Immigrant Luchadores: The Fight Goes On and On
by Miriam Alarcón Avila
My family and I immigrated from Mexico to Iowa in 2002 with the dream of obtaining a good education. My goal was to work as a visual artist, and acquire the means to become a photographer; however, I quickly realized this would not be an easy endeavor. As a single mother with financial challenges, I found I needed to postpone my studies and pursuit of photography, in order to raise my two children. Like many Latinos in the United States, I have encountered discrimination, language and cultural discrepancies, and other factors as a minority group, which have limited our options for work and driven us to accept low-paying jobs.
Along the way, however, I realized the shortcomings and difficulties facing all Latinos also brought a shared perspective of unification. In Iowa, I stopped calling myself a Mexican; I became a Latina. I found a new family in Spanish-speaking friends from numerous countries, sharing the cultural similarities of expatriate Latin American populations seeking to find a place in a country that did not recognize our love and commitment.
We share the feeling of invisibility; that we are here, but we do not count.
I started with the creation of a photo documentary on the lives and ways of Latino immigrants in Iowa. But even here, I encountered obstacles. When I launched a series of video interviews, the very people who I sought to showcase for their inspiration were concerned about the intrusive nature of the camera, and its ramifications in the US today. "But I don't want them to see me," I was told. "I don't want to be recognized."
An invisible wall formed again, leaving these stories in the dark.
I knew that I had to find a way to protect the identities of my sources of inspiration, without obscuring or hiding their faces. Our history in this country has already been hidden for a long time. Instead, the stereotypes of "bad hombres" have dominated the narrative, perpetuating the disparities generated by our brown skin, our language, and our stories.
Early in 2016, while driving to work, I remembered my childhood hero "El Santo," a masked Lucha Libre wrestler in Mexico. I remembered my fondness for his films and his spirit of justice, and how I became aware of the significance of the word "lucha," which has a double meaning in Spanish. On the one hand, it is the name of the wrestling match, and on the other hand, it is the battle we carry out to overcome obstacles – to struggle, to fight. A "luchador" is one who fights to get ahead, engaged in a struggle to achieve her or his goals. In that moment, remembering the silver mask of "El Santo, el Enmascarado de Plata," I realized that this was the symbol I needed to protect the identity of my interviewees – and, at the same time, empower them by recognizing them as "superheroes."
Instead of hiding their brown faces, I decided to fill them with glitter, color, and sequins.
From that moment on, I started working with the Luchadores Immigrants In Iowa Project, which received support from the Iowa Arts Council. I started interviewing real-life "luchadores" from all walks of life. With them, I designed and made each person a customized mask that reflected their migratory struggle. I included recent immigrants, as well as others who identify with Latino heritage as second or third-generation residents.
After the 2016 elections, and the constant attacks against Latinos and immigrants by the current White House administration, this project took on greater importance. It provided a place for the voices of immigrants and minorities--and their stories, and their actual presences, bringing them out of the shadows, making them visible and heard. In the process, it has become part of my life mission as an artist and advocate.
The portraits presented on this occasion are some of the many "luchadores" that I have photographed. I hope that their stories will plant seeds in the memory of the spectators, and that they help to shatter the grip of those worn stereotypes that need to be tossed to the heap pile of history.
While the COVID-19 virus – which has exploded in the Latino communities – has slowed my work, the "lucha" continues. I am luchando in my determination to bring these stories into the light, into our communities, and into the "rings" of luchadores across the country. As Che Guevara said:"La única lucha que se pierde es la que se abandona."
"The only fight that is lost is the one that is abandoned"
So here, in these images, "The Fight Goes On And On!"
¡La Lucha Sigue y Sigue!
Thanks for your lucha!