"Sí, se puede" / "Yes, it can be done"

Jennifer Villanueva

2018 - Ongoing

Chicago, Illinois, United States; Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico

"Sí, se puede" / "Yes, it can be done" is a photography project based on the history and experience of my immigrant parents and grandmother’s labor and migration in the United States. This project is ongoing and will be a continuous dialogue to understand how hard-working immigrant parents pour their heart, sweat, and tears into securing a better future for their children in America. As a child of Mexican immigrant parents—both factory workers—my sense of home and identity has always been in flux. My photographic work explores my identity as a Mexican-American woman, ni de aquí, ni allá (neither from here nor there). I am curious about how race, ethnicity, geography, gender, and class contribute to American society and its understanding of itself. I have focused on documenting my undocumented grandmother's life, going through dialysis due to Chronic Kidney Disease for ten years. I research and document the history and experience of my immigrant parents' migration and labor in the United States. I am engrossed in how color, environmental portraiture, and still lives evoke a different perspective into an immigrant family’s life facing generational trauma and magnification of themselves. These photographs are carefully staged and candid as each gesture and composition symbolizes a narrative about culture, transnational identity, and belonging in the United States.

My grandmother, who was the first to migrate to the United States, influenced my parents to stay in Chicago when they found out my mother was pregnant with me. They knew that if I were born in the United States, it meant that I would have the opportunity to have more options, academically and financially, than they ever did in México. This decision made by thousands of immigrants speaks to desire, opportunity, and the daily struggle to dream and survive. Like other immigrants, my parents work endlessly to provide a better life for their family in the U.S. When the U.S. rejects Latinx migrants, restricts their participation in society, and spreads accusations that Latin America (México, in particular) is to blame for the economic woes experienced by American citizens, I feel an acute responsibility to respond through my work.

As a Mexican-American photographer, I feel it is essential to illustrate the cultural and significant material of Mexican-Americans' everyday life in the Midwest/United States. During my photographic process, I think of our family responsibilities and what keeps the family closer together. I then think of my father, who works at a factory to pay for our family’s house, utilities, and food. I think of my mother, who works seven days a week to help my father with the bills. I think of my brother, who stays up doing his homework every night to succeed. I think of my grandmother, who is ill yet helps with cooking to feed my family since both parents are not there to cook and share a meal. I think of myself pursuing higher education to obtain a high paying job to return everything that my family has done for me and each other. In the end, our labor, traditions, and love bring us closer than ever. I believe that the Mexican blood in us brought that mentality of endlessly working hard, mainly when both my parents migrated to the United States pursuing this concept of the “American Dream.” Their contribution to my photographic projects is essential and inspires me to create these visual dialogues showcasing a breathing representation of domestic spaces, familial histories, and homage to the endless tradition of labor. As my parents always stressed to me while growing up and attending protests for immigrant worker rights, “Sí se puede” (Yes, it can be done.).

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  • Segundo hospitalización de Abuelita, 2018.

    This photograph is of my grandmother at the hospital. It was the second time she was there that same year. She was experiencing shortness of breath and a lot of pain in her abdomen. After being discharged, she acted as nothing happened. One of the things my grandmother does not like to acknowledge is her illnesses and disabilities. She enforces herself to be a strong independent woman.

  • De vuelta de diálisis, 2019.

    My grandmother back from dialysis. My grandmother mainly wears sweaters and long sleeves to cover the arm where her nurses do dialysis on her. This was the first time I truly saw my grandmother wear a tank top, and I immediately knew I had to document the moment. Her confident pose embodies the strength and courage that she carries with her at all times. For someone who goes to dialysis 3 to 4 times a week, she is still here to support, love, care for, and look incredibly fabulous.

  • Entra, vamos a la iglesia, 2019.

    Get in; we’re going to church. My grandmother is Catholic, and her favorite days are Sundays. She dressed up glamorously that day. I decided to photograph her inside her very bright lime green Ford Fiesta that was gifted to her by her best friend, whom she met when she first began dialysis and also Catholic.

  • Llamadas de negocio, 2019.

    My grandmother taking a business call. She is a Mexican immigrant woman living in the United States who lives under limited financial resources that are insufficient to support herself with endless medical bills. However, she still does her best to sell gifts during the holidays, cook delicious food for hungry people, and host dance classes in our neighborhood to sustain herself. She rents out a studio for Zumba classes and parties (in which she helps decorate for celebrations such as quinceñeras, baptisms, graduations, etc.). This image was taken at the end of 2019 where she was doing her annual end of the year cleaning.

  • Que hay adentro del bolso de Abuelita, 2020.

    What's inside my grandmother's purse? My grandmother was doing her annual end of the year cleaning, and I saw her items from her bag laid out the same way it was photographed. I was surprised at how organized and neatly laid out each of her things were. I had to photograph this moment because each item embodied her presence and significance as a hard-working woman. From her pills to her forehead thermometer to her cash, checks, and cards, it all evokes her nature as a worker and by means of survival (most notably through a global pandemic).

  • Manos de una trabajadora, 2019.

    Hands of a worker. My grandmother making tamales for our household of 9 that would last for a little over a week. Due to her weakness from having dialysis, it is hard for her to use strength in her arms. Although, the pain did not stop her from making our favorite prolonged meal. She never lets her physical weakness get the best of her, especially when it comes to her labor and recognizing what it means to be a hard-working, giving, patient, and independent woman. Tamales to us will always symbolize our family heritage, traditions, labor, and survival.

  • Un Domingo, 2019.

    This our Sunday Brunch. Each Sunday morning, my dad and uncle love to bring carnitas, barbacoa, and menudo for "brunch". We all get together, the 10 of us (usually 1 extra person stays with us, in this photograph it is my aunt's mother visiting from Mexico in the red behind my grandmother), to eat in our tiny cramped kitchen.

  • Abuelita's jardín, 2019.

    My grandmother's garden. Despite my grandmother's illness and disabilities, she still manages to get up each morning to water her garden. Her garden mirrors my grandmother's beauty, vitality, and power.

  • Mamá lavando la ropa antes de ir a trabajar, 2019.

    My mom doing laundry before going to work. Before the pandemic, my mother used to work seven days a week. She always did the laundry and grocery shopping in the mornings before her shift in the afternoon. She is always under a lot of stress because of the amount of work she has to do at home. When my mother is at home, she still works. Her second shift begins at home. Besides working to pay the bills, she works to maintain the house and her family by cooking, doing laundry, making the bed, and making dental/doctor appointments for my younger brother.

  • Mamá apurada a cocinar la cena antes de salir al trabajo, 2019.

    Mom in a hurry to cook dinner before leaving for work. When my mother is at home, she still works. Her second shift begins at home. Besides working to pay the bills, she works to maintain the house and her family by cooking, doing laundry, making the bed, and making dental/doctor appointments for my younger brother. My mother has been working hard since she was a child. She is, unfortunately, one of many Latinas who did not receive higher education. She dropped out right after middle school in México and decided to help her parents and five other siblings financially by working at a bakery every day. My mother lived through severe poverty, and to this day, she suffers from the trauma of her upbringing. Since she arrived in the United States in 1997, she has worked harder. Her first job in the U.S. was as a night shift janitor at an animal hospital. Now, she is a Shipping Receiving Clerk at a printing manufacture facility.

  • Padres haciendo cambios en la dieta para reducir nuestras probabilidades de tener diabetes, 2021.

    Parents making dietary changes to lower our chances of getting diabetes. Our family from both sides have a lineage with diabetes and cancer. Recently, both of my parents received news from their last doctor visit that they are in danger of having diabetes. They decided to make changes to their diet and began to work out together.

  • Padres controlando su presión, 2021.

    My parents checking their pressure. After finding out they could potentially have diabetes, they are now obsessed with checking their pressure. Ironically, they were drinking beer, which is something they are having a tough time giving up, especially Modelo.

  • Carne asada en un caluroso Chicago Noviembre 2020, 2020.

    Grilling in a hot Chicago November in 2020. Chicago is well known for its cold, brutal winters. But earlier in November, Chicago experienced 65-degree weather. And of course, my parents could not pass the opportunity of fair warm weather. Naturally, they pulled out the grill and cooked delicious carne asada. This photograph showcases how my parents will utilize everything they see and acknowledge it as an opportunity.

  • Papá cocinando después de perder su trabajo por la pandemia, 2020.

    My dad cooking after losing his job to the pandemic. He was one of many people in the United States who lost their job during a global pandemic, and for five months, my father felt incredibly lost. The only thing that genuinely lifted his mood, relationships, and overall mental and emotional health was cooking. He was influenced by the idea of selling homemade food to our friends and family, and luckily that was how he was able to make ends meet. It even sparked him to plan to open a restaurant, but then an ancient friend of his was retiring, and my father was able to replace him. He works every day, including weekends that now he does not have the time to cook his prominent and delicious meals.

  • Mamá la trabajadora, 2019.

    My mom the hard worker. Pre-pandemic, my mother worked day and night seven days a week. I only had the opportunity to see her in the morning before school or work and late at night when we both come back home after a long day. During high school, both of my parents lost their jobs, which led to my mother finding another job that requires her to spend twice as much time inside a factory. I think about my parents every day and fear losing them either through deportation or sudden illness. Despite living with them, I do not have the opportunity to see my mother as much as I see my father. During the pandemic, she works 12 hours a day for four days each week to socially distance at her job. Although the very long hours, this aid our relationship together as a family because now we all have the time to be together more than we ever did when I was born.

  • La única forma en que mi mamá se relaja después de un largo diá de trabajo, 2019.

    The only way my mom can relax after a long day at work. I used to get very excited to meet my mom after we both get home from work. I always love sharing about my day with her, but our conversations cannot begin without her getting a bottle of Modelo. She would tell me, "Espera Mija, déjame tomar mi cheve. ("Wait Mija, let me drink my beer.") After her long shift from work and preparing herself for gossip, my mom drinking her beer is a favorite way to decompress and detach herself from work truly.

  • Mi hermano jugando videojuegos mientras estudia para su examen, 2019.

    My younger brother playing video games while studying for his exam. I greatly admire my brother for his impressive multitasking abilities. Still, I tend to put my foot down with him and let him know that he needs to prioritize his education more than his video games thoroughly. I am relieved to know that deep inside, he respects me and looks up to me as a third guardian/parent. When it comes to school or work, he comes to me with questions that he knows my parents cannot answer because of their lack of experience and knowledge of American culture and laws. For example, my brother entirely relied on me to help him with job applications, taxes, FAFSA, getting his first credit card, applying for Medicaid, and college applications. Being the oldest child, I was already expected to take on these responsibilities, but ten times more now because my parents did not attend college and did things differently due to their undocumented status.

  • Mi hermano y yo votamos en nuestra escuela primaria de nuestro vecindario, 2020.

    My brother and I voted at our neighborhood elementary school. Again, it is my responsibility as an older sister to make sure my younger brother makes the best positive decisions in his life. In 2020, my brother turned 18 years old which made him eligible to vote for the first time. It was crucial that during that presidential election that he would participate and made sure his vote counted. I wanted him to be part of this democracy, and made sure that who he voted for represented his voice, ideas, and support our family's needs. It was one of the greatest highlights in my life, especially as an older sister and photographer advocating for social justice. Most importantly, it was crucial to vote for our undocumented parents who made numerous sacrifices for our livelihood.

  • Votamos en honor a nuestra mamá y papá, 2020.

    We voted in honor of our mom and dad. It is disheartening that our parents cannot vote in the country they lived in for 23 years considering all the labor and sacrifices they have made on this American soil. One of the many things that devastate me is how immigrants indeed carry this country on their backs, and how much they historically, economically, and socially contribute to the U.S.

  • Mis padres finalmente disfrutaron compañia juntos en sus días libres del trabajo, 2018.

    My parents finally enjoying each other's company on their days off from work. Due to their conflicting work schedules, it was always difficult for my parents to find the time to spend together. When they do have a day off, they traditionally watch novelas (soap operas) while eating tostadas, and of course, drink a cold beer. Witnessing my parents work endlessly, it is always very lovely to see them finally being able to relax.