A black and white photograph from the 1930s might be the sole memory of this African-American boy's life.
He's tied to a pole, laying in a fetal position in the middle of a dirt lot in a prison camp—wooden shacks in the foreground. His eyes are closed.
Long before the desolation, he was a mother's son, probably someone's brother, or a good friend. He had an identity. At some point, his life stopped having value.
"It's a horrific photograph," says Melanie Cooley, volunteer coordinator of the All Souls Procession. The image is one of the centerpieces in the garment Cooley created for the procession this year. Photos of Native-American women, Chinese railroad workers and other spirits of the past that have been erased from society's psyche accompany it.
Cooley is the head of The Ambassadors—the folks who give out pieces of paper and pencils to others walking the procession, so that they can write a prayer or message that's later burnt in the urn. During this procession, the group is honoring "the forgotten ghosts of the road,"—what Cooley describes as the people who helped build this country. Slaves, convict laborers, braceros, farm workers, miners, child workers, Chinese railroad workers—who "built the streets we walk on, the food we eat, the monuments in our nation's capital, the railroad tracks that bring our food and goods to us."
This time around, All Souls is about giving at least a bit of dignity back to these nameless faces and faceless names—to the people who were deemed unworthy of respect both alive and dead.
Cooley's family ties in the South triggered in her an interest for what she calls "the forgotten ghosts of the African slave trade." Her family is from Tennessee, and although they weren't wealthy plantation owners, they definitely "owned a person or two."
Through her historical digging, Cooley noticed a pattern of laws that were created to basically re-enslave black men and women—long after slavery was abolished and up until World War II. "Once they were imprisoned, they were rented out to be laborers in mines ... build roads," she says. "The mass leasing of convicts went well into the 1940s."
She found list upon list of names of people who died under these circumstances. Turns out, the death rate of African Americans at the time was even higher than during slavery, because the entities that rented out the imprisoned didn't have financial investments attached to their loss.
Cooley came across a report called "Inspectors of Convicts," a tally of the convicts who died doing hard labor. Under personal history, there's nothing but the names and dates when these people arrived to jail or prison, as well as the "occupation" they held: farmer, miner, and so on. The last column describes the illnesses they contracted and other possible causes of death—from head injuries to burnings and bullet wounds.
Cooley is wearing these rosters—dating from 1883 to 1890—along both sides of the dress she designed for the procession. She transferred the boy's photo and all others she found onto white cotton fabric, which will go along the front and back of her tunic.
- MarÍa Inés Taracena
To Cooley, it's been a very emotional and intimate experience—bringing these souls back, unearthing their faces and names. "These photos are precious, sacred in a way," she says. "The only memory of this person's existence. We are really carrying them with us not just mentally but physically.",/p>
Another woman in Cooley's group, Lupe Lopez, is honoring her father, Ramiro, who came to the United States from Mexico in the 1940s during the braceros program to work in cotton fields. During World War II, the U.S. government imported Mexican laborers to fill up the gaps in agriculture and other fields, vacated by American men serving in the war. The program lasted until the early 1960s.
In the front of Lopez's tunic, there are photographs of her father in different stages of his life. After two decades in the bracero program, Ramiro was eventually able to bring his family to the U.S., where they lived in Yuma for years. He passed away in January 2014 at the age of 89.
On the back, there are images of braceros getting their faces and genitals fumigated with a pesticide known as DDT. Other photos on her garment portray braceros saying good bye to their children and families. A sign that reads, "We serve Whites only. No Spanish-Mexicans," is beside them.
Rita Schmidt also looked to her ancestors for inspiration, in particular family members who lived through the Great Depression. She focused on the Civilian Conservation Corps in Arizona—a program created by the Roosevelt administration that put young men of all backgrounds to work during the economic turmoil. Many of the nation's public parks were built and maintained by these workers.
"This is a case where they are forgotten ghosts, but the conservation corps program saved their lives, it kept them from starvation," Cooley says.
At the end of the procession, Cooley, Lopez, and other participants of the finale ceremony, will take off their garments and burn them in the urn—an homage to the spirits who didn't get a proper farewell, or whose legacy has been degraded.
"When we forget our ghosts, we forget our history, we lose ourselves," Cooley says. "Until we are grounded in our history, grounded in the people who have gone before us, we don't really understand the world we're in today."
All Souls Procession artistic director Nadia Hagen remembers reading an article after the massacre at French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, where the writer uses the phrase "unmournable bodies." It opened up a discussion into whether we should still mourn or honor people who've done reprehensible things.
Even though it's very difficult, Hagen says yes we should. It's still someone's child, someone's parent, someone out there loves them.
"It's ridiculous to value one life more than another," she says. It's one of many reasons Hagen wanted to work that into this year's All Souls. "And then say that the bodies are unmournable ... that these people never deserved respect, that they don't deserve dignity in their death because of their actions in life."
Plus, it's about understanding the bigger picture, and not continuing the demonization of people with labels like "criminal," "drug addict," or "terrorist." Society has gotten really good at putting stamps on people, and once that happens, "you can do whatever the fuck you want with it," she says.
Once a person is in that cycle, their rights are negated, their value burnt away in this world and the next.
"All deaths are honorable, there can't be dishonored deaths. And if all deaths are honorable, then all lives have value," she says. "And if all lives have value, then they all need to have the same value. Everything has a spirit, everything on this planet has a place, those places aren't hierarchal, they are interwoven."