The grass may always be greener on the other side, but for thousands of Mexican migrants, miles of arid desert must be covered before beginning a new life in paradise.
In the small town of Teococuilco (State of Oaxaca), the population attrition rate was so high that when artist Alejandro Santiago returned after a three-year stint in Paris (exhibiting and selling his character-rich canvases) he was appalled by the virtual ghost town’s feeling of emptiness. Sure, some migrants came back with northern cash in their pockets (far more send money home—never to return), but have become so infused with U.S. values, they try to create Arizona south, tearing down traditional housing and rebuilding in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Inevitably, power struggles break out between money-talks returnees and proud local citizenry who can’t see the overall decline and loss of history for the proverbial trees.
So passionate about the death of his hometown, Santiago decided to respond in the only way he knew how: art. Over a six-year span he and his team of otherwise jobless boys, girls and a few men began the painstaking process of creating 2,501 life-size statues of those who had vanished.
Filmmaker Yolanda Cruz (also a native Oaxacan) brought her keen interest into the mix of clay, kilns and paint to lovingly capture the process and its spectacular results. Director of photography John Simmons’ unerring eye fills the screen with this incredible labour of love, deftly balancing work-in-progress, country- and town-scapes alongside the ever-engaging visages of the creators and their subjects.
The music is equally wonderful. The solo guitar’s haunting upper register reflects the people-less streets; much jazz—notably a zesty, so-American tenor sax—confirms the spirit of fun that fuels the artisans (especially after a huge downpour ruins 300 pieces); a beautiful sunrise accompanied by solo cello and bass reinforces the notion of art—literally—imitating life.
Key to everything are the eyes. Alejandro’s are frequently pensive, burning with conviction through the difficulties (keeping young men on the job is deftly solved by turning the expansive studio into a ranch: the macho men can then do “real” work tending the animals in the morning, before learning how to create beautiful objects with their bare hands—tellingly, one of the indigenous boys sports an Oakland Raiders T shirt); a mother’s recollection of family lost while trying to cross into the U.S. fills her eyes with a flood of tears; all of the “migrants” eyes share varying degrees of terror, misery and quashed dreams—as the bodies come to life, Alejandro slashes their pliable skin with a machete, to etch in their suffering.
Significantly, when it comes time to move all of the statues to Monterey for the inaugural exhibit, they are transported in the same sort of wooden boxes that bring home the remains of real-life migrants whose desire for a better existence was forever lost.
Both the film and the 2,501 silent testaments to life’s basic dilemma are remarkable, important achievements (having his daughter create the last of the lot, an instant metaphor for the project’s goal). Here’s hoping the authorities agree and allow this disparate group of lost souls to travel the planet without having to be smuggled in. JWR