Every young artist dreams, at least for a moment, of being in the spotlight. Julio Salgado, however, spent much of his life trying hard to stay out of sight–that is, trying to avoid catching the attention of immigration authorities who don’t see him as the dynamic, talented artist he is, but as the “problem” that’s typically depicted in the media coverage of immigrant communities.
But after struggling for years to get a degree and to earn an honest living, Julio took stock of his life since coming from Mexico as a boy, and looked ahead to the rest of his young adulthood, overshadowed by the perpetual legal limbo of being undocumented. And he decided that the only way to make his life, and his work, make sense, was to channel his creative energy and outrage into political action. He and his friends formed Dreamers Adrift, an artists’ and writers’ collective by and for undocumented young people. The group was inspired by the wave of immigrant youth activism that has emerged around the DREAM Act (the legislation that would offer legal status to undocumented youth pursuing an education in the U.S.), and all the other undocumented youth who want nothing more than the right to live in peace and with dignity in the only country they could ever call home.
Since then, Dreamers Adrift has gone viral with smart videos depicting the absurd hilarity of undocumented life, and Julio has become one of the leading artists in the immigrant rights movement. Now that he’s fully “out” as an undocumented American, he’s helped illustrate the struggles and frustrated dreams of hundreds of thousands of others like him, with powerful images that humanize a crisis so often obscured in statistics and stereotypes. He’s also been instrumental in meshing the movements for LGBT rights with immigrant rights, being an out and proud member of both. And as a core member of CultureStrike, he works with Favianna Rodriguez and other young Latino artists to build the movement through public art and workshops at schools, community centers and on the street–wherever undocumented immigrants can be found (which is to say, everywhere). So today, Julio’s no longer afraid of being found out; now he’s just waiting for the rest of the world to take notice.
Shortly after the announcement of the deferred action policy, granting temporary reprieve to some undocumented youth, Julio sat down with Favianna Rodriguez at the La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley to talk about how far they’d come and the next steps ahead.
Julio Salgado: Hi, my name is Julio Salgado. I’m an undocumented queer “artivist,” originally from Long Beach, based in Berkeley, California, and I just really want to give a shout out to CultureStrike. I’m just so excited to be a part of that group. I feel lucky and I feel blessed. So thank you CultureStrike and I hope, you know, we keep making art together.
Favianna Rodriguez: What can happen when someone undocumented engages in civil disobedience and how did you begin to work on some of the deportation campaigns?
Salgado: A lot of students were stopping deportations with, you know—they were sending petitions. And when I was looking at a lot of the petitions, they were coming up on my Facebook newsfeeds, and I was like, “What can I do?” When I was looking at each one of those cases, I was like, “That could be my mom, my dad, that could be me, that could be my sister.” So we’re all in this boat together. And when I would look at them, I was like, “I need to do something.” So I started making some of the images that people follow. It was the community sort of saying, “Hey, you know, nobody’s gonna come and rescue us. We gotta sort of do it on our own.” What happened here was that there was a collaboration of organizers and I was just kinda like, “this is what I can do. Let’s work together.” So I’m glad. I mean a lot of deportations were stopped because of the people insisting and calling. And I discovered that the importance of art, it’s not just to create a pretty picture.
Rodriguez: But also you know, Julio, this past weekend you were at SF pride. And you were leading one of the undocuQueer contingents. And the banner said, “President Obama…”
Salgado: It was like “Thank you, but… hold up.” Thank you, but we actually want full legalization. Not just your word. Not just like a peace speech.” It was just like, yeah. And I mean, one of the reasons I was like, when they asked me, they were like, Olga Talamante from the Latina Chicana foundation, she was like, “Do you want to be a part of this?” and I was like, “Yes!” The reason I said “Yes!” was because I went to the Long Beach pride—I grew up in Long Beach, I’m from Long Beach—and one of the first floats that I saw at the pride event, at the parade, was the Wells Fargo float. Yes, that was my first reaction. Me and my ma, we were booing. We were booing at the Wells Fargo float. And some of my fellow queers behind me were like, “Why are you booing? This is not the place to boo.” I was like, “Do you know that they, like Wells Fargo,” you know I was throwing down the story of Wells Fargo, how they invest in corporations that gain from the separation of our families.” And some people were like, “Well, at least they support one part of you.” And I was like, “No, they don’t.” And so I was really excited to actually be in the parade and instead of a Wells Fargo float, they had my art. So it was really cool to—it was kinda like, “Eff you Wells Fargo. Now I’m here.”
Rodriguez: Can you talk about, you say sometimes that you came out of two closets. What do you see as your role in really advancing both causes or intersecting them? Why is this a subject you approach in your art?
Salgado: When I was at the parade, when I was at Long Beach Pride, and I saw the Wells Fargo [float], and I saw the reaction from some of the queer people there, I was like, this is why we have to intersect. Because people sometimes in both groups, we’re so invested in like you know, you have to do gay marriage, you know, we wanna join the army. You know? And it was just like, there’s more than that to being queer, you know. Some of us are, you know, are more worried about not seeing our mom tomorrow than getting married. And so I thought it was really important to point out… Also some of the key individuals behind this movement, a lot of them were queer. A lot of them were saying, not only are we undocumented, we’re also queer. I think one of the reasons is because we know what it’s like to come out of the closet and we know what it’s like to sort of like have a secret and sort of find people who are gonna support you. And then, a lot of the quotes that you see in the images, you know, are quotes from people. Cause I was like, “What do you wanna say? What does it mean to be undocumented and queer?” Different people sent me their quotes and it was really interesting what it meant to them. So I wanted to do that. I wanted to illustrate that.
Rodriguez: And which closet did you come out first?
Salgado: Uh, I came out first as quee–… as undocumented! Because when I was in high school, I knew a lot of people who were undocumented and then slowly I would come out. We know that friend, a female friend always, who’s like really close to you. It was like through some female friends when I was in high school. And then, when I was like 18, my mom—I think it’s a really funny story—my mom found out that I was queer through a journal. So when I was in the eighth grade, my best friend told me he was bisexual and so, I wrote it in my little journal, and I thought I lost the journal, whatever. And a few years later when I was 18, my mom came out to me and was like, “Can I ask you something?” And I was like, “What?” “Uh, I accidently was going through some old stuff and I found this and it accidentally opened to this place. Are you still having thoughts about who you are?” And I was like, “Ok, yeah mom, I’m queer and I’m gay,” and so she was cool with it. I’m really lucky that she was. Very lucky.
On the Obama administration announcement this past June that deportations of potentially hundreds of thousands of young immigrants would be halted…
Rodriguez: You know, you shared this [news] with your parents. Tell us, what did they say?
Salgado: Well, yeah my mom called me and she was screaming, she was like “Oh my god!” you know. And I was like, “Mom hold on,” I was being all like, “Let’s be real mom, ‘cause last year they said they were gonna stop deportation.” And she was like, “Why do you have to be negative all the time? This is a good thing!” And so I was like, “Yeah, you know…” It was a bittersweet celebration for a lot of us because, you know, this is what we’ve been working for, for a long time. A lot of undocumented people have been working for the past ten years and a lot of people have aged out, you know, they will not benefit you know from this. One of them being the person who wrote that cover [referring to undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’ recent Time Magazine cover story spotlighting the immigration-rights movement]. He’s not gonna benefit. My parents are not gonna benefit from it. And so I think a lot of us are like, when we actually get the thing, the paper, we want more than just, “Here, be happy with this.” It has to be more than that, because as immigrants to this country we contribute a lot and for the president and for this administration to say, I’m only going to give you a piece of the pie that you helped cook, it’s BS. So I think we should really make sure our families are protected as well. The issue of immigration is never going to stop. I think, you know, as immigrants, we’re always going to be seen as “the other.” And the fact that, there was that recent poll that babies are now the majority of, immigrant babies are the majority being born in this country. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just want to make sure that the community doesn’t get taken advantage of. And I think right now, I’m living in the present. I’ll think about the future when I actually get the thing, if it actually happens and make sure that we know that this is not it, that we’re gonna continue to fight, and make sure that our families are also included and everything.
Rodriguez: And Julio, one of your pieces that people love is the one that you have of your parents. Can you talk about for you in particular, your family story?
Salgado: A lot of of us have been guilty of saying, you know I’m in this country, it wasn’t my fault, it was my parents’ fault. And when we’re saying that, we’re helping this narrative of criminalizing parents for being responsible and courageous. And so I really wanted to—it was a friend of mine from L.A., her name is Nancy Meza, she’s an awesome organizer and activist from L.A., and she was like, “No, we’re here because our parents are responsible and courageous.” And I just thought that was a really awesome thing to put on a piece of art and that’s why I really wanted to pay homage to all our parents. You know a lot of people come from single-parent homes, from same-sex households, so that, that is a really personal image because it’s my family, it’s my parents. That actually was based on a photograph we took when we came here to the US in 1995, and we lost that picture. I don’t know what happened to it, but it always stayed in my mind so I wanted to recreate it.
On Salgado’s response to American Apparel’s “farmer ad,” below…
Salgado: So I thought it was really interesting. I was like I’m going to recreate these images and call it “Undocumented Apparel” and have some of the quotes from different folks that I met. And I was like, “What does that mean to you, what does it mean to be undocumented?” And some of the quotes are really confrontational. Um, like the one for Yosimar, he’s like, “I’m just a little immigrant. God bless Amerikkka” (with three Ks). And they were really confrontational on purpose because if our image is gonna be used to sell shirts, we should be the ones saying how we want to be represented. So after I started posting some of the them, you know people were sharing them on Facebook and Tumblr, and I got an email from the creative director of American Apparel and I was like, “Oh shit, I’m getting sued.” I was kind of hesitant to call her and she was really nice on the phone. And she like, “You know…” She started listing all the great things American Apparel has done for the community and I was like, “I love it, no, that’s great, that’s awesome. and that’s exactly why people are pissed off, because you guys should know better than that.” And the fact that she didn’t understand, and the fact that American Apparel came out and said, “We don’t know what the big deal is,” that’s what pissed me off because they were mad that we were analyzing this image, we were criticizing this image. Like, “What? Immigrants thinking? What?” I think that’s what was kind of, they weren’t expecting that. So I had to explain it to her. I had to break it down to her. “Have you heard of cultural appropriation and have you heard of all these things?” And she’s like, “Um, I don’t know.” Then she turned it to, “Maybe you’re killing Raoul’s fifteen minutes of fame, you know, like why are you… Maybe he feels happy to be on the cover of…” I was like, “Have you asked Raoul how he feels? Have you talked to him?” And I was like, “How was he involved in the whole process?” And she was like, “Well, he shows the shirt.” And I was like, “whatever.” So she was like “What do you want?” I mean I wasn’t asking for anything. They were like, “We’ll re-print the shirts,” and I was like “No, you should apologize to people and say that you messed up and you know, sort of like recover your street cred” but they never did so I’m gonna keep making them.
Rodriguez: Well thank you, Julio.
Video edited by Lali Foster, a new media intern at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.