Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Immigration Lottery

 Traditional Mexican "Lotería" Images

Tomorrow night I hope to make my way to Cooper Square in Manhattan, where our son Richard will be opening his exhibition entitled “Lotería de la Migración”.  I’ll explain a little in a moment, but first some necessary context.  Among the uglier developments of what I fear is a general deterioration of our national spiritual life is the waning of the American open-heartedness of my youth.  I sense an atrophying of generosity.  I have no other way of accounting for certain aspects of the tone of discussion of immigration.  God knows that American immigration policy is debatable, the first point of debate perhaps being about whether we even have one.  But the fecklessness of our elected politicians is more likely to be a symptom than a cause of the hardening of the American heart.

Richard Fleming's "Lotería de la Migración" Images

As he began his startlingly successful presidential campaign, Donald Trump had this to say.  “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best….They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us (sic). They’re bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime.  They’re rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people.”  For a moment ignore the substance and consider merely the tone, which is far from being either generous or open-hearted.  But substance counts too.  There are at least five million Mexicans illegally in this country.  The laws of sociology would suggest that in any human cohort so huge there will be some criminals, including I suppose some rapists.  But an American assumption should be that the vast majority, not a few afterthoughts among them, are “good people.”  Furthermore “Mexico” did not “send” them.  We are not talking about penal transportation to the antipodes in the eighteenth century.  Most of them came spurred by necessity and hope, the same engines that launched the "Mayflower" and a couple of hundred years later animated my Fleming ancestors to flee the blighted bogs of Ireland.  Furthermore their admiration for our country is so great that they will undergo nearly inconceivable difficulties and dangers to reach it and try to be a part of it.

            There is a popular Mexican card-and-board parlor game called “Lotería,” also known as “Mexican Bingo”.  It features a deck of fifty-four numbered cards, each with a brightly colored distinctive image.  On the back of each card there is a little verse or proverb relevant to the picture on the front.  There are also eight—the maximum number of possible players—five-by-eight placards or mini-boards on which sixteen of the card images have been randomly distributed in four rows of four each.  Each active player has one and, drawing cards in turn in regular rotation, hopes to be the first to fill a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal chain of four pictures with makeshift tokens.  BINGO!  It is a game of pure luck, without intellectual demands, but lots of fun.

            The pictures are an odd assortment: a bird, a fish, an umbrella, a tree, a crown, etc.  There are a few hints of the darker side of Mexican popular culture in such icons as “el diablito” (a small devil), a skull-and-crossbones, and a skeletal Grim Reaper.  These hints become much more detailed and concrete in “Migration Lottery,” the “game” that Richard has reimagined.  He has wonderfully captured the folk-art style of the traditional cards, but much of the iconography is now very pointedly related to the physical realities, dangers, and arbitrary vicissitudes of the journeys as actually undertaken by thousands of actual migrants.  For example, one of the traditional icons is “El Cantarito,” a ceramic water jug.  This has been “updated” to a thin plastic gallon milk container—the light but flimsy utensil of choice used to carry the water on which  a migrant crossing the arid borderlands may quite literally stake his life.  
"La Sed" (Thirst)

           Richard has explained his project in a succinct and informative on-line description that summarizes both its artistic and political dimensions.  I saw a sort of “preview” version of the exhibition on Governors Island some time ago.  It was very striking then, and I expect it to be even more so now.  I actually find its spirit to be not too far from that of Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales.  The comparison may seem strange—even off the wall, perhaps--to those who ignore the seriousness of Chaucer’s contrasting themes of “earnest” and “game,” the degree to which he finds in the incidents of a physical journey the template of moral life.  Our immigration policy may be a joke, but it is not a game—ludicrous, perhaps, but not exactly ludic.  Life’s lottery raises many profound questions, questions that in our pluralistic and divided society will be diversely posed and diversely answered.  For me the big question is this: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?”  Yes, that’s from the Bible.  You can look it up.

The opening of the exhibition “Lotería de la Migración and the Visual Languages of Advocacy” will be from 7 to 9pm on Thursday, April 19th, at the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics/ Institute for Public Knowledge of New York University on the fifth floor of 20 Cooper Square, New York City.  It will feature a panel discussion on the topic: “How do visual and textual languages speak to each other—and to us—about complex personal and political experience?” 
The exhibition will run through May 31st.