Indigenous Workers Picking Tobacco Under an Unforgiving Sun in Nayarit

David Gonzalez - New York Times
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August 9, 2016

Kevin’s family working in the tobacco fields. His father cured tobacco leaves while his big brother threaded them, and his mother and little siblings helped arrange the leaves. They were paid per family, not per person. Credit Cesar Rodriguez

César Rodríguez wanted to be a photographer, but fear and self-doubt proved overwhelming. Instead, he threw himself into setting up a chocolate shop in his Mexican town, Tepic. It did well, letting him forget about photography.

Or so he thought.

Five years into running his store, a picture he submitted on a whim to a contest — of cliff divers in Acapulco — got him noticed. He thought he could finally go back to shooting, maybe even trekking to remote places to come up with the kind of lush, romantic shots he had grown up seeing in National Geographic. But why?

“In the end, I realized that in my own state of Nayarit there were many stories that no one had been telling,” said Mr. Rodríguez, 32. “It is my responsibility to be a witness. If I live here, I have to help my community and do something for it. So I started looking for a theme.”

He found it about 90 minutes away, on tobacco plantations where migrant workers of indigenous descent worked in grueling, merciless conditions, exposed to the elements and pesticides. They had no potable water or toilets, he said. And when they got paid — about $35 a week for a family — they spent it on food, water and even fuel for the lamps that allowed them to work through the night.

The scenes — of people living under thatched-roof shelters, their skin raw from chemicals, and children as young as 6 working the fields or bathing in irrigation canals — could have been taken a generation ago. The idea that things had changed so little motivated Mr. Rodríguez to pursue his project with zeal.

The members of the Huichol indigenous group, he said, come from Nayarit, Jalisco and Durango states, fleeing crushing poverty that had left them surviving on subsistence farming. The tobacco season, he said, ran from January through June, with entire families taking to the fields.

It took some effort for Mr. Rodríguez to earn their trust. Living out in the fields, with what few possessions they had left in the open, they knew they could be easy prey for robbers. They looked askance at Mr. Rodríguez at first...

Read the rest and see all the photos at New York Times.

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  Learn about The Huichol Center for Cultural Survival

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