Sunday, April 19, 2009

The View from Down South

What President Obama probably did not see on his visit ...

Those of us who live in the complacent affluence of the United States of America often find it hard to remember that we share the continent with a different United States, Los Estados Unidos de Mexico. Though increasingly entwined with this poor relation both economically and culturally, we scarcely give a thought to the lives and struggles constantly going on south of the border.

Confronted with the problem of immigration, both legal and otherwise, we are content to consider thousand mile fences as a possible solution, and to look the other way when Texas vigilantes decide to defend their own property the old fashioned way, at the point of a gun.

We need someone like photo-journalist John Sevigny to be our eyes and ears, as well as our conscience. John, whom I've known since he was born, used to cover Mexico and the American border towns for the Associated Press. He learned his Spanish on the streets, and his Mexican wife says he speaks it "like a thug." Now he's out there on his own, snapping the shutters of his film-loaded non-digital cameras to capture the sights, the faces, the textures, and very nearly the smells of that "other" America that supports us like an overloaded beast of burden struggling under the weight of a bloated master.

As you can see for yourself on his photo-blog, Gone City, he has walked the tracks and dusty roads, descended the stairs into basement brothels, traced the passage of the migrating poor, recorded the faces of the lost, the abandoned, the homeless, and those who simply survive. All of this is done with the sensitivity of Steinbeck and the unflinching gaze of Walker Evans -- and I think also a touch of Jack Kerouac's love for what he called "the fellajin," the good natured simple souls who just slug away at living and do the best they can. If ever anyone has captured an image of the hooker with the heart of gold, it is probably to be found in these pages.

Some years ago he traveled to a small Mexican town to interview the families of some migrant workers who had died as they tried to get across the border. His purpose amazed the people there -- no one from the USA had ever expressed an interest in anything but drug smugglers before. It is just as true today as it was back in the 1940's when Woody Guthrie wrote his song about it that such people, when they die, are "called by no name but Deportees."

Recently John's interests have turned back to Florida, where he comes from, because of the increasing incidents of slave labor here affecting workers largely from Mexico. That this issue has raised its ugly head again within miles of our homes is a powerful reminder of how intimately our nations are bound together, and how culpable we are in our ignorance and negligence.

So I'm glad to note John Sevigny's updates as they come in like postcards from the edge. They keep me in touch and remind me, as we all should be reminded, to remain human. Buena suerte, amigo. Keep up the good work.

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