« Return to this article

Know the West

Bearing witness on the border


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."