Bearing witness on the border

  • Protesters march in the Great American Boycott in Los Angeles.

    Julian Cardona, photographs courtesy University of Texas Press
  • Relatives of missing Juarez girls wait in the morgue to identify bodies

    Julian Cardona, photographs courtesy University of Texas Press
  • Salvadoran Luis angel Ramirez waits to cross the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas (left). He broke his arm in a fall from the "train of death" in San Luis, Mexico.

    Julian Cardona, photographs courtesy University of Texas Press
  • Three mothers and their children stop before crossing the desert, near the border town of Sasabe, Sonora.

    Julian Cardona, photographs courtesy University of Texas Press
  • Women in the volunteer group Voces Sin Eco ("Voices Without Echo") search for murdered girls in the desert near Juarez, Mexico, after a spate of killings.

    Julian Cardona, photographs courtesy University of Texas Press
 

Exodus/Exodo
Charles Bowden, Julian Cardona
312 pages, 115 black-and-white photos,
hardcover: $50.
University of Texas Press, 2008.

There are many ways to write about illegal immigration. One way is to shuffle through Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports, cherry-pick the latest data and file an article from a safe distance. Another way is to step into the fray, boots-on-the-ground, and act as an eyewitness. Author Charles Bowden and photographer Julian Cardona have chosen to be two such witnesses, and their stunning book Exodus/Exodo is a pointed reminder of the heartbreak and struggle at our back door.

"Mexico," Bowden writes, "is our one intimate brush with the majority of the planet where people have little or nothing and the future of their homelands promises even less."

Both Bowden and Cardona know our southern border region well. Cardona is based in Juarez, a city famous for drug cartel violence and the disappearances -- and deaths -- of hundreds of young women. Bowden, from Tucson, is the author of six nonfiction books and dozens of articles on the border and the Southwest, including a piece for Mother Jones that formed the basis for this incredible, well-documented journey.   

Together, the authors spirit us into the colonias of Juarez and into the homes of migrant workers in Northern California. They bring us from the plains of Kansas to the thunderous immigration marches on the streets of Phoenix, and give us the faces and stories of ilegales crossing the desert. 

Bowden frames the journey in apocalyptic language. Nowhere along the border, it seems, is safe. He draws on extreme circumstances, and it's hard not to feel shattered by the aftershock. Known for his toughened, grizzled prose, Bowden enlarges the lens, pausing for brief moments of fact-dropping -- smugglers earn around $1,700 per person for safe passage across the border, for instance -- and then zooming in on personal stories of tragedy and hope, which is where he excels as a storyteller.

A family's 17-year-old daughter is found dead in Juarez while her sister "goes around town painting black crosses on pink backgrounds so that people will remember the dead." In the Arizona desert, ragtag groups of Minutemen gather at night with holstered guns and a sense of purpose. Two El Salvadoran men stand at the border in Nuevo Laredo, heading to New Orleans. They know they can find work re-building that destroyed city.

Throughout, Bowden intersperses vignettes from General Pancho Villa's life during the Mexican Revolution, offset in italics, portraying him as a revolutionary hero and a philanderer, not much better than the government that he fights. Some readers will need a brief seminar in Mexican history to lend context to the seemingly random anecdotes. 

While Bowden provides the book's soundtrack, Julian Cardona gives us frames from the movie, distilled into moments of grace and desperation. In one picture, he has captured the grieving face of a mother at her daughter's funeral; in another, immigrant women are afforded prenatal care in California. Cardona's 115 black and white photographs are searing and artful, and very few of the faces bear a smile.

The authors don't offer up pat solutions to the immigration crisis, nor do they find fault with Border Patrol officers, Minutemen volunteers, or immigrants who "come north rather than die in place." The only culprits left to blame are old and familiar ones: ineffectual U.S. foreign policy, the pressures of globalization, and the failure of the Mexican government.

There is a clear sense of outrage and sadness in these words and pictures. Bowden, especially, distrusts a government that "exports its people," to the tune, he often reminds us, of $20 billion a year in remittances, sent back home to care for family members and build dream homes -- homes that often remain unoccupied because their owners are unable to return safely over the border.  

Exodus/Exodo is an astonishing work of witness, documenting how the "biggest migratory phenomenon in the world" has come head-to-head with the 21st century. "They are no longer migratory workers," Bowden writes of the unstemmed tide. "They are refugees from a collapsing economy and a barbarous government and their journey is biblical and we should call it Exodus."

High Country News Classifieds
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.