No Man’s Land: The Women of Mexico

Dana Romanoff has been traveling to Oaxaca since 2006, photographing the families left there in the wake of migration to the United States. She went there because she had been following the stories of migrants on the East Coast, and she wanted to find out how their families were doing.

I heard her speak at Su Teatro in Denver about her photojournalism project, “No Man’s Land: The Women of Mexico.” Previously I had taken a photography class with her at Boulder Digital Arts.

She will tell you things about Mexican farmers and U.S. food you didn’t know. For example, in the nineteenth century, Mexican peasants saw their land given to large landowners to grow crops for export to the United States. During the Depression in the 1930s, Americans blamed Mexican workers for taking their jobs and deported half a million of them. But only a decade later, we invited them back because the United States needed farm workers during World War II. And once the GI Bill was passed, former soldiers left the family farm behind to go to college and get a better, easier job. That contributed to the decline of the family farm, the growth of agribusiness, and an ongoing need for migrant workers.

As Romanoff pointed out, Mexicans and people from countries farther south have been coming here for a long time to work. But it’s only since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994 that immigration skyrocketed. From 1990 to 1994, about 400,000 undocumented immigrants came to the United States. But since January 1994, half a million per year have crossed our southern border. Some of these immigrants are not yet teenagers, but they travel north because so many other people in their families have done so.

That is especially true in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico (located on the Pacific Coast, near the bottom of the country). Parts of Oaxaca are “Pura Mujer”: purely women. And their children.

What caused so many Oaxacans and other Mexicans to come north? Remember Ross Perot talking about the “great sucking sound” of jobs going south if NAFTA was approved? Well, that works both ways. NAFTA made it easier for US companies to sell corn (and other products) in Mexico, and since our corn is heavily subsidized, it costs about 25 percent less than Mexican corn. People found it difficult to make a profit off farms or even feed their families, and when that combined with drought, as it did in Oaxaca, the results were devastating. (Just to clarify, the people in Oaxaca whom Dana photographed grow agave for a living, not corn, but I suppose some of them grow corn for their families.)

I asked Dana if the government of Mexico was doing anything to make rural areas more livable and prosperous, and she mentioned both government and nonprofit programs but said they weren’t enough. Oaxacans are frustrated at the lack of opportunities in their area.

But getting north is more difficult than it used to be because of the border fence, and more expensive. Immigrants have to hire someone to take them across and often find it difficult to pay that person back. In addition, since the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) relocated to the Department of Homeland Security and changed its name to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), detentions of immigrants have increased, and that continued after the 2008 election. Apparently, Barack Obama does a more thorough job of deporting immigrants than George W. Bush.

So what, you say? They’re breaking the law? True. But detaining them is costing us a lot. Each migrant costs $141/night to detain. About 33,400 are detained each night, costing us $4.7 million/night. In a year, these detention costs amount to $1.7 billion. It’s good business for private prison companies, which Romanoff said helped write the controversial immigration bill in Arizona. But what is it doing for the rest of us?

I think it would be more sensible to let immigrants stay and work and pay taxes, because immigrants are estimated to be contributing $9 billion/year in tax revenues. Some people think the taxes paid by immigrants keep Social Security afloat.

I don’t know if that claim is true, but I have heard it before. Dana said her information came from a professor at Brandeis University and from government records.

Dana’s solution? More temporary work visas. In Virginia, she met two brothers who return to the same farm every year. They get to go home to see their families when work slows down, and they can come back to the same job year after year.

Right now, Dana is writing grant proposals so that her photos and short video can be exhibited across the United States. If you want more information, you can go to her website and see her photos of the women of Oaxaca. She is also publicizing a microfinance program in Oaxaca (I couldn’t tell if she had founded the program, but you can contact her for more info).

You might also check out Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, by Helen Thorpe, the wife of Governor John Hickenlooper (which I haven’t read), or The Latinization of U.S. Schools by Jason Irizarry, forthcoming from Paradigm in Boulder this year (I did the copyedit on the latter). Both books present the stories of Latino/a high school students, some of whom are undocumented because their parents brought them here when they were young. It’s very sad to think those kids cannot get into/afford college because of their parents’ actions and U.S. policies. Let’s hope the DREAM Act passes soon. I want as many U.S. residents as possible to have good jobs and pay lots of taxes so that I can get Social Security in 20 years!