During the second annual “Coming Out Of The Shadows” week, Raymundo Hernandez was approached by undocumented activist Lizbeth Mateo to come up with an image for a t-shirt. Hernandez, who at the time was an undocumented freelance graphic artist, began to do some research to come up with the perfect image for a t-shirt. While doing some research, he came across various photographs of anti-immigrant groups carrying signs with the likes of “Go Back To Your Country” and “Illegal Is Illegal.”
One photograph stood out in particular. It was of a Tea Partier carrying a sign that mispelled the word undocumented. Here you had a person with a sign that demanded that people learn the language or go back to their country, yet they couldn’t spell. Then it hit him. Simply emblazoning the shirt with “I am UN-DOC-U-MENT-ED,” with the phonetic spelling in parentheses, Hernandez went on to create one of the most recognizable icons amongst undocumented activists.
Hernandez recently spoke with fellow artist and activist Julio Salgado about his involvement in CultureStrike’s Immigrant Art Portfolio project.
Julio Salgado: Talk about how you became involved in this project?
Raymundo Hernandez: Favianna Rodriguez sent me an e-mail and explained what the project is all about. She mentioned that the work was about immigration and that it highlighted different topics within the issue. I was like, ‘I’m down!’. I’d already shown some of my old stuff for a while so I wanted to create something new. That’s pretty much how I started.
JS: The slogans and posters we are used to seeing in the immigration debate are not very militant or forceful; often they use conciliatory and patriotic language, aimed at portraying immigrants as non-threatening and assimilable. How does your work try to undercut those conventions while at the same time humanizing this struggle?
RH: I’m down for showing immigrants in militant ways! I am very inspired by the work of Emory Douglas and the work he did for the Black Panthers. We can do the same because that way it creates more attention to the issue. I included the American flag in my image only for two reasons. As undocumented youth, we consider ourselves Americans. This is the only country we know. I’ve been doing a lot of research on immigrants who have gone to the military and I want to pay homage to the immigrants that have died for this country. I also want to represent the pain and struggle that our community goes through on a daily basis just to reach the American dream. That’s what I want to show in this image. Showing images that are very patriotic–well, I am critical of that. I don’t want people to think my image is about assimilation. It’s about struggle and the struggle I felt as an undocumented youth.
JS: Talk about the imagery you chose to symbolize and suggest the trauma of separation. How did you use symbols that are familiar in pop culture (a concrete wall, a prison cell) and introduce unorthodox or dissonant elements that are aimed at jarring people’s political consciousness?
RH: I used barbed wires to represent the Mexican and U.S. border. There is a lot of pain in that border created by the U.S. Showing the wires in itself is a representation of pain and death. A lot of Latinos that have tried to cross the border to find that American Dream find death instead. This is the second time I include the barbed wires in one of my images. I consider it a very strong symbol that represents those painful events. We have to bring more awareness about those deaths that we hardly hear about. Those deaths are literally in the shadows. Nobody pays attention to that.JS: Can you talk a little bit about the different styles and techniques you draw on for these posters?RH: I consider myself a graphic artist because my undergrad was in that field. I have that background. I like to use photography in my work. Whenever there are events and marches taking place, I take my camera and take pictures of the activists. I try to find images that capture that moment and illustrate the individual. I do think about the message that I am trying to convey with the image. I see that there is a strong struggle that the artist is trying to tell. My medium is a mix of photography and graphic design. The image that I made for the portfolio was based on an image of a student that did a sit-in in Los Angeles. As an artist, my job is to document these events and creating artwork that happens during those events. The patriotic colors were intended to grab the attention of people who call themselves patriotic. It’s going to grab their attention and once they see the image, they’ll see that this image is about immigration.
JS: What kinds of viewers are you aiming for with these posters? People who are not familiar with immigration issues, other youth, immigrants themselves?
RH: Well, like I said, including white, blue and red will definitely capture the attention of patriotic anti-migrant people. I’m trying to educate those who are not educated on this issue. I am also aiming for the undocumented community. As we create this artwork, we are highlighting that the immigrant people have a history of struggle in this country.
JS: One thing that’s striking about some of these works is that they mesh different issues that aren’t always discussed in the same sphere as immigration–for instance, food justice and agribusiness, or the drug war and the prison industrial complex. How do you seek to draw those connections out and explain them for people?
RH: When I explain my art, I tell them that the issue of immigration is like a tree. The trunk of the tree is the issue of immigration and the branches are the issues that connect to immigration. There are education issues, queer issues, labor issues, everything is connected. Immigrant people live those lives on a daily basis. We’re not just one person, we wear different hats. Every day. Those issues need to be talked about and discussed and fought for.
JS: Often in the mainstream media, the debate on immigration gets boiled down to simple sound-bites and one-dimensional portrayals of immigrants. What can art, particularly the print medium, do to deepen the debate, in ways that news reports and other conventional media cannot?
RH: I was a youth that graduated with less than a 1.5 GPA and still managed to go to college and get a Masters Degree. I was an at-risk youth. I was hanging out with the wrong crowd and hanging out in the streets. When the media shows Dreamers, I never really fit in with the description of the perfect immigrant. In my art, I want to show the students that come out of the hood and do get those masters degrees. Also, many of them will not be included in the DREAM Act because a lot of these students don’t pursue education. Not because they don’t want to, but because there are challenges that may stop them going to college like supporting their families economically or health issues. The DREAM Act will neglect these students. We should be having a conversation about how the DREAM Act is not fair by leaving them all behind. When I tell my story to youth of where I come from, it opens their eyes, and they can see how they can also go on to college. They too can make it.