It is 1956. A queue of Mexican immigrants stands at a processing station in Texas, about to be admitted to the United States as part of the bracero guest worker program. They are naked, clothes in hand, waiting for a masked attendant to douse them with DDT, an insecticide whose use would be banned in the U.S. just 16 years later.
It was this scene of casual brutality that photographer Leonard Nadel captured on film in his documentary series devoted to migrant labor (and its many abuses) in the 1950s. In the caption he submitted with the picture, he notes that the men were treated by border authorities in “much the same manner and feeling used in handling livestock.”
The DDT shower was less a ritual of disease protection than a tool of humiliation.
Nadel’s indelible image serves as moving inspiration for a large-scale painting by Los Angeles artist Rafa Esparza that greets visitors to his solo installation at MASS MoCA, the contemporary art center in North Adams, Mass.
Exhibition curator Marco Antonio Flores is a 2019 Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity Graduate Fellow and a 2019 EDGE Fellow.