Communities on the Move

Editor’s note: David Bacon is a photojournalist who writes frequently on immigration and labor for the American Prospect, New America Media, and the Nation. His latest book, Communities Without Borders (Cornell University Press, 2006), presents a photographic view of transnational communities, including images and narratives from both sides of the border. Bacon is based in Northern California but has photographed immigrant communities throughout most of the United States, in parts of Central America, and most recently in Colombia.

What informs your photographs of immigrant communities and migrant workers?

I’ve been a documentary photographer for almost 20 years, and from the beginning I’ve been interested in documenting the effects of globalization on ordinary people — people at the bottom. Because one of the main effects of globalization is migration, I’ve been very interested in immigrant workers.

I’m really interested in culture, and the way in which people bring their culture with them. I define culture pretty broadly, so it includes dances, food, language, and so on, but also includes the way communities are organized, the things that people do together. For instance, Mixtecs and other indigenous people from Oaxaca, Mexico, have a custom that they call the tequio, in which people work together on a common project to benefit the village they live in. People bring these traditions with them, of acting in an organized way, which I think is part of how migrant communities survive here in the United States.

It seems that we don’t often hear migration discussed as a journey with myriad causes.

It’s partly because the media cover migrants once they’re here and don’t give nearly as much attention to what happens in their communities of origin. There was some coverage, for instance, of the turmoil in Oaxaca, but it doesn’t connect the dots — it doesn’t say that the same kinds of social conditions that are bringing people into the streets are also displacing them as communities and setting them into motion on the migrant trail to the United States.

We don’t look deeply at the causes of migration, and when we do, we tend to think of them overwhelmingly in economic terms — that people are coming to the United States because we have jobs here, and people don’t have jobs in their communities of origin. Well, that’s true. But people are more than just economic animals. One of the things that I’ve realized in doing this work is that the lack of human rights is itself a cause of migration. This is what we need more coverage of in the United States, because it would help us to understand how our government’s economic and trade policies affect migration.

What are the ideas behind the photographs and narratives in your latest book?

The project was started to document the migration of indigenous people from southern Mexico and Guatemala to the United States. It’s called Communities Without Borders because the migration of people is a process that involves whole communities, not just individuals. For instance, the people of a Mixtec-speaking town in Oaxaca begin to leave for the reasons we’ve been talking about, and if you are a member of that community, you can go through northern Mexico and come to the United States and find settlements of people who speak your language, who share your culture. It’s like you belong to one large community that’s located simultaneously in more than one place.

So the idea of Communities Without Borders is to take a look at these communities of people and see that this migration process is a community process; that whole communities participate in it, and that migration creates new communities of people here in the United States.

What will it take for people to view immigrants as families, as communities?

It’s important for us to be able to look behind the stereotypes, look behind the hysteria, and try to understand what the reality is — then think about what our values are as people. Do we believe in equality? Do we want to support families? Do we think that communities should have a certain amount of stability to them so that people can participate in community life here? But in order to figure out how those values apply to reality, we have to understand a little bit about what the life of immigrant communities really is like.

In mid-December, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested more than 1,000 workers at six Swift & Company meatpacking plants. Do you think that high-profile events like the Swift raids might push people to see how damaging current immigration policy is to families and communities?

I think that many people looking at the pictures of workers being led out of the factory in handcuffs, or seeing the reactions of their families, results in human sympathy. That’s a good thing. We need to keep hold of our human feelings for each other. But I think that the Swift raids are being used to push forward a political program that the government wants passed. It’s a brutal and destructive way to advance that program: To rip families apart and to pull workers out of factories in handcuffs is not a good way to go about doing it. It’s an antiperson, antipeople approach.

This is the reality. ‘Guest worker’ is a friendly-sounding phrase — people are going to come here, they’re going to be guests. Well, this is not the way you treat a guest. What the [Communities Without Borders] project is trying to do here is to look at the reality underneath the rhetoric, so that [citizens] can make a decision about whether this is really something that they want.

One of the plants raided was in Worthington, Minnesota. I was there shortly after it happened and, I’ll admit, I was surprised to see a substantial outreach by the white community in the area-a sense that they really considered these workers to be their neighbors now. Have you seen this kind of reaction in other places as well?

Yes, I have. In the book, there are pictures from a classroom in Madison, a small meatpacking town in the middle of the countryside in Nebraska. As a result of the migration of the past decade and a half, there is now a big Mexican community in Madison. Of course, our communities are all complicated; it’s not as though there are no people in Madison who are not fearful about the changing demographics of that community. But when I went into the school to take those pictures, I found that the school has bilingual classes for the Spanish-speaking students. When they talked to me about it, the school’s principal and teachers treated this as a matter-of-fact, obvious need, not something that they thought was particularly controversial.

In fact, when the principal found out that I was from California, he said, ‘I don’t understand why there is such a campaign against bilingual education in California. How do you expect children to be able to learn?’ I thought that was a pretty commonsense question. In a way, I found more openness to a commonsense way of dealing with the changing demographics of Madison than I often see in California, where in many communities the anti-immigrant hysteria is pretty high.

Do you see a positive end to this struggle?

Absolutely, I do, for two reasons: This year, I saw lots of immigrants — and here I’m talking about immigrants as a whole, not just Latinos, not just indigenous people — out there advocating for themselves at marches and demonstrations. That was a good sign, because it meant people were speaking for themselves.

I also think that we have a tradition in this country of support for equality and civil rights. I grew up during the era of the civil rights movement, and that was a very, very difficult struggle for African American people. But we did it in this country. We were able to change the laws; we were able to change popular culture; we were able to say to ourselves as a people, ‘If we really believe in equality, we have to take all of these steps.’ I see what’s going on with immigrants as being similar to that, raising the same kinds of questions, such as, What does equality mean in the United States?

Even though you can point to a lot of negative things in our history, you can also say that over many years of struggle, people have been able to move forward toward equality here. I believe that what we’re seeing now is another part of that road.

Communities Without Borders: Images and Voices from the World of Migration is published by Cornell University Press;

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.