People, Profiles

For Levi Bridges, life on a farm led to Russia, Mexico — and journalism

Graduating J-School student, sometime traveling carnival worker drawn to those 'in a state of transit'

Levi Bridges

Levi Bridges (UC Berkeley photos by Brittany Hosea-Small)

For the source of Levi Bridges’ wanderlust — and his determination to give voice to Central American migrants in Mexico, and Mexican migrants here in the U.S. — look no further than Sedgwick, Maine, a town along the state’s southern coast whose population cracked the 1,000 mark sometime after the 1990 census. Its original name was Naskeag, an Abenaki word meaning “the end or extremity.”

“I grew up in a very isolated environment,” says the graduating UC Berkeley journalism student, part of the fifth generation to grow up on a small farm where his family raised sheep and chickens and grew vegetables, “mainly for our use.”

“By the time I was old enough to have some autonomy over my own life I just wanted to be as far away from that place as possible,” he explains. “And in doing that I discovered journalism.”

Bridges is set to receive his master’s degree from the Graduate School of Journalism this weekend. But he’s already racked up an impressive number of real-world print and radio credits, from a widely distributed wire story on a U.S. pastor expelled from Russia, apparently over his LGBT outreach, to a segment on PRI’s The World, reporting on ethnic Russians who’d fled Ukraine for Moscow. He’s also helped launch a shelter for Central American migrants and refugees in Mexico City, lived with undocumented workers in a labor camp on a New York apple farm, cycled across Siberia and worked for a carnival in California. Besides his radio-ready English, he speaks both Spanish and Russian.

He hopes to write a book on the traveling carnival industry, an ambition that was born as a Fulbright project and grew into his master’s thesis. Completing the project will mean circling back to his former haunts to conduct audio interviews with workers, rather than simply recording his notes of informal conversations, as he did when he worked the midway himself.

Bridges in the journalism school studio at North Gate Hall

Bridges in the journalism school studio at North Gate Hall

First, though, he plans to return to Mexico in June, the big idea — financed, in part, by a $10,000 award in Berkeley’s Big Ideas competition — being to tell the stories of transients in migrant shelters with the help of a “mobile radio studio” he’ll carry from town to town. In addition to filing his own reports, he wants to find people to do “audio diary stories,” first-person accounts told in their own voices, without narration.

The MigRadio Podcast, to be produced in English and Spanish, will feature “anyone who’s in a state of transit,” from deported Mexican immigrants to Central Americans whose journeys to the U.S. were derailed by calamities, up to and including gang kidnappings — the kinds of people he met while volunteering with a shelter “in a dodgy part of Mexico City.”

“They’d decided to give up the dream of going to the U.S.,” he says, “and to make a new life in Mexico.”

One of the lessons of his earliest days in Mexico — he visited for the first time during a year off from Alfred University, when he “really fell in love” with the country — was that the people in that part of the world were “gifted storytellers.”

“There seemed to be a lack of these voices being heard in mainstream media,” he says, noting that the Big Ideas coordinators assigned him a mentor, the immigration editor for The World, one of several outlets interested in partnering with him to broadcast radio pieces.

Bridges spent his last undergraduate semester in Mexico City, remaining there for a year and a half as the literature student “kind of transitioned into journalism” with a job at an English-language newspaper. He returned to the U.S. when the paper lost its funding, but headed back again after four years thanks to a Fulbright grant to research a book about immigrants working in the U.S. on temporary visas — and, due to their precarious status, “the ways in which they were mistreated by their employers.”

“Oftentimes they’re at serious risk of being exploited,” Bridges explains, “because the visas don’t allow them to change jobs. They’re linked to one employer, so it’s very easy for that employer to take advantage.”

A lawyer he met in Mexico City led him to a town in southern Mexico where, he says, more than 4,000 people are recruited annually for the U.S. traveling carnival and circus industry. “I felt like I had to work in the industry myself to understand it,” he says, and hired on with a large company in California.

And while “seedy histories” are a commonplace among carnival workers, Bridges’ clean-cut persona didn’t trigger alarms for his bosses, who never suspected he might have ulterior motives.

“They treat you so horribly,” he says, “they figure anyone who shows up there asking for a job has no other options.”

Last summer, Bridges, who’s studied abroad in both Spain and Mexico, received a fellowship from the Overseas Press Club Foundation to practice journalism in Russia. Sometimes, though, his love of the road is something akin to unadulterated love — as when he and a friend toured Siberia by bicycle, despite his being an inexperienced biker himself. Before hitting the road — such as it was — they spent a couple of months learning the language in Vladivostok, near Russia’s borders with China and North Korea.

“When we were planning the trip there was no complete road across Siberia. It seemed like the hardest bike trip we could do,” he recalls. “It was either Russia or Africa, and when we found there was no road across Russia we decided that was the one.”

For Bridges, who grew up wanting to get “as far away as possible” from Sedgwick, Maine, a grueling 10-month bike trip in Siberia — sleeping mostly in tents, pedaling 50 miles before reaching the next roadside café  — was the epitome of a fun vacation.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that he didn’t write about it.