Sonia, 41, with her 4-month-old granddaughter on Nov. 24 in Tunkas, Yucatan, Mexico. Sonia’s husband left for the United States 17 years ago and has not returned. “When people cross the border, they change, but often for the worse.” (Joey Rosa/UBELONG)

Over the Thanksgiving week, a team of ordinary citizens from six nationalities were in Mexico to shine more light on the immigration debate through citizen photojournalism. The expedition was organized by UBELONG, a D.C.-based social venture, and led by its co-founder Raul Roman and former New York Times photojournalist Lonnie Schlein. The team was set up in Yucatan, a non-traditional migrant-sending Mexican state with one of the fastest-growing rates of migration to the United States in the past 10 years. Yucatan, on the Caribbean east corner of the country, is one of the poorest states in Mexico. It sends the highest number of indigenous Mayan emigrants to the States, which concerns the local government as it disrupts the traditional Mayan culture.

The core of the UBELONG project is to bring light to the human side of immigration –a hot policy arena that tends to focus exclusively on economics, often ignoring the social, cultural and emotional sides of the immigration phenomenon. “This initiative is special for at least two reasons. First, it’s work done by ordinary citizens. Second, it’s showing the human side of immigration in a way that is rarely present in the media in the United States and here in Mexico – which is particularly relevant now that the immigration debate is so ever present on both sides of the border,” says Raul Roman.

The fieldwork is done in three communities about 2 hours away from the Merida, the state capital: Tunkas, Cenotillo and Hoctun. In the past 15 years, these three rural communities, classified by the Mexican government as “highly marginalized,” have lost a significant percentage of its population to the United States –in the case of Cenotillo, as high as 60 percent. The team interviewed and photographed over 40 families in these 3 communities. “What makes this work so special is our focus on photography. Photography is a powerful way to bring the human side of immigration to life, and will allow us to make our stories resonate with people,” says co-founder Lonnie Schlein.

On Nov.  28, the group presented its work to the public at the most prominent convening center in Merida: La Casa de la Cultura Elena Poniatowska.

The pictures presented below are a collection that embodies the uncertainties, achievements, failures, fear and hopes of those who stayed behind – either expecting their opportunity to cross the border, or waiting for years for their family members to return — and those who came back home and remember.


Enedina, 71, of Hoctun, is the mother of two migrants, one who returned after 13 years and another who has not returned in 25 years. “I hope my son can finally get his papers so I can see him again. All I can do is pray. We’ve been waiting for a long time. I hope Obama can make it happen.” (Raul Roman/UBELONG)

Clara and Wendy, the mother and the wife of Steve, a Hoctun native who migrated to the United States 12 years ago, show family photos at their home in Hoctun. “We are two women waiting for the same man. We pray every day that he comes back soon.” (Joey Rosa/UBELONG)

Mari, 24, with her son, Jose, at their home in Emiliano Zapata Sur, a neighborhood of Merida. Jose was born in Orlando during the seven years she lived there. “My mother and my two brothers are still in Florida. My dad tried to join us, but he was deported five times. I returned to Merida two years ago to be with my dad.” (Lonnie Schlein/UEBLONG)

Juan Casanova, at his home in Hoctun, shows his American and Mexican passports. “There is no other place like the U.S. They open the gates when you need a chance.” (Joey Rosa/UBELONG)

Rufina, 59, of Cenotillo, has a daughter who migrated to the United States 12 years ago, at age 16 and just 10 days after her wedding. “My daughter called me on Monday to tell me the news about Obama’s immigration speech. We are all so happy. I pray she can return home soon.” (Lonnie Schlein/UBELONG)

Pedro, 73, showing his Social Security card from 1964, when he was hired as a “bracero” to work in the agriculture in California. “After my contract expired, I returned to Mexico. Shortly after, I crossed the border illegally. I wanted to stay, but there was no chance. When you are undocumented in the U.S., you can’t be free. In the late sixties, we were always scared. I miss California.” (Raul Roman/UBELONG)

America Libertad, 80, of Cenotillo, and her husband, Mario, 81, have four sons who after decades in California became legal immigrants. “The culture of marriage in our village is gone. Crossing the border has changed the nature of marital relationships.” (Lonnie Schlein/UBELONG)

Candido, 81, worked intermittently for a decade in California, over 40 years ago. “Times have changed. Crossing the border is tougher today, and you don’t even know if you can get a job. It’s taking a risk for a life that may be unachievable. I would tell young people not go”. (Joey Rosa/UBELONG)

Anacleto, 85, has been the caretaker of the Hoctun cemetery for 50 years. “She was buried yesterday. She was 72. Fifteen years ago, her five sons left for the United States. They could not be here. They will never come back.” (Lonnie Schlein/UBELONG)