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the deported

David Bacon | Baja California Norte, Mexico

Mexicali, Baja California - 1996
A worker is deported back into Mexico at the border gate, from a bus that has taken deportees from the detention center in El Centro in the Imperial Valley, on the other side of the fence.

The number of deported people living in Mexican border cities can be counted in the thousands.  Some become workers in maquiladoras or wash car windows in the street.  Others become homeless and sleep in river channels or under bridges.  In the U.S. media people become invisible once they're put across the border.  For over two decades I've taken photographs to document what happens to them.

Deportees become invisible at a time when it’s hardest for them to survive.  So I’ve taken the camera into the Tijuana River channel to take images of people collecting cans and bottles for recycling, or simply cooking on the concrete bank of the channel.

Deportees have organized to make survival easier, and ultimately to protest the system itself.  Border Angels helped migrants take over the Migrant Hotel in Mexicali to give shelter and food to people as they’re deported through the border gate.  Twenty years ago Baja California’s human rights prosecutor took me to the Mexicali gate where he met deportees with sandwiches and survey forms. These photographs span those two decades.

These photographs are a small part of a large body of work about the U.S./Mexico border, called "More Than a Wall."  Part of the purpose of my photography in the border region is to make the invisible visible, especially its social reality. The images are intended to have a sharp critical edge, and provoke questions about the experience of people living there. 

One such question might ask, what happens to those pushed back through the gate in the border wall, deported from the U.S.?  From time to time, until they're driven away, scores of young people live in the concrete channel built to contain the floods of the Tijuana River, which runs through the middle of the city near the border between Mexico and the U.S. Like the Los Angeles river channel, it is mostly an empty cement expanse, but in Tijuana it is sometimes filled with deportees with no money and no home.

Juan Manuel Barragan Corona, recently expelled from the U.S. and living in the river bottom, has a wife and two teenage children in Las Vegas. "We are the invisible people," he says. "In this life, no one counts for less than a deported Mexican."

Photography can help change the world, if it arises from the political commitment and involvement of the photographer. In this case, my purpose is to present the border's residents as actors in pursuing social justice, not simply as victims of what they are protesting.

It is a balance to produce committed documentation as a participant and partisan, and at the same time avoid romanticizing social movements.  I don’t think a photograph can “humanize” or “put a human face” on people or events.  But I understand the intention to make a political protest or a social problem accessible by focusing on the individual in front of the lens.  And I find a lot of beauty in the human faces I see, looking carefully for the play of emotion that can reach out in a way that words alone sometimes miss. 

The border is a land of the living, and the faces of the families at the border wall are unique and individual, showing their humanity in very individual ways.  Then, as the photographs move out into the world, they become universal.


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