The "Abuelas" Photographer and Subjects Visit Advent


Last Tuesday evening, the photographer and three subjects of Abuelas: Portraits of the Invisible Grandmothers visited Advent for a reception and discussion about the collection on display here. What follows is a reflection on the pieces and an account of the night, with quotes from the photographer and participants.

We see dozens, perhaps hundreds, of images every day. But every once and awhile, there's one that really hits you. Bull's eye. One that makes you see the world or people differently, or reminds you of a truth you had forgotten.

That's the feeling I get when I look at any one of the Abuelas portraits on the north wall in our sanctuary and meet a pair of experienced, unwavering, triumphant eyes looking back at me.

For those of you reading this who have been at Advent in the past two weeks, have you looked at these photos yet? Have you seen these people? Do you know them?




What surprises you about this photograph? Her pose and expression? The various objects surrounding her in her New York City home?

The title of the collection, Abuelas: Portraits of Invisible Grandmothers, seems to beg that we look at these photographs more intentionally than what may come naturally. They portray undocumented Mexican immigrant women who came to New York decades ago in search of opportunity for their families. Over time they have built lives here and have become the elders of their community: the abuelas.

But despite their immediate significance to the community, they are, to the wider American public and the world, invisible. Through these photographs, which have been featured in the New York Times, Vogue, and most recently, here at Advent, photographer Cynthia Santos Briones seeks to change that reality. What would it mean to give these women, who have been cornerstones of their families and communities for decades, a moment in the spotlight of major national and international publications? What could these women stand for in our world today?


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Last Tuesday evening, the photographer and three subjects of Abuelas visited Advent to discuss the purpose, process, and impact of the project. They were greeted by a group of Advent members, friends, and visitors. The photographer, Cynthia Santos Briones, spoke about what inspired the project and how it has been received.

While Cynthia was earning a degree in photojournalism, a family friend asked her if she would take some portraits for her. She visited the woman's home, and took a few portraits right her bedroom. When a friend of Cynthia's saw the pictures, she said, "Cynthia, this is your project. You need to keep doing this."

Through a network of family, friends, community, and references, Cynthia was able to visit over thirty more undocumented Mexican grandmothers, photographing them in their bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms. You'll notice some of the women are sitting right on their beds -- that's because it was the only place in their home with enough space to take the photo. Which could almost make you feel bad for her, but that's not the point of these photos -- the point is the incredible about of character and life and dignity crammed into these modest spaces.


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For Cynthia, there were two critical aspects of this project. First, that she take the photos in the Abuelas' homes. And second, she would invite the women to decide how they want to be portrayed -- no less, in photos that would end up in major publications like the New York Times and Vogue. The women chose their favorite rooms or wherever worked best, picked out their clothes and accessories, or held an object of special significance.

"Even for someone who sympathizes with undocumented immigrants," Cynthia said at the reception, "it is easy to take pity on them, to feel bad and look down on their situation. But this project is about lifting up these women who have said, 'We will cram our culture into little spaces with dignity. We work as cleaners and cooks, and earn money to raise families and form communities with pride. We will sing and dance and love and have fun and live.' " Cynthia gave Mexican woman and culture an opportunity to be represented and lifted up in American culture.

Next, Cynthia invited three of the women she had photographed to speak about their experience with the project and what it meant to them.

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One of the woman said that when she learned about the project, she cried. She was so moved that someone cared enough about their stories to share it with a wider audience. Another one of the woman, Irma, said, "For me, the abuelitas no longer live in the shadows."

Next, Pastor Gary opened the discussion up to questions from the audience.

"What happens to an undocumented person when they become too old to work?" one woman asked.

"That's a problem," Cynthia said. "Some have had to return to their home country in their old age, once they cannot work anymore."

Pastor Danielle asked Cynthia, "What surprised you most as the project unfolded?"

"Seeing these woman's homes and how much personality, character, and life they fill it with. The frames, the toys, the mirrors . . . I was blown away by their spaces, and by the Abuelas' happiness about the project. What also surprised me was how this project touched me personally, since I never knew my grandmother."

Abuelas: Portraits of the Invisible Grandmothers will be on display on the north wall of our sanctuary through November 6. Be sure to check it out.

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