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Original author: 
Alfonso Serrano

When viewed from the Franklin Mountains in southern Texas, El Paso and Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez meld into one expansive metropolis. Call it a Texan trompe l’oeil. Look closely, though, and the illusion is disrupted by the Rio Grande, the natural border that snakes through the two cities, carving out very distinct realities.

That proximity is what first drew photographer Reed Young to El Paso, in particular to the city’s Chamizal neighborhood, which he refers to as a sort of “ground zero” for the national debate on immigration. Here, where North officially meets South, the terrain gives rise to something all its own: frontera culture, with its distinct food, music and identity.

“We thought it was important to hear from people who are affected by the United States’ immigration policy today,” says Young. “National debate doesn’t always take into account the complexities of the people’s situations.”

If Washington D.C. is the political epicenter of the immigration debate, then Chamizal is arguably its human face, a place where the nuances of a thoroughly complex issue crystallize into the tangible. Take Araceli, for example. She has not seen her extended family in Juárez since 2009, although they live a few miles away. Claudia, who is transgendered, is another case in point. She is Claudia on the U.S. side of the border but always crossed the border as Ricardo, the name on her ID, until the violence in Juárez convinced her to end the treks.

Ciudad Juárez is the second most murderous city in the world. In 2010 alone, it witnessed over 3,000 deaths. The historic violence has instilled migrants with a special urgency when attempting to cross into El Paso, the safest big city in the United States. On their journey, they will encounter the most tightly enforced border in modern history. The number of Border Patrol agents stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border — 20,000 — has doubled since 2004. And the $18 billion the federal government spent on enforcing the border last year was more than it spent on all other law enforcement agencies combined.

But that didn’t matter much to Araceli. She waded through the Rio Grande with her four children in search of a better life for them. Now she cleans houses and scraps metal after work to supplement her income. And it didn’t dissuade “Goldie,” who crossed into El Paso when she was 16 and now owns Goldie’s Bar, a cantina in El Paso’s industrial section that pays homage to her hero, Marilyn Monroe.

Goldie’s story — and those of virtually everyone profiled in Young’s photo essay—attest to the strength of family ties. In Chamizal, at least, the commitment to one’s family, to the improvement of children’s lives, has proved stronger than billion-dollar physical barriers.

Reed Young is a photographer based in New York City.

Alfonso Serrano is a senior editor at

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Original author: 
Mark Aitken

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In 2011 I set off with a camera to explore a mental asylum in Mexico run by its own patients. The place is just beyond the last junkyard on the curdled fringe of Juárez, the world’s most violent city. On one level these people shared common purpose in that they dressed each other, cleaned each other, fed each other. But then there were many other levels, many other worlds. The tragicomedy of Beckett was everywhere, I can’t go on, I’ll go on, while the infantile grotesqueness of Jarry’s Ubu Roi was never far away. The more I filmed, the less I understood and the more curious I became.

I met a man called Josué who was managing the asylum. Five years previously he’d lost his mind and the ability to walk but I found him in a reflective mood. He told me his dream. After two visits and many hours of material my editing was frustrated by a desire to present the mystery I’d encountered while needing a story to hang it on. Then Josué’s dream came true. His daughter in LA emailed me to ask what her father was doing in a mental asylum. She’d seen a trailer for the film I’d posted online. She hadn’t seen her father in 22 years and had been told he was dead. Two more visits and I managed to put Josué and his daughter together and filmed the reunion.

The film, titled Dead When I Got Here, is due to be finished later this year and we’ve launched a Kickstarter to help fund its completion.

Below is an exclusive scene for Boing Boing featuring Josué trying to reason with a psychopath, and an excerpt from my diary during the last shoot at the asylum.

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20th December 2012 - Thursday

I asked Josué how he was feeling. He’s had injections of some potent anti-biotic in his backside and he’s now back on his feet. I know I’m coming down with something and I think I know where I got it from. We talked about the weather and then he mentioned that someone had died last night. Apparently death visits in threes here and this is the third in six days.

The police are called and a group of county officers roll up as if from central casting. There’s a tall one, a short one, a fat one with attitude and a thoughtful one. They’re all tooled up with big black sub-machine guns and I’m waiting for them to tell me to stop filming. The only time they ever come here is when they want to dump some human detritus from the street or when someone dies. Death needs to be defined as suspicious or natural. Suspicious is where these guys come in. Where the natural causes lie here, God only knows.

Eventually, the fat officer wants to know why there’s a camera in his face. I explain with Josué backing me and all is well. They’re giving Josué a hard time about people dying here without having any professionals around to run the place. By professionals I assume they mean people like themselves. They work in a city that records eight murders a day and no one is ever arrested. In El Paso just across the line there was one murder last year. They caught the guy.

Josué lets on to the police that he was nearly dead when he arrived here and there’s no one quite as qualified as himself and everyone else here to run this asylum. People are dying because of the cold. They’re weak. They’re mentally ill. The police take their medicine and listen. It’s a beautiful scene.

We then rush off to find the family of the deceased man. None of their phone numbers worked but Josué eventually found an address. He’s very agitated. We pull off the main road, ask directions and arrive at the colonia and meet the mother. Josué shares the burden and the mother cries. She insists on being taken to the asylum to see her son. On the journey back the dossier on the son shivers on the vibrating dashboard. His photo is reflected in the windscreen as an apparition.

Back at the asylum the woman’s son has already been taken away to the morgue. He had lived here since it opened 17 years ago. I guess that made him some sort of mascot. She walks around the patio and then waits at the gate for a lift home. I film her weeping from some ancient well of hopelessness. She seems to get smaller as the shadows get longer around her.

With the knife-edge desert cold the patients hardly come out of their rooms. I film a scene where a door is opened to the main room inhabited by men. They’re passed bowls of soup and they all clamber at the entrance, grunting and growling and clawing at the food. It looks like they haven’t eaten for days yet I know they’re actually receiving seconds after lunch. I think it’s because they’re always worried that every meal might be their last. No matter how regular the servings, nothing will ever change that memory of hunger.

It’s a great single shot and John on sound was mesmerised. I shoot until the door is closed and locked on them. What I don’t see is the herd of dogs licking up spillage at the foot of the doorway. Shots like these are hypnotic and everything vanishes outside the myopia. How I put a shot like this in the film is another thing. I want to convey my encounter with what I saw and not attempt to explain it. It’s a vision of hunger and how it makes people behave. Or maybe it simply serves as a reminder of our almost indestructible instinct to survive. Yet I suspect it will offend many people who will be outraged at how these people are treated. I also know that they would all be dead if they weren’t in this asylum. There aren’t any other options. The people who will complain about this are telling us that they care. This feeds nothing but their own conscience. It’s as if caring is an end in itself. I think we have a lot to learn from these hungry people.

Dead When I Got Here


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In tiny, rented rooms, Mexican women who work as waitresses amid lonely men tend to their families and their culture. Ruth Prieto Arenas followed them from their jobs to their homes.

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