Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
When workers emigrate to the U.S., the regions they leave behind often adopt identities that straddle borders.
Throughout this week, CityLab is running a series on borders—both real and imagined—and what draws so many of us to places on the edge.
From a hill, a woman surveys a swath of rolling land, quilted with fields and small houses. Two kids toddle toward the camera, but the woman’s back is in the center of the frame. She has draped a beach towel around her shoulders. A barrette lifts her hair from her neck, and the pattern is visible: the American flag, and an eagle with outstretched, gilded wings.
The photographer Andrea Aragón has spent the last 16 years capturing images like this one. Her series “Home,” currently on view at The Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York, chronicles how the border is a bit of a two-way street for rural Guatemalan workers who wind through Central America to enter the United States. Labor crosses one way, and money and ideas stream back.
Over the last few decades, Guatemalan emigration has boomed. A long civil war hobbled the country’s economy, squeezing the agriculture sector particularly tightly. As the war raged, migrants traveled north to flee the political climate; by the mid-1990s, many were seeking economic opportunity. In 2014, some 1.3 million people of Guatemalan heritage were living in the United States, a fivefold increase since 1990. Of those current residents, 63 percent were born outside of America, according to a report from the Pew Research Center.
Roaming workers often send remittances back to family members in Guatemala. Fifty-seven percent of Guatemalans receiving remittances live in rural areas, such as San Mateo Ixtatán, which lies within Huehuetenango, close to the Mexican border and a nine-hour drive from Guatemala City. Monthly remittances averaged $306 USD per family in 2005—totaling more than the country’s gross exports and its income from tourism, according to a Migration Policy Institute report. In December 2016, personal remittances brought in more than $678 million USD; these totaled more than $6 billion in 2015, comprising about 10 percent of the country’s GDP, according to World Bank.
Hospitals, schools, banks, and other services tend to be centralized in the country’s urban areas, Aragón says; fewer resources are corralled on the outskirts. And while many families that receive remittances put that money toward living expenses, others funnel it into reimagining the towns themselves. “The whole landscape in the country has changed because of the money that people in the States bring or send,” Aragón says.
For her photo series, Aragón headed to those more remote regions, including San Mateo Ixtatán, to document the effects of emigration on the family members who stayed behind. She trained her lens on arquitectura de la remesa, structures built with money sent back from the U.S. With the influx of capital, some families build grandiose, multi-story houses that suture together some elements of adobe homes with imagined characteristics of uniquely “American” ones.
While the border is a physical delimiter, it’s also a psychological space, rich with connotations. Crossing from one side to the other means entering into a world stuffed with associations. The U.S. flag, for instance, is more than a constellation of lines and stars: the graphic comes to bear the weight of a promise. The icons that tend to adorn the walls of these reimagined homes are often the splashiest symbols of America, boiling things down to a visual language of “making it.” In one image, a woman holds a framed photograph of a crouching man superimposed over the Atlanta skyline. “Of course, you cannot make a skyscraper here, not for a house,” Aragón says. Instead, families might incorporate Nike or Apple logos into a design, or festoon the place with American flags. Some opt for mirrored windows, twinkling green or purple, like light glinting off faceted towers.
Still, some of the blueprints may seem puzzling: a staircase crawling down the outside of a house; 17 rooms with only one toilet; five or six lightbulbs blazing in a single room. “The people who build them, they’re not architects or engineers,” Aragón says. “They don’t have any education about how to build a house; they have never even been in a house like you’d see in the city.”
The hybrid dwellings aren’t even necessarily designed to be lived in. Sometimes, “the house is like a trophy to show to the rest of the village,” Aragón says, proof that a son, daughter, husband, or wife is succeeding in America. The building may sit empty, Aragón adds, while the family members remain in their more traditional homes—or else family life is clustered in just a few rooms of the new house, leaving the rest barren. Families may imagine the prodigal son or daughter returning one day to settle in, a hometown hero acclimating to a landscape that bears shifting resemblances to both places he left, Aragón says. “It’s very tender,” she adds. While some do come back, many—particularly those who entered America undocumented—don’t return.
When they do, it’s an event that draws crowds. Aragón recalls a Christmas trip to the airport to pick up a local man who was visiting from America. She covered the story for a local paper: The caravan of trucks ferrying the whole village to the airport, the music and the food. When the man emerged from the plane, he engulfed his mother in a bear hug. He wore a leather jacket with an eagle soaring between his shoulder blades.
Aragón says that the pastiche—and broader infiltration of American culture into Guatemalan cities, in the form of English-language names, cell phone shops, and internet cafes—hasn’t done much to really collapse the distance between the border-crossing relatives and the ones who stay back. Cell phones can help people stay in touch, but the span persists. “There’s still a missing part,” she adds. “A very, very strong missing part.”
Some of Aragón’s photos from this series are on view at The Bronx Museum of the Arts through February 12, 2017.