I was born and raised in twin cities divided by a river. The westernmost tip of Texas, El Paso (the pass) marks the point where the United States shares a border with Juarez, Mexico. As a child, my father explained that people lived in the cardboard-roofed shacks across the river. Speeding past on the highway by day, I studied the landscape, hoping to actually see someone. At night, without electricity, the darkness on their side of the river was complete. It was as if I were staring into the empty horizon over open seas, as if only I knew that by day there existed an entire city so different from my own.
Years later, while traveling in Baja, Mexico, I encountered a woman named María. Eight months pregnant, she was walking up the steep, dirt road in the heat of summer, her two young daughters trudging along beside her. I offered water and pencils for the large pad of paper they’d found. In return, they invited me to join them on their walk to bring her husband his lunch. Jaime was digging clay out of the hillside and turning it into rows of perfectly shaped bricks. Their village, like the one I’d watched while growing up, was instantaneous as familiar as it was foreign.
It was 1994, a time when the news was filled with unending reports of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and when the United States was debating the merits of rescuing Kuwait from what appeared to be a brutal invasion by Iraq. It was a time when, armed with my cameras and my new diploma in photography, I was drawing down my first paycheck as a photo teacher at a home for abused children. Inspired by Jaime, a self-taught man a few years younger than I, skillfully turning clay into bricks to sustain five kids and a wife, living in a two-room, adobe house he’d built completely with his own hands, I believed they had a more immediate, direct kind of life than mine. Then and there, I made a promise to myself to document their world in images and journal entries for a decade – now, over two decades.