Interview with Don Bartletti on Central American Immigration to the U.S.

October 4, 2016

While many eyes are turned towards the humanitarian crisis engulfing the Middle East and extending into Europe, many have lost focus on the humanitarian crisis that is taking place in the United States, Mexico, and Central America. Although less immigrant children from the Central American countries of Guatemala due to tougher border control, Honduras, and El Salvador are being apprehended at the U.S./Mexico border, that does not mean less children are attempting the journey. President Obama has allowed these children to remain in the United States until their asylum request is heard in court. But now that it has become more difficult for children to reach the United States, more children face the end of their journey in Mexico; these children’s pleas for asylum are much more likely to go unheard by Mexican officials due to “limited humanitarian screening and inadequate due-process protections.” [1]

Here’s a look at one journalist’s experiences covering Central American immigration to the United States. Don Bartletti is a photojournalist at the L.A. Times, and winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for is work in Enrique’s Journey, an article series and later a book about one Honduran boy’s journey to find his mother in the United States.

Wiedel:  How did you become involved in Enrique’s Journey?

Bartletti: Ten years before I did this project, a boy drew me a picture of how he came up from Honduras on a train, so I always kept in in the back of my mind. One day ten years later my editors came to me with Sonia’s idea of following a child who was coming north to find their mother, a child who has been left behind; because her housekeeper left her child behind. The story was a hybrid of her housekeeper’s story and my experience talking with kids who had come north. That was really an underreported aspect of migration, migration for survival, which I have been covering now for over 35 years. I’ve covered every inch of the U.S./Mexico border from Tiajuana to Galvinsville Texas, and been all throughout Mexico documenting why people are leaving and up here why they are coming…what it is like on both sides. But the route that Central Americans take through Mexico was interesting because there were tens of thousands of children under the age of 18. Traveling along to find their mothers. I went back to Honduras this summer when the surge of 65,000 children came to the Texas border, so I went back to Honduras to try to fill basically what is pushing these people out. 

Wiedel:  What did you find?

Bartletti:  I found evidence of gangster killings, one five-year-old girl was shot through the heart, I met her parents at the morgue as they picked up the body, I met a 17-year-old boy trying to make it to the United States but he was deported twice, and when he came back to Honduras with his friend, his friend was shot by the gangsters for not joining the gang.  Killed him. I went into other neighborhoods of abandoned houses where the cartels have created such fear, people are leaving, and many, many of them are going to the United States. I went along the Honduras-Guatemala border with American trained policemen trying to stop people from going, stop children from traveling unaccompanied. The LA Times and I have made this the heart of my journalistic career for decades, so I am always looking for ways to reinforce the complexity of it, the depth of it. On the surface it is poor people leaving to try to come to a better life, but it goes deeper, and I wanted to try to find the root causes and tell people it is not just numbers of people in the United States, but every number, every statistic has a face, a name, a tear, a laugh, a hope, a tragedy of a success. So traveling on the trains was the most outrageous, complex way of traveling to the United States.

Wiedel:  How did you prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for this assignment?

Bartletti:  We did research along the Texas border where most of the kids end up. Before they try to get across the Rio Grande River. My reporter and I spent a couple of weeks interviewing children in shelters and along the riverbanks, trying to find out why they left, what route they took, what was it like on the trains, and I made a whole list of circumstances that they went through. For example how hard it is to jump off/on, where the trains are stopped by the immigration authorities, the gangsters that rob the train, how hard it is to find food and water. So I prepared myself mentally, there were many, many more things beside that. Then I outfitted myself to travel very light, in other words not a lot of equipment: I just carried two small cameras, two lenses, and a backpack. So I could climb the trains, I could climb underneath them, hide them if there was danger, I could run, crawl…I met one twelve-year-old boy Denis who taught me everything––how to get on the train, how to get off. And that was the boy I met four years later. Having been in three war zones, he knows how to handle fear. “Fear is when you are not prepared. That is when you are the most afraid. When you understand and can anticipate what will happen, I wasn’t afraid but I was extraordinarily cautious. The most emotionally wearing aspect was fear of being robbed, because there are gangsters that travel along the trains and rob the migrants. And I actually was robbed clean of everything. But in order not to lose everything I recorded I kept sending it home little by little.

Wiedel:  What was going through mind while you were on the trains?

Bartletti:  They shake back and forth like wonko, they’re greasy and they’re blazing hot, so I was both trying to preserve my life and look for subjects to photograph. I had to watch out for low-lying branches, I had to make sure I was hanging on tight when I was holding my camera, in one way it was a struggle and in another it was a thrilling adventure. Struggle physically and emotionally. I was seeing people suffering like crazy. They made this decision to migrate voluntarily; it wasn’t like anybody had forced them on the train, even though they were fleeing circumstances that have no solution. I couldn’t feed anybody, I couldn’t give anybody money, I couldn’t give anybody advice, and had I done that, circumstances would have changed, and the ethical truth of my images could have been questioned. I dealt with these ethical dilemmas all the time, every single moment. I couldn’t manipulate anything, I couldn’t tell anybody to do anything, I controlled my artistic point of view by moving, by waiting, by my collection of lenses, my focus, but I also wait. I didn’t force anything. 

Wiedel:  How did you accomplish that happy medium between feeling for your subjects and keeping that distance so that you stay within your ethical boundaries?

Bartletti:  My job is not to facilitate or stop anybody from doing what they want to do. My job is to record the truth.  And when I publish on a great forum like the LA Times, there’ll be people out there who will say, ‘Holy mackerel, I never knew it was like that, this isn’t right’ or the other side could interpret it in their own way. I found myself extraordinarily committed, incredibly committed to saying, I am going to reveal, not just report, I am going to uncover all of the layers of these statistics of people coming north and show the president and the congress and the legislators, and the people in the United States what that looks like. If they have a problem with that, or they like it or they want to make it better, then they can do something about it themselves, but I gave them plenty of evidence. So that is what motivates me, communicating the truth….

Wiedel:  So how did you meet the little boy Denis you write about?

Bartletti:  Denis was one of the cutest little boys of many kids I ran into, and he was real articulate, he had a squeaky high voice, but I met him in the Tapachula, Mexico train yard, the southern part of Mexico right near Guatemala. He was waiting to get on another train. I followed him for a couple of days, then I’d lose him, or he’d disappear, or he’d get deported and he’d show up again a few days later. But he and I got along well, in one way I almost felt like protecting him, but I really couldn’t do that. He surprised me with how much of a veteran rider he was even though he was only 12 years old. He knew exactly what he was doing. In fact the story I wrote for the times about me finding him year later, I talk about how even though he was 12 he knew how to protect himself, by begging food and money and giving it to the older people on the train, who would then watch him, who were much bigger and stronger. And you look at little Denis knocking on your door and you see that dirty little face looking up at you and people would throw food, clothes at him, just want to grab him in his arms. So did I, I wanted to keep him under my father-hen wing, but instead I just kept him in focus on my camera, recorded as much as I could. Then one day he disappeared. But I knew he was going to San Diego, so I looked him up and I found him. Over the years we’d see each other….

Wiedel:  How did this experience affect the rest of your career?

Bartletti:  Well the Pulitzer Prize did exactly what I wanted it to do; it brought attention of the world to this issue along our border. People are migrating across borders all around the world, from the Philippines to China, from Africa to Italy, Turkey to Germany, everywhere people are migrating for something better. But this is phenomenal along this border; this is one of the greatest land migrations of the last 30 years in the history of the world.  So with the Pulitzer highlighting the work people can pay attention to it and politicians can start talking about it.  Ironically all of these later we still haven’t found a solution to illegal immigration.  It’s really as unstoppable as the wind, as natural as history of man. I feel so happy to be a journalist with the skills to record what is happening during these days. I’m not trying to stop it and I’m not trying to promote it but I am here to show that the resiliency and the strength in the dreams of people.


[1] Dominguez Villegas, Rodrigo; Rietig, Victoria. “Migrants Deported from the United States and Mexico to the Northern Triangle: A Statistical and Socioeconomic Profile.” Migration Policy Institute. Accessed September 24, 2015.

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About Author(s)

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Susan Wiedel
Susan Wiedel is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh studying English Nonfiction Writing and Latin American Studies. In the summer of 2014, Susan participated in the Center for Latin American Studies' Seminar/Field Trip to Cochabamba, Bolivia, where she conducted a research project on the quality and attendance rates of public secondary schools in the city. The unique experience led her to become more involved in the Center by becoming a certificate student and writer for Panoramas.