Curator’s Essay

Judith Freidenberg

Department of Anthropology

University Of Maryland-College Park

Maryland, USA


 

Exhibit Mission

This exhibit documents the experience of elderly Latinos in low-income urban enclaves in the United States. Some of them share personal testimonies with you to start a conversation about how life circumstances — in a particular space and at a particular time — influence how we will experience our personal aging. As we hear their stories we can start thinking about ours. How do we experience aging? Why we are like the Latinos in the exhibit in certain respects and unlike them in others? What should we do about these similarities and differences when planning for the elderly? In attempting to answer these questions and generate others, the exhibit seeks to create awareness about the experience of aging — theirs and ours.

The process of aging is universal. It is part of the human condition. But the experience of aging shows a great deal of cultural variation. In the contemporary United States, being elderly carries economic, social, and cultural risks. As a person ages, individual income and connections may decrease. The collective vision of the elderly equates them with a population that is more vulnerable to disease and disability and thus more likely to be destined for dependency.

We usually study the institutionalized elderly and rarely take the opportunity to observe how older people cope with constraints in their own neighborhoods. This exhibit contests the association of aging with a "growing-down" stage in the course of life. It generates a space to discuss the action that should be taken. In an increasingly older and culturally diverse United States, where the number of elderly people in minority groups is growing at unprecedented rates — from 14% of the total elderly population in 1975 to an expected 30% by 2050 — and where the fastest growing minority is Latino, these discussions might affect how we think about our own aging.

"In" And "Out How Elderly Latinos In The Barrio View Themselves And How Others View Them

Latinos tend to concentrate in urban areas and to suffer from disproportionate poverty rates. What is the experience of Latinos who are growing old in low-income urban enclaves?

This exhibit invites you to meet them in their neighborhoods, enter their homes, hear them talk and recite poems, and perhaps share a cup of coffee with them. We will go to Harlem in New York and to Langley Park in Maryland and meet the elderly I have worked with. We’ll follow them around and let them guide us through private and public spaces so that we may understand how those spaces help shape their daily life. We’ll listen to their voices and learn how they cope with being old, poor, and Latino in the United States so that we may understand how the experience of daily life is shaped by economic, social, and cultural circumstances. If we are patient enough, we may come to understand how their lived experience helps them make sense of the world. If we are open enough, we will use their experience to reflect upon ours and consider the need to pass lessons learned on to other people who age under different circumstances. And we will think twice before accepting statements such as " the elderly are" or "Latinos do" at face value. Rather, we will think about those who fit a model and those who do not: we will add dimensions of experience (which in this exhibit are grouped under "in") to labeling categories (grouped as "out"). I invite you to keep the knowledge we have of these people with you, but to leave it outside when you enter their homes and their hearts, much as we leave our shoes outside our Japanese host's home.

Viewed from the outside, as a category, the elderly are people beyond a certain age, and aging is a process throughout life. Although the stages in the life cycle might vary across cultures, the stages are labeled and separated by impermeable boundaries. People traversing a stage cannot opt to move out. Categories are static and can make of age a constraint. Categories are created by professionals who make decisions about what is relevant information, which can be categorized to simplify the understanding of social issues, and about how to ask questions so that people can be fitted into categories.

Viewed from the inside, as the dimensions people use to communicate experience, the elderly are people who, like people at any age, attempt to make sense of the world around them, engage in strategies to negotiate daily life in a particular space at a particular time, and incorporate the past while understanding the present. Dimensions are dynamic in that people have a measure of control over how they perceive aging and how they position themselves in the world regardless of their stage in the life cycle. Dimensions emerge out of perceptions by actual people as insiders to their experience, rendering irrelevant those measurements of how they fit into categories created by outsiders. There are either no boundaries separating dimensions, or the boundaries are blurred. Age becomes complex when existing categories are questioned and checked against actual experience.

Growing Old in the Barrio: Dimensions of Well-Being

People are lay historians. They document the circumstances — historical, social, and cultural — that affect the experience of aging. They offer a lens to understand the experience within the context of available resources. And they become analysts and interpreters themselves. From that perspective, any one population can define the core organizing principles in everyday life and the extent to which the blurring or highlighting of boundaries is a policy and political issue.

The exhibit we bring you here results from an interpretative collaboration between informants, anthropologists, and visual designers to translate the story told in diverse media to a mutually intelligible language. The first step in the collaboration involved the identification of dimensions of well-being, as lenses to understand private and public domains of everyday life from the perspective of informants.

Income: As a category, income is capital accumulated by an individual, through wages, pensions, benefits, and the like, that can be measured in currency. As a dimension, income has a more fluid nature, including not only goods but also services that might not be measured with currency. Income is experienced as the redistribution of such goods and services within and among households linked in networks of mutual assistance. Thus, income is necessary to address basic needs, yet the informants' definition of basic needs might involve far more than what money can buy. This explains why some say informants tell us that "We are all poor, but [in happiness] we are all rich."

Health: Informants agree with the medical care system in that health can be defined by the absence of disease, but they also point out the importance of experiencing illness. While disease categories define our public health, people actually use health care services or access services in a way that is more related to the way they believe a condition constitutes a problem in need of professional attention, one not necessarily limited to physicians, or involving care outside of the household. "Doctors cannot cure all illnesses, there are illnesses of the soul and illnesses of the body," the informants tell us.

Connections: Income and health can be assured through connections, people whom an informant can count on. Connections include people other than family (neighbors, co-parents, users of same senior citizen center, store owners, landlords, etc.), although our institutions only recognize the biological family as legal guardians of the elderly. "The saddest thing in life is to have nobody to look after you," is how informants express the grounding provided by connectedness.

Spirituality: The highest state of well-being can only be attained, according to informants, when income, health, and connections exist in harmony. Different from the category of organized religion that is used to map the distribution of reported belief systems in the population, spirituality is experienced as a state of peace and contentment directly related to the capacity to connect to the divine within the person. "The highest gift is to find God within you," as one informant shared with us.

These dimensions, as differentiated from categories, often overlap in real life and are thus perceived in interrelationship with one another. Take income, for example: as a category, it relates to economics, but as a dimension of well-being it spans social, cultural, and political realms.

The second step in the collaboration between anthropologists and visual designers was to understand dimensions as perceived needs within a framework that included how these needs could be addressed in particular spaces and times. The team made a selection of documents contained in diverse media and organized them in a grid with sixteen entries to account for four dimensions (income, health, connections, spirituality) and two perspectives (in and out). By comparing experiences regarding the fit between the "in" and the "out," people can provide useful information about access to policy makers.

The third step in the collaboration involved addressing the problem of how to communicate what we had learned. While dimensions are perceived from the inside, they are framed by outside context, including both the actual existence of goods and services and the knowledge people have of their availability. After making distinctions between inside (dimensions) and outside (categories) to account for lived experience, we combined them to signify that they are experienced as two sides of the same coin: experience need not be binary (you can be an individual and a member of a culture; use both public and private domains; be insider and outsider to your culture, depending on the situation; experience health as lack of pain and as insurance payment for your medication). From this perspective, it can be said that the inside constitutes a personal rendition of experience — the private domain, the way I understand what happens to me — while the outside is what happens to others but might not happen to me, the public domain such as politics and policies over which I theoretically have less control.

Where Do You Come In? Let's Go Tell It on The Mountain!

And here is where you come in, where we need you to collaborate with us. “Inside/Out” is on the road, and the story we tell will be re-created as people like you download our interpretation or as discussion groups emerge in schools, senior citizen centers, universities, and many other places we cannot even fathom at this point. If we did it right, responses to our interpretation will establish a dialogue on the relevance of experience to our current understanding of aging and help create awareness about the life circumstances of the elderly Latino in the barrios.

We hope this conceptualization — the story people tell and the way we chose to tell it — has reminded you that a story contains the teller and the listener. We also hope the exhibit has contributed to your reflective comparison to your story and circumstances.

The computer has links, but you link. Do you link? Informants proposed, we selected and interpreted. We propose, you select and interpret. You suggest alternative interpretations and directions for new research.

Although categorization is certainly useful to reduce information, an excessive zeal in categorizing may limit our ability to make connections. Yet, it is only by making connections that we can interpret. This is an invitation to the viewer to make connections, suggest questions for further inquiry, and suggest alternative interpretations. Subjectivity can be objective too. Subjectivity can be objectified.

Acknowledgments: My participation in this virtual exhibit constitutes the culmination of a process of working on translating anthropological findings into media accessible to the larger public and policy-makers. I thank the support of many who helped me clarify that vision: Kathy Benson at the Museum of the City of New York; Ray Elling, Director of Exhibitions at the Graduate Center, City University of New York; and Lourdes Arizpe, President of the 1993 International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences. Last, though not least, I thank the constant feedback and support of the team that has worked with me at the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives: Magdalena Mieri, Melissa Carrillo, and Marcia Bebianno Simoes. Kerry Weeda of LTG offered insightful editorial suggestions.

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