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.
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 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.
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