"Echeleganas: A Life Left Behind" is a documentary that addresses the perpetual drive of immigrant ambition, in this case, of Mexican immigrants, who have left their villages to seek work in support of their families and communities.
Over the past several years, I have become acquainted with a number of Mexican workers I have hired in Philadelphia. As I came to admire their skills, their work ethic, and their close and supportive social connections to each other, I began to ask myself, who were these Mexican workers, Alberto, Luis, Ramon, Ana, Hector and others, where did they come from, what had they left behind to come here, and why had they done so? This video and photographic project is my attempt to answer these questions.
Clearly, these men and women had left for economic reasons, and in the process had embraced the American route to success -- literally pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and "making it". Many had left their families behind, and their only compensation for leaving was to fulfill their promises to send remittances home so that their families could invest in land, start small businesses or build houses. My workers in Philadelphia had come from villages in the mountainous region of La Sierra de Norte, Puebla State, Mexico. Several of them graciously invited me to visit their families in La Sierra de Norte. Over the course of the past six years I made five visits to their villages. Each trip deepened my entry into and my understanding of their personal histories. I visited homes, workshops, and stores built with the money sent home by them and I conducted informal interviews with many of their relatives.
This project specifically describes the traditional village life, (which is quickly changing), left behind by the workers. The inhabitants of Sierra de Norte, while eking out an existence, are still celebrating a rich set of cultural activities -- weddings, saints' day celebrations, faenas (community work events), first communions, all of which make up an integral part of their existence.
On one level, "Echeleganas: A Life Left Behind" is a cultural model of a rural Mexican community that informs the American public about who these "immigrants" are, or who they were before they left home in search of economically satisfying opportunities in the North. On another, it shows the workers' sense of Mexican cultural identity, their pride in still being part of their community (which is enhanced when I show them the photographs and film clips of their families and community celebrations, and messages sent to them by their loved ones). It shows, too, the ways in which their communities are changing, often as a direct result of the financial aid they are able to send to their families.
Laurence Salzmann - Philadelphia, U.S.A.
Laurence Salzmann is a native of Philadelphia who has worked as a photographer/ filmmaker since the early 1960's. His projects document the lives of little known groups in America and abroad. He looks at the lives of people ranging from occupants of single room occupancy hotels in New York City to transhumant shepherds in Transylvania, residents of a Mexican village, and Philadelphia Mummers. His photographic study of a nearly extinct Jewish community in Romania was published as The Last Jews of Radauti by Dial/Doubleday in 1983, with text by Ayse Gürsan-Salzmann. His most recent work in Cuba is soon to be published in book form by Blue Flower Press under the title: La Lucha/The Struggle.
Salzmann's photographic method is deeply informed by his background in anthropology and involves long term participation in and observation of groups or events. His work illustrates how lives and events are shaped by the environments and conditions in which people live.