Excerpt from: Harvard Educational Review Vol. 85 No. 3 Fall 2015

The Unlikelihood of Family: A Photographic Essay on Transnational Experiences


In this photo essay, Cristina Llerena Navarro captures moments in the everyday lives of mixed-status families. Through her narrative and images, Llerena shares the sto- ries of these families, their journeys to the United States as well as the consequences of deportation on the family unity. She evokes the children’s deep yearning to be reunited with their families on American soil, the parents’ determination to provide their chil- dren with lives better than their own, and the realities of current immigration policy in preventing the ful llment of these dreams.

In the fall of 2014, I led a residency as a teaching artist at a school in Boston. I taught photography in structured English immersion classrooms in which stu- dents were native Spanish speakers but where much of the instruction was in English. I designed the class curriculum around the theme of looking at the local community from students’ points of view and took students on eld trips around the neighborhood to meet people and learn about their stories and the history of the community. As an educator, I have always believed this teach- ing method to be a very exciting gateway to photography. My goal with this class format is to foster curiosity and awe in everyday life, using the camera as a means for students to look at their lives in a new, critical, and exciting way.

During class time, while we looked at the images we’d captured on our photographic eld trips, I learned from my students that many of them had never walked around their own neighborhood, in many cases because their family members were undocumented and were wary of visiting public places. The photography course I was leading allowed students to view their own realities. This is not the same as when a photography student gains a deeper under- standing of his or her own surroundings, typically the case for other classes I have taught. Rather, for these students I learned that this was a new and foreign experience of the ordinary. After school, many of these children would go home to an environment steeped in the fear of deportation. I realized that although photography provided an expressive outlet for my students, this con- text of anxiety created a boundary and an emotional burden that would have to be overcome if they were to have a positive learning experience.

Even though I shared common cultural experiences with many of my students, I felt compelled to further understand the experiences of their transnational families. At first, my motivation came from a belief that, as an educator, if I understood more about my student’s lives, I would be able to help them engage with what was relevant to their own experience. With this goal in mind, I reached out to colleagues inside and outside the school.

It was at this time that I developed a relationship with Mariana, an educator working in the same context as I was.1 Mariana is an American citizen born in Colombia who came to the United States as a child thirty years ago. She is the mother of four American sons, and her eldest enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. Her husband, the father of her children, is a Mexican national. He was forced to leave the US per court order nearly ve years ago and is barred from reentering the country for ten years. Mariana’s story, like so many others in the Latino immigrant community where I work, is marked by the separation from family as well as the hope of reuni cation.

As a photographer, I make images as a way to explore human experiences within society. Images can be a powerful tool to ignite social awareness and a way to transcend boundaries of culture and family within the space and time we are forced to inhabit. Learning of Mariana’s story led me to engage with the topic of transnational families’ experiences by turning the camera toward her family members and others like them in order to document through a photographic essay their yearning for the opportunity to be united and their struggle to achieve that dream.

I invite the viewer to examine the complexities of our immigration system through these images and stories of transnational and mixed-status families living in Boston. Although information, policy, and economy have become uid across borders, there has not been a simultaneous evolution of our de - nitions of citizenship. Thus, the current political paradigm for immigration forces families to live in a space of migratory informality.

Time and again, as I encounter families through this project, I witness their feelings of shame about their family being broken apart, anxiety about living in the shadows, fear for their loved ones, and profound disconnectedness from their neighborhoods. At the same time, I also witness the solace and dignity they nd in their work, as well as their optimism for a better life for their chil- dren. I see their desire to thrive and participate in society—even though our country’s policies often make the possibility of family reuni cation unlikely.

1. All names are pseudonyms. 

Copyright © by Cristina Llerena Navarro

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