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One Photographer on the Fading Memory of the American Dream in California

The Madrid photographer Juan Aballe describes the streets of Fruitvale and San Antonio in Oakland, California, as lonely. During an artist residency at Kala Arts Institute in Berkeley, he got to know the rhythms of these neighborhoods well, spending his days walking or driving with his large format camera in search of the remaining traces of a faded American Dream.

Aballe’s project Last Best Hope shares its name with a phrase used in 1862 by then-President Abraham Lincoln. For Lincoln, “the last best hope of earth” was the United States of America and the freedom and democratic ideals for which it stood. Later in that same speech, Lincoln also expressed his wish for his country to become a beacon for others around the world. He imagined a future in which hundreds of millions of immigrants would travel to its shores to find a better life.

More than a century and a half later, Aballe found the pulsating remains of that hope, buried under decades of hardship and disappointment. With help from a friend, a primary school teacher in Oakland, Aballe met families who’d traveled to the United States from countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. They had all sacrificed much to come here. Having a language in common helped established trust between the photographer and his subjects. “I wanted to know about their stories, and how they had imagined their new lives in the US before leaving everything behind, sometimes even risking their lives,” he tells me.

In contrast with the shining ideal Lincoln dreamt of so long ago, daily life in Oakland can be difficult. The crime rate is relatively high, and school lockdowns are not uncommon. The children Aballe met were all citizens of the United States, though the immigration situations for the parents varied. “In some cases, they still had no legal status,” the photographer explains. “They couldn’t leave the country to visit their families, or else they would risk never seeing their children again.”

Throughout the city, Aballe recognized relics of the past set sharply against the realities of the present. “I am interested in the enormous contradiction between the ‘dreamed California’ and the roughness of this post-capitalistic environment,” he says. In the pale and lovelorn corners of Oakland, he found both anxiety and loss. But he also found the steadfast glimmers of hope and longing. While out on those lonely streets with his big, bulky camera, Aballe did strike up a few conversations with curious passersby. “I have the feeling that, in general, people are happy to feel close, if only for a few moments, to other people,” he tells me.

All images © Juan Aballe

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