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More Than a Wall: Photos of 30 Years of Life Along the US-Mexico Border

Successive US administrations have sought to turn the borderlands into a land of death — but these photos prove it is very much a land of the living. In this photo essay, David Bacon reaches into his photographic archive of 30 years.

Tijuana, Baja California, 1996 A worker looks over the fence between Mexico and the United States, 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. , All photos by David Bacon

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, through his photographs and journalism, has 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, almost 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 United States 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.


Tijuana, Baja California, 2001.
credit: David Bacon


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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 300–400 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 US grocery stores; 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 also survive this passage of fire.

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 United States—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 barbed wire. 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 United States. 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.


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.
Photo: David Bacon


Tijuana, Baja California, 2017. Juan Manuel Barragan was recently deported from the United States, 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.
Photo: David Bacon


Tijuana, Baja California, 2014. Many deportees have no way to return to their hometowns further south in Mexico, and become homeless. Some have set up a camp in the riverbed of the Tijuana River, in downtown Tijuana, not far from the US-Mexico border.
Photo: David Bacon


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.
Photo: David Bacon


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 United States.
Photo: David Bacon


Tijuana, Baja California, 1996. At the entrance to the Maclovio Rojas community, a sign declares that the community is a civil organization and union of small landholders, affiliated with CIOAC, the Independent Center of Agricultural Workers and Peasants. In the 1970s, CIOAC was organized by the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) and other left-wing 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 organization to help migrant workers organize, settle, and build homes.
Photo: David Bacon


Mexicali Valley, Baja California, 1996. Honorina Ruiz, 6 years old, ties bunches of green onions together in a field just south of the US border.
Photo: David Bacon


Mexicali Valley, Baja California, 1996. Young mothers with no child care bring their children to work with them.
Photo: David Bacon


Tijuana, Baja California, 2015. A bus filled with striking farm workers from the San Quintin Valley of Baja California on their way to the US/Mexico border to protest. Their sign in the window says: “Wage Raise!”
Photo: David Bacon


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.
Photo: David Bacon


Mexicali, Baja California, 2010. A deportee tries to sleep after being deported the previous night. The Border Patrol sends many people across the border in the hours just after midnight, when no stores or restaurants are open, and taxis or other services are 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.
Photo: David Bacon


Tijuana, Baja California, 2014. Luisa, a homeless woman who was deported from the United States many years ago, collects cans and plastic from garbage dumpsters, near the Tijuana River in downtown Tijuana, near the US/Mexico border.
Photo: David Bacon


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.
Photo: David Bacon


Tijuana, Baja California, 2017. Adriana Arzola, her sister, and her baby Nayeli Santana talk with her family living in the United States through the bars of the border wall. On the US side, her family has to stay several feet away from the wall, so they can’t touch each other through the bars.
Photo: David Bacon


Tijuana, Baja California, 2016. On the Mexican side of the border wall between Mexico and the United States, Hector Barajas, front, stands with other veterans of US military service who have been deported. The names of their fellow servicemembers who have died 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.
Photo: David Bacon


Tijuana, Baja California, 2017. On the Mexican side of the border wall between Mexico and the United States, families greet other family members on the US 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.
Photo: David Bacon


Tijuana, Baja California, 2016. On the Mexican side of the border, a man stares through the bars into the United States.
Photo: David Bacon


Holtville, Imperial Valley, California, 2010. Migrants found dead on the border between the United States 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.
Photo: David Bacon


[David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants  (2008), and The Right to Stay Home (2013), both from Beacon Press.]

Thanks to the author for sending this to Portside.

Copyright c 2019 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by PARS International Corp.

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