Toxic Softscapes: On Entries, Bodies, and Plants


This photo essay theorizes the permeability of geopolitical, fleshy, and floronic borders through toxicity. Specifically, this project will visualize toxic materials (DDT & Glyphosate) through the material practices they have instantiated: 1) getting deloused with DDT to gain entry into the U.S. for contracted farm work and 2) applying and carrying RoudUp (Glyphosate) for weed abatement by gardeners. Given that toxicity is dissipative but not dwindling, burrowing but not self-containing, this ethnographic visualization project serializes fifty-years of one person's toxically-instantitated confrontations, manipulation, and primming of plant life by attempting to capture, through photographic exposure, the after and on-going effects of those interactions. In doing so, the toxic will emerge as historical and ongoing, cohering decidely more for racailized and gendered bodies and the plants they harvest, trim, and desicate. 

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Created Image: "Admitted at: Calexico, Calif."

Substantive caption: This image is of Juan Zárate’s Alien Laborer’s Identification Card. The card was issued to Zárate in Calexico, California on 8-28-1961. With it, Zárate was able to enter the United States as a guest worker for the Bracero Program, which contracted five million Mexican nationals to work in U.S. agriculture work from 1942-1964.  

In the photo, a shirtless Juan Zárate rests his chin on a white block. Moments earlier, he had performed a series of nude exercises while Immigration officials inspected his body. Following the photo, Zárate, like all braceros before and after him, was instructed to hold his folded clothes in front of him in preparation for a full-bodied and naked delousing with the insectidicide Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroetha (commonly known as DDT). DDT is a chemical now known to be disastrous to humans and the ecology. Its use was banned in the United States in 1972 and globally in 2004.

Juan Zárate is my father. I choose to focus on his bracero ID because I am interested in how visual and toxic regimes operated in tandem during the Bracero Program. The image leads viewers to consider how toxics were not just used on the fields but on the bodies of Mexican guest workers. Viewers are pushed to consider how their bodily subjection to DDT madethem braceros; how the visual and toxic regimes created their anonymity by reducing them to arms/brazos and an identification number. The DDT delousing marked them not as subjects to be protected under contract but as potential threats from which to protect U.S. society. The visualization of Juan Zárate as a toxic subject exposes the processes by which industrialized food production and the accumulation of agro-capital was maximized.

Design Statement: The image conveys how toxicity can be visually marked, even when the scene of toxic subjection is absent (or yet to come). This image helps illuminate how toxic materials have been used on racialized bodies at the behest of national and private interests. In addition, the image helps shed light on the way toxicity is at the core of U.S. agro-capital.  

Created Image: Landscape Maintenance

Substantive caption: This is a reworked image of a business card for Juan Zárate’s gardening maintenance company, J&J Landscaping. J&J Landscaping operated out of his Santa Ana home for over twenty-five years. It was one of the hundreds of formal and informal gardening companies throughout Orange County. I worked for the company as a youth and managed it throughout my undergraduate and graduate work. 


The card consists of the company name, business details, and services offered. I have replaced an image of a chainsaw, which originally complemented the ficus tree on the left of the card, with the chemical compound for glyphosate– the active ingredient in Roundup weed killer. Throughout his decades-long work as a residential gardener, Zárate used Roundup to provide the services his employers demanded and to make his business more efficient. From carrying it on his back over his work clothes, to operating it without protective gloves or mask, Roundup was a common tool– a kind of finishing touch for the gardens he cared for.


Recent legal cases against the Monsanto Corporation have found them liable for defendants’ development of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma caused by prolonged use of Roundup. Though several class-action and individual lawsuits are still pending, decisions have so far highlighted Monsanto’s failure to adequately explain and advertise the dangers of glyphosate. Those at highest risk of developing cancer from Roundup have been found to be farm workers, gardeners, and groundskeepers, as they have regular contact with the compound. Visualizing toxicity through a business card from Juan Zárate’s gardening company helps reveal how toxics are not only close to the bodies and worlds of gardeners but also those of their employers and employees. 


Design Statement: This image conveys how toxicity is present in gardening maintenance economies in Southern California. It reveals how gardens and plant-life, meant to invoke introspection, beauty, and solace, are imbricated with uneven exposure to forms of toxicity for racialized workers.  


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Created date

November 24, 2018