The History We Never Learned
Christopher Columbus couldn’t discover America because he didn’t have a visa or even a passport.
Pedro Alvares Cabral couldn’t get off the boat in Brazil because he might have been carrying smallpox, measles, the flu or other plagues the country had never known.
Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro never even began the conquest of Mexico and Peru because they didn’t have green cards.
Pedro de Alvarado was turned away from Guatemala and Pedro de Valdivia couldn’t enter Chile because they had police records.
The Mayflower pilgrims were sent back to sea from the coast of Massachusetts, because the immigration quotas were full.
These misfortunes occurred in the distant past, long before globalization did away with borders.
Grandma Raquel was blind when she died. But some time later, in Helena’s dream, she could see.
In the dream, Grandma wasn’t so old, nor was she just a handful of tired little bones: she was brand new,
a four-year-old child at the end of a voyage across the sea from far-off Bessarabia, one immigrant among many. On deck, Grandma asked Helena to pick her up, because the ship was entering the port of Buenos
Aires and she wanted to see it.
And in the dream, hoisted in the arms of her granddaughter, blind Grandma saw the port of the new country where she was to live her entire life.
A stone, a four-leaf clover, a flower bereft of its perfume and colour, a single shoe, a lock of hair, an old key without its door, a pipe far from its mouth, someone’s name embroidered on a handkerchief, someone’s portrait in an oval frame, a blanket that used to be shared
and other articles and trinkets lay wrapped amid clean and threadbare clothes in the pilgrims’ luggage. Not much room in a suitcase, but every suitcase contained a world. Beat up and bent out of shape, held together by rope or rusty latches, each was alike, but unlike any other.
The men and women from afar let themselves be sent, like their suitcases, from queue to queue, and they crowded together in a heap, like their suitcases, waiting.
These fugitives from war and poverty came from tiny villages lost on the map of Europe. At the end of the long crossing they’d disembarked on Ellis Island, but a stone’s throw from the Statue of Liberty which had arrived not long before them.
On the island a sieve was at work. The gatekeepers of the Promised Land interrogated and classified the immigrants, listened to their hearts and lungs, studied their eyelids, mouths and toes, weighed them and measured their blood pressure, temperature, height and intelligence.
The intelligence tests were a disaster. Many of the recent arrivals couldn’t write and managed to mumble no more than a few unintelligible words in unknown languages. To determine their intellectual coefficients they were asked, among other questions, how a staircase should be swept: Do you sweep from bottom to top, top to bottom, or to the sides? A Polish girl answered: ‘I haven’t come to this country to sweep staircases.’
A Century Later
Since long before there were people in the world, butterflies and swallows and flamingos have spread their wings to flee the cold, and whales have swum in search of other seas and salmon and trout to find their rivers. Year after year, they still travel thousands of kilometres on the open roads of air and water.
The routes of human exodus, in contrast, are not free.
In immense caravans march the fugitives from hunger and violence and desperation. They travel from south to north and from rising sun
to setting sun; they come from the Latin American banks of the Rio Grande, from the African shores of the Mediterranean, and from other coasts on the four points of the globe. Their place in the world has been stolen; they’ve been despoiled of their work and their land. Many flee wars, but many more flee ruinous prices and starvation wages. They abandon their exhausted plots, their levelled forests, their poisoned rivers. The pilgrims banished by globalization roam about, inventing roads, seeking a home, knocking on
doors – and doors which only open at the magic touch of money get slammed in their faces. Expelled, rejected, outlawed, millions of pariahs wander the world.
In 40 countries, over several years, Sebastião Salgado photographed this tragedy of our times. It’s captured in 300 photos. And those 300 portraits of this immense human misadventure add up to a single second. All the light that entered his camera was barely a wink of sun, less than an instant in the memory of time.