On December 27th, 2018, on his way to visit his family in Los Angeles, Jeff Valenzuela was handcuffed by his ankle to a bench in an interrogation room on the Mexican border and told that he was not being placed under arrest. After four hours locked to the bench, two ordinarily-dressed border officers presented Valenzuela with a document that declared he was required to unlock and surrender his phone for ‘further examination’.
After approximately six hours in total spent at the border, his phone was returned to him with a refreshed email inbox and most apps recently opened. This was the first of many interrogations he would be subject to while crossing the border and was revealed through an Intercept report last year to be part of a targeted harassment campaign on associates of the migrant rights group Pueblo Sin Fronteras (English: Village without Borders), jointly coordinated by the US and Mexican governments.
Before his work with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, however, Valenzuela had been looking for an opportunity to become involved in social justice work at the border following the 2016 election. “When I started doing work leaving water in the desert,” he commented, “one of the first things was recognizing the privilege I had, just this arbitrary muck: that I was born on one side of an imaginary line and that I had these privileges.”
“I started doing that [work in the desert] as a sort of intro into taking direct action, and at the same time I was gifted a camera from my parents. So I just always had that with me, took it with me wherever I went [and] started taking photos, capturing and documenting the things that we were seeing, the things that we were living out here along the border.”
As he began to follow groups of migrants on their journey to the US border, photography acted as both a tool for work and as a creative outlet to relieve stress. Valenzuela believes this was essential in staying motivated.
“I think it’s necessary because the work is obviously really taxing and it can take a lot out of you. I remember a good friend of mine one time […] had told me that, if you’re doing this kind of work, you should do it in the hopes that you don’t have to do it anymore. We would talk about what we would rather be doing, for him it was gardening.
“So that always stuck with me – the plan of doing this is to not ever have to do it again. But, realistically speaking, so many people have been involved for so long and have dedicated their lives to it. This isn’t something that’s going to end, I don’t think in my lifetime, but always having that perspective to me I think was really helpful, and so for me being able to continue to be creative or finding ways to be creative amidst all of it I think has been the only thing that has kept me sane.”
Valenzuela notes, however, that not all photographers were working for the migrants’ best interests.
“I think one of the biggest things that we saw, or that I saw at least, is that people were constantly being portrayed as victims, as helpless, and in a way I think that that’s another form of dehumanizing these communities and these groups because they’re no longer the people they were: they’re just victims at that point,” says Valenzuela. “That was one of the biggest things – seeing the way people sort of helicoptered in, just had cameras in everyone’s faces and were really just after getting that shot of, you know, ‘people suffering’.”
In distinguishing positive migrant accompaniment from potentially harmful accompaniment, Valenzuela distinguishes solidarity from charity.
“I always advocate for people getting involved to focus on building solidarity as opposed to charity. I think a lot of times people act out of the goodness of their hearts and with good intentions, but it’s more charity than it is solidarity,” he notes. “I think there’s a big difference, because one of those comes with the idea that you are the one that’s going to help or save the other as opposed to working together for a positive outcome, and I think when you work together and you build solidarity, you’re hearing from those that are affected.”
How does one build solidarity with a community? For Valenzuela, the answer lies in openly listening to them.
“Listening is one of the most important things when you’re getting started, or when you’re getting involved, especially in spaces that are new, especially in a space you don’t feel you’re directly connected to.”
“For myself,” Valenzuela details, “I started doing this work because I felt directly connected to the immigrant rights movement, given that my family is from Mexico. That doesn’t translate, because suddenly accompanying 7,000 Central American migrants through Mexico, you know, I have no idea. That’s their struggle and their fight ultimately. I’m there to accompany, I’m there to support, but I don’t know what it’s like to live that violence or extreme poverty, like in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and the only way that I can learn is by listening and keeping in mind that they know best what’s happening.
“So I think the most important thing people can do is listen: listen first, listen to the community, listen to those voices, work together to build solidarity, and remember that no one’s here to save anyone else and no one’s going to save us just like we’re not going to save them,” he says. “I think that would be the most, at least for me, really helpful thing to keep in mind.”
For Valenzuela, these principles tie together in considering how different communities are perceiving and responding to the COVID-19 crisis.
“I saw that someone just this morning was pointing out, and I don’t speak for this community, that that’s the reality that undocumented folks face living in the US: living in fear, not being able to travel, and so many other things, and also relating it to specifically the large waves of migration and what’s been happening in Central America, is the fact that none of those people want to leave.”
“When people are displaced, it’s not a vacation,” he emphasizes. “They’re doing it out of necessity.”
“So now what we’re seeing is a situation where […] our access to all these things that we need to survive [is] being jeopardized, and we’re living with this idea of ‘what if we don’t have those things anymore?’ So we can start putting ourselves in the shoes of the people that are displaced and forced to leave their homes for reasons that aren’t their doing.”
Amidst this, Valenzuela emphasizes the importance of working together and establishing community solidarity.
“We’re seeing more on social media where people are pointing out: who are the ones really making these communities work, the real force behind it? That’s the people. I think for me, one of the most positive things that could come out of this is building solidarity. I think when we realize how much power we have together, that’s the hope that I look for.”
Photo Credit: Jeff Valenzuela