rodrigo cruz – the promised land

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Rodrigo Cruz

The Promised Land

Every year, thousands of Central Americans from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras illegally enter Mexico via the southern border with the goal of reaching the United States in search of a better life. The journey is long and full of dangers, traveling for days as they cross the country atop the “beast”, as they call the train that takes them to Mexico’s northern border.

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Rodrigo Cruz


136 Responses to “rodrigo cruz – the promised land”

  • A touching set of quality photos. Thank you for sharing this, I never really gave enough thought to these poor people: This made me realize what it can be like to have no choice, but to make that dangerous trip. The background music and the voices telling the story really gave this set a strong feeling and message.

  • The photos are well made. The subject we’ve seen again and again.

  • Rodrigo, thank you for submitting this to Burn. As immigration policy is debated in the U.S. too often the migration of Central Americans is overlooked, and the gauntlet they face trying to make it across Mexico, avoid corrupt police, the gangs and maiming and death by the beast. I saw the documentary film De Nadie not too long ago so these issues are familiar to me although I doubt many people understand even the basic story here and how both internal and external U.S. policy have and continue to contribute to this ongoing humanitarian crisis. Anything anyone can do frankly to put a human face to the many tragedies of American migration and a century of failed U.S. policy, to put it nicely, is one more step in the right direction. When I have seen my neighbor’s families literally ripped apart at the point of federal guns, children who are U.S. citizens left homeless as their parents sit in privately run jails with questionable human rights records sometimes for years without due process … for the crime of wanting a better life and not having the right paperwork … these issues become personal, saddening, and maddening. And as these issues become more personal for more U. S. citizens, as they are, I have great hope for change. The trail of your story ends in everyone’s backyard here in the U.S., if they just LOOK. Your work can help people see as the veil is lifted.

    Great work Rodrigo. Stay safe and on it. You are making an important contribution.

  • I would challenge Jim’s assertion that “we” have seen this again and again. Who is “we”? Texans? Many people I know have no knowledge or understanding of many of these issues, except within dehumanizing and often dismissive policy discussions. That is changing. There is hope, even if Jim has none.

  • Nice. Very well done.

    And to young tom… I agree, to both posts.

  • Rodrigo, I want to thank you for documenting this story in such a sensitive way. Yes, your heart is obviously with the people who are risking their lives by making this journey north, but so is mine. For I have seen firsthand the places where life is unsustainable, where no matter how early you get up before dawn and make your way to a pick-up point for workers, no matter how late at night you tredge back up the mountain for an hour or two of sleep, your family still goes hungry. I wish “The Promised Land” would be required for each so-called “legal” Norte Americano to see, especially those who create the policies and pass the laws in Washington, DC. Maybe then they would stop seeing illegal immigrants as criminals.

    Aesthetically, your essay is beautiful in a haunted kind of way. You are obviously a gifted photographer who uses your skill and exerience to try to make a difference. Please keep doing what you’re doing. I hope one day soon to hold the book, “The Promised Land” in my hands. Muchas gracias, mi amigo.


  • Well I gotta say, there aren’t too many things that are better in the morning than good black and whites and a little massive attack. Well played sir. oh, and a great cup of coffee to go along with em!! Amen.

  • fuerte! I’d love to see the next chapter in this story as well..

  • Hey Rodrigo! Nice work! Are you continuing with this project? I hope so as it can certainly be expanded, this is such a large story. Good work so far though, you have good access to the groups making the trip through Mexico. It does finish a little abruptly for me though. I don’t know what logistical issues you might face with following them further through the border? But I hope you can keep going and expand this further. Great start!

  • Well, obviously, young tom, we in Texas have a history with these issues. We are impacted every day with them. It impacts our economy and our criminal justice system. Unfortunately, it seems to be one of those problems with no solution.

  • Rodrigo, thanks for submitting this essay. On this ongoing project, I hope for even a more personal approach to some of these people, which, though I disagree we have no idea of their plight, lack a face, so to speak, in numerous “border” PJ work.

    Young Tom. I mean, my good friend, come on! Yes, the arm of the law can be brusque, and policies ill-judged, but don’t you think the problem is indeed a difficult one (no solution, says Jim) because many americans, including their elected officials, can’t quite depart from a human approach, rather than cut, burn and set afloat…

    How about a walk in our latino neighboroods, and not latino, how about a thought about all the latinas and latinos who made a life for themselves, and gave their kids an education only rich central americans can give their children back home, all this after crossing illegally.

  • I myself was an illegal in th early years of my american journey, having worked on a tourist visa, which would have me deported and unable to come back for a long time, if caught.

  • rodrigo, amazing essay… the closeness… access and severity of the images are very well thought out and executed… amazing essay… the trust with your subjects is inspiring… this is a problem we are seeing more and more of and even in rich rural communities… even here were i live… big bankers are getting the boot from long time money schemes and bribery charges… and ou have covered this on the opposite end… people trying to look for a better life… no more… they are not bad people… they just want a better simpler life… and they cannot have it… very sad essay but i think it is something we all need to take a look at…. very well done… thank you for this… great website by the way!

  • I’m quite shocked by many comments here actually….First, yes poverty is an issue facing most parts of the world today and the ways in which people search to find a better way of life are numerous.

    To Jim commented positively on my work a couple weeks back and I appreciate that but to say that, “this is a story that we’ve seen over and over again” and “it’s one of those problems with no solution” actually blows my mind to say the least. These issues cannot be documented enough and that’s one thing that actually annoys me about photojournalism today…the search for finding new problems in the world, portraying them in an “artistic” way and leaving other issues (already covered) buried. Keep going Rodrigo Cruz…nice photos and nice subject!

    How to solve these problems…Get life back on track in the places where people are suffering, not build walls and put border guards to keep them away. I’m citing the U.S. and Israel as two prime examples of this today..

    bonne soiree

  • Thankyou for your sensitive essay Rodrigo, well done.

    Young Tom, people up here in Canada are well aware of the situation. There was a very moving documentary on exactly this story last year on prime time CBC television. Many of those desperate people keep moving right on through the US into Canada.

    Desperate people with nothing to loose will do desperate things. Immmigration policies are not to blame. It is not practical to just open the borders and let millions of people flood in. The crushing poverty is to blame. Latin America has been exploited and manipulated for generations. This is the result. Foreign policy plays a huge part in creating the problem. Yaldas photo draws attention to a small sleazy piece of it. The results are just coming home to roost.

  • Herve, I don’t understand what you are saying. Are you saying U.S. policy is a “human approach”? Are you arguing it would be better if citizens and elected leaders “depart from a human approach”? I know you are not, so I know I am not understanding your point. As a French citizen outstaying his visa, do you think you would be treated the same as a Central American citizen in the same situation?

    Obviously this is a horrendously difficult issue, and I make no claims of having any solutions, but in the midst of trying to grapple with the issue, should the U.S. be creating Guantanamos all over this country and denying basic human rights? Should undocumented parents be literally stripped from the arms of their citizen-children at gun point and sent to de-facto prisons for long terms with little or no due process? And what of all the historic foreign incursions into Central America, or South America? Have you seen the list of those we know about, it is sobering? What about the dictators the U.S. has trained at the School of the Americas? The monsters we have supported not because of who they were but of who they were not (socialist)? On and on. The United States bears great, great responsibility in the creation of these people’s plight and in my mind continues to heap injustice on injustice.

    Hey, I love this country, my country. My family goes back to within a few years of the Mayflower here, fought in all the wars, helped to shape significant policies, afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted, etc … but I do not love everything this government does and I do not think most people are aware of what has happened here in recent years. It is not “right” by any standard. Perhaps we have “seen” this kind of story before but do we really understand it? Are we actually perceiving the “big picture”? Is this placed within both the historical and cultural context? THAT is what I believe is beginning to dawn, an outgrowth of both increased migration and new global economy and communication.

  • David Bacher, it simply makes no difference to keep documenting the issue. It’s not going to be resolved and it is not going to go away. We can’t fix the problems in other countries and we can’t, locally, financially afford to support their people. The humanitarian problem is very real. But it is not one we can resolve.

  • Gordon, I know I saw the same documentary as well. Can’t remember the title but it was well done. Agree with what you are saying. And I have always said, if you want to understand what is really happening in this country, read a Canadian newspaper … and maybe The Economist. :))

  • very interesting essay. i like the simplicity of the presentation. this is how i often imagine the ‘real’ documentary work to be. at the same time there is almost a personal aspect in it, empathy. thank you for sharing.

  • Jim and David, i believe there is a point in documenting everything. photography is as just as legitimate as a voice.
    there are couple issues here that concern me. (my apologies for bring it up under your essay, Rodrigo)
    On one hand in the Western media there is bombardment of images documenting the “problems” in other parts of the world which often are used as a distraction from our own.
    On the other hand, majority of the issues on the pictures of Western photographers about “other lands” are of an economical nature with little insight into other aspects of peoples’ lives. (community, family, religion, etc.)

    as far as “we can’t, locally, financially afford to support their people” – till western societies find themselves entitled to sustain wars in other countries, to support with arms conflicts around the world, South America is a very good example of this intrusion. it means we have money to help instead. that’s the price we have to pay as citizens too. it starts with our awareness. changes for better societies have often come as a result of the grass roots movements, not politicians

  • i meant central, although south too

  • Marina, “we” unfortunately, is not the federal government. “We” are the taxpayers in our small Texas county that sees half a million dollars of our tax money go to indigent care (we have a county hospital). We see a big chunk of our tax dollars that go to education (school taxes I pay even though I’ve never had children of my own to educate) to educate the children of Illegals. We see another big chunk of our tax dollars locally go to law enforcement costs associated with Illegals. There are only a finite number of dollars here (cities and counties have to operate with balanced budgets).

    You are right. We are hijacking a photographers thread to debate social policy. My point is that more photos of the problem isn’t going to solve it. We know the problem very well.

  • Before reading the comments, I thought this essay was amazing, I felt I was with those in the essay, trying to live and cross the border. The pacing is spot on with this essay and I like the use of subtitles throughout.

    @Jim, I agree with you again that this is something we have seen before, and I live in the UK! But as with the last essay, we discussed the representation of The Other, and creating positive change out of it. This is a different human problem that I believe can be solved. I don’t know how but I remain optimistic here.

  • great photo essay-

    longtime viewer on burn, however this essay moved me to post for the first time. as jim mentioned, the debate over immigration appears to be hijacking this fantastic photo essay’s theme, that is- the view of immigration from a side that is far too often neglected when one considers immigration in our country. This is exactly what makes this essay powerful- it illuminates the pitfalls and dangers for those who are often assumed to ‘benefit’ from continued immigration (jim alludes to this when he claims that ‘indigents’ are usurping limited county resources).

    moreover, as i was in el salvador the past three months, i was shocked to learn what i hadn’t learnt previosuly in the states (where i am from); and again, this essay doesn’t just ‘show more pictures of the same problem’, it articulates more definitively what is in fact an incredibly complicated issue. for example, i did not know until i arrived in el salvador that mexico also is outmatched and overstretched by illegal immigration from guatemala, honduras, nicaragua and el salvador, much the same way the us is. i didn’t know about the 10 million dollars the us spends a year, flying felons back into el salvador, a policy which has contributed to a massive crime wave that makes el salvador one of the most dangerous places in the world (while keeping the hardworking civilians in the united states).

    i don’t mean to hijack this thread more, my point is that what makes this essay powerful is its nuanced understanding. it isn’t another ‘on the border’ photoessay, akin to alan webbs. it is an elaboration of one particularity of an incredibly complex issue.

    and to boot- the images themselves are strong enough that people debate policy, not the aesthetics of the images themselves, which in my opinion lends credence to the power of these images.

    well done rodrigo,


  • Tax policy? You just don’t give up, Jim.

  • Tom, there is policy (and some have been very humane, like legalizing long-stay illegals) and there are people. I say we are a people, and many of us, even border cops by the way, do react as people, with much humanity still, I mean not cruelly, not wantonly violent. Your take was way too one-sided, in seeing only wrong, cruel and ignorant behaviour, this side of the border. To all the points you make, I simply say, no sorry, I do not believe we are going towards being a racist/fascist aryan country with camps and miradors. Everything points actually to the contrary.

    save the hardship of desert crossing, legally, my situation would have been worse than a latino, during these years. Since I have been in the construction business, I have known and befriended many latinos. They never had any problems coming and going thru the border. They even had a counter at SF airport for people in their situation, leaving the country by plane. No passport!

    No, I am not against latinos coming over here….. I love people.

    But where there is a problem, it is worth to keep looking for a solution that may include some but not all the millions of people wishing to come to our USA, as inhuman (smirk) as it is.

  • Preston, this essay doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists within an ongoing controversy and a real economic cost. If a photographer is going to shoot these kinds of stories, they should have a full understanding of the issue (and perhaps this photographer does).

  • You can think that all you want, Jim, but this is not a story about the impact of migrants on border towns in the US. That would be a different essay. It’s disingenuous to throw up your own local gripes and insist that the photographer be somehow conversant in them. Why do all of the essays on Burn have to be about you and your silly worldview?

  • I am just wondering Jim, what exactly do you shoot on a regular basis that we have not seen before? Actually what do you shoot period that we have not seen before?

    By your logic we should sell the cameras and do something else.

  • Preston, I just expressed an opinion. Ignore me. Don’t engage me. I don’t get it.

  • of an economical nature with little insight into other aspects of peoples’ lives. (community, family, religion, etc.)
    That may hve been quite tru a few decades ago, Marina, but IMO, not anymore. Western people are very much in touch with quite a few regions and cultures around the world. Now, doing so, they may end up or choose, in majority, not to be too interested in these cultures.

    That may not be a fault, and could seem after all to be a natural attitude (even though you and I may deplore it), at least for that stage where mankind is, at this point. this is not just western people who are not “really” into others cultures. I mean real culture, what makes us who we are, not just consumering culture, sometimes the worse of what “we’ have to offer others). Especially, as you say, we take the economic incentive out of it.

    I mean, I want to see when India, China and Russia, 3 biggies with plenty of cash and manpower, and a vow to world leadership, will help around the world as much as individuals and NGO/foundations in the West (including Japan) do. Hey, just to help around their own shores, their own cultures, that would be fine too! ;-)

    Not sure about grass roots. I actually think that individual(s) are usually at the beginning of change. Then, if it looks good, we follow in. Especially grass roots movments. they usually take much voluntariship from a few individuals to get off the ground.

    as usual, IMO.

  • Herve, you misrepresented what I wrote and your point is unclear. Loved your smug smirk though.

    “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we [ICE] can make him disappear.”
    James Pendergraph, Former Executive director of the ICE Office of State and Local Coordination, August 21, 2008.

  • Rodrigo, good work; strong photographs, bleak and unflinching. Congratulations on being published here. I do hope that you continue your essay; I would love to see the homes that these people leave and the lives that they make if they cross into the U.S. successfully. If you can, note the names of your subjects: makes them people and not victims.

    I do not see people’s comments here as hijacking. It seems to me that Rodrigo has been successful if he can begin such a debate.

    Jim, before I read any comments I knew that you would be here and I predicted your first post.

    As for “We” are the taxpayers in our small Texas county that sees half a million dollars of our tax money go to indigent care (we have a county hospital). We see a big chunk of our tax dollars that go to education (school taxes I pay even though I’ve never had children of my own to educate) to educate the children of Illegals. We see another big chunk of our tax dollars locally go to law enforcement costs associated with Illegals…” – I’m sure that the people shown in this essay who have had to leave everything and everyone to try to find a better life would be only too pleased to be able to afford to pay tax dollars.

    In many parts of the world the migration of the poor in search of a better life is becoming ever more common. The more enlightened among us recognize that people don’t migrate through choice; they migrate because of desperation. If people had jobs and work in their own country they would stay in their own country. Considering the cost of attempting to seal a porous boarder it may be worth a try to build a manufacturing base in Central America with the sole aim of bringing economic stability to the area. The U.S. have done it before; after World War 2 – the Marshall Plan.

    Poverty is a waste and a disgrace.


  • Sean
    Welcome. I don’t think you are hijacking this thread at all. Isn’t the point of presenting documentary material here and elswhere to inform and encourage discussion? You are right on topic.

    Jim, you’re a news guy, and believe in free press and all that. Truthful and accuarate information plays a big part in keeping politicians (and those who control them) in line. I was going to say honest, but it stuck in my craw.
    Seen it all before? Jim, it’s like advirtising. We all know what Coca-cola is, and what it tastes like. But Coke stills spends an obcene amount of money reminding us. They don’t do this because they like throwing money into a hole, they do it because they know absolutely that their sales would drop and eventually cease if they didn’t advirtise.
    We all know cancer is nasty, no need to remind us, people will just keep sending money…d’ya think?

    A message needs to be repeated constantly to keep it on the radar.

    The more informed the public is, the harder it is for those in power to pull the wool over our eyes. There seems to be a lot of wool out there to be removed. Every essay like this one maybe pulls a little off.

    Gordon L

  • Mike R.

    Be careful. There is WAY too much common sense in your post.

  • Good news! This essay has sparked a debate about the issue (rather than over the aesthetics of the photos).

    A topic that has been covered a lot – but that’s not a reason not to do it. When I was deciding on the topic for my master’s thesis (AIDS, Poverty & Faith), my advisor warned me that of course it had been done a lot, but encouraged me that I had never done it, and so it could be unique (though not guaranteed). (

    I think when you’re choosing a story, you have to go with what you really want in your heart. If you’re just following the crowd or picking something “edgy” just for the edge factor, then your motive is messed up. But if you’re covering something you really care about (or want to care more about), then it doesn’t matter if it’s been done before or not.

  • We need more solutions, I think, than restatements of the problem.

  • Okay, my last post on this … again, thank you Rodrigo and BURN.

    Between 1991 and 2007, the number of Hispanics sentenced in federal
    courts nearly quadrupled (270%), rising faster than the number of
    offenders sentenced in federal courts over this period and accounting for
    54% of the growth in the total number of offenders.

    Hispanics represented 40% of all sentenced federal offenders in 2007, the
    single largest racial and ethnic group among sentenced federal offenders.

    More than eight-in-ten (81%) non-citizen Hispanic immigration offenders
    in 2007 were sentenced for entering the U.S. unlawfully or residing in the
    country without authorization.

    – Above statistics from The Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center.

    In 1996, immigration authorities had a daily detention capacity of less than 10,000. Today more than 30,000 immigrants are detained each day, and this number is likely to increase even further in 2009. More than 300,000 men, women and children are detained by US immigration authorities each year. They include asylum seekers, torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, longtime lawful permanent residents, and the parents of US citizen children. – Amnesty International, “Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA”

    “While ICE reported an average detention stay of 37 days in 2007, Amnesty International found that immigrants and asylum seekers may be detained for months or even years as they go through deportation procedures that will determine whether or not they are eligible to remain in the United States. For example, according to a 2003 study, asylum seekers who were eventually granted asylum spent an average of 10 months in detention with the longest reported period being 3.5 years. Amnesty International has documented several cases, detailed in this report, in which individuals have been detained for four years. Individuals who have been ordered deported may languish in detention indefinitely if their home country is unwilling to accept their return or does not have diplomatic relations with the United States.” – Amnesty International, “Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA”

    “Women in detention described violations such as shackling pregnant detainees or failing to follow up on signs of breast and cervical cancer, as well as basic affronts to their dignity. Because immigration detention is the fastest-growing form of incarceration in the United States, these abuses are especially dangerous. They remain largely hidden from public scrutiny or effective oversight.” – Meghan Rhoad, US researcher for the Women’s Rights Division

    “A team of legal organizations announced today that it is suing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in federal district court for detaining immigrants in egregious, unsanitary conditions in a downtown Los Angeles facility without soap, drinking water, toothpaste, toothbrushes, sanitary napkins, changes of clothing or showers. The lawsuit – filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the National Immigration Law Center, and the law firm of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker LLP – also charges that the unsanitary conditions have led ICE to deprive immigrants of due-process rights such as access to mail or attorneys while in detention.” – April 2, 2009, ACLU press release.

  • I am excited to see the great work up here lately! I have been working on a story that will be finished soon on refugees from Zimbabwe. Refugee stories have certainly been done before – but I am pretty sure that nobody has met a fugee like the one I’ve been working with. Instead of being depressed or angry after watching his story, I think people will be encouraged (and maybe even challenged, I hope). I really hope Burn will consider publishing it here, I would be honored to hear everyone’s feedback. I should be finished in a few weeks.

  • Sean, welcome! Gordon, right-on! Pete, thanks.

    Jim, “We need more solutions, I think, than restatements of the problem” – BORING!!!

    Think, Jim, think. Do you think that human beings are going to stop trying to get a better life for themselves and their families because of a fence? Would you rather live on a rubbish tip or work in the U.S.? – discuss.

    You are supposed to be a newspaper editor! Do you just drip-feed your audience with what they want to hear? How about putting a few names to those “Illegals” that end up in hospital? How about putting a reporter and cameraman on a plane that takes “Illegals” back to their country of origin and see what they are attempting to escape?

    Does your newspaper have a website?


  • Rodrigo,

    Wonderful essay. I hope you continue to explore this subject matter. It would be interesting to see if you could do a counter story about organizations, both government and civilian, whose purpose is to keep the illegal immigrants out.

    Well done. Love the Massive Attack soundtrack too.

  • gordon thanks for the welcome-

    jim i agree wholeheartedly that solutions are more needed than displays… but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a zero-sum nature of these two approaches. and for photographers, who by nature ‘document’ reality rather than ‘create’ it, what are they to do when at present there are no solutions to be had (beyond getting a masters degree and solve the problem themselves)?

    i’m sure that this theme must have touched on previously, so i won’t harp on it, but analyzing a problem, understanding its nuances, articulating the specfics (as rodrigo has done in this essay)- wouldn’t this contribute towards a possible solution? i’m sure the ‘experts’ are well aware of the varying underlying issues that central americans face as opposed to mexicans, eastern europeans, chinese, etc., but for the rest of us, isn’t a report like rodrigo’s a great contribution to dialogue, whereupon it is no longer appropriate for any of us to lump the experiences of mexicans and central americans together, as i believe many americans do unwittingly?

  • NATHAN….

    the work here is going to be getting stronger and stronger….i look forward to seeing your essay from Zimbabwe….

    cheers, david

  • Nathan, look forward to seeing your work here!

    Young Tom, don’t you know that we all know this stuff? It’s been done before, ask Jim.

    Seriously, thank God we have Obama in the White House. I know, he’s just a man; but he has a conscience.


  • Mike, yes well it took me all of 30 minutes to get myself a great education because, like all good reporters, I never assume I know a god damn thing.

  • The essay is all over the place at the beginning and only really gets a lift toward the end when the train shots come into play.
    Start with image no 9, 10, 11, 13, 15, 16, then 19 onwards.
    Sometimes it’s better to present part of the narrative not the whole saga itself in order to engage the audience

  • you misrepresented what I wrote and your point is unclear

    Young Tom, in order not to be misrepresented, maybe best avoid writing like this:

    but in the midst of trying to grapple with the issue, should the U.S. be creating GUANTANAMOS (noldlined by me) all over this country and denying basic human rights? ….

    Then you go on telling us it happens already in your neighborood, and of course, it’s the shape of things to come since some bigwig idiot is deciding for all what is the policy towards illegal immigration in this country.

    I do not deny abuses and wrong-headed arm-of-the-law practices, but don’t you think a little balance is what we need most with that particualr problem, rather than the same old lines about US this and US that?


    i anxiously await your essay….it will be a strong one and a different one…many thanks…

    cheers, david

  • David I will send it off to Anton today, I just finalised the licence to the musical score.
    I feel that there is a need to take articulate approach to the essays……….. you have your idea , taken your images now it is important to create your slideshow around your most important image/images. If the idea/narrative skews off to a slight detour so be it it is no use trying to force the images to be something that they aren’t. Plus there is nothing wrong with repeating an image this can help reinforce the intent


    what i saw the first time around was intriguing to say the least…i think you will redefine authorship here on BURN….

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