Michelle Frankfurter’s 'Destino' (FotoEvidence Press), meaning both “destination” and “destiny” in Spanish, portrays the perilous journey of undocumented Central American migrants along the network of freight trains lurching inexorably across Mexico, towards the hope of finding work in the United States. It is the odyssey of a generation of exiles across a landscape that is becoming increasingly dangerous, heading towards a precarious future as an option of last resorts.
The unprecedented wave of Central American migration began a full century after Mexican immigration to the U.S., the consequence of bloody civil wars, U.S. cold war intervention in the region and crippling international trade policies. Such conflicts left a legacy of drug and gang related violence, rampant domestic abuse and unrelenting poverty. Despite an economic downturn in the United States, heightened security and harsh anti-immigrant legislation, Central American migration, in particular, that of women and unaccompanied minors has increased over the past several years.
In Mexico, where racism towards Central Americans is prevalent, undocumented migrants are vulnerable to a multitude of dangers that have escalated dramatically in recent years: the police who routinely rob and beat them, corrupt immigration officials who detain and deport them, and bandits and gang members who prey upon them along the train route. Many have been injured or killed falling off moving trains. Heightened security along the nearly two thousand-mile stretch of U.S. border has made the crossing more dangerous than ever, as smugglers lead migrants through increasingly isolated terrain in order to avoid detection. Los Zetas, a renegade battalion of a Mexican military unit initially deployed to combat drug trafficking has established a kidnapping ring targeting Central American migrants.
Migrants are caught in the crosshairs of erstwhile Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s war against the drug cartels that has claimed more than 70,000 lives since it began in 2006. From these many adversities, migrants find respite in a loose system of shelters run by Catholic priests (some of whom have themselves been targeted by corrupt officials and criminal organizations that stand to profit from the smuggling trade) and from the benevolence of sympathetic Mexicans in the towns and villages along the way.
The issue of migration is current; the story of migration, however, is timeless. Having grown up on the adventure tales of Jack London and Mark Twain, and then later on Cormac McCarthy’s border stories, there is no storyline more compelling to me than one involving a youthful odyssey across a hostile wilderness. With a singularity of purpose and a kind of brazen resilience, migrants traverse deadly terrain, relying mostly on their wits and the occasional kindness of strangers, much like the anti-hero protagonists of the adventure tales I grew up reading. In documenting a journey both concrete and figurative, I convey the experience of individuals who struggle to control their own destiny.
In the late 1980’s, I worked with the human rights organization, Witness For Peace in Nicaragua collecting eyewitness testimony from survivors of contra attacks. Afterwards, I stayed on as a stringer for Reuters. In 1990, after more than ten years of war and sustained political pressure by the United States, the Sandinistas lost the elections to the UNO coalition headed by Violeta Chamorro. For much of that year, I photographed the elections, the transition of power, and a seemingly endless procession of contra demobilization ceremonies. Long after the fighting stopped and the symbolic photo ops ceased, the aftermath of that conflict lingers.
Destino builds on over twenty years experience in the region, traveling with migrants to tell a story of a generation displaced by the conflicts that ravaged Central American societies. I chose to photograph using black & white film and a medium format camera in order to make images that would not appear rooted in any particular time period, but that instead tell a more universal and eternal story of migration. Lacking representation, undocumented immigrants make convenient scapegoats during a period of economic uncertainty. My aim is to create images that humanize the individuals behind the polarizing debate and to direct attention to the underlying causes behind this migration. (Michelle Frankfurter)
The book is available at FotoEvidence bookstore.