“Abandonment Copies” is a research project created between 2016 and 2018 by artist Sandra Calvo consisting of a film, archives, drawings, interviews, and a video display which was exhibited in the Mexican pavilion during the 2021 Biennial of Venice. The project highlights architecture as a reflection of the migration process between Mexico and the United States, comparing and contrasting the houses where migrants work in the US and the ones they build in Mexico with the remittances they send.
The project pays tribute to the constant struggle to build a place to call home as seen in the journey countless migrants take to the United States to live and work in precarious and illegal conditions while saving up to build their own mansion-inspired villas that border on fantastical. In spite of the progress made in recent years, informal migration to the US is still marred by both inequality and violence. To date, Mexicans continue to make up the largest percentage of foreign born migrants living in the United States and the cultural bridges they form with their newfound communities are increasingly visible.
As the project shows, in the US state of Wyoming, 80% of the Latino population hails from the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, specifically from Hueyotlipan municipality. This is a trend across the Mexican diaspora in the US, with people from Puebla overwhelmingly settling in New York and people from Tulancingo in Salinas, California, just to name a few.
Excerpt by Sandra Calvo.
The project highlights the similarities and differences of life in the two countries, including individual aspirations and raw realities, and how architecture ties into these factors, simultaneously shaping and being shaped by the context surrounding it. The project is divided into three parts:
- The inhabitated house: The houses, trailers, and rooms where the migrants live while they work in Jackson Hole cover only the most basic of needs. These spaces often house two or three nuclear families under one roof and scarce amenities, even beds, must be shared. The threat of eviction is a constant companion in these isolated and often unregulated settlements where rents are high and take up the majority of the workers' wages.
- The model house. These are the homes built by the migrants in the upscale neighborhoods of Wyoming. These million-dollar mansions often remain vacant for most of the year but receive year-round maintenance, cleaning, and heating. It is often these same houses that serve as inspiration for the homes that the migrant workers will build for their families once they return to their hometowns in Mexico.
- The Dream House. These are the houses that the migrants build once they return home and the primary reason for the remittances sent back from the US. Construction of these dream houses can last for decades and the majority remain incomplete for a variety of reasons--usually because the owners can't return to Mexico, insufficient resources, or the family receives threats from criminal gangs that demand a cut of the money sent from abroad. The houses mimic the model mansions Wyoming with curved staircases, gabled roofs, arches, columns, garages, and yards; however, in spite of their luxurious outfitting, they have no connection to public services and the plots they're built on have little monetary value. The construction is funded by the money guided by a constant flow of magazine cutouts, photographs, and hand-drawn pictures displaying the desired final product. The lots where the houses are built are close to the families' current dwellings, highlighting the sense of ownership and necessity.
No specialists are involved in designing these houses. The design and construction is solely in the hands of the future inhabitants and the artistic liberties taken define the resulting structure; however, the lack of architects doesn't equate to a lack of architecture. The process is based on the possibility of modification and self-construction. The spaces remain open to the point that it's difficult to tell whether the house is in the middle of construction or abandoned. Construction proceeds according to the intuition and aspirations of the inhabitants.
The idea of a house that may never be inhabited, but whose construction serves as a source of motivation and pride, serves as an escape from the harsh realities faced by its inhabitants. It represents hope for a better future. This phenomenon is mirrored throughout the country in the architecture that springs up in response to the socioeconomic realities faced by the populace. They are reflections of abandonment, of a territory, of a family, and of a dispossessed landscape.
The project includes various personal accounts from migrants, including that of Abraham Hernández Bautista. This is just one of many stories about the search for a better tomorrow as seen in home-grown architecture.
Sandra Calvo is a visual artist based in Mexico City.