Immigration has become one of the most important and contentious issues of our time. But even as policy makers in the United States and Mexico argue over what to do about the half million or more Mexicans who cross the border illegally each year to work in the United States, one fact has become indisputable. Illegal immigration has enhanced the lives of poor people more than any policy attempted by either the U.S. or the Mexican governments. Immigrants sent home $23 billion dollars in 2006 alone, rivaling what Mexico earned from selling oil. But the human cost of migration is equally high. Border crossers risk injury, attack, rape, and death, while undocumented workers often toil under dangerous and exploitative conditions in the United States.
These harsh realities constitute the heart of Exodus/Éxodo, a powerful collaboration between writer Charles Bowden and photographer Julián Cardona that puts a human face on the issue of illegal immigration. Expanding on their award-winning 2006 Mother Jones article titled "Exodus: Border-Crossers Forge a New America," Bowden and Cardona take us to border towns, in which impoverished men and women hire "coyotes" to get them across the line; to Ciudad Juárez, where hundreds of young women maquiladora workers have been murdered and their families still seek justice; to Minutemen camps along the border, where citizen vigilantes keep watch; to New Orleans, North Carolina, and California, where migrants find back-breaking work in construction, agriculture, and other industries; to protest marches, as immigrants assert their right to stay in the United States; and to villages in Mexico, in which remitted dollars are building homes as lavish as the dreams that fuel the migrations.
The revolution of 1910-1920 is the religion of the Mexican state and forms its main claim to legitimacy. Even the toppling of the ruling party in the election of 2000 by a conservative pro-business party has hardly altered this homage. In the United States, the revolution is barely remembered and functions as a cartoon of violence, rape and mayhem. But it was the moment when the Mexican people asked questions of themselves and of their government, questions that have never been answered nor gone out of date. The most forceful questions were asked by Doroteo Arango, better known as Francisco Villa, or Pancho Villa. He has been made into both a monster and a buffoon in the United States and all but erased from the revolution in México. He is part and parcel of the Mexican migration because ultimately this flight from México stems from the failure of the revolution.
Villa terrifies people who hold power. On November 17, 1910, Villa murders Claro Reza, a federal cop, at a meat stall in Ciudad Chihuahua and then rides into the Sierra Azul with fifteen men. Soon he leads an army, then is arrested and jailed, then escapes and flees México for Texas. At ten o'clock at night on March 6, 1913, he recrosses the Rio Grande into México with eight men. They carry nine rifles, 500 rounds, two pounds of coffee, two pounds of sugar, one pound of salt and a couple of barbed-wire cutters. They are almost immediately fired upon but they slip south. Villa sends a telegram to the anti-revolutionary governor of Chihuahua who has taken over since the murder a few weeks earlier of President Francisco Madero in México City.
KNOWING THAT THE GOVERNMENT YOU REPRESENT WAS PREPARING TO EXTRADITE ME I DECIDED TO COME HERE AND SAVE YOU THE TROUBLE. HERE I AM IN MÉXICO RESOLVED TO MAKE WAR ON THE TYRANNY WHICH YOU DEFEND. FRANCISCO VILLA.
In a year or so, the General has 40,000 men.
He is still out there, embodied in this new strange revolution called illegal immigration, an act by which poor Mexicans go from doom to a future, a movement which has enhanced the lives of poor people more than any policy attempted by either the U.S. government or the Mexican government.
People ask, why do they come here? People say México has such low unemployment, so what is the problem? Consider this: you get up at 5 a.m. You live in a one-room shack and pay $59 a month in rent. Your address is on the outskirts of the world's second largest megalopolis, México City. You share this shack with your woman, a niece and your child. At 5:30 a.m. you're on the bus, a ninety-minute ride for $2.45 a day roundtrip. You work in a tortilla shop for $1.64 an hour, eleven hours a day, six days a week. A gallon of milk at the store, the electricity that lights your shack, the fuel running the bus, all these things cost more than in the United States. Basically, everything costs more than in the United States—except labor. And there are other expenses. The water in the tap, should you even have running water, is not safe, so you must buy other water or drink soda. You never save a cent, and when someone in your family becomes ill, you cannot afford medicine. You have essentially no education because after junior high you must pay for books and schooling and so, depending upon your circumstances, you quit school sometime between age twelve and fifteen. You will earn in a year less than six grand and almost everyone in your country lives the same way—or not as well. You will never take a vacation. Or see any future that is different from all the days you have known. But someone, a brother, a cousin, a friend will go to the United States and you will hear of life there.
Mexican civilization existed before the American people were even a thought. Americans have come to the game very recently, and like so many new arrivals believe they possess all the answers. At the moment, human beings are moving all over the planet to save their hides. Things have been upended, the moon rises at a strange hour, it is blood red, and dripping with hunger.
Charles Bowden is one of today's premier writers on social issues along the U.S.-Mexico border. His recent books include A Shadow in the City: Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior; Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family; Blues for Cannibals: Notes from Underground; Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America; Desierto: Memories of the Future; and Inferno (with Michael Berman). He lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Julián Cardona is a photojournalist based in Ciudad Juárez who has documented the devastating effects of globalization along the U.S.-Mexico border since 1993. He was the force and imagination behind the original Juárez photographic exhibition that resulted in the book Juárez: The Laboratory of Our Future, in which his images were extensively featured. Cardona's work has been exhibited in Mexico, the United States, and Europe. In 2004, he was awarded the prestigious Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellowship.