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Abuelas: Documenting the Invisible Lives of New York’s Aged Immigrants

Cinthya Santos-Briones | New York, City, United States

Organization: New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City

"Here I came to leave my life, my dreams, I have become an elder. My dream is to return to my people to die. I have lived for 30 years as an undocumented and I am tired of working, my kidneys have been deteriorating because the work. I have asked God and the Virgin for their help to return to my village St. Bernardino," says Gisela, while she is looking at her reflection on the mirror at her house. Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York, 2016.

This project focuses on undocumented Mexican immigrant women who came to New York in their youth decades ago and, over time, became grandmothers and the elders of their community and families. Some of them have children and grandchildren on both sides of the border. However, after living in the United States for two or more decades, they haven't been able to adjust their immigration status and remain undocumented.

Although these women are fully established in New York City, they remain the targets of discrimination and racism, hold jobs that are underpaid, unstable and are subject to exploitation. Due to their age they are not usually hired to perform typical jobs for immigrant women like house cleaning or childcare.

However, they create their own sources of income through self-employment, whether collecting plastic or metal bottles on the streets or selling second-hand clothing at the flea markets like Juanita, in order to continue to contribute economically to their homes and at the same time help with the education of their grandchildren. 

 

 

Abuelas: Documenting the Invisible Lives of New York’s Aged Immigrants

I am photographing the daily lives of four Mexican women who migrated to New York City in their youth and, over time, became grandmothers and the elders of their community and families. The project started in October, 2016.

Some of them have children and grandchildren on both sides of the border. However, after living in the United States for two or more decades, they haven't been able to adjust their immigration status and remain undocumented.  These women are: Irma Verduzco, 65, of Zacapo Michoacán, Gisela Bravo, 70,  of the Town of San Bernardino Acatlán of Osorio, Puebla, Dionisia Guadalupe, 56, and Juanita, 54, both originating of Atencingo, Puebla.

Juanita, Irma, Gisela and Dionisia are the first generation of women in their families to  migrate to New York City and  settled in the neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where they have lived since the early 1990s. All of them crossed the border with their children in search of a better economic future.

Although these women are fully established in New York City, they remain the targets of discrimination and racism, hold jobs that are underpaid, unstable and are subject to exploitation. Due to their age they are not usually hired to perform typical jobs for immigrant women like house cleaning or childcare.

However, they create their own sources of income through self-employment, whether collecting plastic or metal bottles on the streets like Irma, or selling second-hand clothing at the flea markets like Juanita, in order to continue to contribute economically to their homes and at the same time help with the education of their grandchildren.

These women, in turn, suffer from health problems with chronic diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, and kidney failure without health insurance or public benefits. Dionisia Guadalupe has kidney failure and needs a kidney transplant. Because of her illness, she had to quit her job and start selling sweets outside of Public School 503 on 60th Street in her neighborhood, because she could find no job where she was allowed to be absent for hours to receive her dialysis treatment.

In November 2016, due to economic and health problems with her kidneys and bronchi, Gisela Bravo decided to return to her home in Mexico after 30 years in the United States. "In the factory where i worked sewing i didn’t earn much, because they pay for piecework and an old woman like me is slow; at most I get paid $ 200 a week for daily shifts from 8 am. to 5 p.m.  That's why I decided to return to my town" says Gisela.

In such a harsh social and political environment today in United States, marked by racism and xenophobia against immigrants - especially Mexicans- I think it is pertinent to carry out a visual project about grandmothers, those women who have grown older as undocumented immigrants in this country, working, paying their taxes without any social benefits in return and who today are facing Donald Trump’s administration’s threats of deportation despite their long, deep and significant roots in their communities in this country.

From a photographic perspective, little attention has been devoted to documenting the elderly first-generation migrant women who are the pillars of these transnational families and who have grown old in the shadows of a legal punitive, police enforcement limbo.

My interest is to tell their stories through a series of intimate images. I want to represent them in their own processes of resilience, to show how despite suffering serious illness or an uncertain future these women lead a normal life taking care of their grandchildren, cooking, working or singing amid a dehumanizing, humanitarian crisis that has for decades rendered them invisible.

I will continue to carry out this documentary photography project in collaboration with Dionisia, Juanita and Irma - since Gisela has returned to her town - with the intention of being able to incorporate the stories of other Mexican grandmothers living in New York City. The objective is to create a photographic essay that reveals a holistic and complete view of the lives of undocumented Mexican grandmothers in this country.

Cinthya was born in Mexico in 1983. She studied Ethno-history and Anthropology in Mexico City, and for about ten years, as a researcher, her work took her to different institutes of higher learning both in Mexico and New York. She began her love affair with documentary photography and photo-journalism inspired by the visual and imaginary aspect of anthropology, practiced in her field work with indigenous communities of Mexico.  

 

Among the mountains and the sierras she has had the opportunity to use photography as an ethnographic tool to visually document rituals used by indigenous healers or shamans, as well as the making of their textiles and their lives as migrant families from rural communities.

 

She took several courses of documentary photography and anthropology in Mexico and Cuba.

 

In 2011 she moved to the city of New York following the migration of an indigenous community that she came to know intimately, their families and places of origin. While living with them she became an organizer with Mexican migrants and, at the same time, a freelance writer, documenting a diverse array of themes such as the struggle of carwash workers, the DREAMERS and the reproduction of culture in the transnational life of the migrant, Mexican community. Eventually on 2015 she registered in the Documentary and Photo-journalistic program at the International Center of Photography, where she has recently graduated and has received the Magnum Foundation Fellowship 2016.  

 

During her studies at ICP, her work as a photographer has led her in finding her own voice and shape. Thus, influenced by human rights struggles and social anthropology, her work focuses on documenting the common ground where migration, human rights, gender, identity and culture intersect, always with an eye to capture moments that tell stories to further the social capital of vulnerable communities that live in the shadows of invisibility, and facilitating their visibility from a creative standpoint.  

The primary objective of her work is to make known the lives of migrants in the transnational space, the reproduction of their culture and the redefinition of their identities, as well as their social struggles and their plights. 

Abuelas, is a personal project that was born out of my interest in documenting the lives of some women I had met a few years ago while working as a community organizer at St. Jacobi Lutheran Church in Brooklyn. There, I found a large number of mexican migrant women, between the ages of 50 and 70, who have lived in a legal limbo for more than two or three decades.

It was thus that I thought it important and crucial to talk about the issue of immigration through the experience of the grandmothers, the first generation of women of their families to have immigrated to this city, in search of a better life and that today they face a very tedious and uncertain future within the new administration of President Donald Trump.

“Abuelas: Documenting the Invisible Lives of New York’s Aged Immigrants” is an ongoing project, which I began to photograph in the fall of 2016, following the daily lives of four Mexican women who immigrated to New York City in their youth and, over time, became grandmothers, and now are the elders of their community and their families.

My interest is to create a photographic essay that allows to portray these immigrant Grandmothers in a humane and dignified way, telling their stories through their own processes of being in legal limbo as well as being the pillars of their families and communities.

Narrating visually how they live nowadays, after more than 20 years of being undocumented, and to see themselves grow old far from their land, what challenges and obstacles they face because of their legal status and, how their quality of life, economically and physically, they have after suffering from chronic diseases such as diabetes, arthritis and kidney failure, what types of work they do, what dreams they have, and what community ties they have and who are their families.

New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City

http://www.newsanctuarynyc.org/

Cinthya Santos Briones

http://www.cinthya-santosbriones.com/

Cinthya Santos Briones

http://www.cinthya-santosbriones.com/

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