Don Bartletti worked at the L.A. Times for 32 years and recently visited New Mexico State University to speak with journalism students about his award-winning work.
He won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Photography for his portrayal of undocumented Central American youth making the hazardous journey north to the United States. But it’s his photographs that earned him a spot as a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist he came to showcase. They document the abuse of Mexican farm workers in Sinaloa and other regions.
“We went there because that’s where most of the tomatoes come. In fact, the tomato is the symbol on their license plate in the state of Sinaloa. It’s also the home of the Sinaloa cartel," Bartletti said. "The cartel wasn’t interesting to us although we’ve reported on it before. But this was the salad bowl of Mexico. This is what Sinaloa is and that’s where we found a lot of fields, a lot of farm labor encampments.”
During an 18-month L.A. Times investigation titled “Product of Mexico,” Bartletti and another reporter visited labor camps in nine Mexican states. They captured the stories and faces of poor, indigenous families who were bussed hundreds of miles from home to pick tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers for three-month intervals.
The L.A. Times reported laborers worked six days a week for the equivalent of $8 to $12 per day. Children also worked in the fields of small and mid-size export farms. Children like 12-year-old Alejandrina Castillo, who Bartletti said he met picking chili peppers behind former Mexican president Vicente Fox’s hacienda.
“They weren’t working for the former president but nevertheless they were under the nose of the former legislator who tried to keep children out of the fields," Bartletti said. "But nevertheless, Alejandrina and her infant brother and her working-age brother and cousin were in the field with an extended family working. So, I thought I’d hit the motherload because she told me that you know, ‘I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to stay in school. But my mommy took me out of school because if I don’t work, we don’t eat.’
Bartletti said Castillo had to give up her dream of being a teacher and left school in the third grade to help support her family. The L.A. Times reported an estimated 100,000 Mexican children under 14-years-old picked crops in the camps.
“Another really heart wrenching moment was I’m in the back of a pickup truck in the morning. Alejandrina is about to go out to the fields for a day of picking when a little girl in the town walked past with her bookbag, her book backpack, her little school knee-high socks and a sweater and skirt and Alejandrina just stared at her and watched her walk across the intersection and I know she wanted to be that girl," Bartletti said.
The L.A. Times reported some camp bosses would illegally hold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest times. Wages that barely afforded workers to buy basic items like beans, rice, eggs and toilet paper from overpriced company stores.
“The wages are so low and I wanted to highlight that because it took her an hour to earn $1.10 picking a 60-pound bag of jalapeno peppers and sometimes she only had the strength to do it you know for maybe six or seven or eight bags," Bartletti said. "And that’s hardly a living wage but when she combines it with her mother’s and her brother’s money, they could afford to buy a chicken and sleep on the floor."
Bartletti said workers like Castillo and her family followed the harvest season across central and northern Mexico in a loop stretching more than 1,000 miles. Bartletti said laborers slept on concrete floors in stables overrun by bedbugs and scorpions.
“I saw what made that tomato bloom and grow and that is terrible housing where people are stabled like animals, they’re trucked around like sheep. They’re worked like Pasqual told me, he said they work us like animals and they make us live like animals and we don’t have anything to say about it. We just work and we move on. We work, we go home. We come back, we work," Bartletti said. "So their cycle of survival is based on agriculture, one of the hardest labors in the world, in the world. But it’s even harder in Mexico because they get no support.”
Bartletti said he hopes shoppers consider the hundreds of people who worked to pick their produce the next time they’re at the store. Although Bartletti said the four-part series brought some positive changes like new beds to one labor camp, there’s more work to be done. He said the combination of little education, underemployment and low wages essentially forces Mexico’s poorest residents to toil in the fields.
“They have to do it and the only solution to the forcing of people into this country for a better wage is to make wages on both sides of the border the same," Bartletti said. "Minimum wage, if it was the same people wouldn’t leave Mexico. They’re leaving because of random violence but primarily because of low wages. They can’t live in Mexico on their own wages. That’s why Alejandrina and her brother and mother worked together to try to put food on the floor every day. So, parity of wages is the solution to migration for survival. It’s never going to happen. That’s the curse of capitalism.”