Caught Our Eyes: The Ramirez Family Farm

Brett Carnell, Head of the Prints & Photographs Division Technical Services section, explains what caught his attention about a photo he added to our local picture “sharing” wall.

This photograph of the Ramirez family first caught my eye because it reminded me of my youth.  I was raised in the rural West where semi-arid farming had been a part of life and it was not uncommon to see old horse-drawn farming equipment, recently abandoned, alongside a tractor. The laundry hanging on the clothesline next to the Ramirez family home and the detritus that accumulates around an active farmstead gave me a sense of nostalgia. But at the same time something about the photo made me uneasy.

Manuel Ramiriz [i.e., Ramirez] and members of his family in front of their home in Texas ... Photo by United States Information Agency, ca. 1952. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.17378

Manuel Ramiriz [i.e., Ramirez] and members of his family in front of their home in Texas … Photo by United States Information Agency, ca. 1952. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.17378

On first glance the photo of Manuel Ramirez and his family felt a little disorienting and I looked closer to try to understand why. The photograph oddly shows the focal point of the image, the Ramirez family, in the lower left corner posed standing in the weeds next to the road. The photographer shoots from an elevated angle that creates a looming feeling. The two smallest children look directly at the photographer with wary expressions. Mr. Ramirez and the woman next to him, along with the tallest boy, direct their smiles toward the right as if they are posing for a different photograph or watching something humorous passing along the road. The woman on the right looks toward the others as if laughing. A kitten scampers away. All of these details create an ambiguous, confused scene.

After looking at the picture I read the United States Information Agency (USIA) caption on the back. “Manuel Ramiriz [sic] (left) and members of his family, who are of Mexican descent and are now residing in the United States, are shown in front of their home in the State of Texas. Many structures like these will be torn down to make way for the dam project. A new housing development a few miles away will provide the family with a modern home.” (The family name given in the caption as “Ramiriz” seems more likely to be “Ramirez,” as Manuel Ramirez, along with other residents of Zapata County are listed as petitioners in Senate Hearings in 1951 related to the relocation.)

Within a couple of years this landscape would be under Lake Falcon. I read the wary expressions and the smiles of the family members as representations of the mixed feelings relocation brings.

The photo is part of a set of nine titled “Mexican family uprooted as a result of water project” and credited in the USIA photographer logbook at the National Archives to U.S. State Department photographer “Ramsay”; an archivist in the Still Picture Branch thought it likely that this was a misspelling of the surname of photographer Carolyn Ramsey. USIA issued the photos as a picture story “Mexico and United States harness Rio Grande” around 1952 to promote the US/Mexican joint development of the Rio Grande to take advantage of the river water for irrigation, hydroelectric plants, recreation and flood control.

Learn More

  • Photos from USIA Picture Story No. 368 came to the Library of Congress as a transfer from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1953 and were cataloged as P&P LOT 6464. Have a look at the description for LOT 6464 and the portion of the group that has been digitized (because we’re still tracing the photographer for some of the photos and USIA was known to purchase commercial photos for some of their stories, not all of the images currently expand to larger images off site).
  • The Historic American Buildings Survey compiled documentation on the Falcon Village Administration Building, the project field office during the construction of the dam and power plants from 1951 to 1953. Although the photographs from the survey have not yet been digitized, the textual documentation accounts for the significance of the project. View the description of the survey, with its linked documentation.
  • Looking into the background of this photo offered a good reminder that all types of documentation, including captions and logbooks, can contain misspellings and inaccuracies that challenge the researcher–a topic of one of our early blog posts, “A Closer Look: Beware of Photos Bearing False Captions.”
  • The bulk of the records of the United States Information Agency, a federal agency that dissolved in 1999, are at the National Archives. Browse online materials from the agency that can be viewed in the National Archives catalog.
  • The USIA photo caption mentions the Mexican heritage of the Ramirez family. See the National Hispanic American Heritage Month site for more digitized content about the contributions and experiences of Hispanic Americans.
  • And here’s a challenge for some close looking: Can you find the Ramirez family dog in the picture?

2 Comments

  1. Sharon M.
    October 3, 2019 at 7:08 pm

    The dog’s in the middle of the picture, over thew head of the woman on the right. You’re right–it looks odd! Shouldn’t THAT be the focal point? Well, not necessarily, but still…

  2. Carl Fleischhauer
    October 8, 2019 at 1:08 pm

    Great to see! Another interesting little-known collection brought to light. As a photographer, my reading is that (probably) Carolyn Ramsey came with another person, probably someone associated with the project. When visiting the Ramirez family, Ramsey climbed up on the vehicle or a ladder (if handy) in order to compose an image that clearly depicted both people and house (and cat, and dog). Meanwhile, the other person chatted with family, maybe made a wisecrack, and provoked some smiles and laughter. The family’s pose and gaze favors this other person (assuming I am correct) rather than the photographer. I would not be surprised to find that the image set from that day includes one or more other exposures — never printed and presented to Senate committee — with the family posed in a more expected way, looking at the photographer, but with far less lively facial expressions. If my guess is correct, those pictures are on the cutting room floor.

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