Delilah Montoya’s photo project Sed: The Trail of Thirst shows a desolate borderland scene dotted with plastic water jugs. The jugs are road signs, stretching into the uncertainty that lurks on the horizon. Human presence is only implied by the feeling of thirst that the image evokes. The migrant –absent from the photograph but etched into the landscape– is a ghostly reminder of the harrowing journey towards the North.
This image confronts visitors as they walk into Brooklyn’s BRIC Rotunda Gallery where Montoya’s work is shown. Bringing together artists from Brooklyn and Mexico, the exhibit Status Report –on view until October 10th– challenges the physical and philosophical landscapes of borders and nations, and looks at the work immigrants do in the context of both their “home” and “host” societies.
Drawing inspiration from the growing presence of Mexican immigrants in New York City, Status Report looks at their contributions to the city’s economy and culture. There are approximately 288,000 immigrants of Mexican origin living in New York, more than double the number in 2000. While their visibility has grown together with their numbers, the show tries to highlight what goes unnoticed as these migrants labor, often in the shadows of the American economy.
The work of Dulce Pinzón draws attention to the “forgotten superheroes,” men and women whose sacrifices sustain their families in Mexico as well as enrich American society.
“A lot of kids are raised by immigrants, for example,” says Pinzón, who photographed nanny Minerva Valencia, an immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, as Catwoman. Most of her images, which show immigrant carpenters, taxi drivers, deliverymen and waiters donning iconic costumes of comic book heroes, were taken during the workers’ lunch breaks. The costumes had to be custom-made, says Pinzón, as it was difficult to find sizes that would fit her protagonists.
“Everyone associates superheroes with being wide and tall,” Pinzón said in a phone interview. “Latino workers tend to be short and dark. I wanted to break down the stereotype of the culture of a superhero.”
Under the name of each worker Pinzón writes the amount of money they send home every week. Many communities in Mexico depend on these money transfers, and while they have significantly decreased due to the recession, remittances remain Mexico’s second largest source of foreign income after oil exports.
At the center of the exhibit is Erika Harrsch’s multilayered installation United States of North America, which focuses on the three North American Free Trade Agreement signatories: Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. She challenges the borders between the three nations through an image of a Monarch butterfly, whose annual voyage across the three countries represents the “cyclical flow” of migration, a natural occurrence that current policies have curtailed, says Harrsch.
“Many Mexican migrants do not want to stay, they want to go back to their children,” she explains. “But the policies are creating a bottleneck here.”
Her own experience in trying to obtain a visa led her to the project. Filming the flight of the butterflies in their sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico, she was inspired by their mobility.
“I wished I was a Monarch and did not need a passport,” said the artist, who has exhibited her work around the world. Her installation also features a fictitious passport that allows the owner a safe passage through the three NAFTA states.
By spinning the wheel of fortune, a visitor can try his luck in getting the passport, a reference to the arbitrary process of the Green Card lottery. Among possible outcomes of the spin are labels such as “passport winner,” “not eligible” or “illegal alien.” The playful nature of the game belies the emotionally charged, often anguishing experience of fulfilling these bureaucratic procedures.
The voyage of a Monarch butterfly, Harrsch feels, is an apt analogy for the migrant’s journey.
“There is this tiny insect, so vulnerable. But it flies 3,000 kilometers (over 1,800 miles), so they are so strong at the same time,” says Harrsch. “Migrants are also vulnerable, they take great risks when crossing, risking dying — and often upon arrival they suffer conflict, abuse.
“They endure a lot of circumstances, but in the end, nothing is going to stop them.”