The new history: Dreams Deferred

As the U.S. cracks down on "Dreamers," a new show at the Oregon Historical Society digs deep into the journey stories of new Americans

“The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you are alive, and die only when you are dead. To love, to be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of the life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.” 

― Arundhati RoyThe Cost of Living (1999)

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IF IT WEREN’T FOR THAT PESKY NUMBER at the end of the quote, dating it some 20 years back, you might as well imagine that Arundathi Roy had crafted that paragraph with an eye on the exhibition just opened at the Oregon Historical Society, DREAMs Deferred.

Inside the museum. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Roy frequently writes about the fate of minorities, refugees or displaced people on the Indian subcontinent. The focus of the DREAMs Deferred exhibit is closer to home, asking what happens to those who came to the United States from Mexico or Latin America as young children of undocumented parents. The collaborative work on display shows a combination of six portraits and short-form narrative accounts of young undocumented immigrants, joined by photographic documentation of some treasured objects they chose to take with them on the hazardous journey. The thrust is indeed: Watch! Try to understand! Never look away! These are your neighbors. These are people who just like the rest of us seek love, overcome obstacles and indescribable challenges, pursue a simple life and do not confuse the things that matter with those that should be ignored.

The crowd looks and talks at the opening. Photo: Friderike Heuer
Portraits of DREAMERS combined with narrative and object description. Photo: Friderike Heuer

The dream, the aspiration, is to live while you’re alive – something not guaranteed in the places that were left behind, with often existential threat forcing parents to bring their children to an unknown country that then was not known for its hospitality if you were non-white and poor, and is even less so today. DREAMERS, as these young people are known, existed in a legal limbo until the Obama administration in 2012 announced the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) policy, which brought a pause to potential deportation if you qualified. You had to be younger than 16 upon arrival to the U.S., have lived here (endless documentation needed) for at least five years, be between 15 and 30 years old, and either in school, or graduated, or a veteran of the Army or the Coast Guard, and have no convictions for felonies, significant misdemeanors (DUI included) or multiple misdemeanors. (Here is a small window into the bureaucracy involved for (re)application.)

Yessica Perrez Barrios, portrait by Sankar Raman

Approximately 700,000 people were protected by DACA until the Trump administration decided to rescind the policy in 2017. Their fate rests now with the U.S. Supreme Court, with cases to be decided this June. Add to that the fate of 250,000 offspring of those Dreamers, who are U.S. citizens because they were born here, but would be separated from their parents if deportation ensued. The Supreme Court cases also reach potentially beyond those young people now involved and living in limbo – there is the distinct possibility that any future President will be denied the right to implement progressive immigration reform through executive action. (Legal details can be found here.)

Opening of the exhibit. Sankar Raman, left, with guests. Photo: Friderike Heuer

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THE SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY CURATED EXHIBITION provides an intimate window into the lives, thoughts and emotions of six very different undocumented people from Mexico and South American countries, made possible with support from the Zidell Family Foundation. The concept was developed by The Immigrant Story (TIS,) a local nonprofit organization that is playing an important and increasingly visible role in capturing our attention about the plight of those in our community who do not have the legal protections the rest of us enjoy. “The right to have rights,” to use Hannah Arendt’s phrase from The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), is, after all, restricted to citizens, and according to the United Nations, there are a record 65.6 million people who have been forcibly displaced; 22.5 million are considered refugees; 10 million people are currently stateless, all deprived of basic rights you and I take for granted.

Folks at The Immigrant Story – guided, pushed, prodded and supported, if my intuition is correct, by founder and board president Sankar Raman – understand the persuasive power of narrative relative to the value of statistics. If you aim for empathy and inclusion, as their mission statement implicates, storytelling is essential. Trained as a physicist, Raman holds a Ph.D. in engineering and retired from the high-tech industry some years back, with an arsenal of skills when it comes to the technical challenges of organizing multi-pronged, group-based work. He arrived in the U.S. from India in the beginning of the 1980s, just as I arrived from Germany. Given our similarity in age and comparable levels of education, I could not but wonder, while in conversation with this passionate man, how the difference in the color of our skin affected the process of immigration and integration.

Sankar Raman, President of the Board at THE IMMIGRANT STORY, photographer. Photo: Friderike Heuer

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BY THE TIME YOU LEAVE the exhibition you will have become, if not familiar with, then somewhat connected to those who shared their thoughts, joys and fears. Partly that has to do with the quality of the portraits, photographed by Raman. Larger-than-life faces, all with eyes directed straight at the viewer, express a range of emotions across subjects. Wistfulness alternates with exuberance, pensiveness with caution. There is a naturalness to them, even though they are obviously staged, that speaks to both the skill of the photographer and, more importantly, to the trust established between artist and subject. There is a poise that reveals these young people know that what they are doing is important. Telling their stories cannot be an easy thing, even for the more gregarious among them. The use of a color palette focused on optimism rather than foreboding also draws you in. Strong work.

Ivan Hernandez, portrait by Sankar Raman

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“STRONG WORK” IS PROBABLY THE WEAKEST of the descriptors used in evaluation of photographer Jim Lommasson‘s output. He is something of a role model, if not a hero, to many local and national photographic artists, both for the quality of his workmanship and his choice of subject matters. A demonstrably humble man, he likely grimaces at such a label, but that is how the community sees him – as does the jurying set who decides to award grants and prizes, including the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize (2004), a coveted recognition from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

Jim Lommasson, photographer. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Lommasson does not shy away from difficult topics, or political discourse transmuted into emotionally charged images and text. The artist somehow manages to communicate the raw essence of his subjects, their suffering and their triumphant survival, no matter where he directs his lens. From American boxing rings, to the postwar existence of wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, to documentation of mementos of generations of Holocaust and genocide survivors in his most recent project: What we Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization, his work invites us to think about our shared humanity. Us and hundreds of thousands of viewers nationally, given that his work has been displayed at numerous museums, including the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, which alone has half a million visitors annually.

Judge Xiomara Torres’ passport, one of the objects she carried to the United States. Photo: Jim Lommasson

“Invites” is perhaps the wrong term. Lommasson forces us to engage with the images, objects – which are in the DREAMs Deferred display as well – that were selected by those who had to leave home, and not just because of their poignancy, which is captured without any sentimentality in the photographs. We are forced to engage because of the platform given to the voices of those who carried these objects into the unknown: The images provide the surface on which the explanatory narratives unfurl, in the handwriting of the refugees.

Above and below: what they carried and what it meant to them. Photos: Jim Lommasson

I forget where I picked this up, but the artist from the very start of his career as a photographer was motivated by a child’s question on viewing (bland) images: “So what?” Not for a moment does his documentary work afford this sentiment. No “So what?” possible in the presence of the anguish, grit, and will toward survival in his depictions. Lommasson’s desire to show that at the core we are all one, in our vulnerability, in our hopes, in our rights to have rights, finds the perfect expression in his art. In this focus he reminds me of Anjum, the central character in Arundathi Roy’s newest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, who lives in a deserted Muslim graveyard just outside New Delhi. She is able to make borders disappear between men and women, animals and humans, life and death. As the author herself (approximately) put it in her PEN America Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture last May – we turn to people like these when seeking shelter from the tyranny of hard borders in an increasingly hardening world.

Sankar Raman and Jim Lommasson, collaborating on this exhibit. Photo: Friderike Heuer

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HOW WOULD YOU FEEL, if you were ripped out of your teenage universe at age 15, mourning the loss of the all-important cohort, forced to study in a foreign language and live in a foreign country, constantly worried about your ability to put down some roots? What would it take to have great academic success while fearing you will be denied access to college? And now, less than a decade after your arrival, to own a flourishing practice as a family therapist, helping, among others, Spanish-speaking clients to deal with the existential strain of displacement, or the hardship of living with uncertainty? Liliana Luna, who I met at the exhibit opening, can tell you all about it.

Liliana Luna, one of the people portrayed in this exhibition, and with her portrait below. Photos: Friderike Heuer

How would you cope if being sent back to a country that you last saw as a toddler? Having to leave a close-knit community of co-workers in case of deportation, evidenced by many of the OMSI staff who came to the exhibit opening to celebrate their colleague? Miguel Rodriguez is out of the woods in this regard, having been granted legal status.

Miguel Rodriguez, one of the exhibit participants. Photo: Friderike Heuer
Miguel Rodriguez in front of Judge Xiomara Torres’ portrait. Photo: Friderike Heuer
Photo: Friderike Heuer

Given his work in the community through his nonprofit engagement at Through a Latinx Lens, he would be able to tell you, however, countless stories of those out there living in constant fear of what the future holds. Dreams deferred, indeed.

It is upon all of us to make sure they do not shrivel, fester, or explode.

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DREAMs Deferred

January 10 – April 12, 2020
Oregon Historical Society
1200 S.W. Park Ave., Portland

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There will also be a live event from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, April 11, at Lincoln Recital Hall, Portland State University, 1620 S.W. Park Ave., Portland. 

DREAMs Deferred Live will kick off with a culturally specific musical performance from this region. Afterward, from 8:30 to 10 p.m., six storytellers from Mexico and Central America will share their stories about the arduous and frequently dangerous journeys that brought them across the border to the United States.

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