He had a job that paid 20 cents for every tray of Thompson grapes he picked and laid out in the 105-degree sun to make raisins. In the two harvests since the family left Oaxaca in the spring of 2003, he had never made the minimum wage, never picked more than 250 trays, $50, in a 10-hour day. That September morning, with a fruit tub in one hand and a curved blade in the other, he cut enough bunches to make 10 trays, and then he vanished.
Guzman, drunk, exhausted and in debt to the man who smuggled him here, died after driving his truck off the road. Writer Mark Arax, over the course of the year that followed, meticulously chronicled the impact of Guzman’s death on his family, a narrative enriched by Matt Black’s photography.
Judges said: “Mark Arax’s writing is poetic, his reporting superb. He tells the story of America’s immigrant labor through the life and death of one man, Hilario Guzman. This is magazine writing and reporting at its best, a model for other journalists to follow. In an age when newspapers are cutting back on resources and a commitment to magazine writing is on the wane, it’s refreshing to see Mr. Arax and the Los Angeles Times spending one year on “The Summer of the Death of Hilario Guzman.”
Arax, a staff writer at the Times for 20 years, echoed that last point: “So many newspapers today, my own included, are desperately trying to figure out what readers want. They are concluding that they want shorter stories, stories that focus on crime and celebrities and fashion. It’s sad to watch as we try and mimic the worst impulses of cable TV and the Internet. Call me old-fashioned, but the response from readers to so many of my longer stories tells me something else: People hunger for great narratives. They want to be taken to a different world. They want to escape in language and imagery.”