The scariest part, Eric tells me, wasn't being held in a youth detention center for 23 days after crossing into the United States alone. It was taking the bus across the border from Guatemala into Mexico, he says, with his money sewn into his underwear.
It’s a summery afternoon at San Antonio Park in East Oakland, where hundreds have gathered for the annual Malcolm X Jazz Festival. Eric and a group of about ten other indigenous Mayan migrant youth from Guatemala sit shyly in a quiet, grassy corner of the park, waiting for the perfect time to start their performance -- which is not on the official schedule. Meanwhile, Eric recounts how he came to be a student at Fremont High School. His first language is Mam, a Mayan language, but today he speaks in slow Spanish, which is then translated into English for me by his artist mentor Caleb Duarte.
Eric recalls being questioned by Mexican border police when leaving Guatemala, unsuccessfully attempting to convince them that he was from Oaxaca and traveling in search of work, then narrowly escaping detainment by staying on the bus when they sent him back to grab his bag. Things got easier, he says, once he made it to the safe house in Tijuana, where he tried a burrito for the first time. Two days later, he waited for the border patrol to pass, then used a massive aluminum ladder to surmount the wall into the United States. But he hurt his leg on the way down, he recalls, and five minutes into walking through the desert, he looked up from the hot ground to find five border patrol officers surrounding him. After 23 days at a detention center in San Diego, he says, he was finally able to board a flight to San Francisco to meet his uncle and settle in Fremont.
The other youth sit listening, unfazed. Most are from the municipality of Huehuetenango in the highlands of western Guatemala, and have similar stories of fleeing their war-torn home to seek a safer life in the United States. One teenaged girl shares that she had been detained for seven months after crossing alone.
It’s common practice to send minors across the border unaccompanied, because being alone affords them better potential legal protections. But according to Duarte, several in the group are still awaiting legal proceedings to officially determine if they will be granted asylum.
There are more than 350 Central American migrant youth currently attending Fremont High School, with more arriving constantly -- so many that the school has a "Newcomers Program" specifically for these youth. Duarte works with about 10 of those students, facilitating “Urgent Art” workshops in which the youth experiment with various media to attempt to tell their stories authentically and work through their lived experiences.
Duarte himself is an immigrant from Northern Mexico who grew up in a farm working community in central California from the age of five. After attending the San Francisco Art Institute, he entered the commercial art world, making large cement sculptures for gallery shows. Beginning in 2009, however, he spent five years living with in an autonomous indigenous Mayan community in Chiapas, Mexico, learning about modes of expression rooted in indigenous culture that allow for art-making outside of colonial and capitalist frameworks.
“This is why I'm still working with indigenous communities here, from that region,” says Duarte, “to keep that link of investigation going, of how their sense of visual culture connects to social change, connects to placement, connects to self-determination.”
Since early 2016, Duarte has met with students regularly at Fremont High School and La Peña Cultural Center, through which he is funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Grant. Together, he and the students do essay writing, painting, sculpture, mask making, and, primarily, magical realist performance using self-made sculptures as props and costumes. That means walking through Berkeley in traditional Mayan dress carrying a sculptural alter covered in paint and flowers, or wearing self-made Mayan masks in the Fremont Bart Station to playfully assert their narrative and presence.
Duarte works with the students to collectively produce a visual language that feels authentic to them, and that employs symbols from their backgrounds. “Through this approach, art takes the invaluable role of demonstrating the depths of human expression while avoiding the dangers of imposing techniques and aesthetics not familiar to this particular community,” Duarte wrote in a statement describing the workshops. “I have developed a sensitivity to a certain artistic language that reflects a loss of cultural memory, due to evangelical movements, migration, civil war, and the homogenization of an entire region.
“It is bold, unapologetic, sight specific, and surreal. In the Latin American tradition, it injects magic into a not-so-logical moment of violence and uncertainty.”
On this particular afternoon, the group totes a red, 30-foot ladder that they constructed together. The decision to build it came from a group association session in which Duarte found that the symbol of the ladder resonated with the students in a particularly rich way -- evoking the strive for success, escaping from prison, climbing over a wall, and death by falling from too high. When it’s time to bring the ladder to life, the group of youth transform as well, from acting as if they’d prefer to disappear, to unabashedly demanding space.
Lining up in order to hold the lengthy ladder horizontally, the group then navigates the prop through the dense festival crowd. They swerve around a circle of African drummers, through a sea of blankets laid on out on a hill, across a playground filled with children, and onto a soccer field, disrupting a casual game of ball with their absurdist performance. It’s a simple exercise, yet oddly inspiring: A community of exceptional yet ordinary teenagers bound by shared experience, culture, and language, attempting to clear a path of survival in their new home together. In that moment, they simultaneously stand out and fall comfortably into a character carved out on their own; everywhere they walk, gazes of both awe and bewilderment follow.
“If I were to be coming from a small village in Guatemala, where Spanish is hardly being spoken, and you're thrown into a place like Oakland -- so diverse…they're adopting the fashion from hip-hop, they're kind of wearing their attempts at assimilation on their bodies, so it's very, very physical,” says Duarte. “So when we start doing artwork that is physical, where we're lifting things in a public space, it can be a very vulnerable situation for the students, and we're aware of that. But it could also be very powerful for them, for us, and for the public to see.”