Stories of Life, Love and Separation on Both Sides of the Border

Deported musician Jose Marquez poses for a photograph that a visitor is taking of his family from across the border wall at Friendship Park, the only federally established binational meeting place along the 2,000-mile border dividing the United States and Mexico on May 15, 2016. Marquez has not been able to hug his daughter Susana in 14 years, since he was deported from the United States after living and working in San diego for 18 years © Griselda San Martin

A documentary photographer based in New York City, Griselda San Martin is a graduate of the Documentary Photography and Photojournalism program at the International Center of Photography (ICP) and holds a masters in Journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder.

During the past five years, San Martin has documented the U.S.-Mexican border, focusing on the issues of immigration, deportation, inequality and human rights abuses. She’ll be presenting some of her work during a panel at the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival in June.

Her current focus is on the growing Hispanic community in the United States, and the social and political impact of the growing reactionary xenophobia in the country against immigrants and ethnic minorities. Her work also is an investigation of the concepts of identity and belonging. San Martin’s keen mind inquires analytically to challenge popular assumptions regarding the immigrant communities, openly questioning dominant narratives in presenting human stories of people facing at once an uncertain, but hopeful, reality.

Her work is published in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Republic, The Huffington Post and El País as well as other publications. You can see more of her work on her website.

San Martin

Mike Lee: Would you tell us about your background?

Griselda San Martin: I am a photojournalist focused on immigration stories in the United States and Mexico, and my interest in those issues has been in the making for years. My graduate studies at the school of journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder awakened my interest in documentary storytelling. My research focused on cultural identities and ethnic minorities and, in particular, the Hispanic community.

I started exploring transnational issues and concepts of identity and belonging and became interested in stories that challenge popular assumptions and dominant discourses, transcending borders and cultures. My exploration of identity and diasporic discourses in postmodern theory had a profound influence on my approach to documentary projects and visual storytelling.

My graduation project led me to the border city of Tijuana, in Mexico, where I was captivated by its culture and dynamics, and this is where I started some of the long-term projects that I continued while attending the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography program at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York.

After ICP, I attended some high profile events for photojournalists, such as the Eddie Adams Workshop and the New York Times Portfolio review, which contributed further to my professional development.

Currently, I am a participant of the Anderson Ranch Mentored Program, a three-year workshop focused on visual storytelling led by Ed Kashi and James Estrin, which has been a highly rewarding experience in terms of developing projects and being inspired not only by the mentors but also by fellow photographers.

Maria Marin, 82, prays in her bedroom in Atzala, Puebla. Marin has 4 children in New York and prays for them every morning when she wakes up and every night before going to sleep. © Griselda San Martin

Lee: What prompted you to do the work that you’ve been accomplishing? What decided and encouraged your commitment?

San Martin: Immigration continues to be an important topic of public debate in the United States and a major subject of political conflict. President Trump’s aggressive stance on illegal immigration has created an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear among those vulnerable to deportation and the immigrant community at large.

The myth of a homogeneous country, focused on the nation’s glorious past and on a romanticized view of immigration (from northern Europe) to create a unitary American identity, has been central to the political discourse in the United States.

In this definition of America, ethnic minorities of color have been marginalized and seen — by large sections of the American population — as a threat to the official narratives of the nation.

Through my work, I intend to challenge mainstream discourses by acknowledging and addressing the themes of diversity, difference, and hybridity in today’s American culture and therefore question the essentialist assumptions that immigrants are a fundamental threat to the cultural cohesion of the nation. My goal is to evidence and celebrate America’s complex identity as a plural multi-ethnic society.

When it was inaugurated in 1971, the fence was just a strand of barbed wire. Today, a massive metal wall that has been reinforced multiple times separates the two nations. It extends down to the beach stretching out some hundred feet into the Pacific Ocean.

Lee: In The Wall series and the short video The Other Side, you bring home the stark realities of families divided for an extended time-and possibly for many permanently separated. But you also show, as stated in the subtitle of The Other Side, “the love and longing” of families reuniting briefly at the border wall between Tijuana and Imperial Beach. Could you tell us about the complex narratives of the people you engage in this series?

San Martin: The Other Side is a documentary short film that centers on Jose Marquez, a musician living in Tijuana, Mexico, separated from his family after being deported from the United States.

The film is set in Friendship Park, a small stretch of wall along the US-Mexico border south of San Diego where families can visit, and it captures a heartwarming meeting between Marquez and his daughter Susanna, in which the musician performs a song he has composed for her with his band. Such a simple thing, a father serenading his daughter at the park, only they are separated by national boundary lines and a 20-foot fence of metal and mesh. The story is told entirely from his perspective, as he discusses the difficulties of watching his family grow up without him from across the border. Here, I try to reverse the “we/they” narrative of exclusion often created by media coverage of deported immigrants.

A family reunites and embrace for 3 minutes at the event called “Opening the door of hope” at the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico. © Griselda San Martin
A young man speaks to his family member through the border fence at Friendship Park, a meeting place on the border between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, California. For many families separated by immigration status, it is the only way that they can see their loved ones in person. © Griselda San Martin

The Marquez family’s story is part of a larger project titled, The Wall, documenting these border interactions at Friendship Park, located on the border between San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico, which is the only binational meeting place along the 2,000-mile border dividing the United States and Mexico.

When it was inaugurated in 1971, the fence was just a strand of barbed wire. Today, a massive metal wall that has been reinforced multiple times separates the two nations. It extends down to the beach stretching out some hundred feet into the Pacific Ocean. Access to physically touch the wall on the U.S. side is limited to a small area and families lean against the fence trying to catch a glimpse of their loved ones through the steel mesh which is so tightly woven they can barely touch fingertips.

In a small area of the park, the space between the metal bars would allow for families to hug but the Border Patrol on the US side is always vigilant and visitors must stand a few feet away from the fence as any kind of physical contact is strictly prohibited.

The project examines the concept and relevance of a border wall, border security, and the effects of immigration policies on individuals and families affected by them, during a time of rising xenophobic political tensions.

Unquestionably, traditional ideas of home, homeland and nation have been challenged by new patterns of migration and transnational activities as well as new communication technologies, but physical borders are still very real. They are very much part of our daily lives. In the context of America’s shifting ethnic landscape, walls and borders are built to distinguish between those who belong and those who do not, reflecting the underlying fear that the “pure American values” are being impacted and transformed by the “others.” The idea of crowds of Mexicans crossing the border and the fear of eventually feeling a foreigner in their own land seems to have legitimized a need to build an even bigger militarized border wall.

Beyond the physical barriers, the fact is, immigrants, and in particular undocumented ones, are creating families in a country where they don’t have full legal rights and are living in a society which does not accept them within or without. But at the same time, they are creating spaces of belonging across national boundaries that supersede citizenship status, showing strength and resilience and challenging dominant discourses of difference and exclusion.

As a socially concerned journalist, and as an immigrant myself, I feel it is my responsibility to contribute to the current conversation about immigration and to challenge the politicized rhetoric that tends to construct essentialized representations of immigrants creating a partial narrative of the immigration story.

In contrast to the simplified stories that emphasize vulnerability, I want to present a counter-narrative that highlights the humanity and the complexity of this phenomenon. Although immigrants (and deportees) experience trauma and fear, they show resourcefulness, resilience, and strength to overcome the struggles they encounter. Despite the massive metal walls and militarized checkpoints, “love has no borders.”

Four year-old Garifuna kid Didier Mejia at his family’s apartment in the South Bronx.

Lee: Your photography also involves a work on an immigrant group from Central America little known to others, the Garifuna people. They have a complex history including multiple diasporas and are a growing community in New York and Los Angeles. What you drew you to their stories?

San Martin: I found about the Garifuna community in New York in 2014 through a professor at CUNY (City University of New York) whom I had met in Mexico a few months earlier while working on my border projects in Tijuana.

He told me about multiple cases of Garifuna women who had fled their home in Honduras and who were placed GPS ankle monitors by U.S. immigration officers after being detained upon arrival in the US, facing a possible deportation. I started documenting and researching this issue and this is how I learned about the complex identities of the Garifuna people and its transnational migratory nature, which was very relevant to my ongoing research study of diasporic identities.

In New York, there are approximately 100,000 people who identify as Garifuna, an ethnic community of West African and Amerindian descent who live along the Caribbean coast of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Their ancestors

arrived in the Americas when two slave ships crashed off the coast of St. Vincent in the 17th century. The survivors intermarried with local people on the island, creating a rich and distinct blend of cultures. The descendants of this community maintain their own language and a system of customs and beliefs, both in their homeland and in diaspora.

In my opinion, the Garifuna takes the complexity of the concept of “identity” to another level. The Garifuna identity is not specifically African, Caribbean, Hispanic or American but all of these at once. It is linked to a unique culture that transcends the structures of the nation, and the constraints of ethnicity, and race. In a way, similar to Paul Gilroy’s concept of the “Black Atlantic,” which I have always been fascinated with since I started reading about cultural identities.

And of course the fact that the majority of them also speak Spanish, which is my native language, so we can easily communicate.

Aracely Ruiz in her family’s cactus field in San Pedro Benito Juarez, Puebla, Mexico. Aracely is wearing a dress that used to belong to her cousin Gaby, from Brooklyn, New York. © Griselda San Martin

Lee: How close do you get with your subjects? Are you still in contact those you have photographed in your work?

San Martin: When I work on a long-term project, I usually spend months, usually years working on it so I guess I should start by mentioning that I choose subjects that I am deeply and genuinely interested in. That’s very important to me, not only because of the time that I spend in the field but also doing research, which is the first step and in my opinion a basic and crucial requirement before even attempting to get any access. I need to know as much as I possibly can about the subject matter, the history and the culture of the individuals and communities involved.

I’m very interested in people. I like talking and listening to people, and so to me gaining access is easy and kind of “organic,” especially when I have things to say and a natural curiosity to learn and many, many questions to ask. Obviously, the more research, the easier this first contact will be.

Also, one thing I do from the very beginning right after introducing myself is explaining what I want to do and why. Perhaps the project and the vision will change over the following months, but the intentions and motivations are usually the same. I want to challenge dominant narratives and empower the minority groups affected by them. I am not an activist per se but my goal is to bring awareness, expose injustice and ultimately, inspire change.

I usually let my subjects know from the beginning that they will see me a lot. That the project is not a one-day assignment and they will not see any output in months, so they know what to expect. From there it goes differently depending on the subjects. I usually take some time before I start shooting. I have long conversations–or in-depth interviews–first and spend time with them, sometimes just hanging around, doing nothing. It is important to be patient. Depending on the location, I may stay with the families for days or weeks.

Time makes the difference. And in those cases, I get close. There is no other way for me to do a documentary project that addresses delicate issues such as for instance familial separation and deportation other than establishing a connection through genuine involvement. When people open their hearts to talk about their feelings and fears, I strongly believe they deserve my respect and my commitment to honor that trust.

So yes, I am in contact with many of the people I have photographed in my long-term projects.

Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website