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Connected Across Borders: El Varal, Mexico and Salem, Oregon

Phil Decker | Michoacan, Mexico

Maria makes incredible tortillas

I live in Salem, Oregon, which like many cities in America has seen rapid demographic change due to immigration from Mexico. This has both enhanced diversity and sparked racial tension. To help educate residents about our Mexican neighbors, and to honor their contributions to the community, I decided to photograph daily life in El Varal, a mountain village in Michoacan, Mexico. El Varal has been a major sending community to Salem since the 1940’s. It could be considered Salem’s unofficial sister city. Thanks to my work as a teacher and principal, I have met many families who call El Varal “home”. This document is ongoing, and is in collaboration with families of my current and former students

 

     I live in Salem, Oregon, which, like many cities in America, has seen rapid demographic change due to immigration from Mexico. This has both enhanced diversity and sparked racial tension. To help educate residents about our Mexican neighbors, and to honor their contributions to the community, I decided to photograph daily life in El Varal, a mountain village in Michoacan, Mexico. El Varal has been a major sending community to Salem since the 1940’s. It could be considered Salem’s unofficial sister city. Thanks to my work as a teacher and principal, I have met many families who call El Varal “home”. This document is ongoing, and is in collaboration with families of my current and former students.   My interest in documenting life in El Varal also springs from my own immigrant roots. I am the grandson of Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms and came to America in the 1920s. In homage to their sacrifice, I have worked with immigrant communities as a photographer and educator, with an aim to build understanding between cultural groups, and to leave behind a historical record. Other documents I have created focus on Haitian, Jewish, Puerto Rican and Mexican immigrants.   I strive to embed photographs into the process of social change. In April, my photo essay on El Varal appeared in Salem’s Statesman Journal. In November, an exhibit at Chemeketa Community College will be accompanied by panel discussions and films related to immigration. The local school district is integrating the project into staff development.   I see my work in the tradition of “photo-muckrackers” like Jacob Riis who exposed slums and Lewis Hine who challenged child labor. In 1984, while studying at the International Center of Photography, I was influenced by contemporary photographers like Bruce Davidson, Mary Ellen Mark, and my teacher Patt Blue. In their footsteps, I too work to create images and tell stories that highlight the dignity and common humanity of people caught in complex struggles.            

Phil Decker studied at the International Center of Photography in 1984, in the first year of ICP's Documentary Photography program.  While at ICP in New York City, Phil created documents on his Puerto Rican neighbors and on Jewish immigrant elders on the Lower East Side.  He went on to publish and exhibit photo documents of Haitian migrant farmworkers in his home state of Maryland, and of undocumented Mexican farmworkers in Arizona, in their home state of Queretero, Mexico, and crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Phil then worked for several years as the director for Northern Mexico of a "village banking" program, helping to create 40 village banks and training other NGOs throughout Mexico in the methodology.  

To help raise his growing family, and to continue to support immigrant communities, Phil worked throughout the 90's as a bilingual middle school teacher in San Diego, California and Salem, Oregon.  Since 2002 he has served at-risk communities as an elementary school principal.  

Recently, Phil has returned to his roots as a documentary photographer.  In 2009 he created a photo essay "Traces of the Jewish Lower East Side", which is exhbited at the Oregon Jewish Museum during the summer of 2010.  In the spring of 2010, Phil embarked on his work documenting daily life in El Varal, Mexico, in collaboration with the families of his current and former students, with roots in El Varal.   Chemeketa Community College in Salem will host a photo exhibit on the El Varal work in November 2010.

Phil enjoys life in Salem, Oregon with his wife, four daugthers, and two granddaughters ... not to mention two great son in-laws. 

Phil holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Maryland, an MA in Latin American Studies from Stanford, a bilingual teaching credential from San Diego State, and an educational administrative credential from Portland State.

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