Images of an El Salvador Town Transformed by Migration
Three journalists present a complicated exploration of the effects of remittances in the Central American town of Intipucá .
Text by: David Honzalez
Photographs by: Anita Pouchard Serra, Koral Carballo and Jessica Avalos
The political has long been the personal for those who decided to abandon all they knew in El Salvador to search for a safer, but uncertain, future up north. The atrocities committed by its American-backed government during its war against leftist guerrillas in the 1980s spurred an exodus whose legacy is reflected in today’s migrant crisis.
The political narrative dominating the news includes scenes of desperate, weary souls seeking asylum and alarms over an impending — albeit unproven — invasion of hordes bringing crime and disease. Anita Pouchard Serra, who had been photographing news events along the border, thought the flood of images coming from there failed to capture the profundity of the crisis. That uneasiness eventually led her and two other like-minded journalists to Intipucá, a town in El Salvador transformed by remittances sent by untold thousands of its absent sons and daughters working in restaurants, hair salons, stores and offices in the Washington, D.C., area.
“What interested us was to talk about migration from the point of departure, not their arrival,” Ms. Pouchard Serra said. “How those who left keep a presence, while those who stayed, how do they see their lives? “From a history of migration, you create a new territory that is a mixture of Intipucá and some neighborhoods in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. It has its own cultural mix and a lot of feeling of being here and there.”
She can relate, splitting her time between Argentina and France. So, too, can the other two women who joined her in this project, Koral Carballo, a Mexican photographer, and Jessica Avalos, a Salvadoran writer. This transnational team became so close that they would share credit for “Welcome to Intipucá City,” a deft exploration of life between here and there and how, maybe sometimes, you can go home again. Or not. It’s complicated, and definitely not your great-grandparents’ migration tale.
The project’s roots date to 2016, when Ms. Pouchard Serra met Ms. Carballo at a photojournalism workshop in Veracruz, Mexico. They were the only women in the workshop. They had covered issues regarding domestic violence and migration, but were eager to go beyond the immediate or obvious image as they settled into a visual style. Migration, which touched both of their lives, seemed a fitting topic. After researching the topic, their proposed project on Intipucá earned the support of the International Women’s Media Foundation. The two photographers were, in time, joined by Ms. Avalos, whose on-the-ground knowledge proved indispensable.
“What motivates all three of us is how the majority of the media offers a narrative about the ‘other,’” Ms. Carballo said. “We want to get close and empathize. These migrants are stigmatized by the hateful talk in the U.S., but on the contrary, they are people who could be your family.”
Not to mention neighbors.
The flow from Intipucá has lasted decades, and remittances have transformed it physically, with houses built in suburban style, even with material imported from the United States and decorated with American knickknacks, like one from the Statue of Liberty. Culturally, the flow between the two countries has resulted in another North American phenomenon: Spanglish.
Tangled family ties pulled taut by distance are common. Employing drawings and oral histories, the team sketched out genealogical trees using different colors to show at a glance who went where. Ms. Pouchard Serra got the idea from her own childhood; her grandfather had drawn family trees.
Claudia Rivera’s family tree shows her two teenage sons living with her parents in Washington, where she was raised after fleeing El Salvador’s civil war. Now a doctor, she returned to Intipucá and set up a clinic in a village an hour’s drive away. “She wanted to do something to help her country,” Ms. Pouchard Serra said. “But there is a new challenge because you can be a bit of a stranger because you lived for so long in another country. All of these families have those feelings.”
In more recent trips for the project, the team has gone to the Washington area to follow up with those who are still in the States. This diaspora remains connected to Intipucá in ways an older generation never could, relying on its own website, social media and Skype calls. But those who left also sustain their hometown by holding pageants and raffles, raising money for local projects and providing school supplies for the town’s children. Some also return to the town for festivals and religious feasts, bringing their children to remind them of their family’s roots.
The project, which was selected for the Open Society Foundations’ Moving Walls 25 exhibition, — is a work in progress. So, too, are the lives of their subjects.