We arrived late, and though jet-lagged, we were ecstatic to be in Ireland for the first time. Our friend, singer-songwriter Declan McLaughlin, had arranged a homestay for us to better understand the history of the civil rights struggle and enduring activism in Derry City in the North of Ireland. Paul O’Connor and his amazing family took us in despite the enormous size of our luggage filled with “just in case” objects, mezcal bottles, and gifts from Mexico. The fact that they had invited one Mexican (me) and four had arrived was already becoming a bit of a screwball comedy, but traveling only a few days in Ireland had shown us that Mexican and Irish humor is very similar. We have both grown thick skin and the capacity to maintain humor in the face of tragedy.
The Bloody Sunday’s Trust commemorative events at the Free Derry Corner and the Museum of Free Derry inspired us profoundly. The movement is a beacon of remembrance and continued learning about what happened during the conflict and the events of that fateful Sunday morning in January fifty-one years ago. Many painful questions arose among us as we confronted the atrocious scale of lives lost crossing borders–religious or political–in Mexico and beyond. How can we speak about the thousands of lives lost on the frontier? How is a community like Derry capable of honoring them in such a profound way? And what meaning(s) can we derive from the stories of those migrants who managed to survive crossing or lay buried in the desert?
En route to the opening of my exhibition What Remains, we walked the streets of the old walled city of Derry in silence, before encountering a mural of a young girl, Annette McGavigan, who had been shot dead by the British Army at age 14. The mural sparked our collective memory of Daisy, a girl in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, who had crossed the border from Mexico to the United States alone, and how she represented herself as a caged butterfly. It reminded us of all the migrant girls, the death of their innocence, how injustice kills innocence. We all stood in silence, the same type of silence we experienced six months earlier when we had driven to the wall in Ciudad Juarez.
I don’t speak through words, I speak through my eyes, that is my true language. I stood with the microphone, staring at the images hanging on the walls, connecting to the photos I had made, going back to the instant of taking the frame, what was happening around me and how it felt. From there I spoke, from what my eyes have seen at home to what they were now witnessing in this new place. One we had never visited before, but that made us all feel so much at home, so easily. We felt the comfort, closeness, and strength–sadness and humor all coalescing at the same time.
We had the opportunity to connect with leaders from the North West Migrants Forum during their weekly Social Café. We spoke with members and visitors, families, adults and kids, who had migrated to the North of Ireland from Russia, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, and elsewhere. Their stories echoed with familiarity, their circumstances were nearly an identical reflection of those who come to the U.S. from Central America and Mexico–the cruelty, the annulation of human rights, and the trauma they live with after crossing the border. There is the loss of freedom, the scarcity of resources, and a vanishing sense of trust and belonging. We tried to absorb as many migrant testimonials as possible, and in the end we cemented future collaboration with the Migrants Forum.
“La Trenza” is a physical and conceptual weaving of objects and clothing that have either crossed borders or been lost along the way. As we collaborate with new communities, the braid begins growing in different directions, becoming more powerful as it unifies stories and entangles migrants and their parallel journeys in different parts of the world. Whether they survived the crossing or not, braiding their stories and their most intimate objects of survival allows us to commemorate What Remains in places where humans enforce arbitrary borders, from the heavily militarized to the nearly invisible.
I spent a couple of years steering clear of border issues during Covid, due to my inability to keep my eyes open and continue documenting those agonizing realities. But while in the North of Ireland, I asked our host Paul, “How have you been capable of fighting for civil rights for so long? Where do you get the strength to keep going?” He responded, “I will give you the key, it’s simple and it’s one word: humor!” We took his words to heart as a welcoming gift and reminded ourselves to never let go of this key.