Can you explain what a remittance house is and why you think this such an important phenomenon to explore?
A remittance house (a concept established in the work of Sarah Lynn López (2010) and also researched by Paolo Boccagni, among others), or a house built with remittances, is an edifice meant to be a future home built by migrants in their places of origin with remittances, the money sent from the places of arriving. This is one of the most popular motives behind migration. The issue is a world-wide phenomenon, happening (almost) always in the movement between countries in the so-called Global-South and the Global-North. It reveals the concentration of capital in particular places, and how displaced people are looking for economic resources to transfer or, as we like to call it, redistribute those resources to places that have lost them or are lacking economic prosperity. At the same time, it reveals a paradox: looking for a house by uprooting oneself.
Many times, in these stories, after years of living and working in their destination countries, people are able to fulfil the dream of building their dream house, but they don’t return or have difficulties going back home. This situation happens usually for three reasons: First, migrants need the resources of their destination countries to sustain the expenses (utilities, maintenance and taxes) of those houses. So, having the house becomes an obstacle to dwell in them. Second, many people don’t return to their places of origin because they, or their children born in the destination countries, receive social rights that they cannot transfer to their native homes. So, money flows beyond borders but social rights don’t. Third, people changed or transformed their identity after having been influenced by the experience of living many years in the destination places, which also transforms the original plans that migrants have upon arriving. So, migration is a process of transformation and returning to their home place becomes a new migration.
What’s happened with Mama Icha’s family in Colombia? What about in Philadelphia?
Mama Icha came from a low-income family in Mompox, a town fossilized in its colonial past, which also means that unequal distributions of wealth tended to be more than common. She had six children with two different men. The fathers didn’t assume any responsibility for raising those children. Mama Icha worked in domestic services and sold food in the streets to get basic resources to feed and take care of them. She didn’t have a house for her and the children, so they were constantly moving between the homes of friends and relatives. When the children grew up, she inherited a parcel from her father, so she was able to build a very humble house there with walls made with mood and a roof made with palm leaves. Two of her daughters migrated to Philadelphia during the 60s and early seventies. Both daughters sent money to support their mother and their relatives.
Mama Icha migrated to Philadelphia in 1980. She left her house in the care of her younger son, Alberto, and her older daughter, Josefina, and Josefina’s family. Alberto felt like an abandoned child when she left. Since Mama Icha got a pension in the US, she was able to send some money back to Colombia to build a bigger and more comfortable house with concrete, a bathroom and a kitchen inside. Alberto was officially in charge of the house, and Mama Icha continued to send money for many years to pay for expenses.
Alberto used to work and had a very basic income fixing bikes. Alberto’s wife, Mercedes, worked as a housekeeper in a wealthy colonial house and was a more stable contributor to the family, although her payment used to be 25% of the minimum legal monthly salary in Colombia (US$230).
Gustavo left Mompox when he was eighteen to join the military service. After the military, he stayed in Barranquilla and worked as a watchman for several years.
Gustavo now lives with his elder daughter’s family in a very humble house in the surroundings of Barranquilla. He has not had a job for a long time. His daughter’s family lives with a very basic income selling food in the streets in the same neighborhood where they live.
Alberto now lives in the house of his wife’s daughter in a very low-income neighborhood in the surroundings of Mompox. The family doesn’t have access to potable water which makes it difficult during rainy seasons when the house gets flooded. His son, Jésus, likes to study, but during the pandemic he had difficulty attending virtual classes since he did not have access to the internet and didn’t have a device to connect to classes. But with the support of a Catholic organization from Medellín contacted by us, Jesús got a cellphone for studying.
Josefina, Mama Icha’s elder daughter, lives in Mompox in a low-income neighborhood and in a precarious house, as well. She is still taking care of her grandchildren at a very advanced age. She dreams of having the resources to buy her own house.
Oscar visited the family twice in Philadelphia after Mama Icha left. Once, to get a sense of what happened with their lives without Mama Icha around. The second time to show them the film. Epifania’s house, where Mama Icha lived, now has a different facade and interior. They wanted to get a different feeling in the house as a way to get accustomed to Mama Icha’s absence.
Michelle now has a seven years old boy, Amado, and is happy as a mother. Epifania supports her with the care of the child.
Has the family seen the film? What do they think?
The five children of Mama Icha that are in the film saw it before it was released.
Oscar went to Philadelphia to show the film to the family. Michelle decided to organize a private screening of the film for family and friends next to an art exhibition she held at Fleisher Art Memorial gallery in Philadelphia.
We (Brenda and Oscar) went to the places where the other children live in Colombia to screen the film just for them and some other relatives. Gustavo, with his elder daughter, saw the film in Barranquilla. Alberto with his wife Mercedes, and Josefina saw the film in Mompox. Gerardo, the other son of Mama Icha who appears shortly in the final part of the film, saw it in Medellín with his wife. For each screening, we looked for a comfortable exhibition location that was different from their houses in order to exhibit the film on a big screen with good sound, so they could get a sense that their story was a film.
Each part of the family said that they were able to know parts of the story through the film that they weren’t aware of before. In Philadelphia the family was extremely sad and questioned whether or not they made the right decision in allowing Mama Icha to return to Colombia.
In Colombia, Gustavo and Alberto had a very similar reaction, even when they were in different places. Both said that the film shows things the way they happened. Both also had the impulse to point out the other’s behavior rather than to reflect on their own.
All these family members approved the public exhibition of the film.
Can you give a brief breakdown of your “Mi Casa, My Home” project and how La Casa de Mama Icha fits into it?
“Mi Casa My Home” is a transmedia documentary trilogy that invites us to think about the meanings of home in the current circumstances of migration and imbalance in the opportunities for reaching prosperity. This trilogy focuses on stories of migrants who, from their host countries and financed with remittances, build the houses they have always dreamed of in their countries of origin. Over time, many migrants, after investing years of savings and with a great transnational effort, repeatedly postpone their return. Many of the houses remain incomplete, others are abandoned or remain uninhabited for years: large-scale containers of that deferred dream of returning to the land of origin and a visual testimony of an illusory economic viability.
“Mi Casa My Home” seeks to capture the enormous breadth of this phenomenon in the world through two feature-length documentaries, La Casa de Mama Icha and La Casa de los ausentes (currently in post production); and through a participatory web tool (in research & development) to connect and reflect on the stories of families living with a divided sense of home. The web tool will contain at least three components: 1. a participatory platform to share stories of houses built with remittances, and to give an account of the fact that this is a situation lived by many people around the world. 2. A discussion platform to ask and reflect on the meanings of these buildings. How is the very definition of "home" altered by the experience of migration? How do these houses respond to or bear witness to the different political and economic conditions between countries? How do these remittance houses become part of the global market while their owners cannot move freely? Is it ever possible for a migrant to fulfill the dream of returning home? And 3. An artistic component sharing artistic explorations of the home-displacement-absence-economy by director Oscar Molina and other artists world-wide.
You’ve mentioned that La Casa de Mama Icha and the larger project “Mi Casa, My Home” represents the feeling of a kind of dream deferred. How central is this feeling of repeated postponement to the migration experiences you’re drawn to? Did making this film change the way you think about home?
During the last years we have thought that this film project reflects on the promise made by migrants to themselves and their families and the difficulty to fulfil it; the promise of migrants of getting the economic prosperity promised by destination countries and the one made to family and friends to return one day with that economic prosperity. This promise is very difficult to fulfil. There are many and quite complex factors leading to this conflict: unequal access to resources in both places, the impossibility to transfer social rights beyond borders, the transformation of one’s own identity due to the experience of moving, but also hegemonic cultural values determining how we define wealth.
Undoubtedly, we have detected that there is a dream, a desire or a common idea of many people who migrate: to return at some point to the places of origin and enjoy the fruits of labor after all the effort that migration has meant. On the other hand, there is also a fundamental impulse that seeks to reconnect with the places of belonging, with memories and relationships that have been relevant in life.
Upon their return, migrants, families and their territories have changed. The person returning cannot live any longer in the place of their memories and the economic conditions may continue to be precarious. Many people postponed the return for the moment when they can enjoy their pension saved in the destination countries. However, this option depends many times on having full citizenship or not.
Making La casa de Mama Icha and working in general on the larger project “Mi Casa, My home” changed my perspective and helped me understand the breadth and depth of the notion of “home”. At the beginning, I was driven by the question of how home was transformed, fragmented or expanded by the experience of migration in contexts of the unequal distribution of wealth. La casa de Mama Icha brought up meanings of “home” I hadn’t explored before because Mama Icha’s main goal of returning to her homeland was to die so that her body could be buried there. Regarding this goal, “home” expands towards the body as the most immediate ‘place’ of ourselves, a dimension of ‘home’ related with temperature, light, taste and many other sensorial experiences. Mama Icha’s decision to return questions also our images of the good life. Many people might think that it was wrong for her to return because of the precarious conditions of her “new old life” in Colombia. But she was clear and sure of her wish and of what she wanted in her homeplace. Her story reminds us also of the sometimes forgotten questions about how and where we want our remains to reside. A question that connects materiality and spirituality, opening a space to honor the ancestors, the past and the feeling of belonging.
Did you notice any difference between the reception the film received in the United States versus in Colombia?
Surprisingly, we did not notice a specific difference between the reception of the film in the United States versus in Colombia. We speculated that La Casa de Mama Icha would appeal more to the Colombian audiences because of the family story and the testimony of a 93 years-old grandmother; while we thought that the migration topic, specifically the issue of ‘reverse-migration,’ would have more resonance among the American audience. But, in general, we can say that in both countries we got very positive feedback on both topics: we received messages through social media and email, talking about peoples’ own migration experiences, the dream of returning and the positive or (not so positive) experiences of returning. On the other hand, many people shared messages expressing sadness, rage or impotence towards Mama Icha’s family situation and the way the story ended.
What are you working on next?
We are now working on La Casa de los Ausentes (Absentees’ House), the second feature film of the trilogy “Mi Casa My Home”, a choral documentary that poetically reflects on the relationship between home and migration through the stories of five houses build with remittances which their owners don’t inhabit. Set in the magnificent Metztitlán-Valley in México, this film speaks to us about the presence of absence in the places of origin where migrants come from. What do those spaces tell us about home and migration, economy and belongingness? [Teaser: https://vimeo.com/474783534]
Besides La Casa de los Ausentes, Oscar has other projects already recorded, exploring documentary film with a more formalistic approach using narrative, experimental or performance/dance possibilities. For some of them he has a first cut, and for others, he has not been able to continue working on them. Here are two of these other two projects:
Breakfast with a Tree is an experimental documentary in which the life and conflicts of a couple in the US, David 58-years-old and Patricia 83-years-old, are told through a static camera that focuses on the tree behind the window in front of the breakfast table. While the camera records the transformation of the tree slowly blossoming after a long winter, the light crossing the window during each breakfast time and the two cats playing around, the conversations with David and Patricia reveal their memories, fears and dreams during a time in which they experienced illness and the possibility of dying. A love story of an elder couple told from the out-of-field. [https://vimeo.com/624740992 (password: LaLuzDeLaVentana)]
2” (two minutes) is a segment of a larger project, Tempo, which is shot 103 times on the same route and speed with five cameras simultaneously placed on a bicycle as it rides over the same course over a year as the seasons change. It seeks to generate an experience about how we live in time through a continuous repetition that generates transformation. Tempo intends to be a gallery or not-conventional-space-project that can be modified or intervened with digital interaction.
So, we have plenty of work to do!