'From Stateless to Citizen’ creators plan Nov. 9 talk

Assistant Professor Óscar Gil-García of Binghamton University and his brother, Manuel Gil, a professional photographer, will share the story of their exhibit, “From Stateless to Citizen: Indigenous Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico” during a Nov. 9 lunch in the Latina/o Studies Center on the fourth floor of Rockefeller Hall.

The exhibit includes photographs and stories of residents of La Gloria, a Guatemalan refugee community of 3,800 people in Chiapas, Mexico that Gil-García has been working with since 2004.

“ ‘From Stateless to Citizen’ reflects the history and ongoing reality of indigenous people who were displaced by U.S. and state-backed civil wars throughout Central America and who have been living outside of their homelands for decades,” said Ella Diaz, associate professor of Latina/o/x studies and English. “This is especially important for people to understand given the recent news that consistently treats the problem as a 21st century phenomenon, when, in reality, the displacement of people, and first peoples in particular, has never ended in the western hemisphere.”

Diaz learned about Gil’s work in 2017, when she was teaching a course on “testimonio” literature. Gil was a former student of Diaz’s when she was a lecturer at the San Francisco Art Institute.

“Testimonio is a genre of literature in Latin American, Indigenous and Chicanx literary traditions that foregrounds collective experience and not the individual voice; it relies on mediation and the witnessing of personal stories of traumatic experiences in relation to larger contexts of war, discrimination, and systems of power that impact individual lives,” Diaz said.

Gil-García, an anthropologist and sociologist, has done much more than simply study the members of the La Gloria community for his dissertation – he has been instrumental in collaborating with community leaders and Julia Torres, a local attorney, to help them gain legal status.  

“I was interested in displacement in this region, but had never heard of this community before,” he said about his graduate work, explaining that he learned about the community in a book about Chiapas. “At first, I was really just trying to document how indigenous Mayans who faced displacement from Guatemala rebuild communities in Mexico and the U.S.” But, over the years, as Gil-García learned more about their struggles to achieve legal status in Mexico he met with Torres to file a grievance to the Mexican government regarding the prolonged delay in processing naturalization claims. They also collaborated with a videographer to capture the residents’ stories. That video went to a national competition, where it caught the attention of the news media and created more support for the community members.

That’s when Gil-García asked his brother to step in.

“He has a real insight into their predicament,” he said of Manuel Gil. “While I conducted interviews, asking them how long they’ve been without legal status and how this impacted their family, their ability to work and their health, Manuel listened to their experiences, gained an appreciation of their struggles, and used this as inspiration to inform his photographs.”

Although all of the people in Gil’s photographs have now received legal status, there are still 27,000 Guatemalan refugees without legal status in Mexico, he said.

For Gil-García, his academic focus on migration and displacement has a personal backstory. As a child, he witnessed an immigration raid in his Brooklyn home that resulted in the deportation of his uncles.

“I didn’t initially want to focus on immigration because of that trauma in my own life,” he said. But today, he finds it motivational.

“There are so many immigrants like my parents who are working hard to make ends meet for their children so that they too can contribute to this county,” he said. “I have a unique opportunity as an academic to bring that lens in because I have first-hand experience into what immigration enforcement looks like.”

“From Stateless to Citizen” will be on display on the fourth floor of Rockefeller Hall through May of 2019. The noontime lunch on Nov. 9 is free and open to the public.

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 Students view the Stateless to Citizen exhibit in Rockefeller Hall