From every corner of the country, they arrived at one of the world’s most troubled borders. Last September, artists, writers and media makers from around the globe came to Tucson, Arizona for a week of discussions and creative dialogue about immigration, human rights, and how the crossing of borders is reshaping the landscape of America. The CultureStrike delegation was a show of solidarity as well as an exploration of the struggles of some of the country’s most vibrant, yet invisible communities.
The week of events, including readings, meetings with activist groups, performances and workshops, focused on the myriad social barriers that immigrants and their communities face as families seek jobs, education and a better future amid escalating government crackdowns and growing racial tension.
For many of the writers, poets, artists, designers and filmmakers CultureStrike brought together, the gathering itself was an intellectual migration, as they approached this political arena from a wide spectrum of personal experience. Many of the delegates had some familiarity with issues like border control policies and recent waves of anti-immigrant hate crimes. Some had come from a background of activism on immigration issues, through personal connection with immigrant and ethnic communities, or through ties to broader movements for racial and economic justice. For others, this was their first real exposure to how the immigration system works or the role of immigration policy in fueling the American economy and the structural inequalities at its foundation.
Delegates and local community members participated in workshops on printmaking and poetry, they were led on tours of U.S.-Mexico border checkpoints and the humanitarian groups that struggle to protect migrants as they cross, they spoke with student activists fighting to save ethnic studies programs in public schools, they watched migrant men led in shackles through court proceedings that made a mockery of due process. It was a lot to take in, but it barely scratched the surface of the humanitarian challenges that are so often overlooked by the media and politicians. Following a long tradition of meshing art and activism, the CultureStrike gathering in Tucson planted the first seeds of an ongoing campaign to raise public consciousness through creative work. In the coming months, CultureStrike will continue building its network and supporting projects that bring these issues to public light through artistic media.
“There’s a collective, grassroots force that exists in the United States, and worldwide, that continuously struggles against the institutionalized power represented by political parties and increasingly concentrated moneyed interests,” said playwright and delegate James E. Garcia. “Some of that collective force comes in the work of our nation’s artists. CultureStrike’s ultimate objective, in my view, is to provide a platform for artists’ views on the repressive nature of policies like the state immigration measures in Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere.”
The political backdrop for CultureStrike’s platform is an intense controversy surrounding a slew of anti-immigrant policies. The most notorious of these is Arizona’s SB 1070 law, which aims to criminalize the mere fact of residing in the state without papers and to encourage racial profiling and arbitrary detention by police. Over the past several months “copycat” legislation has cropped up in state legislatures around the country, seizing the rising tide of jingoism and racial invective directed at growing communities of color. But the anti-immigrant backlash has taken subtler forms as well; recently, ethnic studies programs at public schools have been threatened in an attempt to erase the presence of Latino and other ethnic communities from Arizona’s civic life.
James Kass, founder of the national youth spoken word project YouthSpeaks, reflected on the institutionalized alienation that the CultureStrike group glimpsed as they toured the border:
“To stop at three checkpoints within 20 miles, to have my passport scanned multiple times, to see millions of our tax payer dollars spent on the militarization of the border… to watch 70 young, dark-skinned men deported in half of an hour. I feel as though I am back in Israel. I am still processing it all, but I walked away knowing that part of what I need to be working on is to make this—what is so visible and present in Arizona but is invisible to the rest of the country—visible. We don’t realize these abstractions on the nightly news and in the corridors of congress are impacting thousands of people daily. It is horrifying.”
In the face of that hostility, poet and spoken word artist Logan Phillips, a Tucson native, reflected on the importance of creating safe space for envisioning a grassroots progressive response:
“The Delegation was a chance to physically occupy some of the flashpoints of the immigration debate, providing first-hand experiences that are indispensable to the artist when creating new work relating to this subject. At the same time, as artists well-versed in digital media and developing narrative, we were able to instantly pluralize our experiences, inviting the world in.
As an Arizonan born and raised on the border, it wasn’t my first time in these spaces. However, my company of fellow artists and storytellers fundamentally changed the experience. Through our dialog I was able to see the spaces with their eyes, and I saw angles that I had never quite seen before.
What we need in Arizona––and internationally––are engaging, visceral artworks that invite the public to contemplate the more nuanced and human aspects of what is commonly called “immigration,” an interconnected set of issues that is so regularly exploited for political grand-standing and partisan polemics.”
During an evening of readings at the CultureStrike festival, Roberto Lovato, journalist with New America Media and co-founder of Presente.org, noted that Tucson was where he first saw activists planting crosses to mark the deaths of El Salvadorans and Guatemala in the political violence that engulfed those countries in the 1980s. Speaking before a room of artists and writers who had come once again to a city where violence has long echoed across borders, Lovato said, “It’s an inspiration to see that Tucson still carries the cross for immigrants in the world.”