My parents immigrated to the U.S. at different points in the 1970s. They were born and raised in West Africa, and their parents–my mother’s father and my father’s mother–sent them to this country to further their educations. They didn’t meet here, my parents; they had already begun dating in their late teens in their capital city. After they crossed the Atlantic, they picked up where they left off. The pairing resumed in Los Angeles and traveled across the country to Providence, where I was born. Their immigration was not unlike a lot of Africans–parents sending their children to the United States or England for university.
There are, of course, plenty of Africans (and Eastern Europeans and South Asians and East Asians) who make the flight in search of better after surviving war and devastation in their homelands. Looking for better economic stability leads them to part with family and embark on foreign travel to a land with different norms.
The exhibition I visited at the Embassy of France tells of immigration that is unlike those of my parents. Photographs in black and white taken by José Hernández-Claire were on display recounting the tales of attempted, surreptitious crossings over the border from Mexico into the U.S. Pictures of border patrol agents searching found immigrants, small groups of workers waiting beneath trees for coyotes (men who are paid to smuggle the migrants into the country), migrants asleep on jagged rocks near a train track are but a few visual representations of the perilous attempts to enter the country. Recurring thoughts I had while taking in the images were: Did these people know what awaited them? and What happened once they were sent back to Mexico? Did they try again?
There was one photo that I kept coming back to–a forgotten Polaroid of a man and woman, obviously boyfriend and girlfriend by the way they sat close. The picture was in the dirt, and I wondered which half of the pair had lost the memento meant to be a comforting presence during the crossing. I also pondered the circumstances that would propel someone to pay a smuggler simply to get them to the so-called promised land. How very different this was from my parents’ and aunts’ and uncles’ own migration here. The similarity, though, after the circumstances and risks have been stripped away, is that search for better. That’s what Hernández-Claire’s photographs represent.
Whether there are objections (who am I kidding? There are objections) to the manner in which migrants from Mexico (or Guatemala or Honduras or…) enter the U.S., one must remember that a mere hundred years ago there were other migrants embarking on a dangerous path to prosperity that Italy or Ireland or Poland or… didn’t afford them.