Step by Step: Inside the Homes of US Farmworkers

South Texas farmworkers’ kitchen

Years ago, still close to wartime, many of my Cambodian friends spoke of dreams they chased step by step. Hunger and hardship were still too near to be called memories. Security and prosperity were distant visions on a road that felt vast and overwhelming. So they began that journey step by step, one foot forward toward the little goals along the way. That was how they built (and rebuilt) their lives. And they still do.

I heard that phrase, “step by step,” again in the past 16 months while working with my amazing, energetic, relentless, gutsy, and gregarious partner, Valeria Fernández, on our project to document the lives of children and families working in agriculture in South Texas. Mid-way through our reporting, Jerry joined us to photograph the story. More than 500,000 children work in agriculture nationwide, many of them starting as young as 12 (and sometimes younger). It’s legal. It’s what many American kids do to help support their families—and to kickstart their own dreams, step by step, of finding better work and a better life. Our article, with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation, was published last week in Pacific Standard as the first in a four-part series edited by Ted Genoways on “Unseen America.”

As with every story, not everything could fit. So many conversations, so many scenes had to be left out. In the process of our reporting, farmworkers opened their hearts and invited us into their homes, into the most private spaces of their lives. Spaces that revealed deeper layers of who they are: Resilient. Hopeful. Determined. Visionary. Innovative. Tough.

South Texas farmworkers’ kitchen

Many farmworkers we met had built their own homes. They started with the barest walls they could afford, and step by step, they added rooms and paint and trim and new floors and bathrooms and cabinets after they had worked enough to save a little for the supplies that could be nailed and plastered in the shape and color of their dreams. Step by step, the souls of these workers inhabit the evolving comforts of their homes.

These houses are, sadly, also sanctuaries that shelter fear. While the child workers we met are US citizens, many of their parents and grandparents are not. Many others are, but they still live with the fear of misconceptions. The Rio Grande flows swift and strong near the fields we visited. When you hear  news of “the border crisis,” you are hearing the rumors and rhetoric of a region we had the privilege to get to know for a while.

South Texas farmworker’s bedroom

South Texas farmworker’s bedroom

It was Easter Sunday when we met an elderly man named Miguel, who shared his memories of coming to Texas as a bracero decades ago. He showed us his papers. He assured us he has always followed the law. “I worked here legally, I never harmed anyone,” he said over and over. But Miguel, at 82, was terrified we would make a mistake. He was terrified someone would erroneously label him illegal.

That fear has cut through the colonias, where we learned many farmworkers no longer migrate; the risk of arrest is too great. Meanwhile, those with papers continue to work legally in a system built on the exploitation of our country’s most vulnerable. A system perpetuated by the very foundations of the American economy. It’s “like an economic ladder,” said Bobbi Ryder, then-president and CEO of the National Center for Farmworker Health. “If you took a picture of the bottom of that ladder at any point in time, it would be full of people that are struggling to survive, striving to improve their lives, striving to improve their families’ lives. And they’re trying to pull their way up the rungs of that ladder,” she said. “If I took a picture of the bottom rung of that ladder of migrant farmworkers in 1973 when I first started working with farmworkers, and I took a picture today…the picture would look very much the same.” While some families have moved up a bit, “there’s always a new influx of new faces to fill that bottom rung.”

Atop a South Texas farmworker’s dresser

South Texas farmworkers’ kitchen

There’s a particular image in my mind that I can’t shake. Our first trip to Texas for this story just happened to take place during tax season. One afternoon, Valeria and I walked into the office of a local organization that works with migrants—undocumented or not. The lobby was packed, every seat taken, every visitor awaiting assistance in filing their taxes.

Federal law requires US workers to pay US taxes, regardless of immigration status. Workers who are not eligible for social security numbers (a.k.a. undocumented immigrants) can obtain an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). In 2015 alone, 4.4 million such workers paid $23.6 billion in taxes, feeding a system of Social Security, Medicare, and other benefits they cannot access. Why? It’s the law. And paying taxes is one way to help establish residency in an effort to boost an immigrant’s petition for citizenship. It is one step toward that dream.

South Texas farmworkers’ front door

South Texas farmworkers’ house extension

These are the workers who support our food system. They and their children and grandchildren are the laborers who pick our cilantro, onions, beets, and chard. They are the people who build their homes, piece by piece, as time and opportunity and money allow, in their ongoing dreams of making a great American life—step by step.

South Texas farmworkers’ dining room

One Man’s Story

Benjamin Ruiz, preparing tortillas for breakfast at the soup kitchen where he volunteered on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border.

Last year, I met a 34-year-old man named Benjamin Ruiz. He volunteered at a soup kitchen, spending every morning preparing tortillas to go with rice and beans and big vats of calabacitas to feed dozens. Day after day, the people arrived, bundled in hats and coats to shield the brisk winter air. Ruiz wore a silver cross on a short black string around his neck. Like many I met in that kitchen, he talked a lot about his faith in God, which guided his life. He reminded me of my childhood; of my years in Catholic school and the teachers and priests whose lessons focused on Christian values and what that meant in daily life—helping the poor, giving to those in need. Ruiz talked about hard work and service, and his words reminded me of my mother, who had passed away shortly before I met him. “To give is better than to receive,” she had always advised.

Ruiz understood hard times, and that was a big reason why he worked at the kitchen. He used to volunteer at the Red Cross in his hometown, until his life changed irrevocably one day: April 10, 2016—he remembered it vividly. “It was a Sunday, quarter to 2.” That’s when gangsters stormed the Red Cross office, guns drawn. They aimed at a fellow volunteer, 14 years old. The kid’s brother had a dispute with the gang, and the gunmen sought revenge. “They shot him eight times,” Ruiz told me. “We took him to the hospital—he was still alive, but he died the following day.” Ruiz was a witness, and after that, he feared for his own life. He quit volunteering. He couldn’t work. “I didn’t feel safe in my country.”

A cross on the wall at the soup kitchen where Ruiz worked.

That country was El Salvador. We met in Mexico. “Thank God I made it all the way here,” Ruiz said as he described his long, uncertain journey. “When I crossed from Guatemala to Mexico, I walked for five days near the train tracks, walking day and night, resting a little bit.” He arrived in a small town in Chiapas knowing he needed money to proceed. He went to a grocery store and talked to the owner. “I’m not going to lie to you,” he told her, relaying his story, sharing his fears, and explaining his desperate need for a job. The woman was wary but hired him anyway.

Ruiz was accustomed to working hard. Back at home, he’d had a job in a steel factory in addition to the Red Cross. He’d finished high school and hoped to do more. He worked by day and studied by night. He wasn’t married and didn’t have kids—his country was too violent, the economy too stagnant, the dangers too high, he said. “The situation is tough down there… As long as I don’t have stability, I’m not going to have a family.” He did have a 70-year-old father, and it pained Ruiz enormously to leave him. But he felt he had no choice.

When we met, Ruiz was much farther north, right on the border. He was working, volunteering, saving money, and planning his next steps. He wanted to apply for asylum in the United States by crossing at an entry point. That’s the only way to legally apply for asylum. One cannot apply at a consulate or embassy. One must be physically present in the United States in order to ask for refuge.

But that route presented obstacles Ruiz didn’t think he could overcome. While there is no asylum application fee, it’s a long, drawn-out legal process that typically costs thousands of dollars. Lawyers and expert witnesses, photocopies, phone calls, medical exams, court fees, translations, and mailings—word on the street was that Ruiz could expect to pay $15,000, all in all. That’s possible. It’s possible it could cost less. But that’s what people were estimating at the time—and Ruiz had nowhere near that kind of cash.

Plus, the whole asylum system is kind of a crapshoot. It’s entirely subjective, as studies show. Whether one is granted asylum depends almost entirely on the particular judge who hears the case and the strength of one’s legal representation. Some judges grant asylum in a majority of cases. But many judges deny 90 percent or more of all applications. There is no rhyme or reason. There is no hard-and-fast standard in US immigration law. It’s entirely possible Ruiz could spend every penny to his name and still end up being deported to his potential death.

Women prepare breakfast plates at the soup kitchen.

So he decided to try something different. He was planning to cross the desert into the United States, praying he would meet up with a friend who could help him find work. Getting there would cost him $5,000, and he was still saving for the journey. Ruiz didn’t want to break the law—he just wanted to survive.

Much time has passed, and I have no idea what became of Ruiz. But I think of him every time I hear about “the caravan.” I live in a state that used to be part of Mexico. My village borders a pueblo that predates any current concept of immigration. What it means to be American, who belongs here and who doesn’t—these are questions that eat at the heart of our history, and threaten to cleave our future. I have no idea how a nation, a continent, begins to heal such wounds.

But I do know that empathy plays a part in every solution. And empathy rests on an understanding of human experience that can only be achieved when we listen. I’ve spent most of my journalism career reporting in other countries and cultures, and people often ask me what that’s like—traveling so far from home, in foreign surroundings. I tell them I usually find people very much like myself, my family and friends. The more I listen to people’s stories, the more I learn about thoughts and feelings, hopes and ideas that resemble everything I find at home.

But we can’t build empathy if all we do is talk, instead of listen. And I doubt our nation will ever mend if everyone acts on rhetoric and rumor, rather than facts and human experience.

I don’t know if Ruiz made it across the desert or not—but I know he was determined to try, just as he was dedicated to helping people along the way. That, he said, he got from home. His dad was Christian, just like he was. Religion shaped his ideas about life. “That really gave me the values,” he said. It sounded a lot like the things I had heard while growing up, more than 1,800 miles north.

I asked Ruiz what he planned to do next. “I’m just going to work hard to make a living, as I always have,” he said. “If I make it.”

Framing the Picture

We’ve been back in Southeast Asia for a month now, and I’ve been thinking a lot about framing—how we convey and interpret pieces of the world around us. A couple weeks ago, we visited the Cambodian coast. We hadn’t traveled to Sihanoukville in years, and we’d heard how much has changed. My first memories of the beach date back 20 years, to a time when tourists were rare but fresh crab was abundant, cooked with Cambodian peppercorns and served at tables in the sand.

I knew things would be different this time. But we still found a little guesthouse on a lagoon with a pool on site and Ochheuteal Beach right across the street. I spent a day taking nothing but pretty pictures—of clean, white sand and coconut palms, and boats beneath a blue sky with big, pillowy clouds.

I took pictures of the squid (yes, even Jerry ate and liked it!) and scallops we ordered as an appetizer, served on an open-face shell with minced bell pepper and baked Parmesan cheese; and the whole grilled snapper we ate with my favorite dipping sauce of black pepper and lime. Jerry ordered a frosty glass of beer and I drank a decent wine. The photos I have of that day and night, I think, portray the seemingly gorgeous side of life.

The next day, I looked the other way. I changed the frame and photographed only the mess I saw amid this city’s monumental transition from little haven on the coast to a Chinese mecca of gambling and vice. Those are the changes we’d heard about, but the sight of it all exceeded my imagination.

In the past few years, several billion-dollar deals between the Cambodian government and the Chinese have resulted in a shining new stop on the One Belt, One Road Initiative that will link the world and transform global trade (with or without America). What this means in Sihanoukville, right now, is that almost every single little beachside bungalow, crab shack, drink shop, family restaurant, and bar catering to foreign and local tourists at the budget and middle-income level is gone. Flattened, razed, quashed, no more. All since the start of the year. Piles of plastic rubbish burn in the streets. Toilets sit on sidewalks. And the rubble looks like a war zone. Going up in its place: an entirely new city of high-rise casinos and hotels. And not just one but many apartment complexes fit to house tens of thousands of Chinese workers in each space.

We watched a guesthouse selling off its wares: every blanket, pillow, mattress, bathroom door, and kitchen utensil for sale. Even the toilets and air conditioners. Customers carted off loot by the wheelbarrow. It’s all happening right now, shifting by the minute.

So I’m thinking about how we crop our views of times and places and the world we interpret. These photos are all of the same place: squalor and splendor in simultaneous measure.

There was chatter recently on social media about the twin events of a royal wedding and yet another atrocity, in Texas, where a teenager shot and killed 10 and injured 13. While Britain rejoiced in the newlyweds’ happiness, in the US, online commenters questioned people’s choice to view the wedding while not dwelling (enough?) on the deaths. But others pointed out: our world is constantly good and bad at the same time. There is beauty and ugliness everywhere, always.

We need to look at it all. At times, it’s important to frame, to crop only what we want to see at the moment. But it’s equally important to remember both, the yin and yang of life, together. If we can’t laugh amid grief, our sadness has no bottom. Beauty, in all its forms, is the only antidote to tragedy—but it does no good if we forbid ourselves from enjoying it.

That is something I learned the first time I ever set foot in Cambodia. And it never changes. This country always breaks my heart, just as I fall in love with it all over again. It is constantly a place of dread and hope.

But Cambodia has taught me that I can mourn all the losses of daily life, and still enjoy grilled fish on a beautiful beach, served by a comedian of a Khmer waiter who makes us laugh with his silly jokes, even as rubbish fires burn all around us. To ignore either side of the picture is an injustice to the other.

Lao Sabai

I remember the very first trip. It was August, which meant sticky days and a heat that swelled until the skies opened with a gush of rain. The rice paddies sparkled in a light I still can’t adequately describe. Radiant. Brilliant. Electric. Cliché. They were the very definition of green.

It was our first anniversary. We’d been working in Phnom Penh, and Jerry surprised me with tickets to Laos. We had just a few short days. We stayed first in Vientiane, visiting Buddhist temples trimmed in gold. We drank wild fruit smoothies at a mom-and-pop shop with a blender out front and a concrete picnic table where we could sit and watch the life walk by. Breakfast was homemade noodle soup on the Mekong with thick Lao coffee and sweet, condensed milk. The pace was slow, and there were no smartphones or Facebook or Twitter to detract from the moment.

Mid-trip, we flew to Phonsavanh on a tiny plane. When we landed, the airline staff informed us our return flight would be canceled because government officials had fully booked the next plane out. So even before we made it to town, we were forced to stay an extra day—and I called the office in Phnom Penh to say I’d be back late.

We trekked through mud at the Plain of Jars, and stayed at a little guesthouse with an en suite bathroom and a broken pipe. Our shower was a bucket. An old mosquito net covered the bed. And I’m pretty sure we had rats in the room at night. There was no 24-hour electricity at that time, so we spent the evening on the guesthouse porch, drinking lao lao by candlelight with another guest. We ate at a little restaurant that served a heap of fried noodles on a giant plate with a military spoon marked “U.S.” I bought that spoon. I still have it today. I had no idea then how much of my later life I’d dedicate to the investigation of the US military role in Laos.

There is a limitation in the work we do as journalists: our audience sees the end report, but it doesn’t see the everyday in between. It doesn’t see sunset on the river, and it doesn’t taste fresh mango with sticky rice at the end of a spicy meal. Our readers don’t see all the little things that feed us with the intrigue that propels our story, makes us want to go back again and again. And again.

As many of you know, we’ve been working on a documentary film, the extension of our book. But even films and books have these same limitations. The story centers on problems; the dramatic question never rests on “a day in the life.”

So Jerry created this: a day in the life of Laos as we have seen. From sunrise to sunset, with rivers and monks and children at school; markets and temples, motos and boats.

It’s Lao Sabai: happy, healthy, relaxed. It’s the underlying story we experience every day that makes us love a place.


Last Suppers

The summer before my last semester of Journalism School (a long, long time ago), I had a fellowship at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. My roommates and I lived in a sprawling apartment complex with a pool and hibiscus bushes in a tropical neighborhood surrounded by damp forests and dark lagoons. I kept my eyes peeled for alligators when I ran those roads.

Half a mile from Poynter was (is) the Dali Museum. I came home from that summer with a framed print of Dali’s surreal Sacrament of the Last Supper as a gift for my mother, a lifelong Catholic. That picture now hangs on the wall behind the dining table where my dad eats most every breakfast and lunch (but not dinner, because dinner he eats downstairs in the dining hall with other residents of his retirement community).

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Last Suppers—appropriate, this Easter week. But the Last Suppers I’m thinking most about are those we cannot predict, and those that ultimately rest in memory as the final meals connecting us to people and places that shape who are are.

My Last Supper with Aunt Helen was a picnic celebration of my mom’s 80th birthday. I didn’t know it at the time, but that would be the last meal Helen and I shared, with plates on patio tables and dozens of others enjoying the warm sun of a summer afternoon in 2016.

Aunt Helen’s heart failed a few days ago. I was lucky to have talked with her last week, while she was still alert. And I was lucky to have seen her asleep, peaceful, just a couple of days before her death. But the outdoor party in 2016 will be my last memory of us eating and talking together.

A few months before that, Jerry and I emptied out my parents’ house of 35 years—the house where I’d grown up—as they transitioned to a smaller, manageable apartment with no stairs. Their house grew barren as, piece by piece, every table and chair and couch and bed disappeared.

It was just the two of us after a long day of lifting, lugging, and scrubbing. Dinnertime came, along with a big hunger. We still had a couple of old lawn chair cushions, so we spread one across the concrete floor of the screen porch my mother had loved for its sun and warmth and proximity to the trees and birds. We bought a few curries (unlikely to have ever been served in that house before) from an Indian market up the road, and we ate on the floor as spring’s cold, crisp light started to fall.

It was only 7 months later when I bought a carton of red lentil soup one night at the grocery store near the hospice where my mom slept through her last days. I spent the night on a pull-out bed in her room, and I ate the soup at the table beside her. And that was our last shared meal—I with my hot bowl of soup and she breathing steadily, asleep beside me. I don’t remember the taste of that soup, but I will never forget that meal.

That’s the thing about Last Suppers: they are ever more poignant in retrospect. Some of life’s most important meals have nothing to do with the food we eat. It’s all about the context in which we eat it.

The thing is, we often have no idea when those Last Suppers will be.

Still Living in Action

Mekong River, Vientiane, Laos, the evening we met Lee

I haven’t posted here in a long time. Quite a long time—but I’m back to the blog. In the weeks to come, I’ll talk about where I’ve been and why you haven’t seen me, but right now I want to tell you about Lee.

I met Lee on the Mekong River in Vientiane one muggy night a while back, as we drank through the sunset at outdoor tables with pretty little blue-and-white checkered cloths. The sun dropped like a firebomb, flashing across the water that divides Thailand, the place where Lee was posted 50 years ago as a young aviator, from Laos, the land he helped bomb to smithereens. Except, back then, Lee didn’t know where his bombs fell or what they hit. He told me he thought he was bombing Vietnam.

Guys like Lee never really left the war; they never got all the way home. They’re casualties not counted among the injured or dead. They’re not missing in action—they’re living with it, still, half a century on.

I’ve met veterans before who can’t quite reconcile what their country did to them, and what they did to another country on behalf of their own. Some have married and settled along this river, which forms a sort of demarcation line between their coming-of-age as warriors, and the older age when the consequences of past actions roost in the mind. Others, like Lee—a North Dakota cattle rancher—split their time between the two countries that have shaped them into the people they are today.

I didn’t formally interview Lee. I don’t have his full name, or address, or phone number. I have only the happy-hour stories he brought when he sat at our table. He knew I was a journalist, and he said that’s why he wanted to talk. He said it’s hard to find Americans who understand his story. His narrative adds to an archive of evidence on the US war in Laos, which began with attacks on anti-aircraft positions in the north on June 9, 1964. It escalated with the start of Operation Barrel Roll on Dec. 14 of the same year. Over the following nine years, it became history’s largest bombing campaign, executed mostly in secret. Between 1964 and 1973, US forces and their allies flew more than 580,000 raids over Laos, the equivalent of one bombing run every eight minutes for nine years. It was guys like Lee who ended up dropping, all told, more than 4 billion pounds of bombs—more than all bombs dropped during World War II. That made Laos, per capita, the most heavily bombed country on earth.

No one knows how many people died during those raids, but 20,000 Laotians have been killed and injured by US bombs in the decades since. That’s because an estimated 30 percent of all ordnance dropped didn’t detonate when it fell. Even after decades of clearance, millions of bombs remain in the soil today, a hazard to all. Sometimes farmers hit bombs with their hoes. Sometimes a mother lights a cooking fire and it explodes. In the far north, I interviewed a woman named Mai who told me her family was plotting a new garden when her teen-aged daughter hit something in the ground that went “clink.” She dug to see what it was, and a length of steel appeared—more and more of it, the farther she dug. That’s when Mai started to worry, thinking, “It’s not just metal, it’s a bomb—and it’s unexploded.” When a clearance team detonated that 750-pound bomb the following year, I ducked for cover a mile away, listening to the pat-pat-pat-pat-pat of shrapnel, as dust and debris fell around me.

Lee told me he never knew he was killing civilians in Laos when he dropped his bombs. He never knew little Lao kids would continue to die decades later.

Lee had been stationed at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, a key launch pad for US planes during the war. He said his job was to follow instructions: aim the plane at the coordinates he’d been given, drop the bombs, then loop back to base in Thailand. In an era before Google Earth and GPS, Lee assumed his targets were all in Vietnam. But today we know better: search the National Archives, and you’ll find records for hundreds of thousands of bombing raids with dates, times, weather conditions, airplane models, target coordinates, and types of bombs dropped—in Laos.

That was the “Secret War,” unknown to the American public at the time, and not fully understood by those fighting it.

But there were days when Lee did realize he was hitting Laos. If, for some reason, he couldn’t drop his payload on his official target, he said he dumped his load somewhere—anywhere—over Laos before landing in Thailand. He said that’s what everyone did. He remembered the way the guys on base all thought: We’re bombers. We drop loads and come home empty. That’s our mission. Nobody fails.

Lee remembered leaving Ubon in planes packed with bombs weighing 500 pounds, 2,000 pounds—it depended on the mission. They flew high enough that people on the ground never knew the bombs were coming. But Lee saw the explosions from more than 30,000 feet when planes beside him dropped their loads. He still had vivid recollections: giant mushrooms of fire rising from the rolling forests. He called the blasts “impressive,” but not in a positive way.

Lee said some veterans still don’t fully understand what was happening at the time. They’ve always known the names of their air bases, but they’ve never understood where their bombs landed. “They didn’t know where they were at,” Lee repeated, like a song stuck on a single line. “They didn’t know where they were at. They didn’t know where they were at.”

Lee learned where he “was at” when he returned to Southeast Asia several years ago and recognized his own history in the stories that Laotians told about the war. He nodded toward the wife of the bar owner who had brought us olives and pickles to nibble as we talked. Lee said she was a child when the bombs started falling on her home in southern Laos. Vientiane, this French colonial capital on the Mekong, was safe. It was refuge. “She had to come here,” Lee said.

But the rest of the country was pummeled like no other in human history. We’ve seen the scars: plains of craters that stretch for miles in a landscape so altered that geographers are studying such bombscapes as a mark of the anthropocene.

When war strikes that hard, half a century isn’t enough time to recover—not for the land, not for Lee. Not for many of the people who live here.

Lee told me he returns to Laos regularly, to think. That’s what brought him to the Mekong the night we met. I asked him what he had in mind for the future, and he said he really didn’t know. He had a wife back home. He had a ranch full of cattle. But he also had these long, hard memories in Laos.

Lee’s head was stuck between two worlds—one that knew almost nothing about the long-ago secret war; the other with lives still shaped and defined by the bombs he dropped when he was a kid flying high in the sky.

Lee couldn’t see his targets 50 years ago. But he saw them in the aftermath.


This, all of this, is why Jerry and I have decided to turn our book into a documentary film. It’s taken a few years to gather footage, and we’re now in the final stages of production. We launched the website and trailer last week.

Mekong River, southern Laos

The divisions that unite us


I woke up Wednesday feeling disoriented. I woke up today realizing exactly where I am: facing a vast crevasse that affects us all. This is our common ground. This is the turf we share. No matter which side we are on, this rupture unites us now, as Americans. And we must fight to fix it.

It does little good for any one of us to tell another, “Come join me on this side of the divide.” In 20-some years of journalism, I know that preaching one’s politics changes nothing. But listening, and finding the words to help others do the same, is the only possible path toward change. The only way to eliminate our divisions.

A few years back, I made three separate trips to Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, which is now an independent, oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea. I’ve been thinking of that place all week. I went there to teach local journalists how to craft narrative stories, and how to write proposals for grants.

The capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, sits on the sea. The city is an island of prosperity in a nation of need. I remember my first glimpse of The Wall—or, more accurately, The Walls—long, serpentine barriers, cleaving the city into disparate parts. The government built these walls to separate views of sightly and unsightly things. I was told that people call it “The Wall of Happiness.” It’s what you see when you travel from the airport to the city center. It’s what you see when you travel along the shore. On the sightly side are skyscrapers and beautiful new walking malls, parks and outdoor cafés, and the construction site of a giant tower that bears the familiar name of Trump. On the unwanted side are slums and old neighborhoods, and the people who inhabit these crumbling homes, amid wrecking crews prepared for massive demolitions.

Every day, I went to class and learned the stories of my students. They were all working journalists in a country whose government despises them. I learned of women smacked down in the streets. I learned of men beaten to a pulp, imprisoned, tortured. I learned of husbands whose wives were threatened with violence just because these men go to work and write. And I learned of curfews and whispers, and climates of anxiety in which everyone—journalists and all citizens alike—feared speaking to friends in public because someone was always listening, watching, waiting for missteps against the regime. I had one student who slept in the building where our classes took place because he could not walk the streets freely. He sought refuge in my workshop. That building was the only place in Baku where he said he felt safe.

Azerbaijan’s leader is a businessman who is notorious for his riches. His country is notorious for its oppression. When a prominent journalist investigated the grand wealth of the country’s powers that be, she was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison (after years of suffering repeated threats, harassment and public humilitation). She was set free earlier this year. Her case sparked an international outcry that only furthered the investigations she had started. As for me, I have likely seen my last of Azerbaijan. A few months after my final workshop in Baku, the government raided the offices of the organization that had hired me, and the group halted its work inside the country (a scene of events the US State Department called harmful for Azerbaijan’s democracy).

I write these things today because this is what happens in a country that divides its people and shutters its press. And it’s not just Azerbaijan; it is everywhere journalists work in fear. Donald Trump campaigned on pledges to abolish press freedom. He has already blocked reporters’ access to his first political meetings as president-elect. Watchdog organizations call our new leader an enemy “unlike any we have seen in modern presidential history.” This is a grave danger to our future as a democratic society, no matter where we stand on our country’s divide today.

Last week, we saw Americans—our fellow Americans—selling and buying and wearing T-shirts condoning the lynching of journalists. “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” We live in a world where reporting is disdained, where writers and photographers are killed for what they do. More than 1,200 journalists worldwide have died on the job in the past 25 years. Politics is the deadliest of all beats. Is this really the country we want? Have we really thought this through?

I have lived among many Americans who gripe about “the media.” I grew up with relatives who did (and do) the same—and often for rightful reasons. But the silencing of people and the press is a threat to all citizens, no matter which political side a person is on. There can be no flow of ideas, no informed citizenry, no right to democratic choice in a country that muzzles its own. This is why the freedoms to speak and write and assemble are so critical, our founders enshrined them in our Constitution.

There is a lot of talk this week about the many ways in which journalists failed in this campaign. I say we failed long before Trump and Clinton took to the stage, and we must do better. But we must maintain the right to continue our work without fear. We failed for years to cover the growing gaps between Americans, and the deepening resentments of families forgotten amid the rise of an extraordinarily minute elite. We relied on numbers and polls, but failed to put human experience and emotion into context. We offered data, when people needed explanations and stories to which they could relate.

America’s divisions have not surprised me, because I have seen them all my life. I grew up in sheltered suburbia, in a neighborhood of posh homes on the edge of one of America’s most violent and segregated cities. I have lived in a boom-and-bust coal mining town to which masses of jobseekers flock whenever the market offers a scintilla of hope. I have lived in a Northwest logging town, where families speak of the dead and dying mills that sustained their grandparents and parents—but not themselves or their children.

I live now just a few paces from a reservation line. The people who first dug this soil and watched this sky lived on this land centuries before others concocted absurd definitions of “native” and “immigrant.” My grandfather was an “illegal” all his American life. He was a European-born sailor who lived under the radar, in the American Midwest, for decades. But he was white, and so am I, and now, by biological luck alone, I have fewer worries than millions who fear the sociological consequences of skin color and human emotion.

As a journalist, I have spent most my career in places defined by division. And this is my greatest fear: that our American divisions will never heal. That our Walls of Happiness and Walls of Despair will grow higher with time. I have seen how a spark of malice can burn into an inferno of lasting destruction. That’s what happens in societies that hate and divide.

I’ve racked my brain this week wondering if we, as Americans, can repair the ruptures already in place. We are so different, it often seems. And yet, when I write stories about people, their lives and loves, their joys and fears, I find allies across my Facebook feed—among the left and right, liberal and conservative, foreign and domestic. It is human emotion that unites. It is connection to human commonalities.

So that is what I will try to do, from here forth. I will try to get up each morning and write not about the ways Trump can and will affect the climate—but how his policies affect people. Not about the Trump approach to international aid—but how that approach shapes the refugee dinner table. Not about gender equality in Trump’s new world—but about individual women as they live their lives, feeling the same human emotions each and every one of us experiences in one context or another.

Joyce’s Peanuts

joyce-peanuts-rsJuru Joyce is a South Sudanese vendor who sells beans and peanuts at the market in Adjumani town, in northern Uganda. I’ve come to talk with her specifically about those peanuts. As some of you know, I have spent the past couple of weeks in Uganda, on an IWMF fellowship to report on the South Sudanese refugee crisis. The situation has overwhelmed Uganda’s refugee settlements since fighting flared in July. And during my time reporting here, I have learned that a common food is central to this cross-border story: peanut paste, a.k.a. peanut butter. Everyone eats it, if they can. If they are lucky enough to have it (many recent refugees don’t have money to buy it, and it’s not part of the rations they receive in the settlements). Peanut paste is a key ingredient in so many dishes eaten by Ugandans and Sudanese alike. It’s a symbol of unity, and also of the losses suffered in war. So I go to Joyce with questions in mind. When I step up to her stall, I don’t expect the story she reveals—though I am not surprised. I’ve heard a lot in the past two weeks.

In 1991, Joyce fled warfare in her homeland, seeking refuge across the border in northern Uganda. Like thousands of others, she lived for years in a Ugandan refugee settlement until one stormy night in 2004. That night, she suffered a blow like no other. Soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army raided her settlement, kidnapping children to be swept into their notorious war machine. Joyce fled to the bushes and survived. But the LRA captured her kids, and those of her brother and neighbor—10 in all. She has heard or seen nothing of them since. After that, Joyce says, she wanted nothing to do with a refugee settlement ever again. So she moved to Adjumani town and struggled to make a business. With the help of a charity, she was able to start selling beans and peanuts in the market. And she earns enough money now to eat three meals a day.

More than 1 million South Sudanese refugees are now living in neighboring countries; 185,000 of those have arrived since July. Every day, thousands more arrive at the border. In just two days last week, 6,715 refugees crossed from South Sudan to Uganda. 6,715 in two days! The UNHCR is drastically short of funds for this crisis, and the World Food Program has had to cut rations for anyone but the newest and most vulnerable recipients. The newest refugees receive hot meals of porridge in the morning, and posho (maize) with beans in the afternoon. Those living in settlements currently receive rations of sorghum, maize, fortified corn/soy blend (CSB), and oil and salt if it is available. Time and again, when I ask refugees about food, they tell me how much they miss, and how much they need—for flavor, for nutrition—the peanut paste they no longer have.

The stories I hear from refugees are heartbreaking. One day, during a rare break on the ground, I sit with an IWMF administrator at the entrance to Nyumanzi transit center, where thousands of new arrivals camp in tents while awaiting transfer to a settlement. My colleague (who is not a journalist) remarks how difficult it is to insert herself into someone else’s life and story, asking questions and taking pictures. She wonders how it felt as a journalist. I tell her yes, it is difficult, but I stop taking pictures when people say no, and I don’t force an interview on someone who doesn’t want it. There is also a flip side to the perceived intrusion. I tell her about the many times I have worked on stories involving people with tragic histories and NGOs trying to help them. And I tell her that often, NGOs aim to protect their “clients’” privacy by keeping journalists away (or regulating how interviews are conducted). The right to privacy is a legitimate right. But so is the right to free speech. And I tell her that I often find people really want to share their stories—even after NGOs or authorities try to prevent them. They want an audience. They want people to know what they have endured. And they want someone to listen because no one ever has. That right—that need—deserves just as much respect as the right to keep a story private.

To all the South Sudanese and Ugandans who have shared their lives with me this month, I thank you. I hope your words will reach many eyes and ears, and people who want to listen.


Will GMOs feed the world? Did anyone ask the hungry?

Thi Thi Oo-8Thi Thi Oo harvests mustard greens on her land in Shan State, Myanmar, where most villagers spend their entire lives working the farm. Consequently, locals say, “the land is tired.” As families grow, they divide their farmlands among children and grandchildren. So much intensive farming has led to pests, poor harvests and over-use of pesticides. But the nearest markets are many hours away by trail or train, and locals grow almost everything they eat. For decades under the previous military junta, villagers had little access to the outside world. Elders say they don’t know how they will grow enough to support themselves and their cattle in the future, yet villagers of all ages say they prefer a rural subsistence life and want to continue farming on their ancestral lands.


For the past many years, I have spent a good lot of my time as a journalist looking at hunger, malnutrition and the future of food. And for the past many years, I have consistently found a disturbing trend: For all the energy society devotes to questions about feeding our future world, rarely are hungry people part of the conversation.

We’ve heard endless debates about GMOs, their safety and the controversies over labeling. We’ve read about agricultural technologies and new hopes for greater yields that will feed the planet’s growing population. And we’ve seen these stories accompanied by images of farmers (typically brown-skinned, dirt poor and nameless) or faceless mothers or unidentified masses of people in need. Rarely are those people quoted in the stories about them. When we as a society debate how to “feed the future,” those debates are invariably framed by the scientists, analysts, experts, writers, researchers and policymakers who speak for and about all those masses of people in need.

And so, for the past several years, I’ve made a point of asking the people I interview in the field what they think about food, the future and their greatest needs. What works, what doesn’t and why. And I have learned that a lack of food alone does not cause hunger and malnutrition; it’s everything that stands between food and the people who need it. Politics, economics, environment, education, infrastructure, tradition, gender, religion, power, conflict—they all determine when, whether and how people eat. It is not enough to produce more food or devise new ways of doing so. Successful strategies must address and incorporate all of the above. And hungry people must participate in the conversation.

This is why I wrote my latest piece for SAPIENS.


Camp Food, Laos

Dakcheung Sunrise

Earlier this spring, we followed a bomb clearance team working high in the mountains near the Lao/Vietnam border. We all camped in tents

Schoolhouse camp

pitched inside a village schoolhouse that offered shelter from the wind, rain, cold, and critters outside. One rudimentary room with a stellar view served as the camp kitchen. Cooking took place over a fire on the floor in the corner,

Cooking over fire

and on chilly nights we gathered around the flames to keep warm. Bathing took place at a communal spigot across the schoolyard. On many misty evenings, the mere the thought of a shower brought shivers of dread.

Bathroom run

But the days always turned sunny as the team set to work, back and forth with detectors across fields

Clearance worker in field

with flowering coffee plants

Coffee flowers

and crimson pineapples. This work happens every day across Laos: teams searching for old US bombs rusting in the earth, 40 years after the airplanes dropped them. This particular team was hired by American Jim Harris, founder of the nonprofit We Help War Victims, commissioned by the NGO CARE to clear agricultural fields in this remote area so that villagers can finally—finally—work the land safely and maybe—just maybe—plant cash crops for the first time in decades.


The team worked all day, then headed back to camp for a wash, a rest, and dinner.

Kitchen prep

We all ate Lao-style, communally, dipping little balls of sticky rice into the day’s offerings of soups, stews, salads, and

Communal eating

chile pastes that lit the mouth with heat, filled the nostrils with fragrance, and warmed the insides with all the freshness that makes a Lao meal. I took note of everything we ate the entire time we camped with the bomb clearance team. Today, that food diary is posted on my blog, The Human Palate, over at SAPIENS. Have a look if you want to know more.

(And stay tuned for Part 2 on eating forest meat….)

(And check out the rest of SAPIENS, if you haven’t already, for a look into the world of anthropology today.)