Jon Lowenstein: Family, hope and resilience on the migrant trail

Recorded atJuly 20, 2019
EventTEDSummit 2019
Duration (min:sec)13:37
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute162.07 slow
Readability (FK)48.82 difficult
SpeakerJon Lowenstein

Official TED page for this talk


For the past 20 years, photographer and TED Fellow Jon Lowenstein has documented the migrant journey from Latin America to the United States, one of the largest transnational migrations in world history. Sharing photos from his decade-long project "Shadow Lives USA," Lowenstein takes us into the inner worlds of the families escaping poverty and violence in Central America -- and pieces together the complex reasons people leave their homes in search of a better life.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:12 [This talk contains graphic images]
200:16 So I'm sitting across from Pedro,
300:19 the coyote, the human smuggler,
400:21 in his cement block apartment,
500:24 in a dusty Reynosa neighborhood
600:26 somewhere on the US-Mexico border.
700:29 It's 3am.
800:31 The day before, he had asked me to come back to his apartment.
900:35 We would talk man to man.
1000:37 He wanted me to be there at night and alone.
1100:41 I didn't know if he was setting me up,
1200:43 but I knew I wanted to tell his story.
1300:46 He asked me, "What will you do
1400:48 if one of these pollitos, or migrants, slips into the water and can't swim?
1500:53 Will you simply take your pictures and watch him drown?
1600:56 Or will you jump in and help me?"
1701:00 At that moment, Pedro wasn't a cartoonish TV version of a human smuggler.
1801:07 He was just a young man, about my age,
1901:09 asking me some really tough questions.
2001:12 This was life and death.
2101:14 The next night, I photographed Pedro as he swam the Rio Grande,
2201:18 crossing with a group of young migrants into the United States.
2301:23 Real lives hung in the balance every time he crossed people.
2401:28 For the last 20 years,
2501:29 I've documented one of the largest transnational migrations
2601:33 in world history,
2701:34 which has resulted in millions of undocumented people
2801:37 living in the United States.
2901:39 The vast majority of these people leave Central America and Mexico
3001:43 to escape grinding poverty and extreme levels of social violence.
3101:48 I photograph intimate moments of everyday people's lives,
3201:52 of people living in the shadows.
3301:55 Time and again, I've witnessed resilient individuals
3401:59 in extremely challenging situations
3502:02 constructing practical ways to improve their lives.
3602:07 With these photographs,
3702:08 I place you squarely in the middle of these moments
3802:11 and ask you to think about them as if you knew them.
3902:14 This body of work is a historical document,
4002:17 a time capsule that can teach us not only about migration,
4102:21 but about society and ourselves.
4202:25 I started the project in the year 2000.
4302:31 The migrant trail has taught me
4402:34 how we treat our most vulnerable residents in the United States.
4502:37 It has taught me about violence and pain and hope and resilience
4602:43 and struggle and sacrifice.
4702:45 It has taught me firsthand
4802:47 that rhetoric and political policy directly impact real people.
4902:52 And most of all,
5002:55 the migrant trail has taught me
5102:57 that everyone who embarks on it is changed forever.
5203:01 I began this project in the year 2000
5303:04 by documenting a group of day laborers on Chicago’s Northwest side.
5403:09 Each day, the men would wake up at 5am,
5503:12 go to a McDonald's, where they would stand outside
5603:14 and wait to jump into strangers' work vans,
5703:17 in the hopes of finding a job for the day.
5803:19 They earned five dollars an hour,
5903:22 had no job security, no health insurance
6003:24 and were almost all undocumented.
6103:27 The men were all pretty tough.
6203:31 They had to be.
6303:32 The police constantly harassed them for loitering,
6403:35 as they made their way each day.
6503:38 Slowly, they welcomed me into their community.
6603:40 And this was one of the first times
6703:42 that I consciously used my camera as a weapon.
6803:45 One day, as the men were organizing to make a day-labor worker center,
6903:50 a young man named Tomás came up to me and asked me
7003:53 will I stay afterwards and photograph him.
7103:55 So I agreed.
7203:56 As he walked into the middle of the empty dirt lot,
7303:59 a light summer rain started to fall.
7404:03 Much to my surprise, he started to take off his clothes. (Laughs)
7504:07 I didn't exactly know what to do.
7604:10 He pointed to the sky and said,
7704:12 "Our bodies are all we have."
7804:15 He was proud, defiant and vulnerable, all at once.
7904:19 And this remains one of my favorite photographs of the past 20 years.
8004:23 His words have stuck with me ever since.
8104:26 I met Lupe Guzmán around the same time,
8204:29 while she was organizing and fighting the day-labor agencies
8304:33 which were exploiting her and her coworkers.
8404:36 She organized small-scale protests, sit-ins and much more.
8504:41 She paid a high price for her activism,
8604:44 because the day-labor agencies like Ron's
8704:47 blackballed her and refused to give her work.
8804:51 So in order to survive,
8904:52 she started selling elotes, or corn on the cob, on the street,
9004:56 as a street vendor.
9104:58 And today, you can still find her
9205:00 selling all types of corn and different candies and stuff.
9305:04 Lupe brought me into the inner world of her family
9405:07 and showed me the true impact of migration.
9505:11 She introduced me to everyone in her extended family,
9605:14 Gabi, Juan, Conchi, Chava, everyone.
9705:19 Her sister Remedios had married Anselmo,
9805:21 whose eight of nine siblings
9905:23 had migrated from Mexico to Chicago in the nineties.
10005:27 So many people in her family opened their world to me
10105:31 and shared their stories.
10205:33 Families are the heart and lifeblood of the migrant trail.
10305:38 When these families migrate,
10405:40 they change and transform societies.
10505:44 It's rare to be able to access so intimately
10605:47 the intimate and day-to-day lives
10705:49 of people who, by necessity, are closed to outsiders.
10805:53 At the time,
10905:54 Lupe's family lived in the insular world of the Back of the Yards,
11005:58 a tight-knit Chicago neighborhood,
11106:01 which for more than 100 years had been a portal of entry
11206:04 for recent immigrants --
11306:07 first, from Europe, like my family,
11406:09 and more recently, from Latin America.
11506:11 Their world was largely hidden from view.
11606:14 And they call the larger, white world outside the neighborhood
11706:18 "Gringolandia."
11806:21 You know, like lots of generations moving to the Back of the Yards,
11906:24 the family did the thankless hidden jobs that most people didn't want to do:
12006:29 cleaning office buildings, preparing airline meals in cold factories,
12106:34 meat packing, demolitions.
12206:38 It was hard manual labor for low exploitation wages.
12306:41 But on weekends, they celebrated together,
12406:44 with backyard barbecues
12506:47 and birthday celebrations,
12606:49 like most working families the world over.
12706:52 I became an honorary family member.
12806:55 My nickname was "Johnny Canales," after the Tejano TV star.
12907:00 I had access to the dominant culture,
13007:02 so I was part family photographer, part social worker
13107:06 and part strange outsider payaso clown, who was there to amuse them.
13207:11 One of the most memorable moments of this time
13307:15 was photographing the birth of Lupe's granddaughter, Elizabeth.
13407:20 Her two older siblings had crossed across the Sonoran Desert,
13507:25 being carried and pushed in strollers into the United States.
13607:28 So at that time,
13707:30 her family allowed me to photograph her birth.
13807:33 And it was one of the really coolest things
13907:36 as the nurses placed baby Elizabeth on Gabi's chest.
14007:41 She was the family's first American citizen.
14107:44 That girl is 17 today.
14207:48 And I still remain in close contact with Lupe
14307:51 and much of her family.
14407:54 My work is firmly rooted in my own family's history
14507:58 of exile and subsequent rebirth in the United States.
14608:03 My father was born in Nazi Germany in 1934.
14708:07 Like most assimilated German Jews,
14808:10 my grandparents simply hoped
14908:12 that the troubles of the Third Reich would blow over.
15008:16 But in spring of 1939,
15108:18 a small but important event happened to my family.
15208:23 My dad needed an appendectomy.
15308:25 And because he was Jewish,
15408:27 not one hospital would operate on him.
15508:31 The operation was carried out on his kitchen table,
15608:34 on the family's kitchen table.
15708:37 Only after understanding the discrimination they faced
15808:40 did my grandparents make the gut-wrenching decision
15908:43 to send their two children on the Kindertransport bound for England.
16008:49 My family's survival has informed my deep commitment
16108:54 to telling this migration story
16208:56 in a deep and nuanced way.
16308:58 The past and the present are always interconnected.
16409:03 The long-standing legacy
16509:05 of the US government's involvement in Latin America
16609:08 is controversial and well-documented.
16709:11 The 1954 CIA-backed coup of Árbenz in Guatemala,
16809:15 the Iran-Contra scandal, the School of the Americas,
16909:18 the murder of Archbishop Romero on the steps of a San Salvador church
17009:22 are all examples of this complex history,
17109:25 a history which has led to instability
17209:29 and impunity in Central America.
17309:34 Luckily, the history is not unremittingly dark.
17409:39 The United States and Mexico took in thousands and millions, actually,
17509:43 of refugees escaping the civil wars of the 70s and 80s.
17609:48 But by the time I was documenting the migrant trail in Guatemala
17709:52 in the late 2000s,
17809:53 most Americans had no connection to the increasing levels of violence,
17909:59 impunity and migration in Central America.
18010:02 To most US citizens, it might as well have been the Moon.
18110:07 Over the years, I slowly pieced together
18210:10 the complicated puzzle that stretched from Central America through Mexico
18310:15 to my backyard in Chicago.
18410:18 I hit almost all the border towns -- Brownsville, Reynosa, McAllen,
18510:22 Yuma, Calexico --
18610:23 recording the increasing militarization of the border.
18710:27 Each time I returned,
18810:29 there was more infrastructure, more sensors, more fences,
18910:32 more Border Patrol agents and more high-tech facilities
19010:36 with which to incarcerate the men, women and children
19110:41 who our government detained.
19210:44 Post-9/11, it became a huge industry.
19310:47 I photographed the massive and historic immigration marches in Chicago,
19410:52 children at detention facilities
19510:54 and the slow percolating rise of anti-immigrant hate groups,
19610:59 including sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona.
19711:03 I documented the children in detention facilities,
19811:08 deportation flights
19911:10 and a lot of different things.
20011:13 I witnessed the rise of the Mexican drug war
20111:16 and the deepening levels of social violence in Central America.
20211:20 I came to understand how interconnected all these disparate elements were
20311:25 and how interconnected we all are.
20411:27 As photographers,
20511:29 we never really know which particular moment will stay with us
20611:34 or which particular person will be with us.
20711:38 The people we photograph become a part of our collective history.
20811:42 Jerica Estrada was a young eight-year-old girl
20911:45 whose memory has stayed with me.
21011:47 Her father had gone to LA in order to work to support his family.
21111:53 And like any dutiful father,
21211:54 he returned home to Guatemala, bearing gifts.
21311:58 That weekend, he had presented his eldest son with a motorcycle --
21412:02 a true luxury.
21512:04 As the son was driving the father back home
21612:07 from a family party,
21712:11 a gang member rode up and shot the dad through the back.
21812:15 It was a case of mistaken identity,
21912:17 an all too common occurrence in this country.
22012:20 But the damage was done.
22112:22 The bullet passed through the father and into the son.
22212:27 This was not a random act of violence,
22312:29 but one instance of social violence
22412:32 in a region of the world where this has become the norm.
22512:36 Impunity thrives when all the state and governmental institutions
22612:40 fail to protect the individual.
22712:42 Too often, the result forces people to leave their homes and flee
22812:47 and take great risks in search of safety.
22912:50 Jerica's father died en route to the hospital.
23012:53 His body had saved his son's life.
23112:56 As we arrived to the public hospital,
23212:59 to the gates of the public hospital,
23313:01 I noticed a young girl in a pink striped shirt, screaming.
23413:05 Nobody comforted the little girl as she clasped her tiny hands.
23513:10 She was the man's youngest daughter,
23613:11 her name was Jerica Estrada.
23713:13 She cried and raged,
23813:15 and nobody could do anything, for her father was gone.
23913:18 These days, when people ask me
24013:21 why young mothers with four-month-old babies
24113:24 will travel thousands of miles,
24213:25 knowing they will likely be imprisoned in the United States,
24313:29 I remember Jerica, and I think of her and of her pain
24413:33 and of her father who saved his son's life with his own body,
24513:38 and I understand the truly human need
24613:40 to migrate in search of a better life.
24713:43 Thank you.
24813:44 (Applause)