By Marco Vera
When documentary filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz ventured out into the Imperial Valley/Mexicali communities to undertake his next documentary film, he did not have a definitive end result in mind, no particular road map to categorize what his finished film would be. Inspired by the William T. Vollman book, "Imperial," and by the nature of the documentary film to lead him to where the story unfolded, Ruiz started to document the community on both sides of the border with the help of cinematographer Claudio Rocha ("Principio y Fin," "Bajo California"). One of these ventures took him to a migrant shelter for teenagers in Mexicali named Albergue del Desierto (The Desert Shelter), where its coordinators would lead him to a reporter who could really put his finger on the pulse of the city's beating heart: Sergio Haro.
Sergio Haro is a veteran photojournalist and editor for "Semanario Zeta," a legendary weekly newspaper known for its detailed, incorruptible coverage of the Mexican border drug trade and for unveiling corruption within the political and law enforcement agencies of Baja California since its foundation in 1980. The weekly paper was founded by Jesús Blancornelas and Héctor "El Gato" Félix Miranda with the common principle of running a critical, autonomous, uncensored publication that would not be subject to government manipulation or bribery. Both founding members now deceased, they are recognizable symbols of freedom of expression not only in Baja California, but internationally. Although the paper is based in Tijuana, it is printed in the United States and imported into Mexico to ensure that no press is ever stopped and no reportage is censored. Throughout its history, the lives of many of its reporters have been threatened, while others have been tragically silenced and lost. Sergio Haro has covered the Mexicali region for the larger portion of "Zeta's" 30+ year history (Mexicali being the capital of Baja California, where its main federal, state, and municipal government facilities lie), and his career has not developed out of harm's way. In Bernardo Ruiz's documentary film, "Reportero," the story of "Zeta" is the heart of the work, told through the life and eyes of Sergio Haro.
Bernardo Ruiz's central interview with Sergio Haro in the film is electrifying. It is through Haro's compassionate, daring, and humane testimony that we bring into relation one reporter's life story with the many brave journalists who risk their lives for their beliefs, for freedom of speech and for truth in an environment as hostile and violent as the United States-Mexico borderland. The film is as much of a wake-up call as the articles this indefatigable collective group of reporters publishes.
Ruiz's film chronicles the history of "Semanario Zeta" through the testimonies of the embattled weekly's key players. The access he was provided to "Zeta's" archives allowed Ruiz and editor Carla Gutierrez to beautifully craft a poignant and important argument in favor of these people creating hard-hitting investigative journalism in Baja California. Testimonies from now defunct founders Jesús Blancornelas and Héctor "El Gato" Félix Miranda put into context how difficult and perilous it was to undertake this venture and current "Zeta" co-directors Adela Navarro and René Blanco (Jesus Blancornelas's son) detail all of the sacrifice it still takes to preserve the journalist-run weekly's freedom of expression. The film also demonstrates the weekly's tragic, yet courageous history, where the consequences for their combative journalistic style have included serious danger: threats, intimidation, reporters having to live under armed bodyguard protection, stress on family life, assassination attempts and, unfortunately, cases where some of its protagonists are murdered for courageously publishing their byline. At the same time, a bold newer generation of "Zeta" journalists is compelled to report and bring about change in a border region where impunity reigns.
Artbound caught up with Sergio Haro to discuss the premiere of "Reportero" on PBS's acclaimed POV documentary film series on January 7, as well as his career and extraordinary life's work as a photojournalist, and the recent release of his first book, "No Se Olviden de Nosotros" (Don't Forget About Us):
"I think it's an important step for the film to be shown nationwide in the United States, not just because of what PBS stands for, but because of the coverage the film is getting," states Haro. "The documentary toured Mexico via the 'Ambulante' traveling documentary film festival, it played at independent spaces, and was shown in the United States at events and festivals that support independent cinema and human rights, as well as universities. I think the fact that it will be playing on the Public Broadcasting Service is an excellent platform for the film."
"Above all, as I've stated before, I believe this to be important because of the theme the documentary handles, so that the situation Mexican journalism is in can be seen and transcend boundaries. I feel the more this problem is publicly exposed, its visibility becomes a good measure in calling attention towards this crisis, and then Mexican authorities can be pressured into carrying out the labor they're supposed to be carrying out," exclaims Haro.
Sergio Haro was born in a small town in the state of Sonora, which borders the Mexicali valley in Baja California. His family, just like most of the families established in the valley, was involved in agriculture; his father would repair agricultural machinery before they moved to Mexicali. Regardless of his very early valley background, his upbringing and memory are city-based:
"I consider myself an urban person, all of my childhood memories are from urban Mexicali. I do see a tendency in many reporters to focus on the Mexicali valley when they refer to marginalization, but they don't have to go that far, there's plenty of marginalization in the inner city. Indeed, the Mexicali Valley is truly marginalized, they do not have basic cultural offerings such as a film theater, for example; there aren't many options. That, combined with insecurity and phenomena such as exploitation of the work force and child labor, has led to the youth getting involved in more drug related activity there."
Sergio majored in Education, but it was in the academic environment of the time that he came across journalism:
"There was a political effervescence in the university at the time that opened my eyes and awoke a social awareness in me. I saw a need to participate. There were many movements and currents within the university, there were Trotskyites, Stalinists, Maoists, movements and groups that represented just about everything except the two main political parties in Mexico. A group of university peers invited me to join a journalistic project called 'Foro' after graduating. I had taken some photography courses, but truly learned the craft there. My first assignment was covering the death of over 20 farm laborers working under precarious conditions. We were leftists, inexperienced journalists with the desire to do things."
Sergio began working for "Zeta" when he was entering his 30s, an age where the ideological fervor he felt guided him entirely.
"I coincided with the weekly's stance; it was always a spirited, combative and independent publication. It touched on themes no other paper would. Plus, it allowed me to infuse my stories with a human element, with sensibility, and not just relay hard facts. 'Zeta' allowed its journalists to propose content, and not just report on assignment. Fellow journalists would sometimes relay information over to us because they were not going to be able to publish these stories where they worked. At the time, the press was absolutely controlled, and I was very fortunate to work in these environments. 'Zeta' had a critical position, it criticized the government and Jesús Blancornelas, its founder, was an experienced and driven leader. 'Zeta's' impact was very intense."
Haro's work is characterized by a humanist tone and style; his articles advocate denunciation as well as change. His photographs have been displayed internationally as stand-alone pieces, as works of art. His commitment as a risk-taking reporter is the constant factor that elevates his brand of journalism to artistic standards, even when dealing with subjects as violent as murder in one of Mexicali's most brutal prison riots, which resulted in one of his most emblematic works:
"The inmates had control over the prison for about two weeks," affirms Haro. "One night everything escalated and inmates rioted and murdered each other. In this context of hysteria, due to all this mass confusion and lack of control, I practically walked into the prison when they were wheeling out a prisoner who had been stabbed. We hid in the top story and had to be cautious because the prisoners had guns and were shooting outwards from prison. It was a Dante-esque image from above."
Recently, the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC) press published Sergio Haro's first book, entitled "No Se Olviden de Nosotros" (Don't Forget About Us), a collection of articles spanning more than 20 years of uninterrupted journalistic labor. The book eloquently covers extraordinary events such as the lamentable assassination of fellow journalist Benjamín Flores, grand-scale corruption, electoral fraud, narco-related killings, and the abandonment of rural communities in the face of health epidemics and natural disasters.
As detailed in the book, Sergio has been covering decisive, life-altering moments in Baja California's history, all the while elevating local journalism to international standards. One strong point is the assassination of then Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana in 1994:
"It was his first visit as a PRI presidential candidate to this PAN governed, opposition state, in a marginalized neighborhood," states Haro. "There was no control. When the fatal shots were fired people wanted to lynch Mario Aburto, the now convicted killer, while Colosio was being rushed away. Different police and presidential security forces did not recognize each other. It was chaos. The coverage we handled took a tremendous team effort. My photographs were used as evidence due to the fact that you can see the culprit in the audience prior to the assassination."
Sergio is confident in the future of Mexican journalism as a compromise, as something to be engaged in with bravery and respect for freedom of expression, as a need to inform others of the realities of border living. As Haro states, "This is what's happening and our media has to reflect that. For us as journalists, it's a way of seeing the world and a compromise. To stand silent is to be an accomplice."
"Reportero" airs on PBS's POV documentary series Monday, Jan. 7th, 2013 and will be available for online streaming Jan. 8th through Feb. 6th, 2013 on the POV website. For more information visit: http://reporteroproject.com/
Sergio Haro is currently promoting his first book "No Se Olviden de Nosotros" (Don't Forget About Us), which highlights some of the most memorable journalistic work of his career. It will be presented at Mexicali Rose Centro de Arte/Medios Jan. 31st, 2013.
Top Image: Courtesy of Quiet Pictures.
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