For the 16th anniversary of the Public Art Network Year in Review, we offered the selected applicants and artists the opportunity to tell us the stories behind their works. This week's blog salon features the stories behind some of the most compelling public art projects completed in 2015.
For more than seven years, I have worked closely with South Philadelphia's Mexican immigrant families in supporting them in sharing their stories through several public art projects. I established strong relationships with community members, cultural leaders and organizations including Juntos, a community-led, Latinx immigrant organization in South Philadelphia.
It was through my work in Mexico as a U.S. Cultural Envoy and my past independent projects that I felt it was necessary to tell the stories of the impact of immigration in our communities living in the east coast. In 2012, my transnational mural entitled “Aquí y Allá” connected Mexican immigrant youth in Philadelphia and in Chihuahua, Mexico. The project demonstrated how immigration impacts the family dynamic creating a division that emotionally and physically disconnects the youth with the land, culture and traditions of their parents.
Most of the teens that participated in the project were left behind as their parents left to cross over to the United States. The family dynamic shifts when the parents become providers and strangers to their own children left in Mexico. Immigration impacts not just those that have decided to leave but also those that are left behind. Once that teen is reunited with their family in the U.S. they must learn how to heal their relationship with their parents, learn a new language, and navigate in the social structures set in this new country. That is a lot for a teenager to bear—then, add the fear of deportation to the mix.
This was one of the reasons that led me to create my “Familias Separadas” project, a series of temporary site-specific public art works marking the locations and documenting stories of immigrant families affected by deportations in the city of Philadelphia. The immigrant families involved in the project see Philadelphia as a safe haven, where their children will grow to be the next generation of Philadelphians (like myself/a child of immigrants) that will contribute to the livelihood and fabric of our city. Philadelphia is a sanctuary for immigrants and honoring their contributions to the growth of the city is crucial especially during the current national anti-immigrant climate. For these reasons, this project is important because it offers a platform to tell the stories of our undocumented immigrant communities that are often unheard in mainstream media.
For over a year and a half, I worked with undocumented youth and families in partnership with Juntos. I collected audio stories from undocumented families that reveal the moment their loved ones were deported and how their lives changed before and after deportation. Several times I had to rearrange the structure of my workshops and sessions to accommodate the working schedules of the families and to gain trust with the interviewees that were courageous in sharing their stories. In the artworks, I wanted to shift the focus from the statistics and numbers of people that have been deported and have others see the individual father, mother, or brother who has been torn apart from their families. The temporary image that eventually faded reflects the fading presence of the person who has been deported. My intention was to bring the stories of the deported back to the places where they worked, dreamed, and loved, and have other see the humanity that lies there.
In October 2015, I installed five large-scale artworks representing the stories of each family that were then placed in key locations in Philadelphia. Each temporary work of art is accompanied by an audio story and was either digitally produced or created using large-scale stencils depicting portraits, images, and text based on the personal stories I collected. The project was highlighted as part of the Open Source city-wide project led by curator Pedro Alonzo and the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.
The key locations were both highly visible in the city and in the neighborhoods where the participating families live. I walked through the streets day by day and selected each site for a particular reason.
Philadelphia’s City Hall Courtyard, which marks the center point of the city, had the image of Maria standing in front of the statue of William Penn. Her portrait sat in the center of the painted Compass Rose that served as a symbol of searching for a new destination, a new place to call home.
Maria's husband lived in Philadelphia and was deported. He attempted to cross the border again to be reunited with his family. He was caught by ICE in Texas and now has 6 months left in his 3-year jail sentence in California. Once his sentence is over, he will be sent back to Mexico. Maria continues to live in Philadelphia and has five children that she is taking care of. She speaks about the difficulty of making the decision to stay or leave to Mexico to be reunited with her husband. Click here to listen to Maria's story in English.
LOVE Park is filled with tourists taking selfies and families playing around the fountain. The famous LOVE statue by Robert Indiana served as a perfect juxtaposition to my installed work “Te Amo” (I Love You) which represents the story of Suyapa, a Honduran undocumented mother. Suyapa proudly wears this gold necklace on her chest. It is a memory of her oldest daughter that she carries with her. Suyapa left Honduras fleeing violence, crossed the border with her two youngest daughters, was detained in Texas, and is now fighting deportation proceedings in Philadelphia. Suyapa speaks about love and what happens to love when you leave or are forced to leave. Click here to listen to Suyapa's story in English.
The 9th Street Market is a place that was built by immigrants and continues to provide work and opportunities for (Irish, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican) immigrant families, including my own. The portrait of Cruz was installed on the streets where he rides his bicycle to work every day. Due to the financial needs of his family, he left his home in Mexico at age 14 to be on his own and start working. He has worked hard for 20-plus years in the United States. While working one day, he was detained by ICE, completed his 4-month probation, and had to report himself for one full year to their offices. In his interview, he spoke about how this city was a symbol of freedom and now it feels more like a prison.
I would say that the most compelling moment of the project happened on Monday, October 12, 2015. At 7 p.m., I led a group of undocumented families from Juntos and volunteers to install a 90 foot long stencil in front of the Immigrations Customs Enforcement building on 16th and Callowhill Streets. The journey to get to this moment was a long one that consisted of my persistence with the help of Juntos and the Mural Arts Program to obtain permission from the Mayor and Streets Commissioner to install this artwork. It was essential that I receive the proper permission to install the works for various reasons. As an artist working in communities, I am not just responsible for my safety, but for the safety of the community that is working alongside me. For many of the undocumented families that participated that day, the ICE building is a place of fear. It is a place that does not value their struggle, their love, or their reasons for leaving their country. I needed the support from the city to ensure that their safety was guaranteed during the installation of the artwork.
It was at this very place, this symbol of fear, that 30 community members and I fearlessly installed the words of Ana, an undocumented mother fighting her deportation.
The words of Ana, “We are human beings, risking our lives, for our families and our future,” connect to the more than 2 million families that have been deported in the last four years in the United States. Two of the participants from my “Familias Separadas” project were detained at the Berks Detention Center, a family prison located a few minutes away from Philadelphia. Recently, 22 mothers currently detained at the Berks Detention Center—some for more than a year—began a hunger strike to protest their continued detention.
It is because of these reasons that it is necessary for me to continue my “Familias Separadas” project to tell these stories across the nation. Since October, I continue to support Juntos in their current fight to shut down the Berks Detention Center and recently led a creative action during their march for immigrant rights at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Public art can serve as a platform to educate, create awareness, and to inspire action. As an artist working in communities for more than 15 years, I believe that when we decide to write and tell our own stories and create the images that are true reflections of who we decide we are—those are revolutionary acts. I don't label my work as artivism, but I do believe that my duty as an artist is to not ignore what is happening around me. My truth is to create art that is both poetic and powerful, and that speaks to social issues that I and/or the communities I work with encounter.
Hear the interviews and learn more about the “Familias Separadas” project here.