I, too, am a fan of David Bacon—who is indeed, as renowned scholar, Rodolfo Acuña aptly states in his blog—"A modern day Jack London without xenophobic biases." David Bacon is a photojournalist that has analyzed NAFTA's impacts, including Mexico's importation of pork and the loss of 4,000 pig farms in Mexico. Subsidized corn in the U.S. by our government similarly creates impossible competition for corn growers in Mexico. These "reforms" have fueled immigration to the U.S.
In the meantime, H2-A visas from the U.S. have led to an abandonment of the countryside in Mexico. At least half of Mexico today live in poverty—many in extreme poverty, living in deplorable conditions. The short of it is that NAFTA caused downward shifts in Mexican families' well-being, and as a consequence, Mexican migration. He recounts in his photos and writings many heroic tales where people aren't simply victimized, but they also unionize against great odds. The union is their school; it is their only route to survival.
Rather than despising immigrants and immigration from Mexico and Latin America, policymakers and the public would do well to question the impacts of neoliberal policies like NAFTA and own the fact that recent flows of immigrants to the U.S. are largely the progeny of our own policies. Just as importantly, we should recognize that what now we term, "border insecurity," is the actual, predictable outcome of this same neoliberal agenda. The insurgency of the Zapatistas in the wake of NAFTA's passage speaks to the clear, expected harmful impacts of regressive, capitalistic policies and structures on the poor.
Thanks to Dr. Acuña for recognizing David Bacon for his contributions. We brought him to the University of Texas to speak a couple of years ago. Helpful links to Bacon's work appear below.
On The Bacon Trail: Exposing Historical Myopia
Rodolfo F. Acuña
Historical myopia causes nearsightedness, distorting one’s view
of current and past events. It interferes in distinguishing details.
Consequently, we don’t pay much attention to how and why the present has
In general American culture discourages complex thinking.
Almost everything is viewed through the prism of faith. Learning is
reduced to bullet points with minimal evidence required. The historian
acts like a prosecuting attorney obsessed with proving his hypothesis.
Without access to witnesses, knowledge is rarely tested by
experience. The historians’ presentations are thus based largely on
suppositions rather than facts. History is formed by institutional
memories constructed by the state.
This is why I find the work of David Bacon so refreshing.
Every time I look at his photographs or read his blogs or his books, I
realize how myopic we have become, and what is wrong with the education
of so-called scholars. For some time, I have admired Bacon’s photographs
especially those of farmworkers. However, I did not begin to look
behind the photographs until recently.
About five years ago I got involved with the struggle to save
the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program
as well the fight against Arizona’s xenophobia. My fight against NAFTA
(North American Free Trade Agreement) alerted me to the privatization of
Arizona and I could thus see the issues clearly.
Bacon’s writings like his photographs are art for change’s
sake. He is the author of books on labor, immigration, globalization and
privatization, and has published articles for TruthOut, The Nation, The
American Prospect, The Progressive, and the San Francisco Chronicle,
travelling frequently to Mexico, the Philippines, Europe and Iraq. Bacon
is a modern day Jack London without xenophobic biases.
Bacon is a scholar, not an academician. He does not wear
degrees on his chest like battle ribbons. His knowledge comes from life
experiences; “Unions are schools. People learn about the realities of
the world and raise their expectations of what they want their world to
I found a 2012 article in The Nation “How US Policies Fueled
Mexico’s Great Migration instructive. Bacon tells the story of Roberto
Ortega, a displaced Veracruzana butcher. NAFTA opened up Mexican markets
to massive pork imports from US companies like Smithfield Foods.
Ortega, a small-scale butcher, was wiped out as prices dropped. In 1999
he was forced to migrate to Tar Heel, North Carolina, where he worked
ironically for Smithfield in the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse.
Smithfield’s Tar Heel packinghouse became Veracruz’s
displaced the farmers’ number-one US destination. “Tens of thousands
left Mexico, many eventually helping Smithfield’s bottom line once again
by working for low wages on its US meatpacking lines.” Meanwhile,
businesses in the Vera Cruz went broke.
NAFTA Smithfield had access to subsidized US corn, an advantage that
drove many Mexicans out of business, as US corn “was priced 19 percent
below the cost of production.” Moreover, NAFTA allowed it to import pork
in Mexico. By 2010 pork imports grew more than twenty-five times, to
As a consequence of imported pork, Mexico lost 4,000 pig
farms, 120,000 jobs. Rural poverty rose from 35 percent in 1992–94 to 55
percent in 1996–98. By 2010, 53 million Mexicans were living in
poverty—half the country’s population almost all in rural areas.
Bacon strings verbal photos showing the effects of the
expansion of the H2-A visa program that “allows US agricultural
employers to bring in workers from Mexico and other countries, giving
them temporary visas tied to employment contracts.” The pull of landless
tobacco farmers from Veracruz added to the pool of migrant workers in
In Mexico Smithfield and other American operations were
unburdened by the environmental restrictions. Carolina Ramirez, who
heads the women’s department of the Veracruz Human Rights Commission,
said that “the company can do here what it can’t do at home.” In early
2009, the first confirmed case of swine flu spread to Mexico City. By
May, forty-five people were confirmed with swine flu and schools closed.
Bacon shows how NAFTA caused the Mexican Migration. He also
shows how in the face of disaster Mexican workers organized against the
physical repression of Smithfield and other companies as well as the
complicity of the American media.
It is clear that the Union is Bacon’s leader, and the key to
resistance on both sides of the border. “We are fighting because we are
being destroyed,” says Roberto Ortega. “That is the reason for the daily
fight, to try to change this.”
Bacon’s book The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the
U.S./Mexico Border is a word picture that according to Bacon, is a world
hidden from our view. Again the dragons are NAFTA, poverty and
repression. Bacon exposes the exploitation in places such as the
Mexicali Valley, and the deplorable housing in Tijuana and other border
cities. The heroes are the tireless union organizers. The link between
neoliberal polices and the suffering is clear.
The bottom-line poverty forces Mexicans to move to the USA, with the chickens coming home to roost.
A critique all of Bacon’s writing and photo essays is beyond
the scope of this blog. The strength of David is his grasp of details
and his ability to weave them into the fabric of current history. It
exposes the reasons for Enrique Peña Nieto’s privatization and his crude
repression of the Normalistas.
David lays it out in US-Style School Reform Goes South: “Just
weeks after taking office, Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto,
ordered the arrest of the country’s most powerful union leader, Elba
Esther Gordillo, a longtime ally. The press said PRI was cracking down
on corruption. But, Bacon wanted to know the real reason for her arrest,
notwithstanding the obvious fact that she was corrupt.
Progressive Mexican educators saw it as an attack on public
education and the rights of teachers. They fought back, and the state
tried to silence the growing opposition to U.S. style PRI proposals to
standardized tests and remove the voice of the union in hiring. They
were not “Waiting for Superman” and standing by while Mexican education
was privatized. Significant to the teachers was that “Superman” was
first screened on the twenty-fourth-floor offices of the World Bank
rather than in movie theaters.
Bacon wrote, “A network of large corporations and banks extends
throughout Latin America, financed and guided in part from the United
States, pushing the same formula: standardized tests, linking teachers’
jobs and pay to test results, and bending the curriculum to employers’
needs while eliminating social critique. In both countries, there was
grassroots opposition—from parents and teachers. In Seattle, teachers at
Garfield High refused to give the tests. In Michoacan, in central
Mexico, sixteen teachers went to jail because they also refused.”
PRI accused teacher-training schools (“normal schools”) of
leading opposition to charter schools. PREAL, established by the
Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. and the Corporation for
Development Research in Santiago, Chile, in 1995, set the neoliberal
agenda. PREAL’s mission was building a broad and active constituency
“for education reform”. Behind PREAL were powerful forces led by Ford
and the World Bank. Moreover, PREAL received grants from the US Agency
for International Development (USAID allegedly a CIA front).
Normal schools throughout Mexico are battling neoliberal
reforms. The election of PRI in 2012 galvanized this opposition. It was
clear to PRI that the power of the Normalistas had to be broken if it
was to gain popular support. It was a war for the control of Mexico’s