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Immigrants in Black & White: A Review of “Communities Without Borders”

Susan Chenelle Jan 25

“Communities Without Borders: Images and Voices from the World of Migration” By David Bacon / Cornell University Press, 2006

The immigrant rights marches in the spring and summer of 2006 deeply startled many people in the United States. The massive outpourings disrupted the order of everyday life; the millions of immigrant workers, documented or not, who live and labor throughout the country are supposed to silently work and not be seen, let alone heard. Photojournalist David Bacon’s new book offers a rich and greatly needed antidote to the racist rhetoric that passed as legitimate discourse this past summer.

Building on his previous work, The Children of NAFTA (Univ. of California Press, 2004), Bacon once again offers a window into a part of present-day reality that is invisible to all but a few on the other side of the divide. Through stirring black-and-white photographs, a bit of historical background, and oral histories from indigenous migrant workers, he provides a timely and instructive look at a few strands of the history of migration in the Americas and the growth of communities that transcend borders.

Bacon focuses specifically on indigenous communities whose people have traveled throughout Mexico and the United States for generations in search of work. These are people who not only undertake hard jobs in terrible conditions for miserable wages, but also struggle with the separation of their families, try to prevent the erosion of their communities and cultures, and risk debt and death in order to make the long, dangerous journey north. Despite such enormous burdens and the vulnerability of their status as undocumented workers, they still often stand up and fight for better conditions of life, many drawing on extensive organizing experience with the social movements in their native countries.

Though the photographs and oral histories were taken between 2000 and 2003, this book is particularly timely. It not only offers a bit of insight into the recent surge of the immigrant rights movement in the United States, but also introduces readers to some of the people of Oaxaca, who have been fighting to overthrow a government that does not represent their demands or desires. Bacon describes how all along the corridor running north from Oaxaca, Mixtec and Zapotec migrant workers have created close-knit communities in which they take care of one other while upholding their responsibilities to their families and villages back home.

In Nebraska, meatpacking workers from Guatemala struggle to keep working while dodging the migra (the USCIS, what used to be the INS). At the same time, they bring marimbas to the United States to play at fiestas to keep their ties to the culture alive. Through the solidarity organizations they have created in the United States, they have formed relationships with labor unions in the meatpacking factories, but warn that unions often make the same mistake employers do, treating people only as workers.

As compelling as Bacon’s photographs are, the oral histories are by far the strongest element of the book. After offering a bit of hope in what these people might teach those working for social justice in the United States, Bacon brings us back to the crossroads at which we now find ourselves. Immersed in the consequences of a long history of oppression and greed that most people in the United States barely acknowledge, we see glimmers of hope and resistance, even as the driving forces of corporate globalization continue their drive for dominant hegemony.