America Needs an Immigration Reality Check — and Artists are Leading the Way
Gabriela Muñoz and M. Jenea Sanchez, “Labor,” 2018, serigraph on Mexican handmade
bricks; live durational performance at SMoCA. Courtesy of the artists.
Recent events nearly propelled conversations about immigration into oblivion. New January 6 revelations, the Kyle Rittenhouse victory lap, negotiations over infrastructure. Then, more than two dozen migrants tragically drowned while crossing the English Channel, and the issue that dominated Donald Trump’s political tenure returned, however briefly, to popular discourse.
Trump announced his White House bid in June of 2015 by riding down an escalator and ratcheting up the fear factor. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” That’s how he described Mexicans coming across the border into the United States, signaling the dark obsession at the center of his dangerous rhetoric and actions: hatred of the so-called other.
Annie Lopez, "Official Proof,” mixed media
assemblage. Courtesy of the artist.
The identity of the other has assumed different forms within the contemporary political landscape, especially as the cult of Trumpism has coalesced around the “Big Lie” told by those who imagine he won the 2020 election and those who simply go along lest they get relegated to the heap of discarded “others.” Revealing and countering the Big Lie is essential, but there’s peril in making it a singular focus, just as there’s risk in relying on the chattering political class to make change happen.
As pundits perform rhetorical reality checks involving the presidential election and the devastation wrought by Covid-19, it’s imperative that the same rigor be applied to immigration-related issues, because the democracy Americans insist we hold dear cannot exist without immigrants. They’ve long formed the fabric of American society, as evidenced by the many compelling bodies of work created by artists with immigrant roots — including, but hardly limited to those working in states along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Annie Lopez, a fourth-generation Arizonan, sews garments made with cyanotype photographs on tamale paper, included images of naturalization papers for her maternal grandparents, in her “Naturalized Citizen” dress that’s part of the Phoenix Art Museum’s collection. When ASU Art Museum at Arizona State University presented a solo exhibition featuring works by Liz Cohen in early 2021, it included the artist’s “Trabantamino” (2002-2011), a custom-built lowrider referencing her immigrant roots and hybridized identity.
Apart from Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose musical about immigrant native of what was then the British West Indies Alexander Hamilton became a pop culture sensation soon after opening on Broadway in 2015, artists exploring immigrant experiences aren’t plastered all over the mainstream media. People are chasing reality elsewhere, whether through religion, gun culture, or technology. Or they’re looking to avoid it altogether. But that doesn’t diminish the essential role of artists, particularly those who draw on their own immigrant experiences.
Margarita Cabrera, "Space in Between – Nopal,” 2010, Border patrol uniform
fabric, copper wire, thread and terra cotta pot, 36 x 26 x 28”. Photo: Lynn Trimble.
Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Margarita Cabrera moved with her family to El Paso, Texas as a child. Today she’s based in Arizona, where she’s shown cactus forms created with border patrol agent uniforms and other textiles. Gloria Martinez-Granados incorporated her own Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) paperwork into a 2020 “Good Trouble Bucket” collaboration with Joan Baron, which paid homage to civil rights icon John Lewis. For Diana Calderón, using materials sourced from Mexico and the U.S. has been a way to address her immigrant identity. In each case, immigrants are humanized, suggesting a way forward without hate.
Of course, migration also happens far beyond the Southern U.S. border. Today the international community is witnessing a crisis involving migrants stranded at the border between Belarus and Poland. Long after this particular headline fades from view, artists will still be making work that goes beyond America’s geopolitical narcissism. For Liberian-American artist Papay Solomon, it takes the form of hyperrealist portraits of African immigrants. Pakistani-American artist Safwat Saleem’s mixed media pieces highlight bigotry and stereotypes deeply imbedded in American culture.
As the great American reality check rolls on, facing stiff opposition from those who favor banning books and protecting monuments to oppressors, diverse artists’ voices are bringing greater depth and breadth to considerations of immigrant experiences and public policy implications.
Julio César, neon work featured in "were-:Nenetech
Forms" at MoCA Tuson. Photo: Lynn Trimble.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson, two exhibitions set the topic of migration within a far-reaching context. Both model the sort of collaboration that’s so antithetical to the anti-immigrant zeitgeist, but absolutely necessary to democracy’s survival. “Mujeres Nourishing Fronterizx Bodies: Resistance in the Time of COVID-19” explores the cross-border collaborations between two collectives. Meanwhile, the group exhibition “were-:Nenetech Forms,” developed by Los Angeles-based artists rafa esparza and Timo Fahler, considers settler colonialism and the experience of living along a militarized border. Their voices are powerful.
But these artists can’t affect the monumental shift needed in U.S. immigration practices on their own.
Everyone with immigrant roots needs to be telling their own story, using their own experiences and dreams as the canvas for America’s evolving self-portrait. For most, it won’t garner a hit Netflix series or an exhibition at MoMA in New York. But it can help tip the country’s scales away from fascism. It happened just over a decade ago in Arizona, when artists opposing that state’s controversial “papers please” law, SB 1070, protested by making art and taking to the streets. Zarco Guerrero protested by making masks depicting then-Governor Jan Brewer and former Maricopa County Sheriff and convicted felon Joe Arpaio. Lalo Cota painted murals that transformed sombrero hats into alien flying saucers.
Then, as now, artists delivered highly effective reality testing. But the stakes are higher today, as Trump and his acolytes are poised to deceive American democracy right out of existence.