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Art From Tragedy

Artist Elena Brokaw
Photo by Christopher Smith
Photo by Christopher Smith

The Guatemalan government killed her father. Elena Brokaw seeks to remember him through art


The exhibit  Human Resource Exploitation: A Family Album is an artistic collaboration that spans decades and crosses the threshold between life and death. Ramiro Antonio García Jimenez was a father, husband, leftist, cartoonist, and photographer. He was assassinated by a repressive Guatemalan government — funded and supported by the United States — for daring to believe a more just future was worth creating. His daughter, Elena Brokaw, still believes in that future.

Her photographic exhibit,  Human Resource Exploitation, draws its title from a CIA torture manual taught to Latin American strongmen at the School of the Americas, today renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Brokaw’s project, comprising family photos, ephemera, and other materials, is an act of personal and political remembrance in the face of institutionalized amnesia. Its power lies in communicating how history acts upon a person’s soul. Its images ask the viewer to face the very human consequences of our country’s violence, and to never again look away.

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I recently spoke to Brokaw about her show, on display at UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art through Jan. 29. (Disclosure: Brokaw was my student in several classes, and I served as her thesis chair at UNLV.) This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What did you know about your father growing up?
I actually didn’t know much about my father growing up. I knew that he was killed, but I think I was about eight years old told me that he had been assassinated — that she used that word. It had always been very opaque. Oh, he was just killed in your grandmother’s store. But I was never given the reasons why. At first, I was led to believe that it was just a robbery gone bad. It wasn’t until I was older that she started piecing out a little more information about how he died, but she still couldn’t give me a lot of information about why he died.

Other things that I knew about him growing up: He was very, very tall — over six feet tall — which has been verified now that I’ve talked to more of his family, which is a little unusual for a Guatemalan man. Chapínos are normally very short, so for him to be over six feet tall is kind of this anomaly. He also had fantastically curly hair, so for that reason I’ve always loved my curly hair knowing that it came from him. And then she also told me that he was very kind — that was something that always came up.

How did that change as you took on this project?
The biggest change that happened for me was that when I was younger, I very much resented him. I saw his death as a choice he made between his country and his family because there were other members of the family who were able to leave. And I found out that he knew he was being looked for, and he chose to stay, and that has always been a really hard piece of knowledge to understand. Going into this project, I wanted to explore why anyone would have wanted to stay. When I started really working on this, I had my own son who was roughly three years old, and I could not imagine ever putting myself in a position where I had to choose between my son and something else. But I realized that for him, it wasn’t a choice between his family and his country, it was a choice to help his country for his family. He wanted a more just society for his daughters to grow into.

Another realization I had about the armed conflict — I call it that instead of “civil war” because it wasn’t a civil war, Guatemalans call it “the conflict” because they realize the international forces that were involved and what role the U.S. really played in instigating and supporting all of the violence — but you know, I’ve spent all this time researching all these violent events, but I had this moment at the National Library: I was talking to the director, who was friends with my dad, and she and another member of the organization that he belonged to, FERG, Frente Estudiantil Revolucionario Robín García, started talking, and they were describing their youth with laughter. They were telling me these stories that were full of joy and laughter, and they exuded this pride at having been a part of this.

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It was the first time I realized that joy was a part of this story, too. These were young men and women who were on the cusp of their adulthood, who were there, who had this energy and this love of life, who wanted to change something, and they had all this passion. And they were full of joy. Yes, there was a lot of death and danger, but I hadn’t realized that there was a love of life that was central to how they lived.

In many ways, this photographic project is a collaboration. Can you tell me how you came upon these photographs and how you approached working with them?

I didn’t know they existed. They were part of my mom’s mythological papeles. Papelitos guardados. My mom was finally able to go down there (Guatemala), and she was able to bring them back. They really were everything she said they were. They grew! The more I investigate them, the more they grow. Within them there were 1,076 photo negatives that were originals of my father’s work. He took them between 1977 to about 1980. Nobody had seen these. He was a photographer, so he always had a camera with him.

My mom entrusted me with them. She knew I’d wanted to start this project, so she said,  These are yours, for your book. I’ve done what I want with them. She kept a couple of items that were special to her, but everything else was handed over to me. So, I spent my time in quarantine learning how to clean negatives, how to scan them, and this computer and scanner became my workstation during all the time we were socially isolated during COVID.

I was also able to work in a darkroom, through the UNLV Fine Arts Department. I was able to take a class and work in there, learn how to use the equipment, and really get a feel for what a professional photographer would do. I was able to see the process my dad would do when he would set up his own darkroom, which I did get to hear about. He would put newspapers on the windows to cover everything up to make a temporary studio. I got to learn how to think like the person who took this picture, which was my dad. It felt like a collaboration. These are his photos. The exhibit bears his name as well.

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Your exhibition is called Human Resource Exploitation: A Family Album. Can you tell me about the title?
The title is the title of the CIA manual that was used in the School of the Americas. The history of this manual is actually kind of interesting. It was originally developed during the Vietnam War. It was a collection of knowledge the military learned during that war on how to interrogate subversives. It evolved into this manual that was then taught to Latin American military leaders on how to quell any sort of revolution, or any sort of opposing force within their countries. Military leaders were sent there — the president of Guatemala during the time my dad was assassinated was a graduate of the School of the Americas.

In my own work, I explore many of the ways this country has immiserated Latin America. I know your work also explores these hemispheric dynamics. I often find myself wrestling with the following question: How do I reconcile living in the country that has in so many ways crushed the country where I was born? I don’t know if I’ve managed to make sense of this myself, and so I apologize for posing this question to you.

When I was a teenager, I remember asking my mom if she thought my dad would have ever wanted to live in the United States. And her immediate reply was, No, we would have never lived here if he had lived. He would never have allowed it to happen.

I don’t know that I have an answer to that question either. I cannot change what happened in the past — there’s no way that I can — but maybe we can change the cycle everything is caught in. When Kamala Harris went to Guatemala, one of her first political statements was something about needing to encourage more foreign investment in Guatemala, and I thought, She doesn’t know her history. The foreign investment has always been there, and it’s always been corrupt. She shouldn’t be encouraging outside forces to continue pillaging the country. At heart, I’m an idealist. I believe in justice and liberty, and I believe the future can be better.

Human Resource Exploitation: A Family Album is on exhibit at UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art through Jan. 29, with a closing reception 5p Jan. 28.

José Roach Orduña is an assistant professor of English at UNLV. His first book, The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement, was published in 2016 by Beacon Press.