Destino | Michelle Frankfurter

the inexorable journey across Mexico to El Sueño Americano
Michelle Frankfurter
April 15 – June 3 2011

Artist Statement : My project, Destino, meaning both “destination” and “destiny” in Spanish, portrays Central American migrants who endure a host of adversities in a desperate, gauntlet-running journey across Mexico. In a wandering odyssey, they travel on foot and by rail, often relying on the network of freight trains lurching across Mexico in an attempt to enter the United States illegally. Central American migration to the United States began in the 1980’s – the consequence of bloody civil wars and relentless poverty. Like Mexico, the Central American nations of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala suffer from similar drug and gang related violence and a high incidence of domestic abuse. Crippling NAFTA/CAFTA trade policies have exacerbated the situation for the nations’ poor. In 2009, democratically-elected Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya was ousted by a military coup, further destabilizing an already struggling economy and increasing human rights violations.

The pictures contained in my body of work are both specific representations of individuals and an allegorical depiction of the universal themes they embody: migration examined as an eternal human endeavor, the epic Homeric journey imbued with religious connotations. In February 1988, I left my staff photographer position at the Syracuse Newspapers to study Spanish in Guatemala. After six weeks, I went to Nicaragua with rudimentary language skills to work with Witness For Peace, a human rights organization. I joined the organization’s Mobile Reporting Team that traveled to remote areas in Nicaragua, documenting effects of the contra war on civilians by taking eyewitness testimony from survivors. That pivotal three-year experience opened my eyes to the political and economic influence the United States exerts on the region’s developing countries. It also gave me an adopted culture that in many ways felt more familiar than my American identity. Having immigrated to the United States from Israel at the age of seven, I never entirely lost the feeling of being an outsider. Beginning in 2000, I made repeated trips to the U.S. – Mexico border over an eight-year period, occasionally encountering migrants about to cross the Rio Bravo.

Destino, which I plan to publish as a book, is more than a project; it is the culmination of personal and professional events over a twenty-three year period, as if everything in my life had been leading to its discovery, directing me to tell a story that is as epic and tragic as it is beautiful. As an immigrant, I feel a special empathy for these Central Americans: victimized both by global economic trade policies that make earning a living wage in their native countries impossible and by a broken immigration policy in the United States, they represent the quintessential underdog. I seek to portray them as individuals who, confronted by extreme circumstances, struggle to control their own destiny, much like the classic antihero protagonists of the adventure tales I grew up reading.