Not too long ago, someone asked me about the “real” reasons behind my art. Was I creating art for my own benefit, or for the benefit of a movement? It was a fair question. My motives were plain and simple: I was tired of seeing journalists portray us either as model immigrants or as border-hoppers who are turning the US into a third-world country. Through my art, I wanted to reclaim the undocumented narrative.
When Sean Arce, the former head of Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program, invited Favianna Rodriguez, co-founder of CultureStrike, and me to come and make cultural organizing a part of Tucson Freedom Summer, we immediately agreed. But, I have to be honest. When I get invited to do these types of workshops, I always get nervous. You see, I’m not really trained in the arts. Sure, when I started college, I majored in art. I loved drawing. But I soon found myself one of the few brown students in my life drawing classes. It was intimidating to hear other students talk about taking some time off to travel or study in Europe, when my undocumented self was trying to figure out ways to actually stay in college.
I first went to Tucson last year with a delegation of artists that included Emory Douglas, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jesus Barraza, Wangechi Mutu, Ernesto Yerena and Favianna herself, among others. What I found in Tucson was a mobilized community that was anything but passive. I got to meet amazing activists who have for years been fighting back against racist laws and who have found creative ways to resist.
A two-day workshop isn’t really enough time to come up with ideas for a linoleum print, make the image, carve it out, print it and have it ready for a pop-up art show. But that didn’t matter to the workshop attendees, who congregated at Studio One in downtown Tucson. It was the perfect space for a workshop—the big empty walls were canvasses waiting to be adorned with social justice art. Attendees ranged from former Mexican American Studies program students to DREAMers from Utah.
As Favianna explained the importance of delivering a straight-to-the-point message—in order to quickly capture people’s attention—when creating political posters, I noticed participants quickly doodling their ideas. From reproductive rights to immigration to the prison-industrial complex, themes varied according to the issues close to the hearts of each of the participants.
Ideas for posters flowed rapidly for a reason: A lot of the workshop attendees had been involved in activism, and it showed in their final pieces. And that is exactly the point behind this kind of art. You can go to the best art schools in the world, but if there is no soul or authenticity behind your art, it means nothing.
While in Tucson, I also reached out to my friend and local community organizer Raul Alcaraz about doing a workshop with day laborers at the South Side Worker Center who couldn’t make it to Studio One. I’d collaborated with them via Facebook a couple of months ago on an anti-SB-1070 poster, but we hadn’t actually met in person. At first, some of the men were apprehensive about the idea of making art. When you’re undocumented and have bills to pay, making art isn’t necessarily at the top of your things to do. But once they got into it, it was beautiful.
Something I learned in journalism school was that we go into that field to be the voices of the voiceless. This is bullshit.
These men have voices. The things that they were writing on their posters were real. As men, we are taught not to show this emotional side of us because it is taken as a sign of weakness. But these men have so much to say. It is others that just choose not to hear.
It has taken me years, but I’ve come to fully embrace art as a tool for empowerment. A turning point for me was the year 2010, when undocumented students began to emerge from the shadows and shift the conversation about immigration. No longer were undocumented youth going to obey politicians and their paid allies. Journalists would show up to these politicians’ rallies, take their pictures, write their articles, get paid and move on to the next story. They got their headlines, while we stayed undocumented. It was to change this status quo that undocumented youth across the country chose to begin speaking out. Inspired by their actions, I began to document what was going on using the medium I knew best: art.
When racist policies exist—masked as the rule of law—we must fight them. When we’re told we are criminals for migrating, we must push back. When we’re told we can’t read the literature that empowers us, we must stand firm. I’ve personally found that through art, I can change the way people view me. I thought of this as we were putting the pop-up art show together. Favianna and I took a moment to look at the final prints from the workshop participants. Our job here was merely to guide folks through our own experiences. The end result was all on them.