Paul Strand, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Susan Meiselas
Gareth Williams is an intellectual and professor.
Through these images we confront three distinct moments (1933, 1947, and 1989) that present three dissimilar yet hauntingly conjoined perspectives on the gateways, entrances, exits, borders, thresholds, and verges that shape the gendered experience of a modern Mexican social class:
The first image, by Paul Strand, situates us in the wake of a revolutionary decade mobilized by peasant uprisings against the injustices of an ongoing colonial economy and spiritual conquest sustained for a century after Independence by the landed monopolizers of wealth and prestige. The image highlights, in the interplay of shadow and light, an architecture of historical power, rural ruin, and abandonment looming up before us toward the clouded skies, testimony to a village life in which nothing changes from one generation to the next other than the shapes of the clouds, and in which the leftovers of past forms, social structures, and values haunt the landscape. This is secular post-revolutionary Mexico. But it is modernity dominated by the specters of a feudal reign that refuses to vanish. The colonial past lingers in dilapidated form as we look up to it, while at the same time the image implies the contours of an other side that never comes fully into view. If it were to come into view, its enclosure would offer only continuity with the decay we already view from outside. The image’s solemnity might take the form, then, of an invitation to pass through, cross the threshold, and enter the decaying architecture of enclosure and distinction. But there is no hospitality here, for this world of exclusion and enclosure divulges a façade that curtails and bans our passing. We gain a partial glimpse beyond the decaying walls of feudal prestige, but we are held at an absolute distance from the self-anointed glories held formerly within.
The second image, by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, situates us in the post–World War II moment and the initial years of what would later be called the “Mexican miracle,” a period of economic progress built on the development of internal markets that produced sustained economic growth of 3 to 5 percent and 3 percent inflation annually from the 1940s to the 1970s. In this time of dramatic urbanization and industrial modernization, Álvarez Bravo’s lens eschews the upward gaze of Paul Strand’s Gateway to focus downward onto the instance, the split second, of a gendered relation between foot and ground. This uncanny, timeless, image does not behold what is inside or out, what is on this side or that, but exposes the sheer contingency of a third space that conjoins and separates simultaneously. It captures the threshold between what may be private or public, a world of destitution or happiness, of peace or violence, of hospitality or horror. The lens exposes a space that is foreign to full meaning or to our definitive understanding. It is mediated by the truncated figure of a barefooted woman without particular properties or specific characteristics (is she old? young? peasant? modern? domestic worker? rural? housewife? poor? sister? bourgeois? prostitute? urban? happily surprised? horrified? indifferent?). The toes of both feet are curled upward and the heel of her right foot slightly raised off the ground in a fleeting gesture that seems to indicate her sudden recognition of, and desire to avoid contact with, the liquid on the floor — perhaps the water of domestic chores or that of a childish accident, perhaps the blood of a wrongdoing that traverses the threshold and horrifies. Perhaps the image should be accompanied by a piercing scream? By a smile of recognition? By a sigh of tired resignation? By nothing at all? What is it that counts and does not count on this threshold? What is its intrinsic property? How to measure what is proper to it? How to measure the anonymity of a woman’s recent or imminent labor, whatever form that labor might take? The threshold, it might seem, is that of our own inability to fully grasp the significance of a woman that is not allowed to count, or to be counted fully, and who comes into existence only momentarily as a bodily relation to a spill on the floor that someone will have to clean up.
The third image captures the debacle of the short-lived miracle of Mexican modernity, which came crashing to the ground with the debt crisis of 1982 and the collapse of the peso in subsequent years. The most commonplace human needs, such as work, food, healthcare, education, and shelter, once again took backseat to the economic and political elites’ renegotiation of their centuries-long prestige, wealth, and distinction, now with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund dictating terms. Once again, the non-wealthy majority was left to satisfy the most banal of human needs by assuming the weight and responsibility of absolutely exceptional means to an end: the decision to cross over to the other side in the interests of individual and collective survival. No American dream. Just a decision taken against a life experienced as destitution, against a life indistinguishable from the inevitability of economic, cultural and social death. Susan Meiselas’s lens captures this relation of equality between the absolutely banal and the absolutely exceptional in 2:00 p.m. Holding cell for undocumented female detainees. In stark contrast to the no-man’s-land that is the holding cell, place, time, and perspective in the image are marked with stifling precision, in a photographic composition built on a geometry of containment that belies any association of the other side with freedom, for this is a threshold, a border of horizontal and vertical lines that incarcerates, criminalizes, and returns. The women are captured on and by the line: la frontera. Their life stories, complexities, trajectories, reasons, and desires are reduced to a single status that confers equality on them most likely for the first time in their lives, for they are now all equally undocumented. Positioning her lens at precisely the same level as the painted line on the center and left walls, in Meiselas’s image the young girl positioned on the right close to the camera looks toward us but remains slightly out of focus. She remains overexposed. However, it is precisely this overexposure that allows her to occupy the same visual plane as the other two women, one of whom looks straight at the lens while the other turns her back from us in the left-hand corner as if in fear or out of shame. The image moves from overexposure to the desire for clandestineness and back again, with a gaze in between that underlies the stark realism of the line, the gateway, the border, how it can be crossed, and the new forms of containment it conjures up for the Mexican poor. This is the image of a small community of women, who have been brought together in no-man’s-land but who remain separate in their momentary lawless equality, waiting to return and come back again, as non-card-carrying-members of the border-crossing community of those who have no community.
Gareth Williams is professor of Romance languages and literatures and Latin American and Caribbean studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is the author of the books The Mexican Exception: Sovereignty, Police, and Democracy (2011) and The Other Side of the Popular: Neoliberalism and Subalternity in Latin America (2002). He has published extensively on the relation between Latin American culture, state formation, and political philosophy.