Tropicalísimo: first glance

I'm very happy to announce the completion of my new project, Tropicalísimo, one of the most eclectic and beautiful groups of photos I've ever put together. People who know photography are already getting excited about the project, such as this collector, who was kind enough to post the photograph below, along with the exhibition statement, on her Web site. 

The subject of these 35-40 photographs (which will depend on gallery space) is the tropics, as a place and as a state of mind. The pictures were taken between 2012 and 2014 in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.

I hope to squeeze in a few exhibitions (along with workshops and lectures) in 2014, but given the lead time needed to program art shows, I expect this work will be seen mostly next year.

Some of these photographs have been around for a while, so don't be surprised if a few look familiar. Most of them, however, have never been seen before.

Please get in touch with me if you'd like to program a showing of this work at your university, museum, independent art space, coffee shop, or bar. Formal proposals are already being sent all over the world and I expect to be able to confirm an exhibition or two of Tropicalísimo pretty soon.

Reach me at jmmsevigny@gmail.com.

- john sevigny


Let us pretend, by Steve Pottinger

Let us pretend.

Let us pretend 
that we haven’t been this way before
too recently and too often
that this is the way forward
that it is the road to the peace
which eluded you when you sent 
planes and tanks and men 
into Lebanon, Ramallah, Jenin,
Gaza, Gaza, Gaza.

Let us pretend
that this time will be different 
that this time will be worth it
that you can tot up the lives 
of dead children and collateral families 
and declare victory
that security can be measured
in flattened houses
burials and tears.

And let us pretend 
that when you build settlements and walls
and criss-cross the country with roads 
and stitch it with checkpoints
and cut down olive groves
and throw people from their homes
let us pretend then 
that the only terrorism in town
is the anger of young men
who build rockets they can barely aim
who have no hope,
who see their homeland dismembered before them.

Let us pretend
that this tit for tat
this tit for bloody tat
is the only way 
is the legacy you will leave 
your children and your children’s children
their children and their children’s children

Let us pretend there can be no hope
that milk and honey cannot be shared
that Israeli and Palestinian can never 
live together, laugh together, love together
two flags flutter together
let us press our face to the cross-hairs
and close our eyes
and stop up our ears
and still our beating hearts
and let us pretend, Bibi,

let us pretend.

(another recent poem by Steve. Also, check out his poetry volumes up for sale at Ignite Books)


An open letter to President Barack Obama: the immigration nightmare

President Barack Obama,

I write to express my grave concern over your lack of action on behalf of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children now held in custody (or "being sheltered", depending on who is describing their situation) near the US-Mexico border and on military bases around the United States. I also write to oppose mass deportations of children back to Central America.

Mr. President. Your perceived disinterest in tackling this issue is terrible and tragic.

Apart from requesting money to deal with what you called a humanitarian crisis, your demeanor, insofar as it can be judged by brief quotes and video clips is that of a president who simply cannot be bothered to deal with a major, international problem involving children. 

You seem apathetic and perplexed. You look like a man who has wandered into the wrong job, and maybe that's the case. 

Understand that when I voted for you I expected a measure of empathy that was completely absent during the previous administration. 

But when you refuse to visit the border region, I think of George W. Bush's "flyover" after Hurricane Katrina, looking down from the heavens as people died on live television at the Superdome.

When I see photographs of children huddled on the concrete floors of immigration holding facilities and locked in cages, I think of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the terrible images that emerged from Guantanamo after the ill-advised round-up of alleged terrorist warlords.

In your pre-emptive defense of coming executive actions last week you mentioned, somewhat snarkly, that you are not up for re-election - a sign, perhaps, that you sense that there will be no judgment for your failure to act on behalf of these detained children (beyond asking for money, and signing off on fast-track deportations). 

But I suspect you came into office with at least a few goals. True, some of those have been quashed by Republicans, who truth be told, were going to block anything you proposed anyway. But you will have to live with your failure to show compassion on this issue. You, and unfortunately, these children, who are refugees, victims, and, literally, the future of our hemisphere.

I ask you, what is to become of children deported to the terribly violent nation of Honduras? What is to become of siblings separated by adult immigration agents, whose training is not in child care, or trauma counseling, but in tracking, trapping and jailing undocumented immigrants in a desert that kills countless thousands?

You can repeat to yourself, and to the nation, that it's not your fault, that this is what happens when Republicans refuse to vote on immigration reform. But as you know, the buck stops with you. I urge you to rally your allies (Rick Perry is not one of them) and do something sensible to get families out of cages, off military bases, and into the hands of people who are trained to work with children.


John Sevigny 


The half-told story of the immigration "surge"

An older woman waits alone for a bus near El Salvador's popular Metrocentro mall

Mexico's drug violence in 2010 was striking not only for its scale but also for its brutality. In the Northern City of Santiago, the mayor's body was found with the eyes gouged out. In the picturesque town of Cuernavaca, four decapatited men were hanged from a bridge along a heavily traveled highway. And in Ciudad Juarez this week, two university students were hunted through a maze of streets and killed with bullets to the head, their bodies set on fire. 
- The Washington Post, January 1, 2011

So why was there no humanitarian crisis at the border when drug cartels were butchering thousands of people a year in Mexico? Why would Central Americans go hundreds, or thousands of miles to escape street gangs, as the media and US government tell us they are doing, when Mexicans, who lived with daily gunfights, decapitations, kidnappings in cities along the border stayed home?

Are Mexicans that much braver than Central Americans? Are people who live alongside the border, and can see the United States from their homes, more reluctant to cross it? Are the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha 13 gangs, by any stretch of the imagination, worse than the Zetas, and the Gulf cartels?

Or is the media, led by President Barack Obama, feeding us a simplified or even fictional narrative about the causes of the "humanitarian crisis" on the border?

Looking at the numbers, it's hard to compare anything happening in Central America today to the brutality of the bloody cartel backlash against government clampdowns in Mexico. In 2010, there were almost 4,000 homicides in El Salvador, according to the PNC, or National Civil Police. That same year, there were nearly 24,000 murders in Mexico, with more than 7,200 homicides in the border states of Chihuahua and Sinaloa alone. Men with machine guns fought wild west style shootouts on the streets of nearly every Mexican town, and at one point, the number of homicides nationally was so bad that the Mexican government refused to disclose it.

But there was no humanitarian crisis, no photographs of children strewn sleeping across concrete floors in US detention centers, no alarm from the White House, and no marches of wrath from closet racists who don't want to live in the same country as Latinos.

The first answer to these questions is that President Obama fails to understand the complex issue of immigration. The second is that his policies reflect his ignorance.

Until late 2013, it was an open secret that many undocumented immigrants were picked up by immigration agents and turned loose in the States with a summons to appear before an immigration judge within a few months. The reasons given were that there was not enough space to hold them all.

Since then, the government has changed its strategy.

Now, immigrants are being detained and held through the course of their court proceedings if they choose to try to remain in the United States. It's reasonable to believe that those who were previously turned loose were not counted, but those who are currently being held account for the reported increase in immigrants.

Indeed, the Obama administration was planning a change in policy since at least the beginning of 2014. On January 29, a federal Web site for contractors posted a request for proposals seeking someone to care for and escort 65,000 expected unaccompanied child migrants. The federal government has confirmed the veracity of this advertisement.

Moreover, numbers provided by ICE, a notoriously secretive umbrella group that includes the former INS, are unreliable. Individual immigration cases are not public records. It may be that thousands of unaccompanied child migrants are turning up at the border. Or that may be a lie. Nobody can report with any authority why children and families are moving north. They have to accept the generalized statements of ICE spokespeople. 

All we have are a handful of snapshots from Brietbart, a few comments from US talking heads blaming "violence" in Central America for a perhaps fictional exodus, and a media that rarely, if ever questions anything that any presidential administration says.

Of course, there are cases of children traveling to the United States alone, but that's nothing new. I took this picture and wrote this story six years ago. Hondurans have long made up the largest percent of immigrants traveling to the United States. That's not new either.

At the Belen Posada del Migrante, a Church-run shelter for immigrants in the Mexican border state of Coahuila, 85 percent of the migrants who stop for food and rest are Honduran. Fourteen percent are Salvadoran or Guatemalan and one percent are from Nicaragua. Those numbers have remained stable, according to shelter officials, for at least two years, but probably a lot longer.

And according to the Migration Policy Institute, there were already as many as a half million Hondurans living in the United States in 2011. Men, women and children. 

Those of us who spend most of our time in Latin America know is that there is nothing happening in Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador that wasn't happening 10 years ago. We know that tarring and feathering Central American countries as hotbeds of violence is racist and easy, despite the fact that 20 people were shot, and two of them killed, over Father's Day weekend in Chicago in gang-related violence. 

I would dare to say that El Salvador, compared to Mexico, is a safe country. On Saturday, I took 10 photography students to downtown San Salvador to take pictures. We were carrying expensive cameras. Nobody bothered us. We didn't see a single gang member. Nobody was robbed, threatened or assaulted. Nobody even asked us for spare change. 

Indeed, violence in much of Central America is on the decline. There were once as many as 17 homicides a day in El Salvador. That number is down to fewer than 10. Honduras and Guatemala have both announced small but significant decreases in violent deaths.

Still, much of Latin America, including El Salvador is violent, but that violence is not the cause of Obama's half-truth of a surge. Much of Latin America is poor. Inequality is a curse on this region that goes back to 15th and 16th Century Spanish classism. People here have been moving north for decades, if not centuries, to be with their families, find better jobs and escape inequality. There is no real news story here except that the President and his people are not telling us the whole story.

And that's nothing new either.