The Central American diaspora exists because of storytelling. Stories are among the few possessions that traveled political boundaries on the journey outside of ancestral lands. Now, these narratives are finding a home in creative works by a new generation of Central Americans in the United States. Visual artist Jessica Alvarenga has created a body of work that fully captures this process. In Jessica’s latest series, titled Witness the Isthmus: Central Americans in Houston, she documents this often-erased community in the Texan city through oral narration and photography. Her images capture their intimate spaces, ranging from their homes, places of worship, and employment.
After months of development and ardent organizing, Witness the Isthmus made its premiere to the public on June 8 at Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston (MATCH). Launched by a successful online fundraising campaign and funded by the City of Houston through a grant by the Houston Arts Alliance, the project was immediately embraced by the community. More than 100 people browsed the exhibition featuring photos of Central American families in prayer, celebrating at a backyard quinceañera, and preparing tamales in the kitchen.
“[This show] is a healing experience because when I usually go to an art gallery, I have a really hard time connecting to them, and these scenes are very familiar to me. This could be my father, my uncle in this exhibit and I love it,” Denise Gómez, 24, tells Remezcla.
Witness the Isthmus makes a timely statement for positive Central American identity in the United States. On top of the healing power of representation, the opening of the project provided a sanctuary for culture and communal celebration at a time when xenophobic and straight-up racist rhetoric against Central Americans exists. Recently, President Donald Trump called members of MS-13 – an international street gang that he has used as a shorthand for all Central American immigrants – “animals.” It’s just the latest in a string of transgressions against the Central American diaspora.
“Recently, Central American refugees and migrants have been dehumanized in very intentional ways by the US government,” says Wilfredo Santamaria, 26. “Putting efforts in humanizing and telling personal stories is so important, especially in the way Jessica does it.” Through her background of labor organizing and photography, Jessica has forged authentic relationships with the Central American community. The trust she has developed with her subjects translates into a visual language of intimacy in her photography. She captures moments of familial warmth, celebration of identity and dignity in her photography.
Remezcla spoke to several attendees to learn more about the impact of this project on the community.
“A lot of the pictures brought back personal memories, and I could see myself reflected in them. These portraits are like a piece of my life in a way.” -Maria Duran, 35
“These pictures drown out the other noise [from the media]. I feel like I’m walking into my house right now. I see these pictures and I remember my abuelita making tamales de elote.” -Carolina Lobo, 26
“We’re not this negativity that has been circulating in the media. This show portrays an intimate side that a lot of people don’t see. This show is raw representation and very relatable. I love that she captured this whole moment with my family. ” -Cesar Cordero, 36
“Jessica’s work is rewriting the narrative on Central Americans visually by putting out images that are true, empowering, vibrant, and sincere. Just the act of seeing yourself is so healing, and serves as a remedy beyond words.” -Arlene Mejorado, 30