Lives Glimpsed through Passports

By on

by Brandon J. Dixon, courtesy of Harvard Magazine

Tiny, colorful toddlers’ shoes; a worn copy of Cuentos de Magon, a staple of Costa Rican literature; snapshots of a woman caught mid-embrace with her husband; and in the midst of it all, a tiny yellow and blue document—a passport. Together, the objects of both national and personal importance tell the story of Sonia Hernandez, the mother of Anthony Otey, a Ph.D. candidate in Romance languages and literatures.

Hernandez—who died in 2017—immigrated to the United States in her late twenties from Costa Rica, but “the words in all caps on her green card: RESIDENT ALIEN, constantly reminded her that she was other and that she would always remain other,” Otey wrote to accompany some of his mother’s possessions that he loaned to “Passports: Lives in Transit,”an exhibition on view at Houghton Library that elucidates the stories in the thin pages of passport booklets.

Those narratives reveal success and failure, migration and rejection, hope and frustration, and the fragility of a national identity. “She always reminded me of why she did not like being in the U.S,” Otey wrote. It was a sentiment exacerbated in recent years as anti-immigrant sentiments intensified and hate crimes jumped across the country. “The hateful rhetoric that emerged during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign made these feelings of otherness resurface. I reassured her that she was more than her legal documents that kept her in this country, and the medical papers that documented a body in decline.”

Fitting, then, that the exhibit’s co-curators, Lucas Mertehikian and Rodrigo Del Rio (fellow doctoral candidates in Otey’s department), conceived of the exhibit shortly after one of the first political flashpoints of Donald Trump’s presidency, a controversial travel ban that barred individuals from seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the United States. “Ourselves being immigrants, of course of a very privileged kind”—Mertehikian hails from Argentina, Del Rio from Chile—“we also had a close relationship with our passports and our visas.”

The exhibit directly confronts the fraught politics of immigration: a banner at the front of the exhibit tells visitors that “what might appear as an unprecedented phenomenon has in fact a long-standing history. This exhibition conceives of passports as the ruins of a modern dream now in terminal crisis—the dream of a globalized world.”

Mertehikian and Del Rio were also inspired in part by two courses they took in 2016. The first was “The Post-Global and the Non-Cosmopolitan,” a comparative-literature class that examined cultural production in a moment when “the world that we used to describe as globalized seems to be falling apart,” Mertehikian said. The other, a workshop led by a team from Harvard’s metaLAB (a production studio for the arts and humanities), encouraged students to think of alternative ways of presenting scholarly research. Mertehikian brought in a few passports for a class project and realized the documents—which he said “reveal and conceal” narratives about belonging, migration, and identity—were evocative primary sources for his fellow students. After the class ended, he and Del Rio shared their project with Anne-Marie Eze, director of scholarly and public programs at Houghton, who worked with them to turn it into an exhibition. 

“Passports have a visual and aesthetic thing about them,” Mertehikian said. “They are these little booklets with information, yes, but they also have narratives behind them. They always tell stories.” The exhibit casts the documents as a rich tapestry about borders, cross-border transits, and identity. The tales they tell are diverse: one display case features passports belonging to a relative of Mertehikian’s who fled the Armenian genocide to Argentina. Another displays petitions that were circulated throughout U.S. colleges in 1963 after scholar and black political leader W.E.B. Du Bois, A.B. 1890, Ph.D. ’95, was denied re-entry into the country because of his ties to communism. 

The center of the room is occupied by a broad, glass-plated art installation designed by Boston architect Haydee Casellas. Dozens of passports that Mertehikian and Del Rio purchased on eBay and other ecommerce sites are affixed to the panels, the only passports on display at the exhibit that visitors can thumb through. The pair bought passports from states that no longer exist, like Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, as well as “from countries that have radically changed their frontiers in the past century—so, Italy or Ukraine, for example—and countries that have undergone significant changes of government in the past few years, like Cuba,” Mertehikian explained.

Promotional material from the Polaroid Corporation (drawn from its archives at the Business School’s Baker Library) is posted along the walls of the exhibition, and a case is dedicated to the technology used to produce passports, particularly as camera companies like Polaroid developed cost-effective photographic methods that were then used by nation states to make identification systematic. “Sometimes you only relate passports to the problem of national security and identification techniques, but there’s also a huge business behind producing passports,” Mertehikian said. “We were very interested…in taking a look at the relationship between private corporations and nation states to produce identification methods.”

Text and photograph copyright (c) 2018 Harvard Magazine Inc. Reprinted with permission from the original 8/1/18 posting : All rights reserved.