The Right to Travel to Seek Work Is the Right to Survive

Watsonville, California. A farmworker pulls brussels sprouts from a stalk and tosses them into a bucket. These workers are paid according to the amount of sprouts they harvest. (Photo: Copyright by David Bacon)Watsonville, California. A farmworker pulls brussels sprouts from a stalk and tosses them into a bucket. These workers are paid according to the amount of sprouts they harvest. (Photo: Copyright by David Bacon)

In an exquisite synergy of documentary photographs, journalism and personal stories, David Bacon reveals the dignity and integrity of seasonal workers from Mexico who harvest much of the nation’s fruit and vegetables under squalid conditions. In this excerpt, Bacon talks about his journalistic philosophy in an introductory chapter, “A Photographer Looks Through a Partisan Lens.”

Eighty years ago, many photographers were political activists and saw their work intimately connected to worker strikes, political revolution or the movements for indigenous people’s rights. Today, what was an obvious link is often viewed as a dangerous conflict of interest. Photographers must be objective and neutral, the word goes, and stand at a distance from the reality they record. But I believe our work gains visual and emotional power from its closeness to the movements we document. We are not “objective” but partisan — documenting social reality is part of the movement for social change.

Can photographers be participants in the social events they document? As a documentary photographer and journalist, I don’t claim to be an unbiased observer. I’m on the side of immigrant workers and unions in the United States and share their struggle for rights and a decent life. I take the side of people in Mexico trying to find alternatives for democratic political change. If the work I do helps to strengthen these movements, it will have served a good purpose.

For three decades I’ve used a method that combines photographs with interviews and personal histories. Part of the purpose is the “reality check” — the documentation of social reality, including poverty, homelessness, migration and displacement. But this documentation, carried out over a long period of time, also presents some of the political and economic alternatives proposed by those often shut out of public debate. It examines peoples’ efforts to win the power to put some of these alternatives into practice.

So for me photography is a cooperative project. When I began to work as a photographer and writer, documenting the lives of migrants and farmworkers, I took with me the perspective of my previous work as a union organizer. Carrying a camera became for me a means to organize for social and racial justice, the same goals I had as an organizer. Bob Fitch, who spent years in the US South as a photographer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, thinks about himself the same way. In the recent book, “This Light of Ours,” he remembers, “I did various kinds of organizing for the balance of my life and photographed those activities as I went through. And I perceived myself as an organizer who uses a camera to tell the story of my work, which is true today.”

Advocating for social change is part of a long tradition of social documentary photography in the United States and Mexico, and I hope my work contributes to this tradition today. San Francisco photographers Otto Hegel and Hansel Mieth took their cameras into the huge cotton strike of 1933 and the West Coast waterfront strike of 1934. They saw themselves as part of these movements. One Mieth image from the 1930s shows the shape-up system where workers were hired to unload ships — a scene reminiscent of today’s day laborers clustering around a contractor’s pickup truck in front of Home Depot. Mieth’s photograph became a symbol of humiliating conditions and an appeal to go on strike. She would be proud that longshore workers today have a union hiring hall and no shape-up.

For over a decade I’ve worked with the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, a Mexican migrant organization, California Rural Legal Assistance and Familias Unidas por la Justicia to document this contradiction. Our project, which led to this book, shows extreme poverty, the complete lack of housing for many people and the systematic exploitation of immigrant labor in the fields. But through the photographs and accompanying oral histories, migrants also analyze their situation and demand respect for their culture, basic rights and greater social equality.

At the end of the 1970s California farm workers were the highest-paid in the US, with the possible exception of Hawaii’s long-unionized sugar and pineapple workers. Today people are trapped in jobs that pay the minimum wage and often less, and mostly unable to find permanent year-around work.

In 1979 the United Farm Workers negotiated a contract with Sun World, a large citrus and grape grower. The contract’s bottom wage rate was $5.25 per hour. At the time, the minimum wage was $2.90. If the same ratio existed today, with a state minimum of $10.50, farm workers would be earning the equivalent of $19.00 per hour.

Today farm workers don’t make anywhere near $19.00 an hour. In 2008 demographer Rick Mines conducted a survey of 120,000 migrant farm workers in California from indigenous communities in Mexico — Mixtecos, Triquis, Purepechas and others — counting the 45,000 children living with them, a total of 165,000 people. “One third of the workers earned above the minimum wage, one third reported earning exactly the minimum and one third reported earning below the minimum,” he found.

In other words, growers were paying an illegal wage to tens of thousands of farm workers. The case log of California Rural Legal Assistance is an extensive history of battles to help workers reclaim illegal, and even unpaid, wages. Indigenous workers are the most recent immigrants in the state’s farm labor workforce, and the poorest, but the situation isn’t drastically different for others. The median income is $13,000 for an indigenous family, the median for most farm workers is about $19,000 — more, but still far from a liveable wage.

Low wages in the fields have brutal consequences. When the grape harvest starts in the eastern Coachella Valley, the parking lots of small markets in farm worker towns like Mecca are filled with workers sleeping in their cars. For Rafael Lopez, a farm worker from San Luis, Arizona, living in his van with his grandson, “the owners should provide a place to live since they depend on us to pick their crops. They should provide living quarters, at least something more comfortable than this.”

In northern San Diego County, many strawberry pickers sleep out of doors on hillsides and in ravines. Each year the county sheriff clears out some of their encampments, but by next season workers have found others. As Romulo Muñoz Vasquez, living on a San Diego hillside, explains: “There isn’t enough money to pay rent, food, transportation and still have money left to send to Mexico. I figured any spot under a tree would do.”

Compounding the problem of low wages is the lack of work during the winter months. Workers have to save what they can while they have a job, to tide them over. In the strawberry towns of the Salinas Valley, the normal 10% unemployment rate doubles after the harvest ends in November. While some can collect unemployment, the estimated 53% who have no legal immigration status are barred from receiving benefits.

Yet people have strong community ties because of shared culture and language. Farm workers in California speak twenty-three languages, come from thirteen different Mexican states, and have rich cultures of music, dance, and food that bind their communities together. Migrant indigenous farmworkers participate in immigrant rights marches, and organize unions.

Indigenous migrants have created communities all along the northern road from Mexico to the US and Canada. Migration is a complex economic and social process in which whole communities participate. Migration creates communities, which today pose challenging questions about the nature of citizenship in a globalized world. The function of these photographs, therefore, is to help break the mold that keeps us from seeing this reality.

The right to travel to seek work is a matter of survival for millions of people, and a new generation of photographers today documents the migrant-rights movements in both Mexico and the United States (with its parallels to the civil rights movement of past generations). Like many others in this movement, I use the combination of photographs and oral histories to connect words and voices to images — together they help capture a complex social reality as well as people’s ideas for changing it.

Today racism is alive and well, and economic inequality is greater now than it has been for half a century. People are fighting for their survival. And it’s happening here, not just in safely distant countries half a world away. As a union organizer, I helped people fight for their rights as immigrants and workers. I’m still doing that as a journalist and photographer. I believe documentary photographers stand on the side of social justice — we should be involved in the world and unafraid to try to change it.

Copyright (2017) by David Bacon. Not to be reposted without permission of the author.