There’s one place that no fence, no wall, and no gate can ever reach: wherever you are and wherever you came from, you’re under a single, limitless sky. That’s where a group of young people converged last Friday to cast away the barriers imposed on them by cruel politics. A group of about a dozen immigrant youth gathered on the national mall to inscribe their identities in the stratosphere with hand-crafted kites emblazoned with their faces. As the kites lifted into the air, the youth symbolically did for themselves and each other what years of immigration politics have failed to do: they realized and revealed their identities to a world where they haven’t always been welcome–and showed they were undeniably here to stay.
Their feet were planted firmly on the heart of the political establishment, and simply by being public with their undocumented status, they were taking some risk. But that was precisely the point: their kites were a protest of aerial aesthetics, demonstrating not just the ephemeral nature of national borders, but the boundless vision of young people who refused to be tethered by fear. While many undocumented immigrants have been weighed down and terrorized by draconian anti-immigrant legislation in states like Arizona and Georgia, undocumented youth have been buoyed by growing momentum behind the DREAM Act and, more recently, a temporary reprieve from federal authorities in a hard-fought concession by the Obama administration.
While their status is still in limbo, the resolve of the so-called Dreamers and their allies keeps growing, as they struggle for a just immigration policy for their communities. With the elections over and immigration reform again on Washington’s agenda, activists are watching vigilantly as officials wring their hands over how to enable millions of undocumented immigrants to “legalize” and remain in a country that, to many, is the only home they’ve ever known.
But those looming political tensions were cleared by the crisp air on the mall on Friday. The kite-flying project, a collaboration of CultureStrike, Art Museum of the Americas, and the Washington Project for the Arts (part of “The Ripple Effect” program) took a childhood pastime and turned it into a performance of self-emancipation. Some of the kites took off, others sank, but each one attested proudly to political transcendence.
In an interview with the Washington Post (which highlighted the event despite a problematically worded headline), one of the kite-flyers, Nigerian-born Maryland transplant Marybeth Onyeukwu said, “I’m able to fly, do what I want, essentially. I guess that’s what freedom is — no limits.”
The artist behind the “ undocukites,” Miguel Luciano, who has engaged activists in Puerto Rico and Nairobi in similar kite-building projects, echoed that sentiment in a conversation with CultureStrike after the launch: “It’s a universal desire and a universal right to fly free. That’s what they all have in common, whether we’re physically transgressing a border or a fence, or whether we’re metaphorically dealing with those issues.”
Luciano also drew inspiration from the process of creating the kites, which involved collaboration and discussion among activists from Oakland to New York, in different stages in life ranging from ten years old to college to twenty-something:
When we’re creating the kites and we’re connecting as a community together. That’s a space where we get to actually talk and bring some of this stuff down, which brings us closer together, which brings me on a personal level closer to the people I’m working with, and closer to the issues at hand…. But it also connects us with each other. Participants in the workshop who are coming from different areas with different experiences. Because there are a variety of reasons why folks are undocumented in this country, and there’s a lot of different stories. That was one of the beautiful things about this project, that people got to share with one another each other’s stories.
And while they were brought together by a shared experience of legal barriers, they got to share a moment of boundless community that afternoon. The simple paper and wood kites represented the possibility of pushing past their political limits; all the fliers had to do was turn skyward to realize that they could fly as high as they wanted and remain grounded in the only place they belong.
UPDATE: A number of the activists involved with this event have criticized the Washington Post’s use of the word “illegal” in the headline for this story. Sonia Guinansaca of the New York State Youth Leadership Council has posted an open letter to the Post objecting to the term. For more on the campaign against dehumanizing and inaccurate language in media coverage of immigration issues, see the Drop the I-Word campaign.