El Cero

short stories

Monthly Archives: April 2011

Pouring back

With the recession, hostile US anti-immigration laws; especially in the border states of Texas and Arizona, and an unpredictable and potentially lethal security situation in Mexico, crossing illegally into the United States seems to becoming less and less attractive. My brother’s Costa Rican father-in-law has made the crossing twice in his life, however when I saw him a few months before he said he wouldn’t try again mentioning all of the above reasons. These sentiments are often repeated by migrants in northern Mexico. Many say the game has really changed in the last few years. The director of a Casa de Emigrante told me 3-4 years ago 80% of the people coming to the hostel were new arrivals from further south, now he says he’s dealing exclusively with deportees from the United States.

While I was there groups of 15-20 people were being deported every 6-8 hours or so. The hostels were filling up. Some had been in the US for years, some had wives and children they’d had to leave behind, some couldn’t really speak Spanish, some were good people who’d been unlucky, some had committed serious crimes. The majority of them had been directly affected by the changing political and economic climate in the US. Everybody serves time for committing immigration offenses now and they said the prisons were full of Mexicans. The BBC reported on this a few days later with some pretty high statistics, although many Central Americans will also claim to be Mexican so as not to be deported further south. The majority arrive in Mexico with no possessions and no money. Some say they’ll go back while others just want to go home.

For me I’ve seen too many photos of nameless black and brown hordes moving around borders, trying to find a better life. I felt no urge to photograph the scared and defenseless groups crossing the bridge, or the crowded rooms these ordinary people were having to live in. So I got to know a few that little bit better and tried to take a bit more of a dignified picture. I don’t think it works completely but I feel the idea’s sound and I’ll keep on working on it. There’s also a small chance I’ll get to follow some of these guys as they go back to meet their families, which for me is where the real magic would be.

Guadalupe from Sonora.

Guadalupe told me this year’s crops were destroyed by a wild fire so he went to the US to find work instead. He made the 5-day journey independently without the help of a Coyote. However he said the reception north of the border was very hostile, and in the end he spent 15-days in a Texan jail for breaking immigration laws before being deported. He headed home the day I took this picture and said there was no point in trying again. He’d rather be with his family, living off very little than go back to The States and the lottery of their immigration system.



God’s a strong force everywhere in Mexico and I found it especially strong amongst the deportees coming over the bridge. Many had re-found God after spending periods in jail, or used it as a point of strength during the difficulty and hardship of life as an ‘illegal alien’. I can see people gain hope, direction and friendship through their religion and it also offers a strong alternative when people’s lives have been following a darker path.

I think people just feel sorry for me when I say I don’t have a God myself. Some pagan Guero who’s lost his way.

El Dentista

In the towns and cities near the border there are a huge amount of dentistry clinics, far too many for the size of the population in those towns. Going to the dentists in Mexico is apparently at least 500% cheaper than the US, and so many Americans will cross the border for their treatment. Dr. Rodriguez has been a dentist for the last 29 years. He says the majority of his patients are from the US. Some patients will drive 8 hours just to see him, and he has one patient that flies all the way from Florida. He says the last 4 years have been the hardest of his career, many US citizens have just stopped coming.

Hey Ho

The hotel I was staying in has its reception on the first floor, and next to the reception is a balcony overlooking the street below. I was sitting on the balcony waiting for some change after paying for a few more nights. There was an old Texan guy sitting there too, so I started a conversation with him. I asked him how long he’d been coming to the town. He told me 60 years or so. For me that gave him 70-80 years, and he looked his age. Overweight, red and shuffling around like we all will if we reach that point.

So we talked, and I asked him if the town had changed. He told me it had, he said in the last few years the people had stopped coming. The town was dead. It’s a great shame, he said. It was Easter weekend and I asked him if he’d stay all weekend. He said he wouldn’t as he wanted to go to his local church for the Easter service, and afterward have Easter breakfast with the congregation. It’s a great breakfast he told me. A Christian man, a good Texan.

The hotel manager came over, they’re old friends. They hugged and laughed and then talked about the wild fires tearing their way through the hills on both sides of the border. It was the driest year in living memory, it hadn’t rained in 7 months. There were a lot of dead cattle. The hotel manager asked me if I wanted a coffee, I said I would. The old Texan just asked for a coke. So the manager went off to find a coffee, and the old man told me he used to drink coffee when he was a boy. His parents didn’t mind they used to let him. But one day he said, he was at his friend’s place and his friend’s parents told him, “if you keep on drinking black coffee one day you’re gonna turn black!” And with a great laugh he said he’d never drank coffee since.

Maybe I flinched but we continued to chat, and noticing my accent he asked me where I was from and what I was doing, so I told him. His eyes lit up and became sentimental when I said I was English. Like many Anglos in these ex-colonial countries there seems to be a soft spot for the old people from the old world.

And he asked me if I was going out that night for a few beers. I had other plans but for conversation’s sake I said I might. And he said he knew a great bar down the road. “Buy the girls a drink and they’ll dance with you all night.” He said the only problem was they drank so quick you had to keep on buying them! But he couldn’t remember the name so he asked the cleaning lady who was cleaning around us. However he couldn’t speak Spanish and she didn’t understand English so they came to a stop. So I asked her, I described the place and what the man had said and she said a name. And the old guy said that’s it! She said to me “it’s a dollar-a-dance. Give the girls a dollar and they’ll give you a dance. If you want to bring them back to your room it’s extra.” So I said to the old guy “a dollar-a-dance?” But he said no, “just buy them a drink and they’ll dance with you all night!” And he chuckled away and told me what a great place it was.

The cleaning lady continued to clean around us and she turned to me and said “muchas niñas”. And I replied in confusion “muchas niñas?” And she said yep, he loves to bring the niñas back to his room. Now the meaning of words in Mexico seem to change from person to person and place to place, but strictly speaking niña means a girl, a young girl, a child. And the cleaning lady said to me, “this time he’s brought his wife, but when he doesn’t bring her he loves to take the niñas back to his room. What they could do I have no idea. Talk?” And she went, cleaning off down the hall. The old Texan just chuckled away and continued to tell me what a great place the bar was. Now maybe I’m just sadly naive, but for a few moments I was stuck to my seat. I just sat there thinking ‘fuck’, and thought about life and how much it loves to knock you.

I get a pass

I find scenes like these so strange and so interesting. You could be put in prison for swimming across to the far bank of the Rio Bravo without the correct papers, yet it looks like nothing. It looks like any other river. I wonder, if the river changed course and snaked its way around northern Texas, would the Texans become Mexicans again or would the Mexicans just loose their right to bathe in the Rio Bravo?

I think it was Ryszard Kapuscinski who wrote the Great Wall of China is something along the lines of a tragedy rather than a wonder. All the more so that you can see it from space. A great display of humanity’s love of division and inability to understand each other. How much money does the US spend each year on protecting this river? For how many people is crossing this river their ultimate goal and dream? How many people die each year trying to do just that?

So many people ask me, “pero, ¿tu puedes cruzar la puente sin problemas?” Y yo les digo “si, creo que si, pero no me interesa tanto.” Maybe I get my pass too easily after being born on an Atlantic island some 4,000 miles away.

A couple taking pictures near the Mexican border town of Ciudad Acuna. The bank on the far side of the river is the southern border of the USA and the state of Texas.


‘In Ciudad Juarez you can work. Here you can’t even take your camera out of the bag, it’s very very dangerous at the moment you have to be so careful.’

The border town of Ciudad Juarez, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, is often quoted as being the “most dangerous city in the world”. Whether that’s completely true I don’t know, but it’s not difficult to find all the evidence anybody needs of the terrible violence there. Focusing on this violence was never part of my plan and if it didn’t exist I’d still be here, but it’s tough and scary to be told the above from an experienced local TV journalist about parts of northeastern Mexico, areas I was planning to start visiting and producing work in over the coming weeks and months.

Some of the stories I’m reading and hearing at the moment are very disturbing.


Pedro, Centro, Monterrey.

San Pedro

Monterrey, the capital of the northeastern border state of Nuevo Leon, is Mexico’s 3rd city and one of the country’s most important business centres. Within its metropolitan area is the separate municipality of San Pedro Garza Garcia. I haven’t seen the figures myself but apparently San Pedro boasts one of the highest, if not the highest average income per household in all of Latin America. At the very least it’s one of the very wealthiest areas in the Latin world. The fact it’s a two-hour drive away from the US border will not be a coincidence.

How to photograph wealth? Its such an important part of the puzzle. All the private security guards, walls, electric gates and mirrored glass make this world seem so much more private, restricted and difficult to access for those outside of it. All the logos, brand names and advertisements, and all the chain stores, restaurants, cafes, bars and hotels make this landscape seem like an untouchable, legal nightmare for a photographer.