(A Falta) De Pan, Tortillas

An Analysis of Decolonization and Immigration, 2020

Skip to Essay by Sebastián Rodríguez y Vasti

Artist Statement

“A falta de pan, tortillas” is a Mexican refran meaning: adapt to a situation despite wishing for an alternative. For immigrants, this summarizes the mindset required to start a new life in a foreign environment. This body of work is a visual rendition of my family’s journey as immigrants by way of retrieving, appropriating, distorting and repurposing archived identification documents and family photographs. A visual and conceptual trespassing of history and memory, manipulating personal records and expired identification documents allows me to reject and ignore colonial classification systems and bureaucratic procedures. 

Exploring the relationship between identification and identity - within their new context, there are no complicated administrative procedures required for the existence or validation of these images. The absence, manipulation and erasure of information within this work echoes aspects of life that are (in)voluntarily left behind through the processes of immigration.

I am grateful for the people these images represent, for the culture and memories that they preserved, however fragmented, and all the different types of dust these photographs collected.


Essay by Sebastián Rodríguez y Vasti (Commissioned through Xpace Cultural Centre) September 17, 2021 - October 30, 2021

The saying "a falta de pan, tortillas” roughly translates to "if there's no bread, have tortillas" — an encouragement to make due with what we've got, to settle for what's possible despite our wishes. This idea pervades the pieces that make up Ernesto Cabral de Luna’s “(A Falta) de Pan, Tortillas: An Analysis of Decolonization and Immigration,” a video piece currently showing in Xpace Cultural Centre’s External Space. According to Ernesto, the idea behind the title permeates the mindset that his family acquired throughout their experience as migrants, starting from Mexico and finally settling in Canada.

Immediately upon looking at the work, we notice a series of flickering family photographs. Colours, faces, surfaces disappear momentarily to reveal a bleak, solid white surface, and then reappear. Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of the complete image, but only briefly. Children posing outside in costumes, a corkboard enveloped in memories, and an intimate domestic scene blink erratically. The overarching questions and themes of this work are introduced by this oscillation between completeness and incompleteness, between feelings of fidelity and forgetfulness. Those feelings often converge when we have to decide what a family photograph stands for, when we look at it hoping it’ll help us better define or understand who we are. In this case, the information (and its absence) in these photographs also reminds us of the psychological toll that physical and cultural migration can take on a person. The complexities of this toll are deep and varied, and as the work goes on, we get an opportunity to explore them with more depth and nuance. 

A passport spreads open, and all sorts of overlapping stamps quickly overpopulate its pages. Soon after, more passports join the frame, along with ever-flickering stamps that overwrite and obscure each other. We might mostly think of leisure travel when we remember passports exist, but this swarm of labels and seals and dates remind us that they also facilitate the enforcement of labyrinthine and convoluted policies. Many of these are entangled within questions of identity, belonging and self-determination that this work explores, and allows us to glimpse just how triggering and how profoundly complex identity documents and family photographs can be in the context of migration.

These themes echo together from the photographs that follow, which show Ernesto’s parents. Similarly to the first set of photographs, some surfaces appear and disappear, faces separate and move away from their respective heads. Resembling photographs from government-issued identification, their composition and angle evoke the formality of passports, but their subjects call back to the first set of family photos we saw. The resonance between the form and the subjects begins to more clearly illustrate the inner psychological aspects of Ernesto’s parents’ experience, and its ties to the policies that have shaped and regulated it.

Ernesto himself is not exempt from this resonance, this interaction between an unstable, impatient, split sense of identity and an outside world that’s constantly classifying and systematizing it. The following set of images, a snapshot of Ernesto's cardholder, approaches those themes from yet another angle. We see his London, Ontario transit ID which reads “Ernesto Cabral”, his first name and paternal surname, and then his Mexican elementary school ID below it showing an added “De Luna” at the end, his maternal surname. The seeming loss of his maternal surname, given they aren’t commonly used in Canada, embodies that dual sense of identity, a torn double-consciousness that he shares with his parents. Ernesto’s photo is then isolated and duplicated, tiresomely falling towards the bottom of the frame.

More recent black and white ID photos of Ernesto begin to rapidly blink on screen. They’re violently ripped, burnt, scratched, painted on. In some of them the ink has partly dissolved from the paper, in others a fingerprint masks his face. There’s a sense of frustrated, self-reflexive privacy that’s suddenly broken by brightly coloured stickers that begin to cover the photos, now in a grid. Fruit stickers, price tags in Canadian dollars, “used” tags, barcodes begin to replace the tears and scratches. Like an echo of his parents’ experience, Ernesto shows himself going through a complex psychological and cultural process, and also shows us a gaze which obstructs and further complicates it.

This work has shown us the different layers that make up the experience of permanently relocating to a different country, and into a vastly different culture. Most of us aren't completely alien to these ideas and feelings, despite not having gone through experiences as marking and radical as the ones Ernesto shares with us. Yet this work plunges into these feelings and emerges from them with themes so intertwined and sharp that it’s hard not to learn something new as a viewer, not to get a new insight into just how fundamentally a generation can be shaken by the experience of migration.

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