There's usually a photo on the front page of local papers once or twice a year of them—a farmworker hoisting a bucket on his shoulder, or someone stooped over picking.
The purpose of these photos seems to be to mark the changing seasons or just to show some local color. The coverage of Mexican immigrants, or of the underclass in general, almost never gets much deeper than that. Yet the underclass constitutes the majority of people in the small towns of southwestern New Mexico.
I've often thought it's ironic that the Albuquerque Journal tends to cover issues affecting the border area more often than newspapers nearer the border do. The Journal has just had a major series on border crossers, there was one on farmworkers a few years ago, and they've written about the colonias in-depth with photos. It's almost as if papers cover these issues in inverse proportion to their relevance to the readership.
The main reason is probably that the southwestern papers have a lot less money than the Journal does. The column space given to staff writers at the Las Cruces Sun-News is amazingly scarce—two or three pages per issue, by my count.
The enormous Gannett news organization, that well-known tragaperiodicos (a word Mexicans would use to say "newspaper-swallower") that jointly operates the Sun-News and the Deming Headlight with MediaNews, has a tendency to eviscerate, in the name of being economical, the newspapers it buys up. What's left is a hollowed-out shell of a paper with a very small local staff and a lot of articles by other news services.
Most US newspapers are suffering dramatically right now from an increase in Internet news use and decreased circulation. Interestingly, in Juarez there are two major, healthy papers with page after page of local news, including in-depth, page-long articles on social issues. I envy those writers. Underdevelopment can be preferable to development at times.
But I think there's something more at work in the local press than just financial stress, as far as border issues go. One factor might be just sheer provincialism, or the premise that only "important" people are newsworthy, or the attempt to be middle-of-the-road politically by writing about middle-class issues.
As natural as this may seem, that's what's called a conservative bias. This was confirmed to me recently when talking to a writer for both the Sun-News and the weekly Las Cruces Bulletin who was a rip-roaring rightist by anyone's calculation. "If the farmworkers don't like how much they're getting, they can go back to Mexico!" she said. A former editor of the Headlight, 10 years ago, thought he couldn't publish anything about labor violations in the fields because the supermarkets in town would pull their ads. Living in Deming, unfortunately, is a little like living in a cave. More recent editors don't think like that editor, but the issue still doesn't get covered.
And what is odd in Las Cruces is that even the alternative paper in town, the Bulletin, is conservative. Usually alternative papers serve as a counterbalance to the conservative "mainstream" papers. The conservatism of the news sources leaves a kind of pall in the political atmosphere, a haze that obscures a lot of issues that need to be exposed.
The reluctance of editors to cover Mexican immigrants reminds me of the absurd TV ads for orange juice or supermarkets or restaurants that rather desperately avoid showing any Mexicans in the fields, to the point of actually showing visor-capped Anglos lifting crates of fruit or vegetables, as if the farmers themselves were doing the picking. Or they show Mexican-looking people with their faces turned away from the camera.
The primary reason for this, it seems obvious, is that the advertiser doesn't want to raise the issue of the illegal status of so many workers in the fields. But I think there's an underlying assumption, too, that Mexicans are nonentities, or on a lower order of being, even subhuman.
It's always seemed to me that this assumption has something to do with the sub-minimum wages Mexicans often get in the fields and restaurants and in housecleaning jobs throughout the Southwest, and in the sub-standard safety conditions that result in Mexicans being killed at jobs at a rate 50 percent higher than either whites or blacks in the US. They're used to it, people say. What gives them the right to expect more? They're not important, is the thought.
There are people all around who need to be aware of the humanity of poor Mexicans. I visited a lady once in Deming who had a Mexican immigrant doing odd jobs around her house. I fell into a 10-minute conversation with the immigrant man about where chile was grown in Mexico, and the woman got all stiff, as if she had been hit by a board. You could see she had never thought you could talk to someone like him for so long. What could we possibly be talking about?
I know Mexican immigrants pretty well, from working with them at chile processors, and they're not subhuman. I've developed an axiom: "The more you know 'them,' the more you realize they are not 'them.'" They have opinions, knowledge, yearnings, frustrations. They seem to have a perpetual spring of generosity inside them, although they may also steal from you. They may be good or bad. They have families, loves. They have senses of humor. They're also exploited.
I wish the local papers would give them a voice, and not just a face.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.