With wars raging in the Dominican Republic and in Vietnam, 1965 was a schizophrenic year in the middle of what would be a tumultuous decade for the US. That year, great strides were made by the Civil Rights movement when significant civil rights legislation, such as the Voting Rights Act, were passed. Led by this move towards racial equality, the US government enacted immigration reform and repealed the national origin quotas when it passed The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Known as the Hart-Cellar Act, it allocated 20,000 spots per country, and restricted overall immigration by hemisphere, rather than nationality. This was the first time European nations were not favored by US immigration laws. The top preference and criteria for the new immigrants would be family reunification. This would later permanently transform the face of America to create new diverse immigrant communities.
“War Games” was shot by Mexican photojournalist Rodrigo Moya, during Dominican Republic's April 1965 revolution when Dominicans fought for self-determination, sovereignty and freedom from US influence. Moya gives us an image that is dominated by an actual American war machine, a tank that has been seized by Bosch’s constitutionalists and claimed as their own.Ownership is asserted twice as the word “Pueblo”, which in this context means people, though its literal translation is “town”, is sprayed in two locations.The boy is playing war while using the stolen tank as a prop, and he partly straddles the tank pointing an object at the viewer while pretending that he’s holding a gun. His smile is happy, an indication that he is absorbed in this war game. However there is an uneasy tension between the tank and the boy. We see the fragility of a child holding a make-believe gun in sharp contrast to the very real armored tank that looms behind him, blocking all exits as if he is hemmed in by war. The encounter with the viewer is confrontational, and we are at eye level with the boy who stares directly at us. The tank blocks out the surrounding scene, pushing nature and sky to the edge hinting that war and nature are incompatible. The tanks’s geometry, bulk, color and size are threatening precisely because the boy’s vulnerability is no match for this tank, which extends outside the frame and out of sight. Though stationary, the angle of the tank implies a forward movement towards the right, as if the tank has only been momentarily impeded by this small boy.
The Dominican Pueblo’s vulnerability was also no match for US aggression and with its passing, the Hart-Cellar Act triggered a dramatic rise in immigration from Latin American countries where the US asserted colonial domination by force. The political instability created by the invasion of the 42,000 troops ordered by LBJ, and the resulting 8,000 Dominican deaths, was the most significant “push” factor that sped the large scale migration of Dominicans to the US, beginning in 1966. The family unification preference anticipated that European families would join their American relatives and it was an attempt to maintain a homogenous white citizenry in the US. Instead, the new immigrants used this criteria to bring over relatives and as a result new immigrant communities formed. The new Dominican community in NYC grew exponentially and when the second wave of Dominicans arrived in the 1980’s many overstayed their work visas.
When LBJ signed the Hart-Cellar Act at the foot of the Statue of Liberty he declared that "This bill we sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not restructure the shape of our daily lives.” Except that LBJ got it wrong. Since its enactment 60 million immigrants primarily from Asia and Latin America, have immigrated to the US, almost twice the number of European immigrants that arrived since the late 19th century. Today, the Dominican Pueblo is the largest foreign born immigrant community in NYC and it continues to grow. This Dominican Pueblo is the aftershock of the Revolution of April 1965 and its residents are its legacy teaching us that war games can often have unexpected consequences.
This essay was assigned by Art Historian Professor Sarah Lewis as part of her Vision and Justice lecture series offered at the BPL.