When I first began working on this project, I thought I had all the tools I needed to carry it out: Because my parents raised me in the Mexican culture, I am completely fluent in Spanish in addition to English. I also had a solid camera and reliable lenses to work with. As in previous assignments, I thought I could produce the images I needed and deliver a good result. Little did I know that I would not only learn about the effects of immigration through my participants, but I would also end up going through the immigration process myself. As a result, the project would take on a whole new meaning for me, and my experience would allow me to sympathize on a much deeper level with the people I would be working with.
I started working on preliminary interviews for this project in the early fall of 2008. In order to seek out participants, I contacted Sister Christine Feagan of the Hispanic Ministries in Marshalltown. She suggested I meet with prominent members of the Hispanic community to describe my project so they might volunteer to participate or suggest someone who could. From these preliminary interviews I was able to narrow down the participants whose lives I would document. Among them were Maria Gomez and Felix Hernandez and his wife, Cynthia. Maria is a US citizen who would let me portray all the different opportunities she has available to her. Felix had recently become a permanent resident, and I had yet to explore what I could show for him. Following these interviews, I chose to focus on my academic coursework for the year. Unfortunately, Felix’s wife, Cynthia, was deported to Mexico during that time, and their family situation had changed dramatically when I met with him again. At that point, I decided that I would document the effect of Cynthia’s absence on their family.
A few months before the preliminary interviews, however, something happened in my personal life that would change my future in ways I could not even imagine. I met a Mexican American young man who was working on his Master’s degree in business at Iowa State. After the first month of dating, he said he had something to tell me. He was very nervous when he shared with me that he was an undocumented immigrant. I had no idea how this would affect our relationship, but I told him it didn’t matter to me and that I would stand by him. Eventually, we were engaged, and in May 2010, we were legally married. We then began the immigration process where I would petition for him to become a permanent resident, and fortunately, after about a year, he was approved for his permanent residency.
Throughout the preparation of our case, I had been going to Marshalltown to shoot photographs and record interviews with both Maria and Felix. After going through the immigration process with my husband, however, I felt that I needed a third participant: someone who was still living the reality of being undocumented as was my husband’s case for so many years. Fortunately, Maria was able to recommend a couple who own a business in Marshalltown. After meeting with them a few times to explain the nature of my project, she and her husband agreed to participate on the condition that I be sensitive to their delicate situation. As my husband could relate, they constantly feared being detained or deported to Mexico and being separated from their children. To reassure them, I gave them my word that I would protect their identities by not using their names or showing their faces. Because their children are US-born citizens, I was granted permission to show their faces, but not to use their names.
This unique situation tested my ability to work photographically within those limits and I also treated the situation with as much care as I possibly could because I could identify with it. This does not mean I would not have been careful without having gone through the immigration journey with my husband. I would have been asked to take the same precautions, but because of my experience, I felt I was able to empathize on a deeper level. This led them to trust me and feel as comfortable as they did in letting me document their lives. I also felt that because of my knowledge, I knew what questions to ask during the interview, which helped move it along smoothly and naturally, regardless of the very sensitive topic we were discussing.
I will never know how this project would have turned out had I never gone through the immigration process with my husband, but I do not think it would have been nearly as thorough had my deeper personal connection not existed. I have grown in so many unexpected ways, personally and professionally, throughout the span of this project. What started out as using my skill sets to create and complete an assignment turned into providing a profound documentary analysis of the lives of three ordinary families living extraordinary lives: families I am proud to know and families that have made me a better person for having known them. As you view these stories, I hope you remember that regardless of being citizens or residents, documented or undocumented, above everything, they are human beings who want the best for their families.
About the Artist
Eloísa Pérez-Lozano graduated from Iowa State University with her Master’s of Science degree in journalism and mass communication in December 2011 and her Bachelor’s of Science degree in psychology in May 2007. She has lived in Ames, Iowa for eight years and is originally from Houston, Texas.