Cover: Friendship Park, photo by Barbara Zandoval
We are certainly living in volatile times, when we are collectively experiencing the throes of a global pandemic and all that it entails: death, oppressive systems exposed, and socially distancing from loved ones. Following the public lynching of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 and after the shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23rd in Kenosha, WI, we are witnessing more social demands to end the disproportionate police violence on Black bodies. Earlier this summer, we learned from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that COVID-19 disproportionately affects communities of color, including a report on August 19th from the CDC that points to American Indians and Alaskan Natives were 3.5 times more likely to test positive than non-Hispanic whites. As I write this, migrant farmworkers in California are battling wildfires in very hot temperatures to feed Americans during a pandemic, yet remain invisible workers instead of being considered essential workers. Symbolically, “I can’t breathe” bears more weight on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, & People of Color) communities, from a pandemic that affects our lungs to the systemic overture of racism.
One thing that seems to be forgotten is that many families are still in detention camps along the border. Because of the many disruptions from the Trump administration, the news cycle can only focus on so much, creating myopic illusion of troubles affecting this administration. More than 5,000 detainees nationwide have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the report published by ICE. Given there is more reliance on for-profit private prison companies, it has made it very “difficult for asylum-seekers to be released, detaining thousands of immigrants in remote, rural jails with little public oversight and failing to bolster medical and mental health services inside facilities.” But artists have been working on “interventions” to keep these invisible stories present in our common consciousness. Ana Teresa Fernandez, a Mexican visual artist, posted a picture of her performance “Space Between Us” on her Instagram account. Using René Magritte’s famous painting of “The Lovers” for inspiration, she photographed two people embracing for a kiss in space blankets; the same space blankets that were being given to children at detention centers. As she mentions, “even though NASA invented them [space blankets] for outer space, they have now become the symbol of immigration.” This image takes the horror at the border and bridges the artistic reference to bring relevance to this social issue. She recalls that “during the performance I began to sweat inside the blanket, unable to feel my lover’s breath, even though he was right in front of me. I would inhale & the blanket would press up against my face, suffocating & completely isolating me. My space was contained, no breath, no warmth shared between us.” For years, Ana Teresa Fernandez from Tampico, Mexico, has been creating art that draws attention to the border. Her installation of “Borrando la frontera” in the Tijuana-San Diego border received much attention and even became a short film with the same name. I became a fan after watching her TEDxPensylvaniaAvenue Talk a few years back and following her on Instagram. Her work brings forward difficult issues for us to process.
Artivism describes the labor of artists within activism. Recently, a coalition of 80 artists organized an intervention called #XMAP In Plain Sight, focusing on a “highly orchestrated mediagenic spectacle and poetic action, this project is conceived in five parts — a poetic elegy enacted on a national scale, an interactive website, an anthology docuseries, accessible actions for the public to take to join the movement against immigrant detention, and cultural partnerships producing arts-related education and engagement.” This coalition became very active on social media hitting all major outlets such as Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. I first learned about this group after seeing the posts on Instagram from Sonia Guiñansaca and Julio Salgado, two migrant queer artists who are a part of this coalition. I had learned about their work in the Spring of 2019, when I audited the course “Through A Queer Lens: Migrant Critiques of the U.S.” at Trinity College by feminist Filipinx scholar and my amazing friend, Dr. Karen Buenavista Hanna (Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Intersectionality Studies at Connecticut College). In that course, we were introduced to Julio Salgado’s drawings and read Sonia Guiñansaca’s poignant poems, and discussed how they both navigate their identities as “undocuqueer” while still being visible with their art. Now, both Guiñansaca and Salgado have joined 78 other artists and activists in this new coalition. Salgado, whose poster series “Why I Ride (El porqué yo viajo),” is also featured in Chapter 4 “The Power of Stories: The Dreamers and Immigrant Rights” in the much recommended book When We Fight We Win! Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists that Are Transforming Our World written by Greg Jobin-Leeds and Dey Hernández, Director and Curator of the non-profit AgitArte. This chapter follows the stories of Juan Rodriguez, Felipe Matos, Gaby Pacheco, and Carlos Roa when on January 1, 2010 they decided to walk 1,500 miles from Miami to the White House on the Trail of DREAMs. Their goal, “like DREAMers around the country, was to bring undocumented youth out of the shadows, protest their plight as second-class citizens, stop the separation of families and the deportations, and rally support for the DREAM Act” (79). AgitArte is a coalition of cultural organizers and artists offering mutual aid, their participation in this very visual and groundbreaking book, really points to the ways that art can make us think about change. As stated in this specific chapter, it is clear how storytelling can create solidarity, coalitions, and ultimately pave the way for change. DREAMers caught the attention of then President Obama who in 2012 stopped deportations of undocumented citizens who were elegible for the DREAM Act, and later in 2014 expanded limitations on some key aspects of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program (97). The book also has a wonderful Podcast, and Study Guides and Resources for educators.
Immigration as a tool for white supremacy
The history of immigration in this country is much more complicated than we currently see on the news today, and there are definitely many other artists that have focused their art and activism on border policies. By no means this was to reduce the number of artists, but to showcase a few of them whose tireless activism brings these issues to the forefront. The fact is, during this administration we have seen a more blatant and public display of using immigration as a tool for white supremacy. We need to remember that Trump ran on a campaign promising a border wall, and that Mexico would pay for it no less, feeding into a fear mongering agenda of people coming through the southern border as “rapists” and “bad hombres.” Once in office, he expressed his desire for more immigrants from places like Norway and less from “shithole countries.” Let us not forget the executive order Trump signed soon after assuming office in January 2017, implementing the Muslim Ban. In the Summer of 2019, a Trump administration official explained that the well-known inscription on the Statue of Liberty with Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus,” that reads “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”, was actually referencing rich Europeans “who can stand on their own two feet.” By the end of 2019, leaked emails revealed xenophobic remarks with references to far-right websites by White House senior advisor Stephen Miller. Just this August 2020 a NBC News Report revealed that in 2018 Trump cabinet officials voted to separate migrant children from their parents as part of the Justice Department’s “zero tolerance” policy to deter immigration from the southern border. Stephen Miller was said to lead the vote, which showed “a damning display of white supremacy in action,” according to former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro. These separations hark back to this country’s history known to many Native Americans when the federal government separated Indigenous children and sent them to boarding schools. These policies do not just appear out of a vacuum.
Building bridges not walls
If there is anything that we can learn from this time is that we must bridge solidarities with BIPOC communities and build coalitions together to enact change. We need to consider that the issues affecting BIPOC communities have a common thread that is often played out over time with domination and exclusion, and that stem from a history of colonization, slavery, disposition, and labor exploitation. One way is to start following activists, artists, and organizers that are already working on the frontlines, and see how you can get involved. This is why I pursued a PhD and have dedicated my scholarly research into studying literature. Art doesn’t just give us space to critique our current reality, but it also helps us visualize and imagine other possible futures. Art can be the moral compass we need, as we maneuver violent and traumatic times.
I would like to thank my former student Giana Moreno who served as a Research Assistant during the Summer of 2019 researching a variety of Artivists whose focus was on border policies.