Daily Picture Show

'People Of The Clouds': A Story Of Ghost Towns And Great Migrations

In the hills above town, farmers till a newly sprouted cornfield near San Miguel Cuevas, Mexico.

hide captionIn the hills above town, farmers till a newly sprouted cornfield near San Miguel Cuevas, Mexico.

Matt Black

In 1998, a deep freeze devastated the orange crop in California's large, flat Central Valley and, according to photographer Matt Black, 10,000 people lost their jobs — many of them migrant workers. It was while photographing the aftermath that he came across something unexpected: the sound of Mixtec, a pre-Columbian indigenous dialect from Mexico.

Intrigued by this obscure language and culture, Black traveled to the source in Mexico — more than 10 times — to better understand who the Mixteca are and what they are doing in California. In his words:

Named the "Place of the Cloud People" by the Aztecs and home to one of the oldest pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas, the Mixteca have lost over a quarter-million people to migration, leaving scores of villages little more than ghost towns.

Black is currently soliciting support for his project, called "The People Of Clouds," on the fundraising site Kickstarter — and has already raised more than $3,500 from 58 different backers.

His project explores the many complex socioeconomic questions surrounding migration and leaves one wondering: Can small, isolated communities continue to exist in our modern world? Can identity live on in a ghost town? Can a culture itself emigrate?

In the kitchen of her home, a woman boils corn to make tortillas,  San Miguel Cuevas, Mexico.

hide captionIn the kitchen of her home, a woman boils corn to make tortillas, San Miguel Cuevas, Mexico.

Matt Black

  • Fog settles on the deserted streets of San Miguel Cuevas, a Mixteca village in the highlands of Oaxaca. More than 80% of its population has emigrated to the United States, leaving it little more than a ghost town.
    Hide caption
    Fog settles on the deserted streets of San Miguel Cuevas, a Mixteca village in the highlands of Oaxaca. More than 80% of its population has emigrated to the United States, leaving it little more than a ghost town.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • A farmer surveys a cleared and burned hillside in preparation for planting corn near the village of San Miguel Cuevas.
    Hide caption
    A farmer surveys a cleared and burned hillside in preparation for planting corn near the village of San Miguel Cuevas.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • A woman harvests corn in her family's drought-stunted field.
    Hide caption
    A woman harvests corn in her family's drought-stunted field.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • Caught in a rainstorm, an elderly man walks home from his remote corn field.
    Hide caption
    Caught in a rainstorm, an elderly man walks home from his remote corn field.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • A woman makes tortillas on an indoor fire while her daughter plays nearby.
    Hide caption
    A woman makes tortillas on an indoor fire while her daughter plays nearby.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • Residents await the start of a burial at the cemetery.
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    Residents await the start of a burial at the cemetery.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • A returned migrant leads a Saint's Day celebration to the church plaza.
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    A returned migrant leads a Saint's Day celebration to the church plaza.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • A farmer works with a plow team in his field.
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    A farmer works with a plow team in his field.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • A girl harvests corn with her grandmother.
    Hide caption
    A girl harvests corn with her grandmother.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • A girl works at her family's farmhouse.
    Hide caption
    A girl works at her family's farmhouse.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • Sisters empty corn from their family's crib.
    Hide caption
    Sisters empty corn from their family's crib.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • A farmer clears forest land to plant corn near the village of El Ciruelo, Mexico.
    Hide caption
    A farmer clears forest land to plant corn near the village of El Ciruelo, Mexico.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • A farmer inspects a burned field in prepartion for planting corn.
    Hide caption
    A farmer inspects a burned field in prepartion for planting corn.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • A woman rests on the patio of a village store.
    Hide caption
    A woman rests on the patio of a village store.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black
  • A woman returns home laden with her infant and household supplies.
    Hide caption
    A woman returns home laden with her infant and household supplies.
    Photos and captions by Matt Black

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Dressed for ceremonial dancing, a boy awaits the start of his town's Saint's Day celebration, San Pedro Chayuco, Mexico.

hide captionDressed for ceremonial dancing, a boy awaits the start of his town's Saint's Day celebration, San Pedro Chayuco, Mexico.

Matt Black

The Picture Show: "The People of Clouds" is a beautiful name. Can you explain it?

Matt Black: It comes from the region's name, the Mixteca, which means the "Place of the Cloud People" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. In the region's native dialect, Mixteco, the people are called Nuu Savi, which means the "People of Rain," but I am also dealing with several smaller ethnic groups which live in the same area, so the broader term fits.

The theme of the project is migration, and loss — so the sense of drift, of drifting away, is important.

You talk a lot about the "cultural change" and "consequences of migration." What are some of those changes and consequences?

For 500 years the Mixteca remained virtually untouched by the outside world. Now in less than a generation it has completely transformed. Families and entire communities have been ripped apart by migration. In some villages it is impossible to find anyone between the ages of 15 and 45 — they are all in the United States. Old men and women have been left to fend for themselves. The situation has become very dire; every aspect of life has been upended.

A boy plays with his dog outside town,   San Miguel Cuevas, Mexico.

hide captionA boy plays with his dog outside town, San Miguel Cuevas, Mexico.

Matt Black

You've studied Latin America and U.S. labor history, so this subject is obviously important to you. Why?

Where I live in rural California, the border doesn't really exist. Indigenous Mexican migrants are reshaping the towns and small communities around me, so I feel both driven and duty-bound to address what's going on.

What are your inspirations, both generally as a photographer, and for this particular series?

My inspirations have evolved over the years but include plenty of photographers, writers and historians of the West and Mexico. I try to have my work stand outside of any particular genre and stick to my own personal approach, but its also important to me to feel that I am contributing to a broader dialogue about the themes and issues I'm photographing.

Do you have a favorite image? Or story?

I've been to the Mixteca 12 times and it is one of the most fascinating places in the world because of what is going on there. It was untouched until very recently. In one village, I was told that I was the second "stranger" to ever visit. I didn't ask for more details, so I am not precisely sure what that meant, but I got the drift. The culture is warm but also intensely private. They are going through so much right now, a headlong collision with modernity, so I'm very sensitive to that.

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