On The Bacon Trail: Exposing Historical Myopia (Part One of Two)

Historical myopia causes nearsightedness, distorting one’s view of current and past events. It interferes in distinguishing details. Consequently, we don’t pay much attention to how and why the present has come about.

In general American culture discourages complex thinking. Almost everything is viewed through the prism of faith. Learning is reduced to bullet points with minimal evidence required. The historian acts like a prosecuting attorney obsessed with proving his hypothesis.

Without access to witnesses, knowledge is rarely tested by experience. The historians’ presentations are thus based largely on suppositions rather than facts. History is formed by institutional memories constructed by the state.

This is why I find the work of David Bacon so refreshing. Every time I look at his photographs or read his blogs or his books, I realize how myopic we have become, and what is wrong with the education of so-called scholars. For some time, I have admired Bacon’s photographs especially those of farmworkers. However, I did not begin to look behind the photographs until recently.

About five years ago I got involved with the struggle to save the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program as well the fight against Arizona’s xenophobia. My fight against NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) alerted me to the privatization of Arizona and I could thus see the issues clearly.

Bacon’s writings like his photographs are art for change’s sake.  He is the author of books on labor, immigration, globalization and privatization, and has published articles for TruthOut, The Nation, The American Prospect, The Progressive, and the San Francisco Chronicle, travelling frequently to Mexico, the Philippines, Europe and Iraq. Bacon is a modern day Jack London without xenophobic biases.

Bacon is a scholar, not an academician. He does not wear degrees on his chest like battle ribbons. His knowledge comes from life experiences; “Unions are schools. People learn about the realities of the world and raise their expectations of what they want their world to be like.”

I found a 2012 article in The Nation “How US Policies Fueled Mexico’s Great Migration  instructive. Bacon tells the story of Roberto Ortega, a displaced Veracruzana butcher. NAFTA opened up Mexican markets to massive pork imports from US companies like Smithfield Foods. Ortega, a small-scale butcher, was wiped out as prices dropped. In 1999 he was forced to migrate to Tar Heel, North Carolina, where he worked ironically for Smithfield in the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse.

Smithfield’s Tar Heel packinghouse became Veracruz’s displaced the farmers’ number-one US destination. “Tens of thousands left Mexico, many eventually helping Smithfield’s bottom line once again by working for low wages on its US meatpacking lines.” Meanwhile, businesses in the Vera Cruz went broke.

Under NAFTA Smithfield had access to subsidized US corn, an advantage that drove  many Mexicans out of business, as US corn “was priced 19 percent below the cost of production.”  Moreover, NAFTA allowed it to import pork in Mexico. By 2010 pork imports grew more than twenty-five times, to 811,000 tons.

As a consequence of imported pork, Mexico lost 4,000 pig farms, 120,000 jobs. Rural poverty rose from 35 percent in 1992–94 to 55 percent in 1996–98.  By 2010, 53 million Mexicans were living in poverty—half the country’s population almost all in rural areas.

Bacon strings verbal photos showing the effects of the expansion of the H2-A visa program that “allows US agricultural employers to bring in workers from Mexico and other countries, giving them temporary visas tied to employment contracts.” The pull of landless tobacco farmers from Veracruz added to the pool of migrant workers in the Carolinas.

In Mexico, Smithfield and other American operations were unburdened by the environmental restrictions.  Carolina Ramirez, who heads the women’s department of the Veracruz Human Rights Commission, said that “the company can do here what it can’t do at home.” In early 2009, the first confirmed case of swine flu spread to Mexico City. By May, forty-five people were confirmed with swine flu and schools closed.

Bacon shows how NAFTA caused the Mexican Migration. He also shows how in the face of disaster Mexican workers organized against the physical repression of Smithfield and other companies as well as the complicity of the American media.

It is clear that the Union is Bacon’s leader, and the key to resistance on both sides of the border.   “We are fighting because we are being destroyed,” says Roberto Ortega. “That is the reason for the daily fight, to try to change this.”

Bacon’s book The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border is a word picture that according to Bacon, is a world hidden from our view. Again the dragons are NAFTA, poverty and repression. Bacon exposes the exploitation in places such as the Mexicali Valley, and the deplorable housing in Tijuana and other border cities. The heroes are the tireless union organizers. The link between neoliberal polices and the suffering is clear.

The bottom-line poverty forces Mexicans to move to the USA, with the chickens coming home to roost.

A critique all of Bacon’s writing and photo essays is beyond the scope of this blog. The strength of David is his grasp of details and his ability to weave them into the fabric of current history. It exposes the reasons for Enrique Peña Nieto’s privatization and his crude repression of the Normalistas.

David lays it out in US-Style School Reform Goes South: “Just weeks after taking office, Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, ordered the arrest of the country’s most powerful union leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, a longtime ally. The press said PRI was cracking down on corruption. But, Bacon wanted to know the real reason for her arrest, notwithstanding the obvious fact that she was corrupt.

Progressive Mexican educators saw it as an attack on public education and the rights of teachers. They fought back, and the state tried to silence the growing opposition to U.S. style PRI proposals to standardized tests and remove the voice of the union in hiring. They were not “Waiting for Superman” and standing by while Mexican education was privatized.  Significant to the teachers was that “Superman” was first screened on the twenty-fourth-floor offices of the World Bank rather than in movie theaters.

Bacon wrote, “A network of large corporations and banks extends throughout Latin America, financed and guided in part from the United States, pushing the same formula: standardized tests, linking teachers’ jobs and pay to test results, and bending the curriculum to employers’ needs while eliminating social critique. In both countries, there was grassroots opposition—from parents and teachers. In Seattle, teachers at Garfield High refused to give the tests. In Michoacan, in central Mexico, sixteen teachers went to jail because they also refused.”

PRI accused teacher-training schools (“normal schools”) of leading opposition to charter schools. PREAL, established  by  the  Inter-American  Dialogue  in Washington,  D.C. and  the  Corporation  for  Development Research in Santiago, Chile, in 1995, set the neoliberal agenda. PREAL’s mission was building a broad and active constituency “for education reform”. Behind PREAL were powerful forces led by Ford and the World Bank. Moreover, PREAL received grants from the US Agency for International Development (USAID allegedly a CIA front).

Normal schools throughout Mexico are battling neoliberal reforms. The election of PRI in 2012 galvanized this opposition. It was clear to PRI that the power of the Normalistas had to be broken if it was to gain popular support. It was a war for the control of Mexico’s historical memory.

— by Rodolfo F. Acuña

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