miércoles, 12 de noviembre de 2008

"When my blood was not yet my blood..."

A journey from Kansas City to Mexico City, 1880-1920

About two years ago I decided to do a project- a polyptych of images—related to migration issues. “We all come from somewhere else” I reasoned, “It’s an indisputable fact. Migration isn’t an invention of Mexicans on the US border—after all, the earth has been populated by thousands of years of human migration.” And that’s what I wanted to emphasize—the universal, or rather, global, character of human migration.

original photograph, Butcher Collection, Nebraska State Historical Society

Another undeniable fact is that the assimilation of new waves of immigrants in any territory is a difficult process, rife with conflict. We are daily witnesses of the treatment received by Latin Americans when they arrive in the United States, my own native country. But those who receive them badly also descend from immigrants: territoriality trumps memory.

So I wanted to try to recover something of that memory. I decided to develop a project involving my own personal or family history of migration, as well as that of my adopted country, Mexico. I wanted to create a bridge between Kansas City, where I was born, and Mexico City, where I have made my life.
From then on, the project was defined by the results of my research of possible sources of images. I found three important collections of photographs relevant to my idea: the Solomon D. Butcher Photograph Collection (Nebraska State Historical Society), the Robert Runyon Collection (Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin), as well as several of the collections of the Photography Center (“Fototeca”) of the National Institute of History and Archeology of Mexico. These were supplemented by photographs from my own and other lesser collections.

Meanwhile I had defined a historical period to work with: from 1880, when Nebraska Territory was opened to settlement (and my great-grandparents began to establish themselves in the area), until 1920, when the Mexican migration began to consolidate itself. During this period as well the Mexican Revolution took place.

I also defined the way I would work with the material: first I made a selection of photographs with the idea of establishing a narrative. I often cropped the images when it seemed pertinent in order to emphasize certain elements, except when this alteration was not permitted in the conditions established by certain collections.

The work was then transferred onto Japanese paper and mounted on a rag backing. The backing permitted me to sew on the images, threading them together almost literally. This unifying device is probably an inheritance from the quilting practiced by my grandmothers.

The recourse of putting together many images, varying the color, can also be seen as a reference to patchwork quilts. Throughout this process I dealt continually with the tension between a desire to respect the integrity and documental value of the photographs and the need to create a coherent whole that might go beyond that, or express something more personal.

The images start off with details of the difficult life led by the early settlers who arrived from farther East or Europe. And the background for the settlers’ even being there was, of course, the drastic and tragic reduction of the original population of the prairie, decimated en previous decades by the armed struggle in defense of their territories, by their exposure to Western diseases, and by their forcible removal to reservations.
From these images the exhibit proceeds to document the Mexicans already in movement in the region, from Kansas and Nebraska down to the region near the frontier, particularly in Texas, where the Mexican presence included the population already in the area since the time when it was part of Mexican national territory, as well as those recently arrived, seeking refuge from the ravaging effects of the Revolution in northern Mexico.

The work documents, though very partially, the destruction caused by that war, refugees, transients looking for work, American troops on the Border, agricultural fields, established families posing in photo studios in Texas, and the improvised camps where the migrants lived in Kansas.

Further south, the show deals with the situation around the turn of the century in Mexico City and the surrounding area: the great metropolis and its contradictions, the war, protests and demonstrations, as well as the life and living conditions of those who stayed behind-- the same conditions which impelled others to undertake the long journey toward the north.

It’s a history of blood in many senses,
from the blood of the Native Americans, the blood and sweat of the refugees and the new settlers on the prairie, and of course, the blood which was shed in armed struggles throughout the region. Our own blood comes from that which flowed in the veins of the protagonists of these events.

In the process of putting together this exhibition I looked at hundreds of photographs. What had been a vague idea in my head became a procession of specific images. And each image exists thanks to the sustained effort of a few photographers, insistently registering the world around them: Solomon Butcher, Robert Runyon, and the Casasola brothers in Mexico, among many others. Finally, only through the diligent task shouldered by the institutions that compiled, conserved, and digitized those photographs could their legacy reach us. This project is dedicated to all the people portrayed in it, and to those who helped preserve their images.

Carla Rippey Mexico City, May 2008

The title of this exhibit cites a text by the Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia