Free but Isolated

A striking photo exhibit by ESL students shows the ups and downs of their new American homes

David Coronado believes in the American dream.

A native of Mexico who moved to Tucson six years ago, Coronado wrote a poem about his new home. It reads in part: That day my family started a new life / Our life turned a little bit easier / New opportunities came and knocked at the door / My neighborhood is a very quiet place / A perfect place to live the American dream.

A photo he made pictures his father, exhausted at the end of the day, slumped on the couch in a cramped apartment. But David gave the picture a long title bursting with pride and hope. He calls it, "This is my dad, someone that I'm very proud of. He is taking a rest after the hard work that makes the American dream possible."

Karla Moreno, Coronado's classmate at Catalina Magnet High School, arrived in Tucson from Veracruz in 2003. Her mother works as hard as David's dad, and she, too, collapses on the couch each evening. In her daughter's photo, simply called "My mom relaxing after a long day at work," Mrs. Moreno, in navy blue medical scrubs, is prostrate on a brown velvet couch. Her eyes are closed, and a ceramic Virgin of Guadalupe watches over her.

Moreno has a different take from Coronado on the exhausting manual labor that is often the immigrant's lot. She sees it taking away from a close family life.

"I feel lonely most of the time because my mom is always working," she writes in her text. "... By the time she gets home, she is all tired, and the only thing she wants to do is lie down. ... Everything is so different here in Tucson. In Veracruz, I was always happy, and I never felt alone."

These opposing views of immigrant life in America are on display in an illuminating show in the midtown office of City Council Member Nina Trasoff. Called Home? Teen Refugees and Immigrants Explore Their Tucson, the exhibition gathers together photos and writings by some 44 students in Julie Kasper's English as a second language (ESL) classes at Catalina High.

A grant paid for 12 digital cameras and the services of Josh Schachter, a documentary photographer who has long worked with kids in Voices, the nonprofit that gets kids in need writing and photographing.

Not surprisingly, more than half of the budding photographers hail from Mexico, but many of their classmates are refugees who fled wars in Sudan, Somalia, Liberia and Afghanistan. Many of the Africans took circuitous routes, starting in Liberia, then moving on to Sierra Leone or Ivory Coast or Nigeria, before alighting in the Old Pueblo.

The students were asked to document their neighborhoods in Tucson as a way of thinking about how their lives have changed. Many write that they're grateful to be getting an education, a sentiment that may be true but sounds a bit coached. Quite a few are painfully honest about how isolated they feel in what's supposed to be the Promised Land. Like Karla, they mourn the lost communal life they enjoyed back home, among grandparents, cousins and lifelong neighbors.

"Neighbors were as a family, and we helped each other," writes Kathy Castro, originally of Obregon. "I never missed my parents as I do now, because they were always with me."

Margarita Ochoa, a Los Angeles native who was raised mostly in Guadalajara, makes the point visually in a harsh photo of a barren Tucson backyard, its lonely patches of dirt relieved only by a fallen-over basketball net and stand. In her text, she remembers the convivial parks she enjoyed as a little girl and wonders if "those times are going to be back."

Steven Jallayu, a refugee from Liberia by way of Ivory Coast, writes of being stuck inside in a neighborhood that's the "dreariest ever" and describes his native places as "my lovely homeland." Outside school, he stays indoors, and his photos show his little brothers and sisters doing the same thing. In a photo he reprovingly calls "My brothers and sisters watching TV when they should be outside playing," six kids are sitting on a double bed, mesmerized by the flickering screen. In a second image, they're beyond boredom, rubbing their eyes, rolling upside down, while the TV drones on.

Hawa Bealue, from Liberia and Nigeria, says refugee teens of different nationalities rarely reach out to each other. She has sweet photos of little kids of different races playing together in her Tucson apartment complex--in one, her little brother Parker rides a bike, taught by a multinational band of pals. But teens, she says, stick to their own kind.

But the students are also clear-eyed about what they've fled. Joseph Thal has re-created a memory from his native Sudan, where civil war has raged nearly 20 years. He's knotted ropes around the wrists of his brothers and sisters, to demonstrate, according to Schachter, how soldiers hauled children away from their families.

Sadaf Hakeem, who escaped Afghanistan for Pakistan, nostalgically remembers a prosperous family life when she was small.

"Then the Taliban came, and our lives became miserable. They bombed our house, killed our dog and killed many people."

Somalian Mohamed Iman crisply enumerates the advantages of his new home: "It has lights, a kitchen and an indoor bathroom. ... We don't have to worry about collecting and buying firewood and charcoal."

Iman's photo documents ingenuity among the refugee kids living in the bleak Tucson apartment complex that he finds so richly appointed. A gaggle of them are playing in the desolate courtyard, shooting balls into an abandoned grocery cart. "These kids are very clever," Iman notes approvingly.

Iman also records one way immigrants from time immemorial have hung on to their culture: food. He's pictured an African family enjoying a meal on the floor, sharing communal pots. The room is like a home in Africa, with colorful printed cloths covering the walls and floor.

Melissa Torres, formerly of Sinaloa, comments on the persistence of religious belief. She's made a nice close-up shot of a statue of Virgin of Guadalupe, the beloved patroness of Mexico. "The Virgin helps everybody," she notes. "My mom always tells me that even though we're not over there, we are still going to remember our cultures in our hearts."

Hakeem, the Afghan, and one of the most talented of the photographers, contributed a beautiful portrait of her sister draped in a Muslim veil. And she found a dirt Tucson alley that reminds her of home, and rendered it in a classic vanishing-point style.

Unlike Hakeem, Eliseo Egurrola is close enough to his old home to go and visit. His mom brought the kids up from Mexico years ago so they could get a better education, he says, but his dad still farms the land in Imuris, just down the road from Nogales. The son photographed his father watering his rich, green alfalfa fields by hand, the spreading branches of a tree in the background.

It's a nostalgic view of the lost homeland, but Eliseo doesn't seem to be spending too much time worrying about it. Here on the borderlands, the cultures are becoming blended anyway. "In my neighborhood, there is lots of Mexican culture," he notes.

He's made a photo of that 'hood, a typical Mexican-American Tucson street complete with cinder block, chain-link, ocotillos and distant mountains. A piece of Mexican kitsch--a chipped statue--presides colorfully in somebody's front yard. He's given the picture a telling name that shows he feels right at home in his blended life: "My Mexican culture here in Tucson."