Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2119

The real faces of America

This article is over 13 years, 4 months old
Photojournalist Jess Hurd travelled across the Southern states of the US in June to talk to people about Barack Obama, racism, the economy and their everyday struggles to survive
Issue 2119
Marcos Antonio Prado at the Magic City Trailer Park, Miami ( (Pic: Jess Hurd)
Marcos Antonio Prado at the Magic City Trailer Park, Miami ( (Pic: Jess Hurd)

My journey started in Miami, Florida – a city of conspicuous wealth where grand mansions jostle for space along bleached white beaches. But there is another side to Miami – the poverty of the Magic City trailer park where I met Marcos Antonio Prado, a migrant from Guatemala.

“I work from 7am to 11pm as a security guard, but I still don’t make enough money,” he said. “I can’t afford to live anywhere else. It’s not ‘Magic City’ here like we hoped.

“I hope the next president will do something for all the foreign people, give us papers – we don’t have jobs, we don’t have nothing.

“If I had my papers, I would vote Democrat. I think Obama will be good for us, for all the people. The Republican candidate John McCain will continue the same George Bush politics of war.”

At a homeless shelter on the edge of the Overtown district of Miami I spoke to Billy Jewel Garrett Jr, who had worked as a cook for 25 years.

Originally from North Carolina, Billy came to Miami to tackle his alcohol problem and go back to college. He shares the shelter with 300 other men, sleeping on the concrete floor in the kitchen. Only those in the drug programme get beds.

“Miami – it’s pretty, it’s beautiful,” he told me. “It looks like paradise when you go to the beach with all the million dollar houses. But once you cross over them islands and come into the town of Miami, you’re right here in the ghetto.

“This used to be Overtown. But they’re pushing black people back so they can put in the people with money. They’re kicking people out, putting them in projects – and building up all these skyscrapers that just sit there empty because nobody can afford them.

“It’s hard out here to get any work. You can get a job in McDonald’s, but if you want a good job they don’t hire you if you have a felony. They don’t care if it is 20 years ago, or whatever.”

I asked Billy about his hopes for the new presidency. “I hope Obama can clean up what Bush left behind, bring peace back to the nation. We need jobs, more good jobs. We need help out here and more affordable homes.”

My next stop was Atlanta, Georgia. I sat in a crowded Greyhound coach station next to Nekeeta Salamne, a young mother from Trinidad.

“My God, I wish I could vote,” she said. “I wish I had a voice in this country. I would try to change a lot, because this country is going from bad to worse.

“That George Bush and now this John McCain – all they think about is war. Is that what you want to teach your children – that war is what the world is about?

“They talk about insurgents attacking. But what’s an insurgent? They’re normal people who are just attacking the army.

“Bush has a bunch of idiots around him – Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice. Condoleezza has her hand in dirt. She is one of them. How could you be black and be a Republican?

“In New Orleans the levees didn’t break because of the hurricane. If you compare New Orleans to the wild fires they had in California, all the millionaires, their mansions were burning, if you take a look at the difference, you contrast how they handled that, you would want to cry.

Double standard

“There are double standards when it comes to dealing with black people and poor whites. You know what white people call poor whites? They call them ‘white trash’ – how disgraceful.

“People in this country need to wake up, and we are waking up. Obama is a beautiful sign that the day is changing in America. I feel like he relates to me – that he is not talking at me, he is talking to me.”

I moved on to Birmingham, Alabama, a decaying industrial town where even the Wal-Mart supermarket has closed down. Jane was sitting on her doorstep and had a very different view of Obama’s candidacy.

“I don’t like Obama,” she said. “Everyone wants a black butt, but I wanted a female. Hillary Clinton dropped out too quick – she should be on the ticket with him.

“Everyone wanted this to be a new change – the first black man in the White House. But he ain’t gonna do any more than the rest of them did. We have nothing in Birmingham. We don’t have decent public transportation, we don’t have a theatre downtown, no bars, no pubs.

“You can’t buy a house. Those that are in their own home, they’re foreclosing on them. You can’t pay your gas. You can’t pay your light. You can’t pay your water. You can’t buy groceries.

“If there ain’t no depression, why is everything going down the toilet?”

Further out of town in Brighton I spoke with Elnora Golden, a retired woman who is bedridden with acute arthritis. “My grandmother was a slave,” she told me.

“The white man raped her, so she had a white baby. She died before I was born, but my mama always said she wanted us to be different, not prejudiced.

“Martin Luther King said, ‘It’s gonna change’. And there has been change. One of my kids went to a mixed school, black and white. She had more white friends than black friends.

“The children used to come to the house and a neighbour said, ‘Why do you have white people coming to your house?’ I said, ‘They’re not bothering me. I don’t care what colour they are, they are children. If my children deserve respect, so do they.”

I met the Smith family in a run down industrial district of Birmingham. They spoke to me about the lack of jobs in the city. “We’re barely making it with all of us pulling together – you can’t live by yourself,” explained Vera. “They are throwing us back into depression.”

Keynnon didn’t think the election would change their situation. “Presidential wise, they don’t know me from you, once they get in. They make promises now, but anyone can tell a lie.”

Cornette added, “They ain’t caring nothing about us – they’re caring about their pockets. As long as they’re living good, we’re living bad.”

I moved on to Montgomery, another city in Alabama, where I met James Charles Jr, the first black taxi driver in the city. “I started in 1977,” he told me. “Back in the 1960s there were no black drivers or black riders in yellow taxi cabs.

“There’s still racism going on, but it’s undercover. It would be better if the people tried to love each other more and leave all that hatred alone.”

James took part in the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 at the height point of the Civil Rights Movement. “It was a good march and it was a bad march. A lot of people died, a lot of people got dog-bit, a lot of people went to jail – but we made it to Montgomery.

“It wasn’t about white, it wasn’t about black – it was about being free to go wherever you want to go in Montgomery. Before the march we couldn’t go into certain restaurants, we could not go into certain theatres – but after all the marching was over, we could.

“I knew Rosa Parks. She was a lady, she didn’t bother anyone,” he said. Parks sparked the Civil Rights Movement in 1955 when she refused to give her street on a bus to a white person.

“The only thing she did was sit on that bus. She was asked to move to the back of the bus – but she refused to go. They arrested her, took her to jail, fingerprinted her.

“If you pay for a bus ride, you got the right to sit where you want to sit. She was a great woman, a beautiful woman, a strong woman – that’s what we need more of.

“I fear that Obama as president of the US is like any other man. He can only do so much. Whoever wins, it’s gonna take time to build the US back up again, with the war and everything.

“I just pray to God that whoever wins will try to help the poor people, will try to get the gas prices down and help the people that really need help.”


In the Chisolm district of Montgomery, young men spoke of how frustrating life in the US had become. “I don’t think it could get worse,” said Ronaldo McGee. “If it do get worse, we will be considered a Third World country.

“People ain’t gonna sit around and starve. They’re gonna have to do what they have to do to feed their family. I wish I could get up enough money and go somewhere else, where there are equal opportunities for everybody.

“They’re looking out for the prisons more than the kids in school – and if the kids in school don’t get a proper education, they’ll end up in prison.” His friend Jerome Jackson added, “We’re suffering down here – we’re never gonna make it out of the ghetto.”

In the poor agricultural town of Greenville, Mississippi, Laura Charles sat outside her back door with a handful of bills. “I didn’t have the money for the electricity and the man just came and said he had to cut it off,” she said.

“My bill is over $100 because I run my air conditioning. I’m on heart and blood pressure pills and have to stay cool. My medicine is waiting at the doctors. It’s $149 dollars – I can’t even buy it.

“My son has been to Iraq twice and I’m kinda scared he might have to make another trip. He may be going back a third tour. I don’t know who might get in the White House, but I’m hoping it be Obama. I believe he would do what he could for us, because right now we are looking at a $90 million shortfall for Medicaid health benefits.

“It is so bad that when we do go to the doctor, they don’t do anything for us, they send us home. People are simply going to die.”

In the queue at the St Vincent de Paul charity centre I met a young mother whose income had dropped below the poverty line.

“We were doing just fine until two years ago when the government started jacking up oil and gas prices,” she said. “Money has tore apart my marriage. It has made my husband go crazy.

“Gas prices are over $4 a gallon and I don’t know if I have enough gas right now to leave the parking lot. I mean I’m dead broke. I came here to get people to help me feed my kids because I can’t afford to make it to my first pay day.

“Our whole lifestyle has totally changed. Blue collar people like me who work for $12 to $20 per hour might as well be working for $2 per hour because our money doesn’t go anywhere.

“McCain is one of the main oil drillers in our country. He is making all these promises but I would much rather see Obama or Hillary get in.

“I have never used social services – yet here I am, crying and begging these people to help me. I don’t get food stamps. I pay my taxes. I do what I’m supposed to do.

“And Bush is still spending billions of dollars a month in Iraq for a war that is not supposed to be happening. My cousin just died two months ago in Iraq and you tell me there is no war?

“I am usually a very political person that really believes in God and leadership and our military. But our commander-in-chief is sending our military straight to hell and I’m sorry to say that.

“I pray that Obama does make change, but I’ll believe it when I see it. I’m ready to see a black president. I’m ready to see a woman president. I’m ready for change because I am telling you as long as a Republican sits in that chair, it’s only going to get worse.

“President Bush has done nothing but cause war and we will be crawling out of this when my children are 90 years old.”

For more on Jess Hurd’s project go to »

Laura Charles sits with her utility bills outside he backdoor. Greenville, Mississippi ( (Pic: Jess Hurd)
Laura Charles sits with her utility bills outside he backdoor. Greenville, Mississippi ( (Pic: Jess Hurd)
Young mother at St Vincent de Paul ( (Pic: Jess Hurd)
Young mother at St Vincent de Paul ( (Pic: Jess Hurd)

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