Forget the theories, and instead look at people's faces

  • Cover of the book "Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future"

  • Pablo Rodgriguez begs paramedics to help his brother

    Jaime Bailleres photo
  • Children from Colonia Felipe Angeles play in a contaminated area

    Manuel Saenz photo
  • Children collect cans they'll sell to help their families

    Julian Cordona photo
  • A two-year-old plays in Colonia after a fire

    Gabriel Cordona photo

Charles Bowden knows exactly what we, and he, don't want to see, and in Juarez: the Laboratory of our Future he makes it impossible to ignore. Here is the very worst of life after NAFTA, captured by a crew of street photographers who chase the violence of Ciudad Juarez and the border zone. The huge, bloody prints are horrifying, but Bowden's raging essay demands that you keep looking and looking. Juçrez was funded by the Lannan Foundation, which is backing a book no one wants to read. Everyone should. It's a work of art - and a brick in the head.

* Michelle Nijhuis

It can be felt upon the skin. It can be a scent rising from the ground. It can be the crack of a gun in the dark night. Always, it is the constant sound that any jumble of a city throws off from its loves and labors. More than 16 million machines cross the river at Juarez each year and they all talk with or without mufflers at every hour of the day and night. The trains cross the river also and the people come and go, whether with the law at their backs or in their faces. Life collects in this place, just as it grows noisy and electric in a swamp.

Anyone who has looked into an ecosystem has found points where life is amplified, where all the flora and fauna grow thick and vocal because of factors of light, water, temperature, and soil, and where the sheer weight of protoplasm leaps and celebrates. Juarez is such a place, where two nominal worlds, México and the United States, reach startlingly large and strange forms.

If this city were some New England settlement with its skies punctured by Congregational churches, town halls, and swatches of village greens, it would still command our attention simply because of its sheer vitality.

"What I am saying is: If Juarez were functional and clean and a model for all the nations, we would still be fascinated by it. But Juarez is not functional, it is not orderly, and it is not pretty. It has the throb and drive of 19th century Chicago, the most significant human community on the planet following the American Civil War, yet commands the attention of some nameless suburb of real life.

We do not wish to look at Juarez, we do not vacation there, we do not speak of the place. When it briefly comes to our attention, we dismiss it as a grotesque exception to what matters, what is, and what will be.

We believe or profess to believe that the present and the future are more palpable in cyberspace than on the ground by the river that divides the United States from México. This is an opinion I do not share.

I have looked at hundreds of recent photographs from Juarez, many of which you will never see because they lack the right light or proper focus or are not perfectly framed. But mainly because there is a limit to how much we can stomach, and that goes for you and that goes for me. ...

I am just like you, I constantly take all these things and push them to the edge of my mind and tell myself they are freakish and marginal and not what life or the future or much of anything is about. Why just this very morning I was explaining to someone right here on the border the proper proportions for correctly mixing hummingbird food and daydreaming about planting epiphyliums in my garden.

What we now think is not true. What we now do no longer works. What we see in the photographs actually exists. This is not darkness at the edge of town. This is going to be our town. And not because the dreaded Mexicans are coming, but because we are planting ruin about the world and calling it our economic policy. We must stop pretending and start living. We already have lives of double exposure.

Just as the photographers cannot really stay on one side of the camera, we cannot really stay on one side of the line.

We cannot pretend such places do not exist. We cannot pretend such places can be contained. We cannot pretend such places will magically remedy themselves. We are exposed and we should be. And we are exposed to the future and this future will be hard, but it can also be good or bad depending upon what we do. We are free to act. If we act in time.

It is a very old story. We must treat people as we wish to be treated. Forget the theology of free trade, forget the theology of foreign policy, forget the theology of immigration reform, forget the theology of the military. They will not answer to the task. Look into the faces, stare at the huts, wince at the murders, think of the numbers. Then the choices will be simple. And the price of a bad choice will be obvious.

* Charles Bowden