Atlántica # 57

The coastal wetlands of Louisiana are part of the world’s seventh-largest river delta. A study published by the United States Department of the Interior concluded that between 1932 and 2010 approximately 4,877 km2 (1,883 square miles) of coastal Louisiana disappeared under water.1 What is the significance of this fact, you may ask, and what connection is there between this submerged land and the descendants of people from the Canary Islands living in Louisiana today, whose photographs we present here? Both stories, of the land and of these people, are stories of absences. The Canarian descendants are like the land they live in, a treasure on the verge of vanishing. The desire to capture something at the point of dissolving was the motive that led the photojournalist Aníbal Martel and myself to undertake the CISLANDERUS cultural project.


The project, which got its start in 2013, has an eminently interdisciplinary focus grounded in a combination of cultural studies, documentary photography, insular studies, linguistics, and anthropology.2 Together, these ingredients have produced an exciting body of work which, for the first time, takes an academic and artistic-documentary approach to a little-known chapter in the shared history of Spain and the US, namely, the emigration from the Canary Islands to Louisiana and Texas in the eighteenth century and the vicissitudes of the Canarian descendants to the present day. The initial remit was straightforward: to get to know the descendants of those Canarian emigrants and to discover to what extent their insular past remains present in their lives. In order to respond to these questions, and after a review of prior documentary sources, we began fieldwork that was to last three years, operating without any kind of institutional support. The goals of the research were twofold: to organise the first touring exhibition of photographs dedicated to this community, and subsequently to publish a book that would create an archive drawing not only on previously non-existent graphic and documentary material, but also on the results of our research as well as unpublished videographic archives.3 Our passion for the project mitigated the difficulties inherent in the lack of funding and, coupled with our breaching of disciplinary borders, favoured a productive combination between academia and art, photojournalism and insular studies. As the migration under study is of an insular nature, it demonstrates how borders are always fluid. The result is, without question, an unprecedented cultural object, one that enables an approach to a minority — Canary Islanders from the other side — who until now have been gradually erased by the passing of time as well as by one or another interpretative fallacy which, like the straight line, tends to take the shortest path between two points. The photographs — striking, honest, and occupying a space intermediate between art and anthropology4 — directly confront the beholder with a reality that is at once unknown and familiar, that oscillates between estrangement and closeness (fig 1).



The eleven images illustrating this text are just a sampling of the CISLANDERUS project, the graphic archive of which currently holds more than 8,000 photographs. The first phase of this work devoted to the Canarian descendants focused on the state of Louisiana. Its second phase, begun in March 2016, focused on the community of descendants living in San Antonio, Texas, a smaller group with some unique characteristics. The social, geographical, and geo-poetical space opened up by these images pushes back and expands the geographical insular borders beyond the perimeter of the Canary Islands — so often constrained within the recurrent cliché of isolation — while at the same time destabilising the notion of a Hispanic Atlantic in opposition to various other — Anglo-Saxon and Latin American — Atlantics that are regarded as cultural spaces with a higher or lower status. The Canarian descendants seen in these images belong to multiple worlds: the world of the islands associated with their past, and the world of their present reality as southern US citizens of Hispanic descent. This inescapable premise stakes out the space for Aníbal Martel’s powerful photos of the disconcerting marshlands of Louisiana, a land of bayous and mosquitoes, of hurricanes and all kinds of vermin, but also of a terrible transfixing beauty (fig. 2 & 3). These Southerners with Canarian souls have been living here for nearly three hundred years, and it is precisely that remote, water-logged place to the south of New Orleans that has preserved the metaphorical umbilical cord connecting them to the Canaries.


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Fig. 2: Bayou, Shell Beach, La., 2015.

Fig. 3: Signpost by the road, Delacroix, La., 2014.

This quality of representing a halfway, in-between place serves to destabilise power relations and accepted differentiations between the local and global. It offers another space that brings those dichotomies into question and locates what we could call a “trans-oceanic identity” that is the by-product of the historical evolution of the Canary Islands, an evolution that is defined by migration. The trope of the Canaries as a trans-Atlantic nexus is not confined to its relationship with Africa and Latin America, for it also extends to North America, and thus expands the readings and possibilities of the role of the islands within the Atlantic cultural map.


Taken with natural light and based on a principle of non-intervention, the photographs seek to document the present-day life of the community of Canarian descendants while at the same time focusing on the meeting point between the observer and the observed. The composition of the portraits has been conceived so as to add information from the surrounding context, thus breaking with the canonical verticality of the portrait and inserting the character into the middle ground. This framing, more usually associated with landscape photography, can be seen in the photo of Floyd Assavedo (fig. 4), a Canarian descendant who is shown with the hides of muskrats that he continues to hunt, thus keeping alive the traditional occupation of Canary Islanders from the marshlands.


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Fig. 4: Floyd Assavedo with muskrat pelts, San Bernardo, La., 2014.

The gazes of the Canarian descendants, focused on some point out of camera range, are a way of connecting history and presence while also conveying the complex binary between objectivity and affection. One example is the image of Dolores Molero (fig. 5), who is seen standing in front of the house she grew in, a house that has been raised on pillars following the devastating events of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The pairing of her and her house is at the core of the image, for both Molero, with her broken Canarian Spanish — a mother tongue interrupted by “English only” language policies — and her home, one of the few remaining houses still outside the levee protecting New Orleans, convey the story of the descendants. At this point, I am interested in reflecting on this specific image and the other photographs from the optic of relationality, as a nexus between two geographies and realities that, although different, are still connected by a kind of trans-oceanic Ariadne’s thread.


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Fig. 5: Dolores “Lola” Molero, Yscloskey, La., 2015.

A key element of this connection forged by photography itself is the way in which these Canarian descendants, their diverse geographical space, and their lives and imaginaries are so close to the islands of their ancestors. In this regard, the cemeteries of Canarian descendants (fig. 6) are among the most powerful relational spaces. Louisiana has several graveyards that explicitly inventory the nearly three hundred years of Canarian presence in the state. The tombstone of Maria Louisa Gonzales Hodgson (fig. 7), the granddaughter of Canarian emigrants, is like a condensed affective palimpsest that is part of the everyday life of the members of the community. The cemetery, the tombstone, and its inscriptions are irrefutable proof of this connection with the past. As Elizabeth Edwards argues, “photographs are not only about loss … but, about a grounded empowerment, repossession, renewal and contestation.”5 The image connects with the beholder through a genealogical scrutiny that also functions as a proof of veracity, a “they were there” that is able to justify the Canarian descendants’ almost obsessive fixation with finding their ancestors. The evocative power of this image leads us to read much further than the strictly visual, and to open up the fields of subjectivity and of emotion.


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Fig. 6: Terre-aux-Boeufs Canary Islander Cemetery, Saint Bernard, La., 2015.

Fig 7: Grave of Maria Louisa Gonzales Hodgson, Mount Zion Cemetery, Prairieville, La., 2014.

As pointed out above, the insular reality, in contrast with traditional conceptions of islands as spaces of isolation and fixity, must also be considered in the light of movement and displacement in all its forms. The CISLANDERUS cultural project proposes, precisely, to explore this notion of the insular as connection, as a point of arrival or departure but never as a backwater. And although the focus of the photographs is centred on the Canary Islanders from the other side, all of them contain layers of reading that inevitably induce the observer to magnify what he or she has observed. By that I refer to the power that these images possess to generate a reading on various planes, both geographical and temporal, given that the act of looking at the images is not frozen in a static and limited act, but intervenes in what is being photographed, setting in motion both the expectations and the experience of the beholder. It’s impossible to look at the faces of these Canarian descendants, with their Spanish surnames, without thinking of their ancestors, of the personal epic journeys through which they arrived on a shore that was unknown to them and in a world so different from the one they had left behind.


Reading the images, then, forces us to a re-reading connected with the idea of motion, of geographical and spatial expansion, that is totally alien to the notion of the static, as in the photograph of the foreshortened blue wooden sign that stands in front of the Isleños Museum in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana and records the names of the vessels and the number of emigrants who travelled in each of them (fig 8). The image, in the end, is nothing but one brightly-coloured instant in the chain of events, displacements, and diachronic coincidences that made it possible. We could also alight on the ongoing tension between evidence and affect; the proof of who they are and of where they are, and their powerful capacity to generate alternative discourses.


Liminal Photography: Tracing the Fluid Borders of Insular Migration | Atlántica

Fig. 8: Sign naming the vessels of Canarian immigrants, St. Bernard, La., 2014.

Connected to the capacity of images to insert themselves within a chain of events, it is also necessary for them to strike up a dialogue with the only previous photographic evidence of this community in existence: the work of the photographer Marion Post Wolcott, who carried out a documentary photographic project for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1941.6 The aim of Wolcott’s images was to document the most deprived areas in the US during the Great Depression. The FSA wanted to bear witness to the everyday lives of those who were hit the hardest by the country’s downturn; among them, the Canary Islanders from Louisiana happened to be one of the least-known and poorest communities. Wolcott’s warm black-and-white images capture the muskrat hunters at work, the untouched beauty of the bayous to the south of New Orleans, the barefoot children with self-absorbed gazes who didn’t understand the photographer who was visiting them (for we must remember that they all still spoke only Spanish). Unfortunately, Wolcott’s work was driven by a quest for anthropological truth, a brand of truth that can be found only by following certain parameters of objectivity and evidence.7 Nothing is known about the people she photographed; there are no interviews or field notes that might append information other than what is strictly contained within the boundaries of the negative. After a seventy-year interval during which not one photographer was interested in these southern hunters, the work of Aníbal Martel, also decidedly documentary in nature, returns to the very same bayous and, by doing so enables a diachronic reading and a different approach to the community. Far from attempting to stand as anthropological evidence or as a systematic collection of data, however, the photographic proposal of CISLANDERUS is underwritten by that at once complex and at simple term that we know as affect, which turns images into a space cut through by imaginaries, expectations, and wishes, and endows them with a marked uncanniness — a feeling of recognition of another reality, that other face in which we meet our own, as happens when we look at the fishermen Jesse Alfonso and Thomas Gonzales, descendants of Canary Islanders whose features are strikingly “familiar” to any spectator from the Canary Islands (fig. 9 & 10). Again we see that movement, that oscillation between yesterday and today, between there and here, wherever here may be.


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Fig. 9: Jesse Alfonso, Delacroix Island, La., 2014.

Fig 10: Thomas Gonzales, Delacroix Island, La., 2014.

As I noted above, the photographs featured here are barely a curtain-raiser for a larger, powerful and meaningful body of work, one that is both intellectually honest and intentionally removed from any pan-Hispanic political or cultural mandate, from the colonial nostalgia dangerously revived in recent scholarship.8 Each of these images has the power to engage us, to confront us face-to-face with a human story built of equal parts adventure and tragedy. I said earlier that the history of this community is like the history of the land it inhabits, slippery and on the verge of being swallowed up by the sea. And that is precisely the point where Aníbal Martel’s photographs and the cultural project they ascribe to gain an unexpected value (fig.11). This visual exploration of the marshlands of Louisiana and the of protagonists of CISLANDERUS acts almost like the levees that surround New Orleans, as a way of fighting against the inevitable tide of oblivion. We, as co-authors of CISLANDERUS, carry on this struggle by means of exploration, by following trails, by questioning commonplaces from a mobile perspective, removed from centres and peripheries, and ever aware of the privileged place that the Canary Islands occupy within the cultural production of the Atlantic.


Liminal Photography: Tracing the Fluid Borders of Insular Migration | Atlántica

Fig. 11: Elevated post-Katrina house, Hopedale, La., 2015.

– 1

Delacroix, the epicentre of Canary Islander settlement in Louisiana, has been the area most severely affected by successive hurricanes (Rita, 2005; Ike, 2008; Katrina, 2005; Gustav, 2008). The continuing loss of land and the subsequent vulnerability to erosion has brought about a change in the ecosystem of the Mississippi delta. Various reports show the result of the disappearance of thousands of square kilometres of land and marshes (See Couvillion, Brady R., et al., Land Area Change in Coastal Louisiana (1932 to 2010). Reston, Va: US Department of the Interior, US Geological Survey (2011) and  Palaseanu-Lovejoy, Monica, et al., “Land Loss due to Recent Hurricanes in Coastal Louisiana, U.S.A.” Journal of Coastal Research 63 (2013): 97.)

– 2  Thenesoya V. Martín De la Nuez is a doctorate student at Harvard University, where she is researching transatlantic insular literature and cultural production, focused on the Canary Islands, the Caribbean and Equatorial Guinea. Aníbal Martel is a documentary photographer; her website is www.anibalmartel.com. For more information on the CISLANDERUS project see www.cislanderus.com.

– 3  The first exhibition of photographs from the project, with a total of 60 photos, was held at the Museo Casa de Colón in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, sponsored by the Cabildo de Gran Canaria (Island Council), between 9 June and 28 August 2016. The artists are seeking sponsorship, both private and public, to take the exhibition to the USA.

– 4  See Schneider, Arnd, & Christopher Wright, eds. Between Art and Anthropology: Contemporary Ethnographic Practice. Oxford; New York: Bloomsbury Academic (2010): 27.

– 5  Edwards, Elizabeth. “Photographs and the Sound of History.” Visual Anthropology Review 21.12 (2005): 27–46.

– 6  Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990) took part, along with other photographers, in an initiative promoted by the Farm Security Administration that, from 1935 to 1944, set out to document the poor areas of the Mississippi Delta with the goal of raising awareness about them and in order to include their communities in the interventionist policies of President Roosevelt. The group of images from that campaign — more than 200,000 — helped to construct the present-day imaginary of the Great Depression. The images are held at the US Library of Congress.

– 7  Edwards, Elizabeth. “Tracing Photography.” Made to Be Seen: Perspectives on the History of Visual Anthropology. University of Chicago Press, (2011): 159–189.

– 8  I refer to the recurrent Spanish imperial nostalgia and to the waves of pan-Hispanist impetus dressed up as cultural promotion. An example closely related to the historical chapter of the migration of Canary Islanders to Louisiana would be the campaign for the recovery and promotion of the historical figure of Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana and promoter of the draft of Canary Islanders for his troops. The Spanish Government has enthusiastically embraced the recovery of Bernardo de Gálvez as a national hero and as the epitome of Spain’s imperial power in American territory, and it has done so through a number of cultural campaigns which, interestingly enough, overlook what is perhaps the only relevant aspect of the figure, the Canarian descendents in Louisiana.