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Drawn to the frontier edginess and melancholy of the region, I began photographing along the U.S. – Mexico border in 2000, shortly after reading Cormac McCarthy’s, The Crossing. The novel begins with a boy finding a wolf caught in a trap on his family’s Arizona ranch. He treks across the Sierra Madres into Mexico to return the wolf to her native land. The story has every narrative element that’s captivated my imagination since I was about ten years old: a cast of characters that includes sinners, saints, and pariahs, an epic journey across a hostile wilderness, a bond between boy and dog, a multitude of dangers, themes of salvation and redemption.
My project, Destino focuses on undocumented Central American migrants traveling through Mexico in an attempt to reach the United Sates. In many ways they resemble the protagonists of adventure novels and epic tales. In an odyssey of wandering, they travel on foot, often relying on a network of freight trains lurching across Mexico. With their small backpacks filled with essential belongings, they leave behind homes and families to exist in a land of nomadic purgatory. Many are in their teens. Spirited as yearlings, they often appear oblivious to the harsh realities that accompany this journey.
In 2009, the worst economic recession in decades made work scarce for undocumented immigrants living within the United States. As in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are currently plagued by drug and gang related violence and a high incidence of domestic abuse. Crippling trade policies have further exacerbated the situation for the poor of these nations. Central American migration, while slowing down has not stopped entirely.
In Mexico, where racism towards Central Americans is prevalent, these undocumented migrants are vulnerable to a host of dangers: the police who routinely rob and beat them, immigration officials who detain and deport them, and bandits and gang members who prey on them along the train route. Many have been injured or killed falling off moving trains. More recently, Los Zetas, a renegade battalion of a military unit initially deployed to combat drug trafficking, now operating as the armed wing of the Gulf drug cartel, has established a kidnapping ring targeting Central American migrants. From these adversities, migrants find respite in a loose system of shelters run by Catholic priests and through the benevolence of sympathetic Mexicans in the towns and villages along the way.
Born in Jerusalem, Israel, Michelle Frankfurter is a documentary photographer who lives in Takoma Park, MD just outside of the District of Columbia. She graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in English. After graduating, she worked for three years as a staff photographer for daily newspapers: The Herald – Journal and Post Standard in Syracuse, New York. Before settling in the Washington, DC area, Frankfurter spent three years living in Nicaragua where she worked as a stringer for the British news agency, Reuters and with the human rights organization Witness For Peace documenting the effects of the contra war on civilians. In 1995, a long-term project on Haiti earned her two World Press Photo awards. She has worked for a number of editorial publications, including The Guardian of London, The Washington Post Magazine, Ms., Time, and Life Magazine. Her personal documentary work has been featured in juried exhibitions at The Washington Project For the Arts, the Arlington Arts Center, Shots Magazine, and the Photo Place Gallery in Middlebury, Vermont. For the past ten years, her personal work has focused on themes of migration and life along the border region between the United States and Mexico.