June Canedo de Souza Unearths the Complex Struggles of Undocumented Brazilian Immigrants In America

In her new photography book and upcoming film, artist June Canedo de Souza depicts the experiences of undocumented Brazilian immigrants in the United States.

Gabriel Santos

All photographs by June Canedo de Souza are excerpts from her new book mara kuya.

When I ask June Canedo de Souza why she created mara kuya, she tells me “it is part of my healing process.” The Brazilian-American artist needed to express her and her family’s experiences in a physical object—a memorial that she could revisit.

It seems reductive to call mara kuya a photography book. The intimacy of the photographs and careful selection of words bare something closer to a photo album or diary—albeit one that has been curated with incredible attention to detail and stylistic sensibility. Canedo de Souza began working on the book in 2017, with images she had taken over seven years, though the idea had been following her since she was nine years old—“I knew I would eventually tell this story”.

The written portion of the book begins: “my grandmother took me to the dentist right before i left brazil. the only marker of time were the three cavities i developed in the months my parents had left me with her.” What follows is a phantasmagoria of deftly woven words and photographs that illustrate Canedo de Souza’s experience as the daughter of formerly undocumented Brazilian immigrants. Being someone who could “go between the two places” (the US and Brazil) Canedo de Souza felt a responsibility to bring mara kuya to life. “When I first travelled back home to Brazil as an adult, I travelled alone because I was the only one with papers. Everyone kissed and hugged me as though they were kissing and hugging the rest of the family that couldn’t be there.”

mara kuya shares scenes of everyday family life—gardening, playing, consumed in a moment of quietude—yet the photographs do not feel as though they were captured by a photographer, but rather offered by her subjects; this is due, in part, to Canedo de Souza’s approach of “never taking a photograph without permission” as well as her commitment to listening and exchanging stories with the people behind her camera.

mara kuya’s anecdotes read like a mosaic of poems dedicated to the artist’s younger self: “I am always trying to reach out and hug that hurt child, to nurture her.” This style came naturally to Canedo de Souza, who set out to craft a book that could be picked up and read from any page. “I wanted to create something that people would want to keep with them, that they did not have to complete, but could return to.”

With the spread of COVID-19 and its devastating impact on the lives of many undocumented immigrants working in the US, mara kuya has taken on a new layer of meaning. “Undocumented folks keep getting placed under the ‘Latino’ category. We aren’t hearing from them directly so we aren’t getting their diverse experiences and this is especially important during this pandemic. This book is just one layer of the undocumented experience. We need to make more diverse stories visible so that we can better identify who needs what and where,” says the artist, who is now working on a continuation of mara kuya in the form of a film, titled Beachhead, about the American dreams of Brazilians. “It’s a film that will shed light on an undocumented experience that is often left out of the conversation about migration here in the US.”

The book’s name, mara kuya, comes from the Tupi word for a passionflower: a seed native to Brazil. Its essence is known to treat depression, anxiety, insomnia and anger. Canedo de Souza’s mara kuya provides much-needed respite in a world of Instagram-famous male photographers wielding Leicas and trending social politics; it reminds us of the importance of art as a platform for people to share information, and returns us to something as rare in contemporary art as it is profound: sincerity.

You can support the production of Beachhead by donating via GoFund Me.