Full Frame: The campesinos

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Full Frame features photo essays and conversations with photographers in the field.

Shortly after moving to Rochester, N.Y., in 2001, I began documenting the lives of farm workers, virtually all of them Mexican. Farm jobs are some of the most demanding and lowest-paying in the U.S., yet each year thousands of Mexicans risk their lives to cross the border to take on this work. As they told me stories about the dire poverty they left behind in Mexico, I began to understand why they risked so much and endured so much to work on our farms. A local advocate told me, “I can’t imagine what their lives are like in Mexico to come here and do the most difficult, dangerous work there is.” I decided I didn’t want to imagine it, that I needed to see for myself.

In 2003, I traveled to Mexico and although I had made three previous trips there, I had never been in "el campo," Mexico’s rural area. Before I knew it, and with the help of the Mexico City advocacy group Instituto Maya, I was hiking through Oaxaca’s Sierra Juarez with Maximiano, an elderly man who spoke mostly Mazateco, a native language. The few words of Spanish he did use were ones I wasn’t familiar with and I apparently spoke a Spanish unknown to him. It was a quiet, if unsettling, hike.

I would routinely hike to remote villages with a guide (not a paid guide, just someone who happened to be going to the village you wanted to get to), show up at someone’s house unannounced and, although a complete stranger, receive a place to stay and too much to eat. When I left San Martin, in Oaxaca, I wanted to give my host Abelardo 100 pesos (about $10 back then) as a way of saying thanks. As I stammered out a few words in Spanish and held out the money, he looked aghast. “Please, senor,” he said. “Don’t do this. When you come back, please stay with me again. My house is your house.” This in spite of the fact he earned about $600 a year.

I returned to el campo in 2008 and found an ever-worsening crisis. I stayed in 11 villages spread over four states and photographed people harvesting nopal (an edible cactus), jicama (a root vegetable), sugar cane, coffee, cacao and vanilla. The story was the same in every village: dire poverty. Just over 80 percent of campesinos (farmers or rural workers) are extremely poor, which is defined as earning less than $2 a day. Campesinos have always eked out meager livings but in recent years, Mexico’s own agricultural policies combined with trade agreements (like NAFTA) have pushed an already impoverished population deeper into poverty. Yet campesinos continue to work incredibly hard and are unfailingly generous, kind and helpful. I’ve tried to show their strength and pride in the midst of the poverty they endure.

About the photographer:

I began my career as a photographer and writer while running a soup kitchen in west Philadelphia in 1984. I felt compelled to document what I was seeing in that soup kitchen because it was so different from what I was seeing in the media. The stories I heard and was part of became the basis for several articles and a couple of plays. I also published photo essays and exhibited in galleries. I continued to document homelessness and poverty in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania and Delaware through the late-1990s. My move to Rochester, N.Y., brought me into contact with farm workers, virtually all of whom are Mexican, and I began to document their lives here and back in the Mexican villages. I’ve been fortunate to receive grants from the Puffin Foundation and the Institute for Justice and Journalism to continue my www.sorrentinophotography.com www.sorrentinophotography.com in Mexico.

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