by Jonathan Blaustein
Here in the United States, we are a nation of immigrants. And yet, we have always demonized them. Does that make us self-hating Americans? Simply ridiculous. Do you know anyone who traces his lineage back to the Mayflower? I don’t.
Of course, those blasted Pilgrims were immigrants themselves. As were the brave, thoroughly crazy men and women who trekked across the Bering Strait land bridge 15,000 years ago. Can you imagine? How hard must life have been in pre-historic Siberia, (or Mongolia,) that it seemed prudent to walk across the frozen ice, into the great unknown? (And then to walk all the way to Argentina? I know people here who drive to the next door neighbor’s house.)
As you probably know by now, I live in the mountains of Northern New Mexico. In my town, the Taos Pueblo claims to be the oldest continually inhabited settlement in the United States. The Spanish conquistadors, who arrived to cut off feet and f-ck shit up, came sometime around 1600. The invading hordes of white hippies and bohemians dropped in (or out) much later, in the 1970’s.
Ironically, all three groups of people have some delicious irony in common. (If I may be so bold as to stereotype.) Each wishes things would go back to the way they used to be. Before new people came to change things for the worse. The Spanish descendants, even today, decry the growth and change, but never seem to mention how their ancestors just took whatever the hell they wanted, at musket-point.
When you stack it up like that, it’s hard not to think hypocrisy hardwired into the human condition. (I do, at least.) A nation of immigrants that has never stopped persecuting itself. How strange.
In 2012, the derogated population du jour is the invading hordes of Mexican and Central Americans who face unthinkable danger when they walk across a forbidding and death-filled desert. Their purpose? To take the fruit-picking, hedge-trimming, and dish-washing jobs deemed too low-paying and thankless for America’s resident citizens.
I still remember the time I met a few Mexican immigrants at a party in Durham, NC in 1995. The idea of Mexicans moving to such a random spot made me laugh out loud. Now, of course, immigrants from points South have gravitated to almost every part of the United States, and have become a political wedge of immense proportions. (I say almost every part, because who would be surprised to find white dishwashers in Utah?)
How and when we deal with our internal conflict is beyond my capacity to speculate. But if we focus on the arduous journey, it certainly helps to contextualize the situation. Some people are actually willing, on a daily basis, to walk across a 130 degree patch of hell, for days, just to make a better life for themselves and their families. Noble, yet tragic, because someone dies almost every other day. (At least.)
They succumb to the elements. Their bones are left to slowly desiccate, in silence. No tombstone. No funeral. No way home.
Is this news to you? Probably not. But when was the last time you saw visual evidence that made your stomach tighten and your tear ducts fire up? (I know, that doesn’t sound fun. But who said art was always fun?)
Jonathan Hollingsworth recently put out a book, “Left Behind: Life and Death Along the U.S. Border,” published by Dewi Lewis, that does just that. It is among the more poignant and thoughtful objects I’ve seen in some time. If every American citizen had a copy, you can bet Mitt Romney would pretend he could speak Spanish. (Hola. Me llamo Mitt. Me gusta los niños, y caminando a la playa con mi esposa.) Demonizing such people should be a crime.
The book, though, lays out its case in a very straightforward and intelligent manner. The opening, short essay was written by the chief medical examiner of Pima County Arizona, in Tucson, where so many bones turn up at the end of the line. Credibility established.
There are three major sections to the project. The first set of photographs documents the sterile, fluorescent-lit confines of the autopsy locale. Sinks, tables, files, skulls, and a spine for good measure. It’s sad, of course, but also speaks to the power of our democracy. While tax rates are on everyone’s mind, it’s good to be reminded of the civil servants who toil in obscurity, day after day, to try to find the answers in these lonely deaths.
Then, we have a slightly-too-long section of images of the contents found on the possession of each corpse or skeleton. ID cards, cell numbers in Brooklyn, coyote contact info, girlfriend photos, belt buckles. Wow. The exact opposite of a dignified stone in a tony cemetery.
Finally, we have the establishment shots. Some landscape images, of course, but also a series of pictures made in a pick-up zone. Left behind shoes, water bottles, clothing. Were they to have come first, their impact would have been muted. At the end of the book, they tug the heart strings rather well.
The book closes with a very-well-written, but not-too-long piece by the artist. Once again, he does what he can to humanize a situation that normally just fumes as a set of statistics. Nicely done, Mr. Hollingsworth. Nicely done.
Bottom line: A sad, poignant, & important book
To purchase “Left Behind: Life and Death Along the U.S. Border” visit Photo-Eye
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