Victor and Carlos Cartagena

2 Hermanos Lejanos: El Gran Despecho
California Institute of Integral Studies
San Francisco, California
May 15 – September 4, 2015

Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton (1935-1975) was in exile much of his life, sometimes by choice, sometimes by design. He lived in Chile and Cuba, then returned a revolutionary to El Salvador, where he was shot to death at age 40 in San Salvador. His poem “El Gran Despecho” (Spite) expresses the exile’s complicated feelings and asks: Did the place reject you? Or did you reject the place? The poem begins:

País mío no existes
sólo eres una mala silueta mía
una palabra que le creí al enemigo

[Homeland you don’t exist
you’re just a bad outline of myself
words of the enemy I believed.]

During El Salvador’s civil war (1979-1992), the number of Salvadoran refugees in the Bay Area swelled to almost a quarter of that country’s population. Two of these refugees were Victor and Carlos Cartagena. The Mission District’s burgeoning Latino art scene welcomed Los Hermanos Lejanos (two brothers far from home), who have lived and created art in the Mission for the past 30 years. Their show at the California Institute of Integral Studies Main Building Gallery is the third in which the brothers grapple with borders, of being between countries and identities, with their feelings of bitterness, humor, regret, sweetness, longing, nostalgia and love for a country that at the same time accepts and rejects them, while they acknowledge that in some way they are more at home here.

Their work has a dreamy, Surrealist flavor infused with readymades, chance, and the absurd. At the opening, they had a man in a Lucha Libre wrestling mask mop the gallery floor with the Salvadoran flag. A woman wore a bustier that supported a strange, vintage-looking machine with various adjustable knobs–Hope, Anger, Strength, Compassion–which turned out to be Carlos’s piece, Modulador (Modulator).

Modulador (Modulato)r- Carlos Cartegena
Modulador (Modulator) – Carlos Cartegena

The Cartagenas collaborated on two works in the show: Llamada por cobrar (Collect Call), an old-fashioned rotary phone where you can listen to Dalton’s “El Gran Despecho,” and Remesas (Fishing Money), where you cast for piles of $100 bills on a table–but your fishing line is always just a bit too short.

Llamada por cobrar (Call Collect), - Victor and Carlos Cartegena
Llamada por cobrar (Collect Call) – Victor and Carlos Cartegena

With small sculptures called “music boxes” that have titles such as La Nave del Olvido (The Ship of Oblivion), Cementerio de las Lunas (Cemetery of the Moons), Carlos Cartagena poetically tells of his journey to San Francisco–a journey he made on foot and by bus, train, and plane–using tickets, identity cards, money, and the changing phases of the moon cut from a calendar. One of the music boxes, Canción Azul (Blue Song), features a small blue transistor radio suspended above a barren landscape, suggesting that maybe this radio is the only solace for someone crossing the desert, while overhead, Rayos X de la memoria, an x-ray of a human skeleton, reminds the traveler–and us–of the impermanence of our existence. Silueta, from Carlos’s Silhouettes Project, features a life-size wooden figure collaged with actual letters from Salvadorans trying to find their lost loved ones.

Victor Cartagena’s work is a poetic protest against U.S. immigration policies. His installation of glass jars, Los Hijos de Probeta, (Test Tube Babies) holds not coffee, El Salvador’s original export, but pictures of its new export: immigrant laborers. Laborers who send money back to their families, money that helps keep the small country economically afloat.

Los Hijos de Probeta, (Test Tube Babies) - Victor Cartegena
Los Hijos de Probeta, (Test Tube Babies) – Victor Cartegena

Los Invisibles (Invisible Ones) shows the black-and-white portrait of one of the first Salvadoran immigrants to the United States contrasted with the blurry portraits of some of the tens of thousands that followed. Liber-tea is a large floor-to-ceiling installation of tiny photos of immigrant faces enclosed in used tea bags, and Patrón (Boss) features tequila bottles filled with “immigrant pills” for babysitting, cooking, gardening, etc. El Niño Roto (The Broken Child), a child mannequin covered with broken windshield glass, concerns the perilous situation of children immigrating alone to the United States. In Quebrados Nosotros (Broken Us) families separated by laws and borders appear as a pile of small, torn photos of faces on which lies an overturned, broken chair­ held together by a tourniquet made of the U.S. flag­.

Quebrados Nosotros (Broken Us) - Victor Cartegena
Quebrados Nosotros (Broken Us) – Victor Cartegena

2 Hermanos Lejanos takes the unresolvable tension of Roque Dalton’s poem and runs with it. Dalton ends “El Gran Despecho” with what seems like a retort to his former homeland:

(Quiero decir: por expatriado yo

tú eres ex patria)

[If I am an expatriate, then you are an ex country.]

Thus the immigrant is like an amputee staring at the stump where his missing arm used to be and saying Good riddance! Didn’t need you anyhow! As if cursing is a balm. As if you can ever stop the pain of a phantom limb.

Victor Cartagena

Carlos Cartagena

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