Visualizing Risk and Potential: Migrants in Zones of Transit

This month, Youth Circulations features a series of conversations between two migration scholars, Heide Castañeda (University of South Florida) and Kristin Yarris (University of Oregon). Drs. Castañeda and Yarris creatively and critically examine representations of the circulation of Central American and Mexican migrants through what they describe as a zone of transit in Western Mexico. Their research is funded by The Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and is a collaboration with Dr. Juan Manuel Mendoza, of the Universidad Autonoma de Sinaloa.

by Heide Castañeda, PhD and Kristin Yarris, PhD

Heide Castañeda:

The image selected here portrays a woman and a young child on a ladder attached to a train. The boy seems to pause as he looks up towards her, while the camera captures the woman’s leg movement as, the caption reveals, she climbs onto a train. Without this detail, the viewer might assume they are disembarking. The viewer is drawn to the pair through the framing of the shot, with the length of the train extending into the distance in one direction and the ladder in another. The two people are foregrounded against the bare, geometric metal lines. The photographer also hints that this is a freight rather than a passenger train:  there are no windows from which passengers gaze; the metal frame is dirty, scuffed, and utilitarian; and on the lower left, a set of numbers with a meaning indecipherable to anyone but railroad employees. These numbers do not reference the human cargo depicted in the photograph. The landscape through which the train runs is unremarkable, neither welcoming nor foreboding – some trees, a sign, a utility line. The setting could be anywhere. While the pair is traveling – they are on a train, after all – they do not carry anything beyond the woman’s small purse. Their clothing is clean, casual, and everyday. 

An image, however, does not hold meaning a priori outside its relation to the viewer, who must fill in the missing information to make sense of it. Often, this is done using social conventions: Is the woman the child’s mother? She must be, the viewer might reason, since she appears to be the age of a parent, female, and clearly accompanying a young boy. The viewer might assume that a mother would not leave her child behind, nor let him travel alone, and thus the two journey together. The boy looks up at her, as if to say, I trust you, I will follow you. 

At other times, the viewer makes meaning though circulating public and media discourses: Are these two individuals fleeing northward to the U.S. from Central America?  The viewer might guess their origins based on their appearance, though the two-dimensional image masks other clues like the language they are speaking. A viewer might surmise that because they are hopping onto a train, that their origin was one of the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries of Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala.  Because of the flurry of news reports and public debates in the U.S. regarding a humanitarian “crisis,” border securitization, and refugee policy beginning in the summer of 2014, the viewer has likely heard or seen reports about women and children’s desperate and dangerous travels northward, often atop trains. Perhaps the viewer has encountered explanations about the circumstances from which they are fleeing. The circulation of visual representations, such as the one offered here, also have a broader social impact as part of such news reports, invoking and evoking an emotional response in the viewer.

Kristin Yarris: 

I appreciate Heide’s attention to detail in this photograph, particularly the way she calls the viewer’s eye to the relationship between the boy and the woman and likewise invites us to consider how social and political discourse surrounding the Central American migration “crisis” filters our response to this image. My response to this photograph occurs on several levels. First, I consider the photographer her or himself.  What is the role of the U.S. media, of photographers and journalists working for outlets such as the New York Times, in providing not only coverage of the movement of people across borders, but also an explanation as to why people migrate? In the historical moment we find ourselves in the U.S. today, when xenophobia and social exclusion seem to shade our responses to displaced persons; the potential role of the media in contextualizing the motives for migration, and in humanizing migrants themselves, seems more crucial and essential than ever.

I recall recently viewing a YouTube video making the rounds of social networking sites. Produced by Mexican human rights activists, the video was a comedic critique of journalists rushing to cover the “story” of Central American migration through Mexico. The clip compellingly satires journalists who sell images and narratives to media outlets and who draw attention to themselves as much as to the human suffering they are presumably attempting to portray. This video critique shapes my response to this image. I wonder: How many similar images circulate; how familiar has this image become, and will this familiarity result in a loss of empathy for migrant suffering? These questions push me to ponder my own role, as a researcher and U.S.-based academic, in portraying and analyzing Central American migration through Mexico. I am cognizant of how my own research reflects and may reinforce negative attention or response to migrants’ plight, and that it is my responsibility to work against this. At the same time, in the classroom, I have seen how my sharing of stories similar to the one told in this image effectively sensitizes students’ comprehension of the risks of migration, the desperation of migrants, and the responsibility to respond in humanitarian ways. 

On another level, my response to this photo is to probe further our assumptions about the relationship between the woman and the boy. What if they are not mother and son? What if they are, like many migrants we meet in zones of transit in Mexico, “fictive kin,” people making kinship or relatedness through the trials and tribulations of transit itself (Ibsen and Klobus 1972, Carsten 2004), violence and the threat of violence pushing co-nationals or even strangers to claim relatedness in attempts at self-protection and preservation of life of self and other? Should our response to migrants, our inclusion or exclusion of them in our social body, depend upon whether they are “real” kin or “really” deserving or “truly” portraying the reasons for their flight?

Images have equal or greater potential to pacify as they do to persuade.

Photographic images can be powerful in shaping human understanding. As we saw with the photograph of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy killed at sea while seeking refuge in Europe, some images come to have iconic power, shaping a movement in public opinion and garnering a political response. And yet, I remain somewhat cynical about the potential power of the visual image or video, largely given its ubiquity in contemporary online culture. Images have equal or greater potential to pacify as they do to persuade

My thoughts shift to the risks of photographs. One of our interlocutors in Sinaloa is a local woman who voluntarily prepares and provides meals for dozens of migrants each day, carrying them in her personal car to the side of the railway where she and the other volunteers she organizes hand out hot food in plastic cups to migrants riding the trains. This woman has been explicit with us that we are not to take any photos of her and her work, for she wishes to remain anonymous, an informal humanitarian, off the radar of NGO networks and international researchers.  In part, her concerns are for her safety, as she has been threatened by neighbors for “bringing criminals” into the community and by migration authorities for “abetting unauthorized migration.” In some ways, the risks she faces make her humanitarian work all the more impressive. And yet, as she resists documenting her efforts, I simultaneously recognize the power of images as tools for teaching and deepening understanding and humanitarian response, particularly important – as Heide points out – in contexts of political polarization like that in which we find ourselves in the U.S.

Heide Castañeda: 

I agree wholeheartedly that we must be open to alternative explanations about the relationship between the woman and the child. In our own joint fieldwork on transit migration in the state of Sinaloa, Kristin and I have encountered such “fictive” – but no less precious – kinship relationships among people who journey together. These include aunts or cousins who may present themselves as a child’s mother to ensure protection, or people who were strangers only days before decide it would be safer and logistically more feasible to travel as “husband and wife.” We know that family reunification with parents and spouses already living in the U.S. is a strong driver for migration from Central America, and have heard reports of parents saving up to pay between $6,000 and $8,000 to have their children brought to them. Sometimes they travel in custody of other family members – an aunt, grandmother, sister-in-law, or cousin – or trusted acquaintances such as a neighbor or family friend. When money changes hands, this further complicates popular and legal notions of human smuggling: Here, we find intimate relationships to an extent commodified as smuggler/guides are often family members or hometown acquaintances. Yet even when payment is not involved, we must be careful not to assume – especially in the context of migration – that care practices occur only within the nuclear family.  Still, if apprehended while entering the U.S., children will be separated from anyone who is not a parent or legal guardian and placed in the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement

The broader issue Kristin raises is that many Americans simply are not familiar enough with the circumstances that lead people migrate. This naturally shapes their responses and potential calls to action. The push factors driving Central American migration to the U.S. include economic and political insecurity, violence, and underdevelopment. The failure of our politicians to achieve meaningful immigration reform has exacerbated this situation, since family-based petitions for legal status remain out of reach for most Central Americans already living in the U.S., leaving parents and their children few choices other than risking the dangers of migration. 

This is why photography is a powerful medium: It permits not only the documentation of the risks and desperations associated with migration, but in offering a human portrait of the journey, can provoke a sense of obligation to respond in meaningful ways. As the Department of Homeland Security currently enacts a series of raids targeting hundreds of Central American families, this issue must not be a convenient pawn in the political games of an election year. The circumstances spurring migration have not changed. People must be treated as refugees seeking protection and given meaningful access to due process provisions that exist under U.S. and international refugee law. 

Works Cited

Carsten, Janet. 2004. After Kinship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Charles A. Ibsen and Patricia Klobus 1972. Fictive Kin Term Use and Social Relationships: Alternative Interpretations Author(s): Reviewed work(s): Source: Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Nov., 1972), pp. 615-620 National Council on Family Relations

Heide Castañeda is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. Her research lies at the intersection of cultural and medical anthropology and focuses on migrant health, constructions of citizenship, and how policy and legal institutions shape everyday experiences of immigrant communities. Current projects focus on: mixed-status families along the US/Mexico border; transit migration in Sinaloa, Mexico; effects of healthcare policies on immigrant communities; and immigrant youth movements in Texas and Florida. 

Kristin Yarris is Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of Oregon. Her research and teaching focus on global health, global mental health, migration, kinship and care.