The Noble Army
Yesterday at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Oaxaca. I sat down on a wooden bench and wept. Ceramic figures, two thousand five hundred and one of them, by Alejandro Santiago, stood or lay silently, watching me. Most are three quarters my size. Some are smaller. They look dehumanized, weather beaten, rough, like a child’s drawing given life. Their life is the issue. They represent the people from a village called Teococuilco who have left the village in search of something better. Plain pine caskets marked with large black x’es add another dimension to their sad story. In its entirety, the exhibit cries the people’s absence from another village.
No one speaks. The silence of room after room filled with these ceramic figures grabs your heart and leaves you searching for another way to breathe. Someone describes them as “the noble army without weapons.” One guard at the museum was asked how she lives with this exhibit day after day. She answered, “We give them names, we talk to them. Many people leave the exhibit crying,” she adds.
The figures speak in silence for the 400,000 people who go north every year. In Mexico, the politicians breathe sighs of relief that they have fewer mouths to feed, fewer jobs to create and a free flow of dollars into their treasury while they pat each other’s backs, and pad each other’s pockets.
It is happening as I write. It is different from Auschwitz where I wept when I saw the tailor’s cloth made from human hair, the mountains of pillaged suitcases and eyeglasses. Different from the Saigon orphanage where the Agent Orange child with trucks for limbs, shuffles and from place to place. Different from Hiroshima where I saw the rusted tricycle of Shing-Ichi, three years old, one of the 70,000 who lost their lives.
It is different because today we are witnesses to the Migration to the North and its effects. Whether we like it or not, we play a part. Philip Berrigan is a Jesuit priest who died in a prison in Nevada because he protested against the production of plutonium for weapons. In 1970, Berrigan wrote: When a people arbitrarily decides that this planet and its riches are to be divided unequally among equals, and that the only criterion for the division is the amount of naked power at its disposal, diplomacy tends to be essentially military, truth tends to be fiction, and the world tends to become a zoo without benefit of cages. And war tends to be the ultimate rationality, because reason has been bankrupted of human alternatives (Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary).
If Berrigan were alive today perhaps he, too, would sit on the wooden bench and weep. In the United States, immigration has become the scapegoat, the distraction from the real issues of
war and greed and unequal distribution of resources. But it may backfire. The racism and fear that is being fueled may leave Americans digging their own ditches, picking their own lettuce and tarring their own roofs, all in the hot sun. The immigrants are doing all the dirty work while being treated like fourth class citizens.
Human beings deserve better and that is precisely why the exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art leaves us gasping for air. Social protest in art walks a fine line. If you stomp on it as an artist, your hands are full of nothing more than pamphleteering. The 2,501 figures in the Migration exhibit with their rough glazes, their knobby breasts, their soulful eyes, their craggy limbs walk the delicate line crossing the rooms of the Museum, into our minds and hearts telling us so silently how it shouldn’t be.
Nora Jacquez lives in Colorado and Oaxaca. Author of “The Great Tamale War and Other Tales.” All Proceeds benefit La Estancia de Fraternadad.