom they have been separated by earlier journeys, or to flee an environment that has become too dangerous to bear.

Some do not survive, dying as they try to cross the desert or swim the Rio Bravo. To them the border region has become a land of death.  Every year at least 3-400 people die trying to cross, and are buried, often without names, in places like the graveyard in Holtville, in the Imperial Valley. 

But the photographs I've taken over 30 years also show that the US/Mexico border is a land of the living.  Millions of people live and work on Mexico's side of the border: There are the child laborers who pick the tomatoes and strawberries in Mexicali Valley that line the shelves of grocery stores in the US; there are the workers from across Mexico who staff the massive maquiladoras in Tijuana; And there are thousands who have been deported to Mexico, and who must now somehow survive this passage of fire as well.

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 before in the union hall were all staring at the ground, handcuffed behind their backs.

I felt helpless to stop the inexorable process.  I chased the van to the holding center in El Centro, two hours drive south, but then stood outside the barbed wire.  I asked myself what would happen to those deported and what I could do to help the families left behind. 

When I began working as a writer and photographer, I tried to use my camera to find answers to those questions.  I carry the camera as a tool to help stop the abuse, and to take photographs that will help people organize.  The photographs, therefore, try to give personality and presence to deportees and their families, and to those who support them. 

So that's where I began, with the knowledge that the border is not some region of docile subsistence, but one of struggle and resistance. Workers in Tijuana's maquiladoras have organized their unions, and their strikes continue to shake the factories along the border. The laborers in Mexico's San Quentin Valley, in a historic strike in 2015, formed the first independent union for farm workers in Mexico's border region. Deportees, returning to the country after their time in the US-whether mere days or most of a lifetime-have organized to make survival easier, and ultimately to protest the system that forced them over the border. In one example, the group Border Angels helped migrants take over the Migrant Hotel in Mexicali to give shelter and food to people as they're forced back through the border gate. Even the park next to the Tijuana River became a protest site, as homeless migrants and deportees joined city activists to stop its privatization, at the same time as they lived on the site in an Occupy-style protest. 

At every point along the border where there is hardship, there is also resilience, and strength, and a willingness to fight to not just survive but to thrive.

Today, Border Field State Park looks quite a bit different than it did that day Pat Nixon shook hands across the barbwire. The aircraft landing strips were replaced in 2007 by an 18-foot wall of vertical metal columns. Two years later, a second wall was built on the US side, right behind the first. The area between them became a security zone where the Border Patrol restricts access to just four hours on Saturday and Sunday. The metal columns now extend into the Pacific surf.

Playas de Tijuana, though, on the Mexican side of the wall, is the city's beach suburb.  There the wall is just a sight to see for the hundreds of people who come out to the sand on the weekend.  The seafood restaurants are jammed, and sunbathers set up their umbrellas near the surf.  Occasionally, a curious visitor will walk up and look through the bars into the US.

I don't know what will come next for the borderlands-if Trump will get his way and spend billions to extend the wall across more of the border, if Border Patrol patrols will force migrants to seek out even more inhospitable routes, if a "renegotiated" NAFTA will continue the exploitation of Mexican laborers for US profits-but I will continue to document this land of the living as long as I'm able. 

Tijuana, Baja California - 2017
Juan Manuel Barragan was recently deported from the U.S., where he has a wife and two teenage children in Las Vegas.  He carries the small suitcase with his clothes and belongings into the river channel where he sleeps.

Tijuana, Baja California - 2014
Many deportees have no way to return to their hometowns further south in Mexico, and become homeless.  Some set up a camp in the riverbed of the Tijuana River, in downtown Tijuana, not far from the U.S. Mexico border.  Sometimes camps like this get dispersed by authorities, but eventually people return, having nowhere else to go.

Tijuana, Baja California - 2014
Juan Guerra, a Zapotec deportee, cooks dinner under a bridge next to the Tijuana River, as pedestrians and cars travel above him.

Tijuana, Baja California - 2017
A homeless man walks up the flood channel of the Tijuana River, which runs through the middle of the city toward the Pacific Ocean.  The river eventually crosses the border into the U.S.   People recently deported from the U.S. often live in camps in the river channel.

Maclovio Rojas, Tijuana, Baja California - 1996
At the entrance into Maclovio Rojas community a sign declares that it is a civil organization and union of small landholders, affiliated with CIOAC.  In the 1970s CIOAC was organized by the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) and other leftwing activists to help small farmers and the rural poor to defend their rights to land.  By 1996 the PCM no longer existed, but in Baja California its activists maintained a local CIOAC organizaion to help migrant workers organize, settle and build homes.

Mexicali Valley, Baja California - 1996
Honorina Ruiz, 6 years old, ties bunches of green onions together in a field just south of the U.S. border, farmed by Muranaka Farms, a U.S. grower.  Her mother Esperanza Ruiz and her brothers Rigoberto, 12, and Juan Antonio, 3, work with her, and they all came from the nearby colonia of Nicolas Bravo.  Honorina sat in front of a pile of green onions.  She grabbed some from the top to make a bunch, lining up eight or nine onions, straightening out their roots and tails.  Then she knocked the dirt off, put a rubber band around them, and added the bunch to those already in the box beside her.

Mexicali Valley, Baja California - 1996
Young mothers have no child care, so they bring their children to work with them.

Mexicali Valley, Baja California - 1996
Mari, her mother and sister in their house, which unlike many others in their barrio, has a concrete floor.

Nuevo San Juan Copala, Baja California - 2015
Striking farm workers in the San Quintin Valley in Baja California demonstrate their support for their independent association, The Alianza, as leaders try to negotiate wage increases with the government.  The workers are almost all indigenous Mixtec and Triqui migrants from Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.  Indigenous women and men wait to hear the results.

San Quintin, Baja California - 2015
A boy goes in to work in a field of strawberries with his father, after the end of the 2015 strike.  Wages were still so low that families depended on those earned by children and teenagers to survive.

Tijuana, Baja California - 2015
A bus filled with striking farm workers from the San Quintin Valley of Baja California on the way to the U.S./Mexico border to protest.  Their sign in the window says:  "Wage Raise!"

Mexicali, Baja California - 2010
The Hotel Migrante is an old, abandoned hotel next to the border in Mexicali.  It used to be called the Hotel Centenario, and had a sports bar on the ground floor.  Viviana "Chiques" Cervantes lived at the hotel for several months - otherwise she would have been sleeping in the street.  The sign on the wall warns migrants "Don't Visit Arizona" because of the state's anti-immigrant laws.

Mexicali, Baja California - 2010
A deportee tries to sleep after being deported the previous night.  The Border Patrol puts many people across the border in the hours just after midnight, when no stores or restaurants are open, or taxis or other services available to provide shelter, food or transport.  Volunteers from the Hotel Migrante meet them at the gate on the Mexican side, and take them back to a room where they can sleep.

Nogales, Sonora - 2014
Recently deported people eat and get help at the dining hall run by the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, near the border wall between Mexico and the U.S.

Tijuana, Baja California - 2014
Luisa, a homeless woman who was deported from the U.S. many years ago, collects cans and plastic from garbage dumpsters, near the Tijuana River in downtown Tijuana, near the U.S. Mexico border.  Regardless of the side of the border on which they live, collecting plastic and cans for recycling is a way people like Luisa, with no money or resources, can eat and survive.

Tijuana, Baja California - 1993
A young worker pulls plastic parts from a plastic molding machine which will be assembled into coathangers for the garment industry, in the maquiladora of Plasticos Bajacal.  Workers tried unsuccessfully to organize an independent, democratic union there in 1993.

Derecho Humanos Barrio, Matamoros, Tamaulipas - 2006
A boy jumps across a rickety bridge over a polluted canal near the U.S. border.  The canal, which is contaminated by toxic chemicals dumped by factories, runs by homes.  Residents, almost all migrants from Oaxaca and southern Mexico,  built the bridge to get from one part of the neighborhood to another.

Tijuana, Baja California - 1996
Francisco Ortiz worked at Ken-Mex, a medical products plant built in Tijuana in the 1980s by Kendall International.  He shared a small house, in a neighborhood below Otay Mesa, with three sons, who lived with him in the front room, with his uncle, his wife and children, and with his mother and grandmother.  One way they shared space was by working different shifts.  Francisco worked during the evening, until 2 a.m.  One son worked days, and another other grave.  Lack of space led them to put their stove on cinderblocks next to the bed where they slept, creating the dangerous possibility that blankets could catch fire.

Blanca Navidad, Tamaulipas - 2006
The extended family of a maquiladora worker. In 2006 the People of the Blanca Navidad community were brutally evicted, when Nuevo Laredo's mayor sent in tractors to demolish their houses; many houses were burned leaving women and children with nothing. El MaƱana newspaper exposed the local government and supported the community in their struggle for their land.  A few days later the newspaper was bombed and a reporter was seriously injured. Those responsible for the bombing were never found.

Blanca Navidad, Tamaulipas - 2006
Community leader Blanca Enriquez in the community garden of Blanca Navidad, which was settled by migrants from southern Mexico, looking for land to build a place to live.  Most work in the maquiladoras of Nuevo Laredo.   Before building the garden and a community health center, she said, "we had nothing.  When the government tried to evict us all we had left were tarps and poles, and a few blankets.  The majority of us in this colonia work in the maquiladoras, but regardless of where we work we are from this community, and we all are equal."

Tijuana, Baja California - 2017
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.

Tijuana, Baja California - 2016
On the Mexican side of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. Hector Barajas and 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 of the wall.  This takes place every Sunday at the Parque de Amistad, or Friendship Park, in Playas de Tijuana.

Tijuana, Baja California - 1996
A worker looks over the fence between Mexico and the U.S., trying to find a moment when the Border Patrol may not be looking so that he can go through the hole under it and cross.  A Nahuatl legend says that when people go to the underworld, a dog guides them.

Tijuana, Baja California - 2016
On the Mexican side of the border a man stares through the bars into the U.S.

Tijuana, Baja California - 2000
An individual memorial left by a family, remembering someone who died at this place along the wall.

Holtville, Imperial Valley, California - 2010
Migrants found dead on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in the area of the Imperial Valley and Colorado River, are buried in a potters field graveyard in Holtville.  The identities of many are not known, and are buried as "John Doe" or "Jane Doe."  Immigrant rights and religious activists have made crosses for many of the graves of migrants, most of which say "No Olvidados" or "Not Forgotten."  About 450 bodies were buried here as of 2010.

Tijuana, Baja California - 2017
On the Mexican side of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. families greet other family members on the U.S. side.  This 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.  Catelina Cespedes, Carlos Alcaide and Teodolo Torres came from Santa Monica Cohetzala in Puebla to meet their family members on the other side of the wall.

No comments: