Augustin Ramirez graduated from college in Mexico and was set to launch a professional career and enter middle-class life there. He’d have been building on the savings and hard work of his father who had been a bracero, a member of the infamous group of workers hired for three-month stints of farm labor in California fields in a program that ended in 1964. But then hard times hit.
Now an organizer with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union at Blue Diamond Almonds in Sacramento, Ramirez tells photojournalist and former SN&R contributor David Bacon in Communities Without Borders: Images and Voices from the World of Migration, that the economic crisis in 1980s gave him no choice but to migrate to California to rebuild a life for himself and his family. “My wife and I arrived with only two suitcases and landed in a room in my mother’s house. Now we have a house, a car, and our kids in school. We have jobs.”
Bacon’s new book tells many such stories, taking us inside families and communities of migrant workers, documented and undocumented, who have come to the United States. Through lens of this Berkeley-based photojournalist, we see his subjects here as well as into their communities of origin in Mexico and Central America. The images are accompanied by testimonies from the immigrants themselves, describing their lives and experiences.
The debate about immigration heated up again this past year, but Congress was unable to pass new immigration laws. In the wake of this renewed interest, the Department of Homeland Security has announced that it will be using social-security numbers to check on employees’ citizenship status—a fact that has set off a panic among both undocumented workers and business owners who rely on them.
It is into this climate that Bacon’s book arrives—a much-needed correction to the misinformation that abounds about Mexican and Central American immigrants. Many of the people Bacon interviews are indigenous peoples like the Mayos, the Mixtec and the Triqui. Bacon profiles women like Oralia Maceda who travels up and down the San Joaquin Valley for work, sacrificing for her families’ livelihood, attempting to organize for worker’s rights.
One chapter is dedicated to the Mexican immigrant communities around Omaha, Neb., where workers migrated to work in the meat-packing industries. Tiberio Chavez started life in Mexico fighting for a small plot of land, and then was interviewed by Bacon in Omaha in 2002 struggling for his and other’s rights at a ConAgra meat-packing plant.
The H2-B visa program, mainly used to recruit workers in the pine forests of the east and the south, is a recent version of the bracero program. Bacon interviewed Edilberto Morales in his community of La Democracia, Guatemala, where he and his wife put together a life picking and drying coffee. For his work in the United States, he was paid $25 to plant one thousand pine trees, but with deductions the pay was actually $19 per hour. Florinda Sanchez Perez, who also lives in La Democracia, was less lucky. Her husband never even returned from his work under the H2-B visa: He drowned when a van transporting him to a job plunged into a river.
The individuals portrayed in Bacon’s book are compelling. But the vivid photographs of the real people who make up immigrant communities break down the simplistic image of furtive streams of immigrants crossing the U.S. border. We see the squalid living conditions these peoples are often forced to live in, but we also see their dignity and cultural richness.