In the United States, community-driven photo archives have grown in popularity, particularly in social media, in the last five years. To name a few of these initiatives around the country one can find Instagram accounts such as Korean Archives in DC, Cambodian Archives in Los Angeles, and, perhaps one of the most successful, Veteranas y Rucas, run by archivist and visual artist Guadalupe Rosales. Rosales has been sharing the experiences and life of Mexican-Americans in East LA since 2015. The commonality of these projects is the effort to challenge and reclaim the visual narratives of these often underrepresented and historically marginalized communities in the US. These digital archives are, on different scales, redefining the traditional conceptions and functions of the archives by sharing and giving open access to their audiences and finding a different way of recounting the history and the stories of their communities.
In New Orleans, Gabriella Garcia Steib, a multidisciplinary artist & educator, has also joined this cause by creating Imágenes de Nicaragua, an Instagram feed featuring vernacular photographs and ephemera connected to the social and political history of the country. The account began as her own personal family photographs and has grown as a repository for other Nicaraguans who also have contributed their images by sharing a broader perspective of the often stigmatized nation in public memory. Through her work, Garcia Steib has established her practice with deep personal connections between New Orleans, Mexico, and Nicaragua. In the last few years, she’s been documenting through photography and film the life of the Latinx communities, particularly in her hometown. In this interview, I talk to Garcia Steib more about her work, the idea of creating @imagenesdenicaragua, and her upcoming projects.
Claudia Pretelin: Please tell us a little about yourself and the work that you do in New Orleans.
Gabrielle Garcia Steib: I was born and raised in New Orleans. My primary mediums are archives, filmmaking, and photography. I have worked mostly in arts and education since I graduated from college in 2017. Currently, I am teaching documentary filmmaking to youth and working on personal documentary projects that I hope to develop in 2022. I am one of those people that have many projects going on at the same time but haven’t quite finished any of them yet.
CP: How did you become interested in visual arts and documenting the life of Latinx communities in the US?
GGS: I became fascinated with photographs because of my mother and grandmother. My mom used to be a photographer for ophthalmologists and would take photographs of the human eye and develop the photos herself. That was so fascinating to me. She always appreciated photography and I suppose she inherited that from her parents. My grandmother took a lot of photos – mostly to send back to relatives in Nicaragua, as many immigrants do, to show that they made it to the other side. It’s interesting to think of immigrants as inherently documentarians. They are showing the new part of their history to the past parts of their history.
I went to New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), an arts high school, for writing and began taking photos on the side. By the time I was in college, I was taking darkroom courses and photographing parties, friends, and intimate settings. All with my film cameras. I became interested in shooting more of the Latinx community in New Orleans because I felt there was such a strong community here, especially post-Hurricane Katrina, of day laborers, cooks, and children. I worked at a Mexican restaurant through college and became close to a Honduran co-worker and a Mexican co-worker. I became thoroughly invested in their lives and their children’s lives. I suppose that’s when I began documenting the community. A quinceñera in the middle of a rural town in Louisiana, Honduran birthday parties in Chalmette, a carne asada in Mid-City blasting Chalino Sanchez on the speakers. The cultural shift in every corner of the city is so mesmerizing to me. I admire that about New Orleans. After I graduated, I immediately began teaching ESL at a local charter school All of my students were immigrants or children of immigrants. It sort of felt like I was in the right place at the right time. My life was embedded with theirs. I also began teaching art workshops on the side with the community and advocating for their parents outside of school.
CP: Your interest in family archives began after you moved in with your grandmother who was born in Nicaragua and who told you stories about her life through her family archive. What were some of the stories about her life and your family’s life back in Nicaragua that impacted you the most?
GGS: Yes, I moved in with my grandmother when I was about 15 – which is a very pivotal moment in any girl’s life. The contrast was fascinating to me. She had her routine, her music, her meals, and it was a time when I was learning about my sexuality, my identity, my emotions. If I would come home late, she would lock me out. Kind of like “if you’re going to live with me you’re going to adapt to my schedule”. This meant telenovelas and bedtime by 9 pm. She was very proud of her history, of being one of the few Latinx families in the mid 20th century in New Orleans, although it was challenging.
In her letters to my grandfather who was still in Mexico, before they got married, she would complain to him about how alone she felt being an immigrant in the US. How she was the only one speaking Spanish on her block. She left Nicaragua along with her parents in the late 1940s, early 50s. My great-grandfather was a professor and political writer. He was adamantly against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. Because of his beliefs, he was politically persecuted. The government took their land, their belongings, and he was threatened to be killed if he didn’t leave the country. They headed to New Orleans with a suitcase each and some photographs and cameras. I think my grandmother developed pride in this migration story, because she still had so much love for Nicaragua, returning often. She was an amateur actress and performed in plays in Nicaragua and New Orleans. She grew up on a coffee farm a few hours away from the capital, Managua. I was impacted by how much she had seen and done in her lifetime, with the photographs to prove it. I admired her memory. Every detail of what she was wearing on a certain occasion, of who she was with. I developed this exponential attentiveness to detail and the senses, specifically smell and touch.
CP: In your work, you often incorporate those images from your family archives, piecing together past and current memories into new meanings and broader historical contemporary narratives. How do you decide which images to incorporate and which stories to tell?
GGS: I think most of the projects I’ve developed over the years have stemmed from some sort of history of my family, or of New Orleans. I am interested in keeping history alive while connecting it as much as possible to the present. The most visually connective way I have been able to do this is through video. The moving image gives me the ability to thread together narratives in an organic way. I like being able to blend past and present and colors and sounds and voices into something that makes sense to me. Making films to me is like making a collage. Piecing and layering together images that ignite the senses. I choose to incorporate what is relevant. Lately, I’ve been working on a film with interviews I conducted of friends in Nicaragua who are being threatened by the Ortega dictatorship, while also using archival footage of Somoza’s dictatorship to discuss how history is repeating itself.
CP: Tell me about your Instagram archive initiative, Imágenes de Nicaragua @imagenesdenicaragua. How did you start this project, how do you curate the feed, what’s the main objective, and what are the plans to disseminate these visual narratives of the people of Nicaragua?
GGS: My project was initiated by being inspired by many Nicaraguan friends who work in image and writing. Specifically, Eugenia Carrión who runs a darkroom in Managua, and Alejandra Arauz a Nicaragüense-New Orleanian, who has quite a collection of ephemeral materials of Nicaragua, specifically writing and photographs. I started the project by only posting family photographs that I had in my archive. Then images that I had found of documentary photographers who photographed the revolution in the 70s and 80s. Eventually, I started asking people to send in their family photos, which many did. I think that was the most exciting part for me, to see this collection unfold. The project’s main objective is to construct a collective memory of and from Nicaragua. When the government controls so much of a country, specifically visual representations, it is up to the people to narrate their histories and to keep their memories alive. This project has been so special to me because many people have reached out, seeing photos of their family members they had never seen before, connecting with other Nicaraguans, or just generally feeling proud of their heritage. Many people have commented that the account “made them proud” to be Nicaraguan and that they had never seen anything like this before. It’s important to me for Nicaraguans to feel valued, and also to disengage with the war photographs. I want to be able to share images of birthdays, markets, nature, beach trips, and family gatherings. Since most of the documentary photographers who went to document Nicaragua only focused on war, I think it is refreshing to see Nicaraguans without this constant lingering reference of guns and bloodshed. Although I do at times share those images too, I think the goal of this project is to remind the youth of the country, and to those who have migrated to the US, that images can be a powerful tool.
CP: On your website, you quote Jacques Derrida when he says: “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation and access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation, the repressed archive is the power of the state over the historian.” In which ways do you consider foreign interventions in Latin America, particularly in Nicaragua, impacted ways of remembrance and understanding of history and collective memory?
GGS: Many US and European publications sent white, male photographers to document the revolution in the 1970s and 80s. This gave a perspective that would have perhaps been different if Nicaraguans were the ones holding the camera and documenting their own experiences and narratives. The US has intervened in Latin America for decades. So it comes as no surprise that the earliest films that take place in Nicaragua are US-funded and for military exposure. As far as archival photos, films, and documents that are in Nicaragua, it is all controlled by the government. This gives them the control of dictating history. It’s important that those histories are not falsified. The archive has power because it proves the existence of experiences, people, stories. If the people aren’t in charge of their archive, if they don’t save the images and collect these stories, it will be forgotten. It’s like an exercise in memory.
CP: In your opinion, how can Latinx communities in the US take back control of their narratives through archival work?
GGS: Something that I have been trying to develop with other community members is access to the Tulane Latin American Library. They have a huge collection of images, books, and documents that were circulated between Latin America and New Orleans. Sam Zemurray, the founder of the corrupt United Fruit Company, was a patron of funds that promoted Tulane. He was responsible for quite a bit of interventions in Latin America, and it seems unfair for so much of collective knowledge and visual representation to be locked up in an academic and restricted setting, especially with all of the archival materials they have specifically about Latin Americans in New Orleans in the 20th century. The first time I went there, I requested to research some of the newspapers they had from the 1960s. It was incredible to see how many Latinx businesses, social clubs, and people were influencing New Orleans. If more people could have access to this – to read and visualize our history, perhaps future generations could cultivate more public access to narratives.
CP: What other projects are you working on right now?
GGS: Currently, I’m working on a short film about a woman named Maria who was the caretaker of my grandmother in her final years. Maria, my grandmother, and I lived together in her little house for the last year of her life. Maria came to New Orleans from Acapulco. Currently she works full-time, cleaning and taking care of the elderly. Her son was kidnapped, presumably, by narco-traffickers in Guerrero earlier this year. She has been struggling with the fact that she cannot go back and search for him. Without documentation, she is stuck in New Orleans and only hopes to receive news from family members. I hope to document her more over the new year and continue to share stories with her.
CP: Other than family archives, what’s your favorite instrument of memory?
GGS: My favorite instrument of memory is my journal! I love being able to witness emotional growth in my experiences and to look back with concrete details of experiences I’ve had.
Thank you, Gabby!
Gabrielle Garcia Steib is an archivist, filmmaker and photographer from New Orleans frequenting Nicaragua and Mexico. She is interested in ways in which Latin America is connected with the deep south, specifically ways in which collective memory and images are used to communicate in political landscapes. Gabrielle holds a B.A. in English and Digital Media from Loyola University. Her work has been exhibited at NOMA, the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, and Museo de la Ciudad and Los 14 in Mexico City. Her films have been screened at New Orleans Film Festival, Taxco International Film Festival, and Baja California International Film Festival. In 2019 she participated in residencies at the UnionDocs, Joan Mitchell Center, and Antenna. She has written and translated for various magazines including Terremoto Magazine, and Antigravity Magazine where she started the first bilingual column about the Latinx community in New Orleans.
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