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Storytellers react to and interact with the Central American refugee crisis

The U.Va. Centro de las Americas Fall Symposium gives view of the compelling documentation of movement, strife and hope

<p>A poster produced by the New American Story Project by artist Micah Bazant. Bazant worked from a photograph of a Mayan women who received asylum.</p>

A poster produced by the New American Story Project by artist Micah Bazant. Bazant worked from a photograph of a Mayan women who received asylum.

Micheline Aharonian Marcom, professor of creative writing and founder of the New American Story Project, began the Centro de las Americas Fall Symposium last Friday by speaking on how the complex human story is the motivating purpose behind this gathering of researchers, immigration workers, academics, journalists and artists. The event, entitled “From the Mouth of a Shark: Causes and Consequences of the Central American Refugee Crisis,” had bare, resilient stories. Promotions for the event and its name are from a quote that illustrates the theme of understanding migrant conditions — ''No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark / you only run for the border / when you see the whole city running as well,” from “Home,” by Warsan Shire.

Shire’s words exemplify the necessity of understanding a multiplicity of narratives and histories, as well as the importance of documenting what migration really looks and feels like. Before proceeding into a look at film and photography done on migration, four visiting specialists provided an important backdrop on the implicating causes and consequences behind the journeys of Guatemalans, Hondurans and El Salvadorians.  

Anthony Fontes, assistant professor at American University, introduced his current studies, illustrating how state and criminal symbiotic relationships function. During his time at the podium, he addressed a common visual trope of Latin American gang life, calling it a smokescreen for political actors. Dispelling the habit of blaming gangs for manifold problems in communities was a resounding theme in every presentation.

Sociologist Mike Anastario concentrated primarily on data demonstrating the consequences of not granting El Salvadoran immigrants proper documentation. The sheer multitude of statistics from Anastario buttressed his final message, which was heard loud and clear, “It’s important not to represent this country as a hellscape.” 

Migrant conditions in the borderlands was the subject of Molly Molloy’s work. As a paralegal translator for the Southwest Asylum and Migration Institute in New Mexico, Molloy spoke of the detention industrial complexes she witnesses firsthand in El Paso, where the migrants share their already overcrowded spaces with creatures native to the desert like scorpions and snakes.

Anthropologist Victoria Sanford introduced the role of gender into the conversation by speaking of the “femicidios,” or female homicides happening in Guatemala. A professor at the City University of New York, Sanford’s work is public, so she brings all of her research back to Guatemala out of a desire to contribute to the country she’s studying. 

The dire conditions for migrant women in all of the discussed countries were evident in the film shown by the New American Story Project. Since they are “the reproductive heart of these communities,” as described by Sanford, there was an important, yet disheartening conversation about the underlying fear of rape and sexual abuse that’s a daily concern for women. In fact, it is one of the major reasons young women seek asylum from their home countries. “Monica’s Story,” the title of the short film by filmmaker Erin Kokdil for the New American Story Project, tells of a teen’s reason for fleeing Honduras — a fear of being kidnapped in school after several girls her age went missing. 

All three of Kokdil’s films for the New American Story Project were captivatingly tender and revealed Marcom’s vision for the project — “A visual archive of voices.” More of Marcom and Kokdil’s films are accessible on the New American Story Project’s website. Although Kokdil explained the third clip was part of an unfinished project, the footage of mothers looking for their disappeared children was among the day’s most powerful. The sample showed footage of women chanting “Donde esta!” holding laminated pictures of their missing children. 

Tomas Ayuso, photojournalist, showed his images of the shared peril and fear of fleeing migrants in “The Right to Grow Old,” specifically in his home country of Honduras. These photographs are intimate encounters with the lives of teens within the mosaic of migrant experiences. He is there with Adriana, Moses, Robbie and others willing to share their stories. He is there when they say their final goodbyes to their sweethearts and family members, recording their narratives and becoming one of those saying goodbye. 

He shares the tales of the migrants he grew to know — how the “Los Boys” community in Mexico City became hired footballers that were paid by the goal. Despite his work drawing attention to the people that have stories that are sometimes deeply traumatic, Ayuso said “I would like you not to focus on the horror of it… there is hope, there are silver linings.” He expressed his admiration for these migrants and their bravery, calling their journeys for a better life an act of political resistance — a refusal to the government for putting them in these conditions. 

The situation surrounding the refugees fleeing Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador cannot be explained by one cause. It cannot be dismissed as one instigated by just poverty, expungement of civil liberties, gang control, narcotic trafficking, corrupt political actors, police violence, sexual abuse, imperialism and colonialism or any other number of injustices that are occurring or have occurred. There is a tendency in the political current to do just this, rather than understand that the histories of Central American countries cannot and should not be drowned out by white supremacist rallying cries about “drug lords,” “rapists” or “job-stealers.” 

Such an approach minimizes the rich experiences of hundreds of thousands, and puts an unjust focus on failed policies that restrict access to asylum, classify people based on race and economic situation and tear families apart. “From the Mouth of a Shark: Causes and Consequences of the Central American Refugee Crisis” presented a multitude of images and voices to dispel that kind of thinking, conveying human perspectives and casting important dimensions through variety and specificity of stories and experience. 

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