Mario Bravo died on Thanksgiving Day, 1987, the sixth child to succumb to the childhood cancer cluster of McFarland, California. At 14, he died of liver cancer, a childhood cancer so rare it afflicts 1.5 per 1 million children. In all, 13 children contracted cancer in McFarland, a small farming town 20 miles north of Bakersfield. Most of the victims lived in a small, concentrated area comprising several blocks. I was assigned to cover Mario’s wake. The McFarland cancer cluster was one of two childhood cancer clusters in Kern County at the time, and was receiving considerable national media attention. (The other was in Rosamond in southeastern Kern County, and received much less attention.) Despite that, I was the only media person at the wake at the time I shot this photo. Local media would show up later. Just after I shot this picture of Ernesto Bravo at Mario’s casket, he saw me and walked over. I thought he was going to ask me to leave. Instead, he said, “Please, show the world what has happened to my son.” Then he returned to his son’s casket. The world would not see my photo of Ernesto and Mario Bravo. Nor would anyone in Bakersfield or California. You are seeing this photo for the first time.
In the aftermath of the public reaction to the Hart Park drowning photo, Californian editor Bob Bentley issued a “no dead bodies in the paper” order. It was a “hard” order, meaning there would be no exceptions, regardless of the story or the circumstances. Hard directives and their rigid inflexibility in a newsroom are an awful thing. They can hide reality, obscure context, intimidate and limit the decision making capabilities of reporters, photographers and editors, and deprive the public of seeing unpleasant but critical aspects of important stories. Politicians and even celebrities who took up the cause of McFarland’s predominantly farm worker citizens were convinced that the cause of the childhood cancers was from excessive pesticide use in the farms that surrounded the town. The families believed that, too, and were desperate for answers. But the scientists, epidemiologists and medical experts who exhaustively searched for a cause were not able to find one. The cause of the McFarland childhood cancer cluster remains an unsolved mystery. Reporters covering the story were being so badly harassed by the McFarland Police Department that Henry Barrios, the photographer assigned to it, began carrying a tape recorder to his shoots. You should have heard the audio recording Henry Barrios made one day of the McFarland police chief threatening him and ordering him to leave the town. It was almost an identical replica of Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford T. Justice character in “Smokey and the Bandit,” except it wasn’t at all funny. This was, I believe, the only work I did on the McFarland cluster. I was assigned the Rosamond cluster. Henry was likely on vacation or maybe on a sick day, and I filled in for him.