From the Editor: Geography Lessons
By Ray Waddle
Let’s be honest: immigration isn’t easy to talk about. Only the ideologues are content with cartoonish solutions–"send ’em all back," "let ’em all in," "jail all the illegals," "American jobs for Americans only."
The rest of us must live in the real world of stubborn contradiction and self-conflict that complicate every attempt to sort out the issue the jostle of compassion, prudence, fear, impatience, generosity, economic necessity, hypocrisy.
The latter–old-fashioned hypocrisy – is especially hard to face. Our national wealth of the last three decades–the relatively low prices of fresh produce and poultry, construction costs, and countless other amenities–was achieved on the backs of cheap labor, much of it done by undocumented workers, the "illegal aliens" of cable TV indignation.
We want it both ways–we love our bargain prices, yet we also insist on the moral rectitude to proclaim we are a "nation of laws." This habitual national contradiction makes it impossible to speak plainly about immigration realities at all. From government we get toughened enforcement and clumsy, high-profile roundups of unauthorized workers. But otherwise, in an election year, our leaders provide nothing but surreal silence on the subject of reforming, improving, or humanizing the complex tangle of immigration law. This silence only builds resentment, distrust, and yet more denial – damaging the national capacity to face facts, doing great harm to the national soul.
Even as official stalemate presides, artists keep their eyes open, their hearts open, their paint boxes and camera shutters open to the persistence of dignity and outrage. This Reflections features the visual work of two witnesses to the immigration drama, both of whom keep sight of the human-scale ordeals of real people who don’t get quoted in the news.
Malaquias Montoya and Alan Pogue have been at it a long time, keeping an eye of the geography of suffering and hope.
California artist Montoya, whose work appears on the front and back covers of this issue, calls his an art of protest. He creates silk screens, paintings, posters, murals – all infused with an urgency to protest human dispossession and intolerable politics. He worries that a passion for protest is gravely threatened today by the false allure of consumerism.
Now 70, he grew up in New Mexico and California in a family of migrant workers. He saw firsthand the brutal economics of migrant labor, the ill treatment and low pay handed to the laborers. He never forgot it.
With art, he says, he tries to speak "especially to that silent and often ignored populace of Chicano, Mexican and Central American working class, along with other disenfranchised people of the world."
"Through our images we are the creators of culture," he declares, "and it is our responsibility that our images are of our times–and that they be depicted honestly and promote an attitude towards existing reality, a confrontational attitude, one of change rather than adaptability. …We must not fall into the age-old cliché that the artist is always ahead of his or her time. No, it is most urgent that we be on time."
Texas photojournalist Pogue, whose photographs appear in this issue, has taken pictures all over the world. His eye gravitates to human beings trying to bear up against economic and political forces beyond their control, whether in a Texas prison, or in Iraq under the 1990s embargo, or on the Mexican border today. He has been chronicling the dynamics of U.S. immigration for decades, and his sympathies are clear.
"What makes the news is images of immigrants getting arrested. What you don’t see is the work they do, people plucking chickens eight hours a day and working in slaughterhouses in the Midwest, dangerous work. If the media focused on the labor they do, there’d be more sympathy. What they are paid is not as much as what they are giving. They pay taxes, and society is making money off them in every possible way. So I want to create sympathy for people who are working hard and struggling to have a better life. They don’t have evil intent. They want to make a living, and they’re willing to work very hard. Where is the crime in that?"
This Reflections was inspired by a May conference at YDS, "The Challenge of Immigration: Framing a New American Conversation." The participants – ministers, lawyers, frontline refugee advocates, most of whom contribute to the pages of this issue – endeavor in their work to press beyond conventional wisdom and sloganeering to get at the undercurrents of modern immigration and how people of faith might confront this historic moment. They know what artists know: there is a way forward, beyond paralysis, beyond hypocrisy, to catch new stirrings of courage and resolve.
Special thanks go to Gilberto Cárdenas, a national pioneer in immigration studies and Latino art collecting. His influential collection includes nearly 10,000 paintings, photographs, videos, and other works. Professor Cárdenas is assistant provost and director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. A selection from his collection – called Caras Vemos Corazones No Sabemos: Faces Seen, Hearts Unknown, the Human Landscape of Mexican Migration – tours nationally as an exhibit in museums and galleries, focusing on themes of journeying, identity, barriers, and visionary spirituality. He generously shared advice regarding his collection for this Reflections issue, providing contact with artists Malaquias Montoya and Alan Pogue, whose work is found in the Cárdenas collection.