Ayala: “They looked like my neighbors”


Like many of us, George Cisneros was home on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, getting ready for work. He and his wife, Catherine, and their son Antonio, then 15, only half-listened to NBC’s “Today” show.

Then host Katie Couric said an airliner crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It was too early to know what that meant – whether it was an accident or something more sinister. The two towers were still standing.

But Antonio, now a filmmaker in Los Angeles, had the foresight to put a tape in the VCR and hit “record.”

Seventeen minutes later, as Cisneros drove his son to the North East School of the Arts, they heard over the radio that a second plane had struck the South Tower.

At that point, we all understood that the United States was under attack.

Suicide plane hijackings killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City, the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pa., Where passengers forced a plane to crash into an open field rather than its targets potential, the White House or the United States Capitol. .

About two weeks later, Cisneros, photographer, digital artist, and composer, was in New York City to document the aftermath.

He really had nothing to do there, but the eccentric intellectual, armed with a digital camera, had plane points to spare.

He took pictures of the flyers that had been pasted on notice boards and utility poles all over lower Manhattan. They carried names and photos of the missing, posted by family members seeking to trace their loved ones – hoping against hope that they had somehow survived the disaster.

Cisneros, now 69, is the younger brother of Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and former US secretary of housing and urban development.

Both are grandsons of Romulo Munguía, a Mexican revolutionary, journalist and printer who moved to San Antonio in 1926. Munguía worked for La Prensa newspaper as a typographer and linotype operator. Later, his store, Munguia Printers, became a stronghold of Mexican-American political activism on the West Side.

After September 11, the connection to La Prensa proved useful for George Cisneros. The newspaper made him slime and gave him credentials. Not that they did him much good with the officials controlling access to Ground Zero. They gave priority to the major media outlets, Cisneros recalled.

Still, he managed to get within a few blocks of the massive hole, known as the Pit, where the towers had collapsed into a vast pile of charred and twisted steel, and where first responders looked for in vain of the survivors.

He took thousands of images over several days, creating a visual recording of the destruction and suffering.

He spent time at New York City’s nonprofit Asociación Tepeyac, which advocates for Latino immigrants and where families have sought help throughout the crisis.

He walked the streets near the World Trade Center and saw the faces of the dead on these plaintive flyers, some of which were accompanied by Polaroid images.

The faces looked familiar, as did most of the last names.

“They looked like my neighbors, the kid I went to school with and the guy who works in a downtown parking lot,” Cisneros said.

They became the focus of her self-assigned photo project. On the first anniversary of September 11, La Prensa released some of the images. Others were exhibited in a local gallery.

Cisneros remains struck by these images, moved by the details they contain. The flyers described the clothes and jewelry loved ones wore that day, the scars and tattoos on their bodies. Anything that could set them apart and – potentially – reunite them with their families.

It was not to be.

This is what haunts Cisneros. This is what haunts us all.

Cisneros talks about workers at Windows on the World, a restaurant on the 106th floor of the North Tower of the Trade Center. Many of these workers were immigrants, and handwritten notes from their families predominated among calls to prayer.

He remembers the leaflet pasted near an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, with a Mexican flag beside it. It was painful to hope.

For a short time, he recalls, a nation was united.

But not for long.

Cisneros was in New York during a previous terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. On February 26, 1993, a bomb exploded in the basement of the North Tower, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000.

After the 2001 disaster, Cisneros filled 100 discs with images. They are now part of his extensive archives.

They are a tribute to the thousands of people whose lives were extinguished that morning, he said.

He left New York several days after the attacks. By that time, many leaflets had been blown away and had disappeared because of the sun.

But Cisneros remembers something else from that time: he saw New Yorkers united in mourning and in strength.

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