Julian Cardona uncovers hard-to-see humanity

Julian Cardona is a fearless photographer based in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, across the border from El Paso, Texas, who for many years has documented the exodus of the Mexican peasant into the land of the free and wealthy to the north.

Why exodus? For starters, it sure is not a trickle. But exodus from what? It’s Mexico draining its poor and hungry masses northward because only the connected, already wealthy, and educated have a country there. The Mexican economy is not able to employ or utilize millions of citizens that have only basic pluck and raw humanity as their claim to existence. The rest see a place up North where they can make a life, if they are gutsy enough to risk everything and reach for it.

Julian Cardona sees hordes of people trampling each other to death to cross, many thousands dying in the attempt, helplessly, with no one to mourn or give them a second thought. What is the reason a Mexican can’t hope for a comparable lifestyle in that chaotic country? My first guess blames the corruption that puts handpicked people in political office for life, where they entrench the wealthy in their place and squeeze out any attempted formation of a middle class.

America often forgets we have here something rather rare, a class of people that are neither wealthy nor destitute; we read the news on laptops and pay taxes, abiding by the law in all things mostly because we’re idealists or risk-averse.

Julian Cardona explains that the Mexican economy collapsed to a new low post-NAFTA, to the point that the Mexican corn tortilla that they’re so fond of is now made with cheap American corn. NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement signed into law in 1992 by the Clinton administration, made it possible for American corporations to set up assembly plants on the Mexican side, they call them "maquiladoras" there, but in all aspects make them replicas of what would’ve been crazy expensive to put, say, in Utah County. These corporations, like RCA, Honeywell, Visteon and others, dodge paying American wages and benefits to Americans, and avoid paying American taxes on their earnings, yet the products are sold to Americans and too often are built by underage Mexican teens only too happy to make five bucks a day – vastly superior to their parents’ single dollar for a day’s wages.

Julian Cardona shoots pictures of the cardboard and tin shacks that house families in the Mexican desert, yards away from the bubble of running water, power and sewer that the assembly plants require within their footprint. Julian Cardona gets death threats and lives day-to-day because the drug and human traffickers that help put politicians and law enforcement in office need him silent, lest the federal Mexican government send the army, or worse, the Americans start paying attention.

Even before we can consider why the immigrants don’t follow the rules of lawful migration, we need to address the fact that a Mexican that can get a job doing whatever in Mexico is a Mexican that won’t have an incentive to come across the desert, wife and children in tow.

A Mexican that has a fighting chance to be in the middle class, I propose, will stay there and grow that economy – not ours. We can armor the border and require more of our law enforcement, but anyone that looks hard at this issue notices that to stem the tide, law enforcement is a finishing touch, not a comprehensive strategy.

Back to Julian Cardona – he is at risk because, like all good journalists, he sacrifices personal safety to expose the corrupt and make their bloody deeds known. In Mexico, the mafia deals swiftly and efficiently with those people that don’t play the game. The game rules are that the mafia does what they want (be it move drugs, people, murder, whatever), and all that see it or suspect it remain silent.

We Americans have no concept of fearing to slow our car for a red light before having a police car pump it full of bullets, while people drive by in horror.

Julian Cardona listens in on a police scanner and photographs these everyday events, knowing he could be next. Then the story behind it can be reverse-engineered. Like, who was this person dead in this photo, or this other one? Who did the dead anger? Who were his siblings? Needless to say, there aren’t very many living Julian Cardonas in the entire border. When journalists like him tell it like it is, they meet a violent and often gruesome end.

Care to guess what that would be worth if there were an All-American crew in that kitchen? Blonde and blue-eyed baby blues collect a premium out there. I suppose that choice meal would set me back a fiver before long, maybe a ten if cheap labor couldn’t be rousted. Our houses would be worth a fair bit more if a contractor paid more than fifteen bucks an hour to the anonymous dude who can’t say more than a couple of words in English, but works quickly, rain or shine, and can cut a board straight. I sure can’t pay more mortgage than I currently carry, so many of us would (gasp) … rent? I want this issue resolved just like everyone else, but at what cost?

So there you have it. The border is a bloody business, and yet Julian Cardona remains at his post. He still shoots pictures of the predator, the prey, the disappeared, the innocent and the silent. And tells us that there are humans down there too.

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