New York Times
Like so many others who fled dusty villages or impoverished urban barrios, they left behind all that was familiar in Mexico to venture north, without documents, to New York. Working in factories, cleaning homes or taking care of children, their exile was sustained by a simple goal: to make enough money and return to their families in Mexico.
But, also like so many others, they learn life is never so simple. Years pass, plans change, they stay in New York and become abuelas, grandmothers. They awaken in their modest apartments — sometimes only a single rented room — surrounded by pictures of home, their children and their faith. Yet those cultural totems sustain them, easing a separation that spans decades. Cinthya Santos Brionesknew these women when she worked as a community organizer in Brooklyn. As a photographer, she sought them out with this proposition: How would you like to be seen in a portrait? Their replies did not dwell on misfortune. Rather than the usual photojournalistic portrayals of beaten-down souls, these portraits let them present themselves as stoic, proud, happy or even sexy.
“I wanted to show that in the migratory process there is a lot of pain, but there is also happiness,” Ms. Santos, 33, said. “It was interesting to speak of Mexicans from another perspective. They always show us dirty and suffering. They show us as domestics, mopping floors and washing windows.”
Her own perspective was formed not just by her experiences moving to this country from Mexico five years ago. Before that, she worked as an anthropologist and wrote about migration, doing her master’s thesis on members of an indigenous community from Veracruz who had settled in Flushing, Queens. She stayed after getting her degree and worked as a community organizer for an organization in Brooklyn. A request for a portrait from one of the women she knew there led to her project.
Rather than decide how she would photograph them, she engaged them in a discussion of how they wanted to present themselves. They liked having their view taken into account, Ms. Santos said, and they dressed up accordingly. The resulting portraits are often filled with details that speak to a long life in New York. Their faces, though weary sometimes, also hint at strength and happiness. And just as photos form their past lined the walls of their homes, their portrait would occupy a place of honor, too, whether here or back home among relatives in Mexico.
“This was how they wanted to be seen,” Ms. Santos said. “In the Mexican towns where they were from, photos were important. They are memories that are guarded like relics. Unlike now when anyone can take a picture, the photographers in the past would come to their village, and it cost a lot for people who did not have resources. But for them, having a physical image was very important.”
Grandmothers, too, occupy a special place. They preserve the language and traditions, passing them on to grandchildren who live here immersed in an alien culture.
“They are our symbols of identity in New York, who remember what it was like being a campesino,” Ms. Santos said. “They play an important role in the institution of the family. The grandmothers speak Spanish to the children, they cook the traditional meals. A lot of children who grow up here don’t even know where their parents or grandparents are from.”
They do this despite facing continued hardships. Many have worked — because of their immigration status — off the books for minimal pay and no benefits. As they get older they find themselves losing out on jobs to younger immigrants who are more nimble. Gisela Bravo spent 30 years working in garment factories, where she earned $200 weekly. Now 70, and suffering from arthritis and kidney problems and not having health insurance, she decided to return to Mexico.
Yet others remain determined, not just to stay, but to make the best of it. Dionisia Guadalupe, 54, scavenges for bottles and sells candy outside a school, the only work that gives her the flexibility to go to dialysis three times a week. She lost her hair, the side effect of a medication, and had to wear a wig. Yet she posed provocatively on her bed.
“She likes to be seen as pretty,” Ms. Santos said. “She likes to feel sexy. I thought I was taking a photo for Playboy. Her body language tells you a lot. You wouldn’t think she was a woman who was sick.”