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Guatemalan Forced Migration

The politics of care in representing refugees. Exploring mechanisms of representation that stage appropriate refugee identities in order to justify the need for humanitarian care. © Manuel Gil

The photographic exhibition ‘Guatemalan forced migration: the politics of care in representing refugees’ explores the mechanisms of representation used for forced migrants that stage appropriate refugee identities to justify the need for humanitarian care. This project is inspired by the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2005 exhibit titled ‘At the Mercy of Others: The Politics of Care’ — an exhibition more interested in questioning than affirming care. Similarly, the Guatemalan exhibition explores these questions through photo-documentary work with indigenous Guatemalan forced migrants living in the former refugee camp of La Gloria in the state of Chiapas in Mexico.

Through the use of an innovative participant photovoice ethnographic method, a series of portrait photographs have been taken, whereby participants determine how they would like to be photographed for the first frame, while a second picture reflects the dominant frame reflected in the humanitarian and mainstream media. These portrait photographs provide an opportunity to examine how an indigenous forced migrant community shapes its identity. At the same time, it deconstructs their stereotyped, gendered representation that portrays forced migrants—women in particular—as apolitical domestic nurturers; while males are viewed as mobile wage-earners or perpetrators of violent conflict.

Our findings reflect an overall aversion to the second stereotyped staged images, which counters the dominant representation reflected in the mainstream media. The opportunity for participants to reflect on each of the two photographs provides us with an examination of how forced migrants feel in the process of being photographed, and the role of the photographer and social scientist in subjecting forced migrants onto photographs. This process destabilizes normative conceptions of care portrayed in the media, and is an attempt to redress popular opinion to think critically of the local cultural representational forms and meanings of international forced migrants.

Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identities of participants.

Óscar F. Gil-García

Doctoral Candidate, Department of Sociology, University of California at Santa Barbara &
Visiting Fellow, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford

1. Sisters Part I

guat-2008-001.jpgPicture of Lorena (age 21) and younger sister Angelica (age 19). The sisters have been raised in two homes, one with their maternal grandparents and the other with their paternal grandparents. This arrangement is due to the economic constraints faced by their parents in raising eight children. Lorena and Angelica both have expressed sadness about not being able to share much of their lives with their parents, but instead feel closer to their grandparents than to their parents. They also expressed disappointment about not having spent much of their youth with each other. Only after Lorena went to Comitán to join Angelica and another brother to study secondary school did she begin spending time with her siblings.

Angelica has been studying in Comitán since age 12 and is now a college student, studying business administration; she lives alone there during the academic year in a home purchased by her father and another uncle, who both work in the U.S. Angelica travels on weekends back to La Gloria to spend time with her siblings and plays soccer with her sister in an all-woman team ‘Arsenal’—named after the professional team in the United Kingdom—which is equipped with replicas of Arsenal’s red-and-white uniforms.

A lack of sustainable income forced Lorena and Angelica’s parents to migrate to the United States (U.S.), where their mother works packaging vegetables during the night shift while their father works in a furniture factory. Their mother migrated after their father got injured in a work-related accident at a construction site in the U.S., which ended the remittances he had been sending back to Mexico. Their mother had to travel three nights and two days to cross the Mexican-U.S. border, with only five litres of water and 5 kilos of apples, and was captured by U.S. immigration authorities (along with their grandfather, two cousins and 50 other members of La Gloria. After being deported to Tijuana, they were able to re-enter the U.S. on a second attempt the same night. As a result of her treacherous experience, their mother advises all her children not to risk migrating to the U.S. After her mother left to the U.S., to supplement the remittances sent to Mexico, Lorena had to leave school for two years to take care of her four youngest siblings (ages: 7, 7, 10 and 16), with the understanding that she would return to school one year after her mother arrived to the U.S. During this period, both her mother and father have sent remittances in the amount of 10,000 pesos per month ($1,000 USD). A little more than two years has passed since their mother’s departure to the U.S., and Lorena has recently passed an entrance exam to enrol at a local University in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas.

2. Sisters Part II

guat-2008-002.jpgIn this second picture of Angelica and Lorena, we asked both young women to look downward while facing opposite sides. This technique has been commonly used by journalists and humanitarian agencies of forced migrants to reflect a feeling of hopelessness to appeal to aid-givers/donors. We attempt to replicate this dominant practice, but instead of transforming forced migrants into a commodity we ask them how they felt in being requested to pose for the camera in a particular space. When we asked Lorena how she felt after taking this picture, she broke down in tears and mentioned how being asked to take a picture in a particular area of her home brought back painful memories of an argument between her parents. This information was not disclosed prior to taking this photograph, and we politely apologized for any harm that may have been caused by our request to take this picture. Both of the sisters said that they preferred the first picture they had posed for as they often utilize this space to take family photographs. Clearly, the process involved in producing the forced migrant who is ‘in need of care’ into commodified pictures, as opposed to artistic ones, for scientific/legal documentations that are detached to local experiences, can resurrect painful memories and produce potentially harmful psychological results.

3. Forced Migrant Family

guat-2008-003.jpgIn this picture we see Magdalena, next to her husband Martín, who carries their newborn child (a daughter that did not want to pose appears underneath the table) along with extended family members. When we approached Magdalena and Martín, we asked if we could take a picture of their family, but never expected to have more members in the frame (a recurring trend in many pictures in La Gloria). As a result, we see Alejandra along with her daughter Carina. The two children standing in front are Martín’s niece and nephew of a brother that migrated three years ago the U.S. who sends remittances back to his partner (not pictured) for the care of their children.

4. “Mother-and-Child”

guat-2008-004.jpgThis picture of Magdalena and her newborn daughter tries to recreate the ‘mother-and-child’ frame that is dominant in humanitarian photographs. To accomplish this, the husband was requested to step out of the frame, preventing the viewer from recognizing the conjugal partnership shared in raising the child. The result is a picture that has commonly been interpreted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as a woman-head-of-household that must either ‘Flee or die. Leave or bear the burden. While for some the choices are simple, always at their end of their flight a lonely wait begins’ (UNHCR. Images of Exile, 78: 1991). Clearly, such a description lacks a contextual analysis and is depoliticized; it establishes humanitarian agencies, like UNHCR, as the best agents to determine the needs of forced migrants. Gone from this description is Magdalena’s lived reality, in which she manages a grocery stand in front of her home; makes clothing for community-wide celebrations; is the local leader of the Oportunidades (Opportunities) program that provides government subsidies to families with school-aged children and the elderly; and is the mother of six children.

5. Elder Forced Migrant Couple

guat-2008-005.jpgPicture of Don Manuel (age 74) and Doña Minerva (age 60) in their home in La Gloria, Chiapas. In the course of migrating out of Guatemala, the couple lost one newborn infant and another teenage girl during the long and difficult years of exile in Chiapas, Mexico. Due to the dire and uncertain conditions of exile in Mexico and lack of educational and employment opportunities, six of the elder children of Don Manuel and Doña Minerva migrated to the U.S. (to the states of Colorado and Florida) to seek work. After more than 20 years of exile, and demands made by the Guatemalans in exile, Don Manuel and Doña Minerva now have obtained naturalization in Mexico. In the process, however, their children who migrated to the U.S. were left out of the Mexican naturalization process, and some remain without documents in the U.S. This has left many of them without legal papers in either country of exile, and limits their employment opportunities to the informal labour sector that denies them a living wage. Their experience is reflective of what has been referred to as the ‘“asylum migration nexus’”: many migrants and asylum seekers have multiple reasons for mobility and it is impossible to completely separate economic and human rights motivations’ Stephen Castles (2003:17). The couple did not receive instruction on how to pose for this photograph and mentioned feeling relaxed and comfortable during the photo-shoot.

6. Elder Forced Migrant

guat-2008-006.jpgDon Manuel poses for a close-up photograph in front of his home. The photograph of Don Manuel serves as a metaphor that traces the use of photography by eugenicists for labelling social groups as racialized ‘others’ to legitimate social hierarchy, and simultaneously explores the use of photography by mainstream media and humanitarian agencies. The celebration of the photograph as having an objective scientific truth value gave rise to physiognomy and phrenology, two racist pseudo-scientific movements that merged the discourses of visual representation and social sciences to form the eugenics movement (Sekula, 1986: 18). Physiognomy aimed to isolate the profile of various features of head and face, and interpreted individual features in conformity to racial moral typologies. Phrenology, on the other hand, sought to discern correspondences between the topography of the skull and localized mental faculties (Ibid: 10). The eugenics movement aimed to ‘intervene in human reproduction by means of public policy, encouraging the propagation of the ‘fit’, and discouraging or preventing outright that of the ‘unfit’ (Ibid: 19).

The current use of photography in documenting forced migrants alters its overt historical use in maintaining social hierarchy to embracing a liberal approach that portrays ‘refugees’ in an undifferentiated ‘raw’ or ‘bare’ vision of humanity that anthropologist Liisa Malkki calls ‘speechless emissaries’ (Malkki, 1996: 388-89). By visually representing ‘refugees’ as merely human beings, a discussion of specific historical, cultural and political contexts is sublimated to a ‘convenient image’ (Wood 1985: 1) that contributes to a modernizing bureaucratic rationality that denies them subjectivity; refugees are made to appear as docile bodies that are excluded from public sphere. The photograph of Don Manuel reflects a ‘convenient image’ of a stoic forced migrant that is often portrayed as ‘speechless’ and used to label (Zetter, 1991) and ‘relay what it is like to be a refugee’ (Nyers, 2006: 13-14).

When asked how he felt in posing for the photograph, Don Manuel smiled and mentioned liking the picture very much. So much so, he and his family framed the photograph and placed it at the centre of their living room. Don Manuel’s appreciation of the photograph revealed none of the repulsion or discomfort exhibited by other participants in our study to the second portrait photographs. Yet, when asked which of the two photographs he preferred taking, he identified the one with his wife as his favorite. Don Manuel’s ability to provide his own interpretation of the photograph, which is not in line with either the eugenics project or of liberal humanitarian agencies, challenges these normative approaches in interpreting photographs of forced migrants. Don Manuel’s photograph inhabits an interstitial space that explores dominant uses of photography by eugenicists, the mainstream media, and liberal humanitarian agencies; each ‘…simultaneously bound to acts of power, obligation, and domination’ (Lookofsky, 2005: 17-18).

7. Midwives I

guat-2008-007.jpgPicture of Juana (aged 101) and Angelina (aged 82), the oldest midwives in La Gloria. Juana and Angelina have played a critical role in assisting hundreds of women receive immediate aid in giving birth. This became critical during the treacherous exodus from Guatemala into Mexico in the early 1980’s. Without immediate access to potable water or medical aid, these two women were central in making sure that those women who gave birth, and their children, survive despite the lack of basic resources. In spite of their age, both women continue to work as midwives, and through the help of local and international NGOs, provide instruction to fellow women in neighbouring communities and throughout the state. The wool skirts they are wearing are traditional cortes from Guatemala, and are predominantly worn in the highlands of Guatemala. La Gloria is located in a lowland area, and the hot climate combined with intimidation from Mexican authorities prevent many women, particularly the younger generation, from wearing traditional cortes. The shirt worn by Angelina is another traditional garment from Guatemala.

8. Midwives II

guat-2008-008.jpgIn this second picture, we asked Juana and Angelina to pose on an angle while facing away from the shed in the rear that functions as a lavatory. When we asked both Juana and Angelina about how they felt about both pictures, they said that they liked them both the same. Yet, during the course of the second picture, both gestured and talked in their indigenous Acateco language, and when I asked them what they were talking about, they said, ‘we were just noting how the bathroom was going to be in the picture’ to which they then smiled. Their humility prevented them from highlighting a genuine sense of discomfort in being photographed in the same frame with an object that is socially perceived as dirty. This, however, is a practice all too common in many photographs taken by journalists and humanitarian organizations that attempt to record forced migrants next to conditions of filth and squalor used to objectify forced migrants as ‘ethnic victims,’ and moreover, as poor and in need of care.

9. Brother and Sisters Part I

guat-2008-009.jpgThe location of this first picture, in front of their home, was selected by Andres (age 19), his cousin Andrea (centre) and his sister Maria (age 12). Andres could walk well until age 8, but started to use his crutches thereafter. Maria started using her crutches at the age of five. The local medical practitioner diagnosed Andres and Maria as suffering from polio. Both Andres and Maria face considerable difficulty when there is mud on the roads. This is compounded when they have to carry their textbooks to and from school. To overcome this, their friends and classmates assist them in carrying their books. When asked if they would prefer to use a wheelchair to move around, both mentioned they would rather use their crutches. This picture was arranged by Andres, who preferred this location as he and his sister like to use this space to relax and do their schoolwork. The importance of this location was reaffirmed by a series of photographs taken by Andres with a single-use camera that was provided to document their community.

10. Brother and Sister Part II

guat-2008-010.jpgThis second picture of Andres and his sister Maria, attempts to capture the divergent gendered paths both siblings may take in a world that continues to further discrimination toward the mobility impaired. Much like the first picture, they had divergent opinions about it, as Andres mentioned feeling uncomfortable about being requested how to pose for the photograph, while Maria liked the picture because of the plant life located in the rear.

11. The Couple and Child

guat-2008-011.jpgThis picture of Luz (42 years old) her partner Raul (43 years old), and their son was taken in the entryway to their home in La Gloria. Luz and Raul preferred this place, as Luz states, ‘we liked it more because you can see nature, it looks pretty, you can hardly see the home, but instead you see the green plant life that we wanted to stand out with us.’

Luz and Raul abandoned their old community of San Miguel Acatán in Guatemala due to the military violence. Luz witnessed military soldiers torture and kill her father and uncle, these actions, she states ‘were committed because the state military soldiers believed that the entire village was participating in the guerrilla movement, but it was not true that everyone was participating.’ This attack was carried out at 6 o’clock in the morning, with bombings, shootings and air strikes. Only Luz, her siblings and mother survived the attack.

Don Raul travelled by foot in the company of his mother and made it as far as the Mexican-Guatemalan border, but his mother was captured during an invasion by state military soldiers in an encampment. At the same time, soldiers captured a niece and nephew and put them onto a helicopter, which then took off and hovered over Don Raul’s mother in order that they could witness five soldiers hack her to pieces with machetes. The niece and nephew were then transported back to Nentón, Guatemala, where soldiers approached a village and announced that if someone did not take the children, the children would be killed by the end of the day. A single woman raised her hand, and fearful that she too may be killed, asked if they would kill her if she accepted to take the children; the soldiers claimed that they would not. Fortunately, this woman survived and adopted the children and raised them as her own. Don Raul and Magdalena have been fortunate to meet this woman and re-establish communication with their niece and nephew in Guatemala.

12. The Couple II

guat-2008-012.jpgThis picture of Luz holding the hand of Raul attempts to replicate the woman-as-nurturer script, but this time, she is represented as a source of support for her male partner. The picture borrows from the woman-and-child frame used by humanitarian organizations and includes the male figure as the ‘assumed’ dominant protagonist in conditions of forced migration.

Such a framework prevents viewers from recognizing the incredible agency on the part of women like Luz, who organized women and men in banning the selling of alcohol in La Gloria. High levels of alcohol consumption by men has resulted in increased the rate of spousal and child abuse. This resulted in a large contingent of women in seeking Luz for help in approaching the all-male leaders of La Gloria from banning the sale of alcohol.

The male-only leaders were opposed to the ban, and reprimanded Raul for letting his wife ‘manipulate’ him and for not ‘controlling’ her. Raul recognized how women can exercise their human rights in making demands for improved living conditions, and ignored the intimidation by other males for his supporting his wife’s campaign. Luz and Raul overcame death threats and continue to be active members of La Gloria, and are one of the few people without family members in the United States.

13. El Celebrador and Family

guat-2008-013.jpgThis is a picture of Don. Mateo his partner Doña Alejandra and their son Alex. Don. Mateo is a catechist of the Catholic Church of La Gloria and is formally known as the celebrador (celebrator) or animador (animator) of the La Gloria. The catechist of La Gloria is selected by the community and attends courses in the local parish (La Santisima Trinidad) to concentrate in particular religious practices (i.e. baptism and communion). There are currently four catechists (three men and one woman) and all assist each other in reading the Holy Bible on Sundays, do rosary prayers in the church on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and also do special rosary prayers at homes for birthdays or other celebrations. All such religious ceremonies are done free of charge. Don. Mateo, unlike all other catechists, received his instruction in Guatemala, but due to his seeking refuge in Mexico, renewed his religious service with the Archbishop Don. Samuel Ruiz of the Archdiocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

Doña Alejandra, is only able to converse in basic Acateco, which prevented us from inquiring more information concerning her experience of exile. As La Gloria did not have formal classrooms, a special program organized by the National Institute of Academic Education for Adults (INEA) provided Alex the opportunity to complete the third year of secondary school in the community. Due to the lack of employment and land in La Gloria, soon after he completed his education, Alex migrated to the U.S. at the age of 18. In 1997 he migrated in the company of three women and three men from La Gloria (all in their teens), travelled through the desert in one night, and many stayed in California while he continued north to meet family in Oregon. Upon arrival, Alex worked as a field hand doing farm work tending onion and cauliflower plantations and earned $6.50 per hour. After returning home from doing farm work, he would return home to learn how to use a sewing machine at home. After one month, was able to land a job with other family members in a sweatshop where he earned the equivalent per hour. But when he was able to exceed his quota of one shirt per three minutes of work, he would earn a bit more. At the beginning of his arrival to the US, he would send $300 USD per month to his family in La Gloria.

14. Mother and Son

guat-2008-014.jpgThis picture of Doña Alejandra and her son Alex attempts to replicate the dominant mother-and-child script used when photographing forced migrants. This picture challenges the naturalized form by shifting the assumed ‘care-work’ from mother-to-child to that of child-to-mother during the later years of life. The pressures of this shift in responsibility has very real psychological and physical consequences for forced migrants.

One of Alex’s friends in the U.S. informed him that he should save his money and not send remittances back, and told him ‘you might not return to see your family, so save your money here and just send a small amount back so that you may support yourself.’ This comment had a significant impact upon Alex, who was already depressed and saddened that he was far away from his family in La Gloria. As a result, after four years, Alex sought alcohol and drugs as an outlet of his depression.

While his siblings in Oregon tried to convince him to stop drinking, it was thanks to an elder brother who was participating in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) that helped Alex escape his dependence on drugs and alcohol. In 2003, three months later, after attending AA meetings, he decided to return back to La Gloria. As he states, ‘I placed greater value on my life, and decided to return with my parents and be close to them. I also realized how important it is to give oneself to God and help others that are facing the same problems as I am. This has allowed me to place God first, then my physical being, then my economic wellbeing.’ Alex is one of a small number of return migrants that now reside in La Gloria, and has recently started an AA chapter in La Gloria to respond to drug and alcohol addiction faced by returning migrants. He also helps his mother take care of a small grocery store that he stocks up by travelling to the Guatemalan border.

15. Father

guat-2008-015.jpgFollowing our normative procedure, we asked Luis (age 17) and his father, Pascual (age 55), if we could take a series of two pictures, one to their liking and another that we would frame. To our surprise, we were requested to take individual pictures of both Luis and his father (other family members did not wish to be photographed). As we always tried to accommodate participants, we obliged them both with individual portraits. The space they selected was determined by them as an ideal space, as the small tree provides needed shade, and the bucket behind Pascual provides the necessary water they need to refresh themselves.

16. Father and Son

guat-2008-016.jpgLuis was born with myelomeningocele (spina bifida) and did not receive appropriate treatment promptly after birth. It was until his eighth birthday that Luis was able to receive treatment to remove the growth protruding on his back. Unfortunately, following this successful surgery and rehabilitation, Luis’ father grew gravely ill immediately following the procedure, and as a result lost most of his sense of hearing. Because of their health battles, Luis and his father share a close relationship.

It was this close relationship identified in previous interviews that inspired Manuel to take this photograph. Additionally, the ongoing battle that Manuel (the photographer) suffers with dyslexia, and the social stigma he has faced, created a space for them to communicate how each has confronted and overcome many societal barriers. When Luis was asked how he felt when we took this picture, he stated ‘I liked it because I get along really well with my father, so there was no problem with the photograph.’ This picture also counters the dominant ‘mother-and-child’ photographs taken by humanitarian organizations that ignore the role of fathers in forced migrant families and counters the dominant stereotype of the incorrigible Mexican ‘macho’ who is hyper-masculine and ignores any paternal responsibilities (Gutmann, 1996).

17. Son

guat-2008-017.jpgIn spite of Luis’ improved health condition, he continues to face much difficulty in moving around due to the unpaved roads that contain numerous rocks and ditches, which is worsened during the rainy season when mounds of mud prevent him from going to school. These conditions quickly damaged his previous wheelchair.

Luis has two sisters who migrated to Florida to seek higher wages and both sent enough in remittances to provide financial security for their father. One sister works taking care of children in a nursery while the other works the night shift six nights a week in a poultry packing factory. Both sisters have married and due to the high cost of rearing a child in the U.S. are now unable to send much in remittances. Luis, unlike his sisters, does not have plans on migrating to the U.S. for employment, but is committed to his studies. Luis, a stellar student (with a 95 percent average at school), helps his younger brother in his homework, helps his father make morrales (burlap bags) for sale and aspires to be a doctor.

18. Forced Migrant Couple

guat-2008-018.jpgThis first picture was requested by Alejandra and her husband Felipe. Both are the parents of 10 children, six of which live in the U.S. (in the states of California and Alabama), and currently live with three of their youngest daughters. Felipe also migrated to Califonia in 1977, where he worked as a farm labourer picking olives, and 9 months later (after the harvest season had passed) returned to Chacaj, Guatemala. He planed to return to the US in 1980, but the upsurge of violence of Guatemala made it difficult for him to leave his family. In 1980, guerrilla troops arrived to Chacaj to ‘free prisoners from the local jails and requested donations in support of ‘The Poor Peoples Guard.’ Before leaving, the guerrillas ‘placed a large banner with an image of Che Guevara in the Municipal Palace.’ Fifteen days later, the national military guard arrived to Chacaj and ‘gunned down the banner.’ Due to the unstable economy in Guatemala, largely due to the upsurge in violence, Felipe migrated to Mexico to work 3 months in the state of Campeche. By the time he returned to Chacaj, he was greeted by an empty village, as his wife and then 3 children had all abandoned the village. Their decision to abandon Chacaj was a result of a massacre of seven people from the community by the Guatemalan state military forces. He soon found his partner and children seeking refuge along with thousands in La Sombra, a border community on the Mexican side of the border.

19. “Mother-and-Child” II

guat-2008-019.jpgThis second picture of Alejandra with daughter Vicky was taken after asking the father to step out of the frame to replicate the naturalized feminized image of a nurturing mother and child. Malkii (1995) notes the pervasiveness of this naturalized image in a ‘1985 wall calendar entitled "Refugee Women" put out by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). There is one beautiful, glossy colour photograph for each month. All of the pictures depict one of three things: close-up portraits of individual women; women cradling babies or children; and women sewing/ weaving, cooking, etc. While it is a commonly agreed-upon fact that most refugees are women and children, it is nevertheless quite remarkable how pervasive is the portraiture of women and children in the overall visual representation of displacement [10-11].’


All photographs © Manuel Gil 2008.

Further FMO Resources


View Gallery

Click on the image above to see the full gallery of photographs.

Exhibition poster
Exhibition poster featuring a photograph of Juana and Angelina, the oldest mid-wives of La Gloria, a former Guatemalan refugee settlement in Chiapas, Mexico.

A photographic exhibition of ‘Guatemalan forced migration: The politics of care in representing refugees’ was held by the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford between 21st April and 3 May 2008.

Photo: Manuel Gil

Last updated Sep 14, 2011