Buried in the Graves of Social Consciousness by Roberto Varea – Secos Y Mojados
Prominent among all the omitted stories and silenced voices of our contemporary history, we find those belonging to the masses of immigrants –exiled, refugees, and displaced– vulnerable people who are forced by the millions to leave their home behind. These exoduses are not driven by personal designs or ambitions, but rather by violent conflict and exclusionary economic policies devised to benefit the powerful few. Depending on the socio historic context, some of these migrants may be romanticized years later as “nation builders,” restless pilgrims with an unbreakable will and a propensity for sacrificing everything for the dream of a new start. At best, however, the majority of them will remain a small footnote in histories and folklore. In the Americas, the most vulnerable among migrants are also hidden from the view of those in the mainstream. Their bodies are concealed inside clandestine sweatshops from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires, in the back of restaurants in all major cities, or remain hidden as a result of their working hours, as they staff the graveyard shifts while the rest of us sleep. The resulting consequences are the same: this vast amount of hard labor is disconnected from the laborers who toil while disappeared from our social awareness. The circle of their deletion and disempowerment is shut closed.
Erasing working immigrants and their labor from our social consciousness acts as a sort of lubricant for the machinery of their exploitation. To ensure that migrant workers will not complain, policies based on detention, deportation and, in many circumstances even criminalization (mostly under “human trafficking” statutes in U.S. law,) are put into place. In the U.S. these laws are enforced by an agency named “ICE,” a masterpiece of naming by the Bush administration, which also brought us gems like “Infinite Justice.”
When social deletion does or cannot work, the powerful unleash a formidable apparatus of propaganda. From corporate newscasts to Hollywood films and television, image factories have through time, churned up stereotypical and distorted representations of the migrant ranging from the greaser bad guy, or the funny-little-brown sidekick, to the Maid in Manhattan. Sometimes the “industry” also erases all Latinos (immigrants or not) from sight. Ken Burns’ PBS series on World War II is but one example. Mr. Burns, a filmmaker regarded by the U.S. mainstream as the most popular living documentary director, found no need to interview even one of the estimated 500,000 Latinos, including thousands of Latin American immigrants, who fought in “The War.” It took thousands of outraged people to rally behind the “defend the honor” campaign to force him to make some small changes. He fiercely resisted making them, arguing that this would harm his film’s “artistic integrity.” Finally, he interviewed two Latinos and one Native American, adding about 23 minutes to the almost 15 hour epic (about 2.5% of the total content). These will run after the end of an episode, as a tokenistic footnote, before the end credits roll. It should be noted that Burns had originally scheduled to premiere his film on September 16, which happens to be Mexican Independence Day (PBS just moved the release a week later, so as not to enrage people further.)
This state of affairs has moved many of us to question how the art that we produce addresses the need to represent immigrants in our own terms. To reimagine our cartography so we are not the ones falling off the oceans of history into the mouths of the monsters of oblivion. I ask myself this question: how to engage in creating a body of work that would conjure into sight and into consciousness the migrant’s experience and also reveal some of the hidden mechanics of her disappearance? In developing Buried in the Body of Remembrance, part one of our BORDER TRIP(tych) with a focus on the moment of parting, the Secos y Mojados collective decided to move formally into a layered narrative.
Discussing ideas for the piece, I wrote from Argentina to Violeta Luna:
As immigrants, we are as condemned as we are freed by the in-between. Our present is always a “somewhere along the road,” and a sort of construction site. With shovel in hand we dig our foundation. We dig and we dig until our body itself is built in the shape of the shovel, and of the hole itself. We dig up to reveal, and we dig to bury. Our collective work, our collective graves, our collective memory.
Violeta, wrote back to me from Mexico:
Actions – I am in a hole, my body half buried. I am digging, but just as I dig up, I also bury: a handful of photos, scissors, my shoes… I stitch up the photos to my body, like we used to do as children, just sewing the skin, as if I was tattooing my memories. Memories that are also wounds… and it is all as if done by Sisiphus.
By the time David joined us from San Francisco, the messages were journeying up and down the American continent. The seeds for this piece about the act of parting, migrating, exiling were planted on the in-between of cyberspace. Our working plan mirrored the ways by which immigrants support each other when we venture into unknown places. We all took on specific roles, but we also got our hands on everything. We had no hierarchies, worked with much respect for each other, but at the same time, nothing was sacred. I proposed a “conceptual container,” and suggested scenarios. These were discussed. The emerging images were our own very personal responses that, when juxtaposed, evoked new readings and possibilities. The work of Violeta, a dramaturgy of actions reminiscent of work, play, and violence, was often grounded by the voice of David’s mother, narrating her story of crossing from El Salvador. Our visual centerpiece recalled childhood games, digs, and grids for our personal archaeologies. These digs were also the graves of our desaparecidos intervened and revealed by a sort of performative forensic anthropology. Our violent past, and our history of beautiful projects of social transformation, and our violent present of quiet earth-covered heroism (from farm labor in Califas, to the women of Juarez,) dug up in the form of the talking head of our migrante. Deserts, oceans, and river crossings: Lo seco y lo mojado.
All of us in SYM live in San Francisco, a city with a fading reputation for openness and for being a sanctuary for difference, quickly homogenizing under the myopic gaze of City Hall policies that welcome the well to do and neglect the working class. According to the last census, 4 out of 10 people who lived here were foreign born, but many Latinos have been pushed out by gentrification, and others, including myself, were not even counted. On census day I waited for a while after my upstairs neighbor was being interviewed, but when I checked, the workers had left without knocking on my door. Like in Ken Burns’ “The War,” for some reason, the government wasn’t interviewing me. Actually, the census resulted in me being censored. For many of us being evicted by the tech industry’s migrant labor force –referred to as “newcomers”– it is increasingly self evident that what little is left of our city’s inclusive and compassionate reputation is in great part the result of the working class immigrant’s ethos of solidarity. Most immigrants come here leaving some form of struggle, and arrive into more of the same, basing their plan for survival on a strategy rooted in collective support and solidarity, rather than on the cut-throat self-interest celebrated in corporate culture. An example of this is that crime rates in immigrant neighborhoods are 45% lower than in places populated by third generation Americans, contrary to stereotypes.
As immigrant artists, we are answering the call to resist stereotyping, vilification, or the outright disappearance of our story from history. Instead, we contribute to a construction of identity that is representative of an immigrant consciousness that is generous, compassionate and aligns personal advancement with the well being of the community. We are aware that in silencing the voice of the immigrant, power censors from public discourse these very values, principles that undermine their economic model of self-centered, consumerist canibalismo. If we have learned something from our collective histories, is that this is what often happens to those how really “think different.”
Sources On Ken Burns’ Controversy:
Latinos’ Battle With Burns Taken to ‘War’ Sponsors, The Washington Post, May 3, 2007
“Hey Ken Burns, Why Shun Latinos?” Juan Gonzalez, Democracy Now, May 11, 2007:
PBS Supports Ken Burns Against Latinos’ Complaints, The New York Times, August 26, 2007
Defend the Honor Campaign, National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), National Hispanic Media Coalition
On the 2000 Census:
All roads lead to the Bay Area: Number of foreign-born residents climbs to 27.5%,
The San Francisco Chronicle, Tuesday, August 27, 2002
Migration Policy Institute
On crime rates in immigrant neighborhoods:
Open Doors Don’t Invite Criminals, New York Times, March 11, 2006
America’s Immigration Quandary, Pew Hispanic Center, Pew Research Center, 2006
Argentinean-born Roberto Varea is a theater director and co-conspirator of the performance collective Secos y Mojados, an all-immigrant performance collective based in San Francisco, California. Other members include Violeta Luna, Mexican actress and performance artist, and Salvadoreño-American David Molina, musician and composer. They have all teamed up in different pairings and threesomes, last and most notably as collaborators with El Teatro Jornalero! a theater company that brings Latin American immigrant worker’s and their stories to the stage (former members include Víctor Cartagena and Antigone Trimis.)
Prominent among all the omitted stories and silenced voices of our contemporary history, we find those belonging to the masses of immigrants –exiled, refugees, and displaced– vulnerable people who are forced by the millions to leave their home behind.