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In a Mexican border town, photojournalists create a grim document of life where the country's past meets the global economy's future

By Fred Turner

AUGUST 3, 1998: 

JUAREZ: THE LABORATORY OF OUR FUTURE, by Charles Bowden. Essays by Noam Chomsky and Eduardo Galeano. Aperture, 136 pages, 50 duotones and 15 color images, $35.

Juárez, Mexico: If you check with the tourist bureau, they'll tell you it's the birthplace of the zoot suit and black velvet painting, the spicy Latin flip side of El Paso, Texas. If you ask Bill Clinton, he'll likely claim it's a thriving metropolis in an emerging democracy, a city not without problems but with great potential.

If you ask freelance journalist Charles Bowden, though, you'll get quite a different answer. In Juárez: The Laboratory of Our Future, Bowden has gathered the work of 13 Mexican photojournalists -- work rarely seen north of the border -- and constructed a searing portrait of a city held together by violence, greed, and the struggle for survival. As Bowden explains, Juárez is a place where drug traffickers, corrupt policemen, and government officials compete with foreign factory owners to exploit the citizenry. These citizens, for the most part desperately poor, form street gangs or turn to prostitution, enhancing their own suffering even as they seek to ease it. And according to Bowden, nothing in the near future -- not NAFTA, not new technology, not an increase in factory jobs -- is likely to improve their lot.

To their credit, neither Bowden nor the Mexican photographers whose work he has collected give in to one of the primary temptations of despair: the urge to see collective misery as a function of the "human condition." On the contrary, both focus on the particulars of violence in Juárez and on the specific historical circumstances that have spawned it. Since 1994, for instance, the Mexican peso has lost half its value and prices have more than doubled. Jobs have vanished, especially in southern portions of the country, drawing millions of low-skilled peasant laborers and their families north to the border. In the maquiladoras of Juárez, these men and women can find jobs assembling goods on behalf of foreign companies, but they rarely earn more than $50 a week. Since prices in Juárez are very nearly the same as they are in El Paso, these workers must supplement their wages however they can (often through prostitution in the case of women), live cheaply (usually in cardboard shacks), and hope for the best.

In short, they must simply try to stay alive. But as the photographs in this book suggest, that can be very hard to do. Murder is commonplace in Juárez, and the photojournalists of the city live close to their police scanners. Often arriving at crime scenes before the police, they record a level of violence that can be contained neither by law enforcement officials nor by the statistics they keep. After all, it is one thing to read that some 150 young women are kidnapped, raped, and murdered in Juárez every year; it is quite another to come upon their mutilated corpses half-buried in the sand.

Alongside these images of death, the photographers have also made pictures of seemingly peaceful moments. A woman pours water into a bucket, two girls play in the dirt, an Indian woman from southern Mexico walks in front of an aloe plant. Yet even in these images, death hovers in the background. The woman pouring water has scooped the liquid from storage barrels formerly used to hold industrial materials, mostly likely toxic ones. The girls are sifting sand among the remnants of their burned-down shanty. And behind the aloe plant, a thick cloud of smoke rises into the air, blotting out the sun and making visible the pollution with which the poorer inhabitants of Juárez must constantly contend.

Within these images lurks Lenin's famous question, What is to be done? And here, Bowden, along with essayists Noam Chomsky and Eduardo Galeano, offers a less-than-satisfying answer. Juárez, they argue, is an island of suffering created by a sea of capitalism and northern imperial ambition. They suggest that to the extent that we buy the products made or assembled there, whether appliances or cocaine, or support trade agreements that promote the abuse of workers, we are complicit in the suffering of the citizens of Juárez. Thus far, it is hard to disagree. But when Bowden claims that Juárez is the "laboratory of our future," a flood of facts rushes up to contradict him. As Bowden himself points out, economic malaise and corruption have characterized Mexico for decades. Even though it is a city on our border, Juárez is as much the product of Mexican history as it is the emblem of our collective future under global capitalism.

Which is not to say its horrors matter any less. This is an extraordinary book simply because it makes visible a world on our borders that most of our journalists and our government officials refuse to look at, and that as a result the rest of us can rarely see. It is too early to tell whether seeing that world will cause us to reassess the ways in which our national policies and our private purchases work to maintain it -- but it is hard to imagine a more powerful or more important first step in that direction.

Fred Turner is the author of Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory, published by Anchor Books.

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