Marisol and the American Dream: One Photographer’s 15-Year Project

Janet Jarman
Janet Jarman
Mexico, 1996. Marisol and her mother, Eloisa, 39, search through mounds of waste at the municipal dump.

Janet Jarman discovered Marisol, the young woman she has been photographing for more than 15 years, by chance. While working toward her Master’s degree in environmental studies, Jarman took a research trip to Mexico in August 1996. There, activist nuns brought her to a municipal dump in Matamoros, located along the U.S.-Mexico border. Amid the smoke, fires and sewage, Jarman noticed Marisol, then 8 years old, looking for recyclable items to sell with her family, who had dreams of moving to America. “Let the woman take your picture,” Marisol’s mother said. “You might be famous one day.”

They were prescient words, indeed. Jarman’s photograph of Marisol in the dump has received several industry awards and has been published by various publications and non-governmental organizations around the world. Earlier this year, the photographer even discovered that the portrait had appeared in the campaign materials of a Mexican presidential candidate; the country will hold its presidential election July 1.

“I was always upset by how unauthorized immigrants were dehumanized in their depiction,” says Jarman, who has lived in Mexico since 2004. “I wondered what could happen if there was a face to this human issue and people could better understand what was driving immigrants to move across the border.”

The immigration debate won’t just be part of the Mexican presidential elections next month; it will also play a large role in the U.S. presidential elections this November. After the Dream Act—which sought to provide paths to permanent residency and citizenship to immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors—stalled for years in Congress, president Barack Obama announced a policy change that would prevent some undocumented youth from deportation earlier this month. In following Marisol’s life—which has taken the photographer from Mexico to Florida to Texas—Jarman says she’s tried to capture this greater immigration story through the life of an individual. “Marisol’s story represents the story of thousands of immigrants, particularly women in her age group,” Jarman says. “To see her grow up and face so many challenges and still keep a very positive attitude—all while continuing to have this maturity beyond her years—has made me really respect her as a woman.”

Some of those challenges have included unplanned pregnancies that prevented Marisol from graduating high school. Still, Jarman says, Marisol, who lives with her husband in central Texas, strives to achieve the American Dream. “She wants to get out of the poverty cycle, have financial stability and provide a life for kids that’s better than her own,” she says. “And that story speaks to a lot of immigrants, which is why I wanted to follow a family, or individual, over time. One of the best ways to provide an understanding of immigrants is to not treat people as statistics.”

Janet Jarman is a photographer based in Mexico. See more of her work here.

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