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March 29, 2005

Your Turn: The Shrine

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In what seems like a growing consideration of the price of the Iraq war, the media is full of stories.

Particularly fateful are losses suffered by immigrants who enlisted in the U.S. military in hopes of a quick path to citizenship and a more stable economic future.  Pfc. Jesús Fonseca was originally from Degollado, Mexico, although he mostly grew up in Marrieta, Georgia.  Just 19,  he was killed by a sniper in Ramadi this past January.  Despite his U.S. residence, he used to return to his hometown every summer.  That is where he met and married his wife, Marlene Zaragoza, in November 2003.  Marelene, shown above, is now 18.  According to the NYT article (Mexican Pride and Death in U.S. service – link), approximately 41,000 permanent resident aliens are serving in the United States military — over 3,600 of them from Mexico.

I am interested in your interpretations of this image.  I’ve been looking at it on and off for about a week now, and I find it as curious as it is moving.  (Of course, it’s almost impossible not to speculate about the television.) 

Unlike other news images, the accompanying article supplies a certain amount of information about it.  It could just be the reporter’s characterization, but the assemblage to the right of Ms. Zaragoza is referred to as a “shrine.”  Here is the specific description:

The shrine set up on a broken television in the corner would be familiar to many American military families. The somber Stars and Stripes is folded neatly in a triangle, encased in wood and glass. A couple of medals lie in boxes, inert as rocks, collecting dust. …A stern young man in his dress United States Army uniform peers at visitors from a small photograph. His dog tags hang beside the photo. A photo of the same young man with his even younger wife, caught in a swirl of laughter, is nearby.

There are a couple other pieces of information you might want to know:  According to Mr. Fonseca’s parents, attaining citizenship was not what motivated Jesús to enlist.  It was part of it, his father reports, but he got good grades and could easily have gone to college.  Instead, he was interested in a military career, and wanted to be an intelligence officer.  I mention this last point because the article also profiles two other young men from Mexico who recently died in Iraq.  Whereas Mr. Fonseca might have seemed more secure in his future, the other two soldiers were of quite limited means, and apparently had been heavily solicited by military recruiters, one from the age of 14.

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(click on image to examine larger version)

By the way, this article was actually accompanied by two photos.  The other shot, featuring Mr. Fonseca’s brother and grandmother, is also very striking and strange.  The empty, unfinished picture frame is almost as curious as the “shrine” in the other image.

I’m interested in your thoughts about either, or both.

(image: Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times)

(story referral: Tom)

  • http://minutiae.typepad.com/ Jerry Holtaway

    Not too much time to digest all of this, but think there is something truly powerful about a shrine that includes a TV set that looks like it has been punched or kicked. Why, I wonder? To say, ‘enough’ to all the false hopes and misinformation it delivers? Hmmmm.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    i must admit, in all honesty that,
    until i read BAGman’s text post accompaniment:
    I thought the picture was from Iraq.
    the woman’s broken spirit / television; ie.,
    that is to say the looting and vandalism of Iraqi homes by American soldiers has been largely un-reported… it *IS* commonplace :-/
    something about the material violation of personal / home-space actually having “more resonance” with the American psyche than the aftermath of aerial bombardment.
    viewing remnants and rubble, we have less awareness of or empathy for the souls who once drove in that car, or lived in this dwelling.
    Americans *DO* react, with real revulsion ~ to the notion of troops (anybody’s troops) entering a home (anybody’s home) in the dead of night…
    …screaming at the women and children, writing obscenities on the walls, kicking in television sets, tossing possessions about, grabbing this or that precious family heirloom or, just carting off a nice set of golf clubs.
    i think Americans must think of Iraqis as living in squalid, adobe-like structures (rather than familiar, MidCentury Modern looking suburban tract homes, as many of them do)
    there emerged quite a murmur when images of our troops raiding upper middle-class Iraqi homes crept into the media stream: that was shut down, toute suite (way too close to home, that)
    OTOH, it remains a mystery to information-age folks, such as ourselves ~ why neither the Palestinians nor the Iraqi insurgents choose not to illustrate their plight or cause celebre better through modern media technics.
    the digital camera and eMail attachment will set you free?
    >BOOM< we don’t need no steenking press passes !
    a broken television (!)
    now THAT hurts!!

  • Anna

    The photographer (Adriana Zehbrauskas) must have asked Mrs. Fonseca to move the white plastic chair over to the tv set, to get the widow close to the shrine for the shoot.
    Interestingly she includes the easychair in the picture. The slimness of the girl makes the chair looks truly monstrous. Four Mrs. Fonsecas could easily fit into it. I don’t know but the chair looks US-made to me.
    Many people put memorabilia and sentimental objects on top of their tv sets – probably because tv sets tend to be the focus point of their living rooms. This tv set is clearly not functional and it’s been pushed into a corner but apparently it retains this special status.

  • Quentin

    The widow says nothing to the photographer or to us, the family members say nothing to each other, we can say lots of things which amount to nothing on this blog and on other ones: this is all it comes down to in the end, here and there, in the U.S. and Iraq and anywhere else. Bush and Cheney’s myth of the richest and most powerful country in the world is given the lie by this widow whose simple surroundings, dignity and resignation, at least for the moment, stand in stark contrast to the meatier, more exhibitionistic and extroverted groups of people occupying the moral high ground which we have seen ad nauseam in the media in recent days.
    The U.S. flag, in the triangular box, is folded up according to long-standing U.S. tradition, which, for all I know, may go back even further in Europe or somewhere else. That very flag draped the coffin of the widow’s husband: the flag-draped coffin no one else was allowed to see in public or to photgraph because it might have a discouraging effect on us, the People. Or is that a demoralizing effect, as if the U.S. invasion of Iraq occupies the moral high ground.
    As the emotions surrounding Terry Schiavo inundated the White House and Congress, turning private grief into public antics, widows and widowers, children and families were forced, by official government decree, to curtail public displays of mourning and keep quiet, to refrain from drawing attention to the fact of what has descended upon them from the Halls of Washington.
    The widow’s silence speaks volumes, as most of the country turns itself on with self-satisfaction, ignoring the grief of Iraq where many more women and men sit despondently.

  • aethorian

    The notorious white plastic chair, like a memorial bench from Hell…

  • Anna

    Gruesome!

  • aethorian

    Point positif, MonsieurGonzo:

    viewing remnants and rubble, we have less awareness of or empathy for the souls who once drove in that car, or lived in this dwelling.
    Americans *DO* react, with real revulsion ~ to the notion of troops (anybody’s troops) entering a home (anybody’s home)…

    Like a body absent the soul, is a home absent its owners merely a shell, open to all to do as they wish? Even the dead deserve respect, but war (anybody’s war) respects no boundaries. It doesn’t take much to imagine how the homeowners reacted to these invasions: Battle for Fallujah; Battles Rage in Fallujah; Marines in Fallujah. In fact, the closer you get to home, the less imagination it takes: Elian Gonzalez.
    Although it’s thousands of miles away from Iraq, the Mexican home of Jesús and Marlene Fonseca has been despoiled by war just as easily.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    OK. i finally screwed up enough courage to come back and click on the bloody thing, Blow Up / finding fellow travellers Anna, Quentin & aethorian have dropped by as well…
    …your comments not making it any easier for me: this image really wrenches my soul, BAGman.
    i mean, yeah ~ she says nothing but, Oh My God ~ those eyes say… everything.
    surely the big empty chair is a place-holder for the big empty hole in her life that was her love.
    “i can’t sit there,” her eyes do tell us. “i sit here. that’s his place.”
    now take your damn picture. i find more ghoulish-ness in the greenish-ness hue (wrong colour temperature of the film or fluorescent light source, what ever) than the gruesome “white plastic chair”, but ~ point taken.
    “this is all it comes down to in the end” …a universal lament of the survivor / widow {sigh} Quentin often makes me cry. and now you do it again.
    maybe you don’t fear the reaper, but you will feel the widow :-/
    my husband says i am too harsh, when i am here. my only excuse is passion.
    i’d like to think that it was SHE, in a rage of realisation ~ who kicked in or threw something substantial at that EmpTeeVee: damn you !
    the lies, the cynical spin, all that blather, that… mad man…
    …BUSH…
    …who took my man away. in vain!
    pour quoi? your… family vanity ? YOU BASTARDS!!
    Help Me Help Me Help Me GOD Help Me…
    take this pain away!
    n’oubliez jamais

  • Johanna

    I see despair – hope died with Jesús.
    The triangle box holding the flag – pointing up symbolically to heaven – as the “embodied” half of the star of David – black with mourning and suffering.
    The t.v. – a portal to the future, to what is happening to others, in the world – broken, destroyed. A hole in its heart.
    So much despair in both pictures with symbols of past hope all around. The hope in the pictures of Jesús and his wife, the shrine itself, even the decorated bell from a past joyful occasion.
    And the despair and suffering standing alongside past hopes in the hole in the t.v. and the open doorway and window frame and picture frame – darkned now – empty.

  • Ajax Bucky

    That institutional green on the walls is what makes the link with Iraq so easy. Or Bolivia or Hangzhou or a hundred other places.
    It’s like there’s always so much paint left over after they do the prisons and the bureaucratic warrens, there’s plenty to decorate the homes of the poor.

  • The BAG

    So much despair in both pictures with symbols of past hope all around.

    …I didn’t particularly notice this before, but Johanna’s comment drew my attention to the calendars in both pictures. How ironic.

  • aethorian

    Pictures of Jesús Fonseca, including his military funeral honors*, can be seen on our screens here.
    But sadly, not on Marlene’s. Her name evokes a song from another generation’s war:

    Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate, Darling I remember the way you used to wait, ‘Twas there that you whispered tenderly, That you loved me, You’d always be, My Lili of the lamplight, My own Lili Marlene.
    Time would come for roll call, Time for us to part, Darling I’d caress you and press you to my heart, And there ‘neath that far off lantern light, I’d hold you tight, We’d kiss “good-night,” My Lili of the lamplight, My own Lili Marlene.
    Orders came for sailing somewhere over there, All confined to barracks was more than I could bear; I knew you were waiting in the street, I heard your feet, But could not meet, My Lili of the lamplight, My own Lili Marlene.
    Resting in a billet just behind the line, Even tho’we’re parted your lips are close to mine; You wait where that lantern softly gleams, Your sweet face seems to haunt my dreams, My Lili of the lamplight, My own Lili Marlene.

    *American military funeral customs are explained here. Although symbolic meanings have been given to the folding of the flag, they are not official military practice. Burial flags are available for free upon request by the families of deceased veterans.

  • pdtar

    I see a young woman shielding herself, declining to display her grief, perhaps curious why the photographer wants this shot. I suspect she has been posed in her parents house, a broken TV as is not uncommon used as a display table.
    In its starkness we are allowed to vest with our own emotions. The narrative suggests a POV which seems mirrored in other comments.
    An aside: I’ve only just discovered your site and find it richly provocative. I intend to recommend it with enthusiasm.

  • Jones

    tHis iS Teh loSe picK D00dz!!!11 i duN liKe Wut i c thare…!!!1

  • HTinNC

    The “snuffed” tv is obviously a crucial part of the shrine; an integral part of what the artesian was trying to convey. No one keeps such a visually startling (and potentially dangerous) thing in their house, just because they are poor – much less use it as a base for a “Holy” creation. A great conative symbol of anger and violence and untimely endings; nice work, shrinemaker.
    I immediately saw an expression of anger at the hyper, happy Mediaworld that totally ignores the personal tragedy, like a circus-parade passing by a grave-side service of a worker who died putting up The Big Tent – but you know how us Liberals are…
    The photo is Art with an upper-case “A”; it is permanently engraved in my memory.

  • Jack Durham

    My deepest sympathy to Mrs. Fonseca.
    The photo causes self-examination of the viewer’s attitude toward the recruitment of the soldiers to fight in the US-Iraq War and its effect on a special group of its victims — the wives of soldiers in poverty. Our brain can perform the cost-benefit analysis suggested in the image. The widows in poverty pay a tragic human cost and unseen people reap a life of luxury beyond imaginable.
    To the viewer’s right is the ruined TV set, which symbolizes destruction, and the shrine, which represents death in war. We see no visible connections to the US, such as the US flag, US map, picture of US war leaders, or picture of US president. (The photo caption tells us that the box contains the US flag.) Also, no religious symbols are seen in the image. Mrs.Fonseca appears to have severed her relationship with the unseen powers who abandoned her through the death of her husband in war. The shrine acknowledges only close personal loyalties, especially the husband-wife relationship and her husband-soldier buddies relationship.
    The ruined TV is interesting as the hole is well-centered. My first reaction was that homes of poor often have several old TVs, and when a TV begins to fail, it may be abused in an act of frustration. Execution by pistol shot is a common punishment for a dying TV. Perhaps her husband shot it, and that made it a special memory.
    To the viewer’s left is an empty chair, which symbolizes her loneliness for her husband. Not any chair, but his chair. The comfortable chair was reserved for him and she and others used the plastic chairs. He was the hope of the family for the American dream life. Now, the chair and their hope are empty.
    In the middle, Mrs. Fonseca shows her sadness and condition of poverty to us. She is abandoned by the unseen powers, she responds by rejecting symbols associated with the unseen powers, and she presents herself and her condition to be seen by us, the aware, the unaware, and the powers responsible.
    For me, the image is a challenge to the shameless politicians who are busy trimming veteran’s benefits while our soldiers at war.

  • The BAG

    Yes, the absence of nationalistic imagery (foreign or domestic) is interesting, now that it comes up. As such, it only emphasizes that all-too-familiar institutional (and in this case, creepy) green paint. Thinking about symbols, it also calls my attention to that lonely hanging ornament. Has it been there since Christmas? With the theory, mentioned several times, that the home has been “kept as it was before Jesús died,” has this ornament become enshrined also? I’m also taken with the observation about the symmetry to the hole in the TV. Is that an accident? If so, it’s a strange counterpoint to the violence perpetrated on this household. Another element that I’m drawn to is that picture frame. What of this? Also, does it feel that this house — particularly in the second image — is actually lived in?

  • aethorian

    Actually, it’s even less than a picture frame— something used to present a finished image, a moment of captured life—it’s a set of stretcher bars on which you mount a blank canvas.
    For Jesús Fonseca, there is no earthly life left to paint, no more moments to capture. The canvas is no longer needed, the screen is broken and empty.

  • http://georgejmyersjr.blogspot.com/ George Myers

    I was in the “notorious junk bond” dealers, the “Pep Boys” franchise shop having my car repaired and reading the magazines, they had the original “Low Rider” issue. In it, beyond the statement of purpose, was some of the politics of the day. The Vietnam “war” (never declared by Congress, I was once about to be drafted into) article had that, as someone had obtained the info, not available to the public, that a disproportionate number of Mexican-Americans were dying there, there was protest along those lines by Americans who wanted to know “why”. This image to me refers back to the same question. I attended Newfield H.S., in a “blue collar bedroom community” which, according to my “leaked” source, had the first JROTC Marines in the USA, the US Army one in CT, (in Paul McCartney’s managers town, maybe we had the “Brooklyn Bridge”) and the Navy and Air Force on the West Coast. “Defense Monitor” reported 20,000 of them now, in mostly poor schools, and at $1 billion a year, it asked “Are they worth it”? before going off the air.
    As a relation of a TV news producer who had his “common soldiers” view of Vietnam, stopped by “higher ups” (according to Edwin Newman, who read the letter written to his crew there, at his eulogy in the United Nations Chapel, he last “covered” the both US conventions of 1976 for CBS, and had died in Mexico)
    I too would like to know if certain types of people (like the Japanese-Americans lost disproportionately to the Texans they saved in the WWII “Battle of the Bulge”) or troops are being asked to serve.

  • j.p.

    The Shrine
    shrouded
    in Sorrows –
    Malinche of Bagdad –
    medium
    of a message never received.
    4 walls — barely.
    the center held –
    briefly.

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