ESCONDIDO — When Don Bartletti came to the U.S.-Mexico border in November to witness the Central American migrant caravan approaching the border fence in San Diego, he experienced a sense of déjà vu.
After logging 40 years on the job as a photojournalist for The Los Angeles Times, the now-retired Bartletti said it was a position that took him across America and around the world.
But the gravity of human migration through Mexico and into the U.S. kept pulling Bartletti back to the borderline.
Bartletti went to Tijuana to document photos and write a cover story and multi-page retrospective for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
“When the Central American caravan reached Tijuana last month, I felt compelled to continue telling the migration story. But the latest surge of a thousand people running towards the San Ysidro Port of Entry from Tijuana on Nov. 25 was unlike anything I had witnessed in the past. It also felt like a breaking news story that had already happened,” wrote Bartletti. “The value of carefully researched and crafted photographs about the border help translate the mind-numbing statistics into something real.”
Today, dozens of Bartletti’s photos line the walls at the The Photographer’s Eye: A Creative Collective gallery in Escondido. The pictures enmesh the 2002 six-part series titled, “Enrique’s Journey,” a story that earned Bartletti a 2003 Pulitzer Prize.
The story’s protagonist, Luis Enrique Motiño Pineda, rides along the route known as “The Beast” atop a freight train from Tegucigalpa, Honduras to Nuevo Loredo, Texas.
At the time, thousands of people seeking to come into the U.S. rode atop the train dubbed El tren de la muerte (The Death Train).
One of them was Enrique, who eventually made it across the border to find his mother in North Carolina.
Bartletti attempted to recreate that journey by taking the trip himself.
Riding often hundreds of miles at a time, he said that the end product turned into the first piece of photojournalism of its era by a U.S. reporter portraying the long journey from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Today, Bartletti said that he thought a similar project might not receive a green light from national newspapers due to the heavy costs associated with the trip.
“It’s not a, we call venues when we go to an assignment and see, they’re like in one place, one building, or one field if it’s a sporting event,” wrote Bartletti. “This was a venue that was 2,000 miles long. Skinny, but 2,000 miles of uncertainty day after day after day. So no one had ever done this story, no newspaper or magazine that I know of had ever done this story.”
Growing up in Vista (Four decades later, Bartletti still lives in his childhood home), Bartletti said that he first trained as a photojournalist at Palomar College in San Marcos, earning his degree in 1968. After retirement, he spends his time lecturing at colleges nationwide.
Part of the rollout of “Enrique’s Journey” has a campus component too, with Bartletti giving a lecture at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido.
While riding along “The Beast” for the story, Bartletti said that he experienced rough patches, including having his equipment stolen, encounters with MS-13 gang members, and the physical discomfort of being a middle-aged man riding on top of a moving freight train.
And yet, he felt a journalistic duty to continue doing the work.
“Most of the time all you are in the United States is a number, you’re one of 10,000 this month, or one of a million last year, but to me you’re a real person, you have a real face, you have a real name, and a real story,” Bartletti said. “And If you let me stay close to you, the minimum I’ll do is photograph the truth. I’ll show exactly what you’re going through. And if you allow me to get your name, talk to me for a few minutes, I’ll tell that part of your story, too.”
Beyond his work chronicling human migration, Bartletti spent much of his career documenting migrant labor in North County, culminating in a book project titled, “Between Two Worlds, the People of the Border.”
Bartletti’s work will remain on the walls at Photographer’s Eye until Feb. 13.
The collective plans to rent dark rooms to photographers. It will be the first of its kind in the area, according to gallery director Donna Cosentino.
The Photographer’s Eye is on the eastern edge of downtown Escondido at 326 E Grand Ave.