Living in the Shadows
“In the Fields of the North/ En los Campos del Norte”
A book by David Bacon
Reviewed by Paul Von Blum
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. . . They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
— Donald Trump, June 16, 2015
We live in a despicable era of racism and xenophobia, fueled by the anti-immigrant fervor of the Trump regime and abetted by right-wing media forces. Mexican immigrants have borne the brunt of much of this public animus, including countless verbal assaults and some egregious examples of physical violence. Few perpetrators of this hostility recognize the long historical origins of their nativist outpourings. Even fewer realize the deep humanity and the powerful suffering of the Latino farmworkers who have come north to the United States to escape grinding poverty and hunger and try to eke out marginal livings for themselves and their families.
A new bilingual book by David Bacon offers both a dramatic antidote to the deplorable reality of racism and a majestic life-affirming view of these hidden women, men and children. “In the Fields of the North” is a landmark fusion of journalism and documentary photography. Bacon is an accomplished writer and photographer, with a long record of union organizing for the United Farm Workers, the United Electrical Workers, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and others. He has effectively documented the impact of globalization, the degrading conditions of workplaces for many immigrants, the human consequences of migration, the political struggles for workers’ and human rights, and many related topics in his books and commentary.
But above all, Bacon is a documentary photographer of extraordinary power, insight and skill. In his introductory comments to the book, he is modest– too modest — about contributing to the long history of socially conscious photography: “I hope my work contributes to this tradition today.” I have had the privilege and pleasure of teaching and writing for many years about some of the giant American figures of this tradition, including Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks.
I have followed Bacon’s work for decades and it is entirely reasonable to view him as the legitimate heir of these iconic photographic artists. Like these men and women, Bacon professes his deep commitment to the people whose images he celebrates with his camera. He refuses to stand apart from the human beings he photographs and repudiates the absurd notion, which is still popular in some academic and critical circles, that photographers must be objective and neutral. He takes his stand strongly and without ambiguity: “We are not objective but partisan.”
Like his distinguished predecessors and contemporaries, Bacon understands that his photographs of immigrant workers, predominantly from Mexico, are part of a broader movement for social change. Like the entire tradition of socially committed art, his works are not merely a decorative adjunct to political protest, but are fully integral to the continuing struggle for justice and dignified lives for immigrant workers in the agricultural fields of the United States. No detached observer, Bacon stands proudly on the side of the people in his book.
In words and images, he narrates the lives, travails and occasional triumphs of mostly undocumented people who have migrated north, often under extremely perilous conditions. He encourages his readers to enter their homes, which too often consist of temporary shelters in desolate regions, of plywood shacks and tents made of tarps, in trailer camps, in vans and cars, or worst of all, nothing but an open space in an agricultural field. Bacon photographs entire families living without basic services. Many must bathe in rivers while others drink polluted water, causing gastrointestinal illnesses and probable long-term serious health consequences.
Many of these families come from indigenous cultures and speak only their native languages. This further isolates them, not only from other indigenous refugees from Mexico but also from the majority Spanish-speaking refugees from Mexico and Central America. These human beings exist in a dreadful cycle of poverty, moving seasonally throughout California, Oregon and Washington, working the fields for subminimal wages while experiencing horrific racism and exploitation from growers, labor contractors and field foremen.
Readers and viewers of “In the Fields of the North” find its heart in the deeply moving stories and images of the people whom Bacon chronicles so effectively. He allows these disenfranchised workers the rare opportunity to tell their stories about their lives under a system of American feudalism. All the narratives in the volume are powerful and each reader inevitably finds some specific ones especially compelling.
The story, for example, of Rómulo Muñoz Vásquez reveals the harrowing lives of many Mexican migrant farmworkers who lack U.S. documentation. Originally a farmer and later a police officer in Oaxaca, he was unable to support his family. He crossed the border and first rented an apartment in San Diego, but couldn’t afford the rent, food and transportation, and still send money back to his family.
Vásquez found a spot under a tree and used nylon tarp to build himself a shelter. He purchased water for a dollar a gallon and he bathed in a stream on the other side of the hill where he “lived.” The water was dirty and other residents of this makeshift colony sometimes got sick and sometimes they worked so late that they were unable to bathe at all. He reveals that from his personal experience, many other Mexican migrants died trying to enter the United States, their bodies devoured by coyotes, birds and bears; others were caught by the border patrol, locked up for a few days, and deported to Tijuana.
Bacon relates that shortly after Vásquez told his story, the fascistic anti-immigrant group the Minutemen appeared and threatened the hillside dwellers. Subsequently, county deputy sheriffs removed everyone there, forcing them to find new shelter. This too is a feature of the lives of people living in the shadows as they struggle to support themselves and their families back home.
Lucretia Camacho’s story adds another poignant dimension to the book. Bacon titles her narrative with an especially apt phrase: Making a Life, but not a Living. An older woman, Camacho was born in a small indigenous town in Oaxaca, which had a language and culture hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spaniards. She began working when she was 9 years old, picking cotton and other crops in northern Mexico. She began working in the fields of Oxnard, California, in 1985 and continued until very recently. A single mother, she earned paltry wages doing piecework picking strawberries in Oxnard and peppers and tomatoes in Gilroy, California. She became a legal resident in 1989 under the amnesty program.
Her comments about her work speak volumes about the life of America’s migrant farmworkers: “The strawberry harvest looks easy enough, but once you try it, it’s hard. I don’t wish that kind of work on my worst enemy.” After a lifetime of backbreaking labor, Camacho suffers from arthritis, osteoporosis and swollen feet — human realities about migrant farmworkers that few privileged Americans, even in California, comprehend when they buy their fruits and vegetables in area supermarkets and elsewhere. Perhaps she is one of Trump’s “good people” because of her protracted suffering.
Bacon’s more than 300 images in the book are a stunning addition to the body of contemporary socially conscious documentary photography. Many are haunting while others are hopeful, but all represent the fusion of excellent technique and incisive social and political commentary. All reveal the multiple experiences of the marginalized workers who labor anonymously in the agricultural fields of the North.
One of them, memorialized in a striking photograph, is Isabel Pulado, a Mexican immigrant who picks grapes, dates, peppers and other crops in the Coachella Valley. Thirty-two years old and a single mother of three children, her face shows the strains of a hard life that will likely be unchanging. Bacon captures her pain, her resilience and perhaps even her defiance. She epitomizes the antithesis of Trump’s repulsive comments during his campaign.
Likewise, Bacon’s photograph of Justino Macías repudiates the president’s racist remarks, attitudes and policies. A migrant from Mexicali, he lives in a van with a friend, parked next to a highway and an irrigation ditch. A few weeks before Bacon took the photograph, Macías was beaten and robbed, an all too common experience for agricultural migrants, who cannot easily use banks. His facial expression reveals his anguish that far transcends the specific violent act he endured.
Photographs from “In the Fields of the North” also feature people of other national and ethnic groups, including Punjabis, Hondurans and Nicaraguans. And in one dramatic image, Bacon depicts a pregnant African-American woman in Stockton, California, standing in her large apartment complex full of mostly black residents. The complex is grotesque; it is infested with cockroaches and bedbugs, broken fixtures and trash. California Rural Legal Assistance provided help in bringing action against the landlord. This photograph is powerfully reminiscent of the socially critical works of Parks and many other masters who documented the grinding poverty that African-Americans have faced throughout the centuries.
Lest prospective readers and viewers think that this book is little more than gloom and doom about worker exploitation and misery, hopeful signs are apparent as well. Bacon adds many strong photographic images that reveal these workers’ commitment to organizing, protesting and rebelling. Their defiance in the face of brutal work and living conditions is a major feature of the book, especially in some of the photographs showing these women and men in poses of impressive solidarity.
Several images stand out; all are superb compositionally, but they are especially valuable for their stirring political content. One photograph shows farmworkers from the Gallo wine ranch in Sonoma County, California, holding hands and singing to protest the company’s failure to sign a union contract. These activities are part of the United Farm Workers culture and are reminiscent of the classic era of civil rights activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Bacon captured the workers’ facial expressions revealing their energy, resilience and collective strength.
In another photograph, he depicts migrant farmworkers on strike against a large berry grower in Washington state. They are blocking the entrance to the labor camp where they live and carry signs in English and Spanish demanding respect and reinforcing their unity. This is a classic labor image and joins a long tradition of photography and other artistic forms that highlight and support collective worker militancy.
In the same Washington state action, Bacon also photographed several women and children from the labor camp on strike. They are indigenous Mixtec and Triqui migrants from Oaxaca and southern Mexico and reveal different emotions in the image. Some look tired and exhausted and others look hopeful. He captures the range of emotions that inevitably exist in all struggles for workers’ rights and social justice.
The new wave of labor activism shown in this dramatic volume is encouraging, especially in the Trump era of increasing repression against Latinos. As recently as June 13, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Thomas Homan, told a House committee that his agency would follow up on Trump’s campaign promise to drive out more undocumented immigrants. His words were chilling: “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.”
We need more courageous, socially conscious writers and photographers like Bacon. We need more determined farmworkers who stand up against oppression like those he documented in this book. Above all, we need people to resist the horrific policies of the most dangerous and reactionary government in U.S. history.