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Part-time Janitor Pieces Together Migrants’ Dreams

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LOS ANGELES – Tom Kiefer took the meaning of “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and made it into art. 

In 2003, Kiefer was working as a part-time janitor at the U.S. Customs and Border in Ajo, Arizona, 43 miles from the Mexico border, to supplement his job as a photographer. It was then that he started to donate some of the food that people threw away to the local shelters, and in the process, he found other mundane items, like notes, birth control pills and cell phones that he refrained from throwing away. These items belonged to migrants, and they had been taken away from them by the Border Control Patrol officers while trying to enter the U.S. As Kiefer couldn’t bring himself to throw these items away, he decided to start taking pictures of them, and thus the idea behind “El Sueño Americano” was born.

“El Sueño Americano | The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer”, an exhibition currently shown at The Skirball Cultural Center, presents a selection of 151 photographs from Kiefer’s ongoing project, which he has been working on for over a decade. The exhibition also comes with a recorded video interview with the artist and a migrant rights’ advocate, Dora Rodriguez, who herself crossed the border. 

Among Kiefer’s pictures, there are snapshots of letters, clothing, toys, baby shoes, medications and toiletries. One of the pictures shows a diary entry that reads: “Blanca, I want you to know that I have loved you since I met you. You know I like them, your beautiful eyes that hypnotize me — I’ll be yours forever.” He also showcases pictures of medications, wallets, bibles and objects deemed “potentially lethal” or “non-essential”.

According to the L.A. Times, 90% of the belongings have not yet been photographed, but Kiefer is determined to make this his longtime project. 

Included with the visit to Skirball, there is a take-home printed guide that outlines the history of restrictive immigration policies in the United States that connects visitors with organizations involved in legal and humanitarian aid and advocacy. The exhibition runs from October 17, 2019 to March 8, 2020 at the Skirball Cultural Center. 

Rubber ducks often used as trail markers by migrants in unmarked and dangerous paths. / Alexandra Tirado
Shoelaces which migrants are required to remove from their shoes when they are arrested as they are considered potentially lethal. / Alexandra Tirado
Migrants’ wallets / Alexandra Tirado
A migrant’s wallet with stickers of Mexican cartoon “El Chavo Del 8” on the inside. / Alexandra Tirado
A migrant’s wallet with pictures of La Virgen De Guadalupe and Jesus. / Alexandra Tirado
“Cynthia’s CD Collection”: an interactive piece with pictures of migrant Cynthia Gallegos’ CD collection including records by Marvin Gaye, Mya and Death Cab for Cutie. Visitors can listen to the CDs through headphones. / Alexandra Tirado
A collection of Snicker bar chocolates / Alexandra Tirado
Migrants’ wallets / Alexandra Tirado
A collection of toothbrushes / Alexandra Tirado

Alexandra Tirado Oropeza is a Venezuelan journalist covering politics, immigration, entertainment and social justice. She moved to the U.S. in 2014 to pursue a Writing degree at The University of Tampa, and after graduating, she moved to Los Angeles where she works in broadcast and as a freelance writer. She’s passionate about equality, freedom of speech, art and dogs.