11/20/2011 11:10 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2012

"Mala Fama" and Heroism in Juárez

Dominic Bracco is a photographer who grew up on the border in Texas and now photographs youth in Juárez, Mexico. He focuses on kids whose lives are constantly in danger -- sadly, the majority of people killed in Juárez are under 30. His most recent photo essay, "Life and Death in the Northern Pass," considers small moments in the lives of affected youth, day-to-day mundanity examined under a looming shadow of violence. In one photo, a group of teenage boys are packed like sardines into a small car. The boys are laughing and smiling. It's an iconic shot of carefree youth, until you read the caption: the boys are on the way to their friend's funeral. He was 15 years old.

Located just across a bridge from El Paso, Texas, Juárez is a place that has earned its mala fama, or bad reputation, through decades of turmoil and tragedy. In the 60s and 70s, the city was known for cheap drinks, drugs, and women. It attracted American thrill seekers and the classic shadowy characters of a seedy underbelly. By the early 90s, Juárez became a mass grave for working women after a series of disappearances by female factory workers. Today in Juárez, the spindly fingers of crime have ensnared a far larger swath of society, and the violence has become wild, unpredictable and wholly terrifying.

Unpredictable violence and extortion are widespread throughout Latin America. Last week, a talented young Venezuelan baseball player, Wilson Ramos, was kidnapped outside his home in Valencia. It is easy to vilify the people who kidnapped Ramos. But beneath the despicable act, there is a layer of desperation, a sinkhole created by a vacuum of viable life choices. How bad do things have to be for a person to justify kidnapping and extortion? Every day in Juárez Dominic sees good kids join gangs in order to escape a bullet through the brain. The great irony, of course, is that such an escape may be only a temporary reprieve.

In the United States, the effects of Juarez's problems manifest themselves subtly in our lives. As Dominic and I rode the L train a few weeks ago, I asked him if he smoked marijuana. "No," he replied, his eyes changing. "I just could never use any drugs, knowing what goes into it." I was struck by his response. Where do we draw the line between a freedom of lifestyle and a stranger's freedom to live outside of danger? Few people consider the repercussions individual actions can have on parts of the world that seem distant, and, in the portraits painted by the media, even hopeless.

And hopeless is how we see Mexico these days -- we hear about the violence and little else. But while it is important to bring awareness to the tragedy and devastation crime leaves in its wake, it becomes meaningless if a real understanding of Mexican humanity is lost, if the small actions that comprise individual lives get swallowed by the specter of death and bloodshed. After all, the real story in Juárez is one of survival, finding peace and beauty amidst ugliness and unrest. Just like the photo Dominic took of the teenage boys on the way to their friend's funeral. They were alive, and that life has meaning and is worth understanding. I believe the starting point for change is exploration and understanding.

Over the next year, Dominic and I, along with many other people -- artists, playwrights, filmmakers, musicians, journalists -- will be creating a play about the people of Juarez. This May, Juárez officially changed its name to Heroica Ciudad Juarez, The Heroic City of Juárez. It is inevitable that there will be violence and horror in the piece, but we aspire to show the real courage and beauty of life there as well, where living through violence has been a heroic act for decades. Maybe together, we can take a first step towards making that mala fama a thing of the past.