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Flipping the Narrative of the Undocumented from Pain to Joy

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Photography by Leo Carmona on view in '#UndocuJoy' at Galería de la Raza. (Courtesy of Define American)

In the year since Donald Trump took over the White House, administrative arrests by ICE rose by 30 percent. The fear and uncertainty felt by the undocumented community are palpable across the United States, but one thing many seem to forget is that underneath these feelings, there are regular people going about their daily lives: parents who work hard to raise their families, students who stress over getting good grades in school, doctors saving lives and artists crafting their next projects.

The #UndocuJoy exhibit currently on display at San Francisco’s Galería de la Raza reminds viewers of exactly that, showcasing the undocumented community as more than just activists or people living in fear — the only narratives most mainstream media tends to portray.

Work by Nicolas Gonzalez at the opening of '#UndocuJoy.'
Work by Nicolas Gonzalez at the opening of ‘#UndocuJoy.’ (Courtesy of Define American)

#UndocuJoy includes the work of 14 talented artists, undocumented and formerly undocumented. As visitors walk through the gallery, the art ranges from textiles, sculptures, photography, painting, and video.

The show was curated by Yosimar Reyes, a poet and artist-in-residence at Define American, a nonprofit media and culture organization dedicated to shifting the conversation around immigration and the ever-changing landscape of America.

“In the mainstream media, we are not viewed as strategists, as thinkers, as artists, we are only viewed as subjects,” Reyes says, “not necessarily as someone articulate enough to propose an analysis of what is happening.”


The exhibit at Galería de la Raza is not the first effort for Reyes, who lives in Los Angeles — back home, he curated two other similar projects. The first one in Boyle Heights was called We Never Needed Papers to Thrive, the second installment was No Ban, No Wall, a joint effort with the Muslim community in Southern California. These exhibitions showcased the work solely of undocumented artists as a celebration of strength and resilience.

Work by Féi Hernandez at the opening of '#UndocuJoy.'
Work by Féi Hernandez at the opening of ‘#UndocuJoy.’ (Courtesy of Define American)

“When people talk about the undocumented community, they talk about fear, and I didn’t want to do that with the exhibit,” Reyes says, “I wanted it to be about joy.”

Ani Rivera, executive director at Galería de la Raza, was one of Reyes’ most fervent supporters in the effort to bring this exhibit to San Francisco. “It’s a moment to celebrate and flip the narrative,” says Rivera. “The exhibition brings these folks together to a space that has been historically about organizing social justice, and [shows] how art can change and transform lives.”

Alexander Hernandez, 'Nopal,' 2017.
Alexander Hernandez, ‘Nopal,’ 2017. (Courtesy of Define American)

Reyes emphasizes that #UndocuJoy is not about educating the masses on the complexity of immigration, or the years of fighting to pass the DREAM Act. “We put the burden on undocumented people to constantly be educating, and constantly bare everything, to relive their trauma,” Reyes says. “The audience for this is actual undocumented people, but we are opening it to everyone — the theme of trying to thrive is universal.”

Some of the participants in the show might not necessarily self-identify as artists, but trusted Reyes’ vision enough to bring out their artwork. “Maybe 15 percent of them identify as artists,” says Rivera, “they are day-to-day people who are living and thriving as undocumented in a way that is humane.”

Reyes did a national call for submissions to select those who would ultimately be part of this exhibit. The response was overwhelming, and while he expected a significant portion of the work to be about the fight for the DREAM Act, most of the art he received honored parents and grandparents.

Alicia Martinez, 'Angelinos: Rosalina,' 2017.
Alicia Martinez, ‘Angelinos: Rosalina,’ 2017. (Courtesy of Define American)

Intersectionality is also a crucial part of the exhibit —being undocuqueer (openly undocumented and queer) is not often part of the conversation around immigration. The work of Féi Hernandez, Julio Salgado, Chela Chelisnki, and Alexander Hernandez reflect this duality.

The most striking piece in the show is a video by Kenia Guillen, who documented a trip back to El Salvador, combining old VHS tapes from her childhood with the new footage. Before the DACA program was rescinded, Dreamers were able to apply for a temporary permit to travel out of the country. (As of now, Dreamers are no longer able to apply for this permit.) The video is a powerful visual reminder of what is like for someone to return to the land where they were born years, sometimes decades, after leaving for the United States.

“This is such a global experience, loss, transition, migration,” Rivera says, “how do other people not see it?”

While Dreamers are as American as the rest of us, they cannot negate the pride and joy they feel for the country they once called home.

‘#UndocuJoy: Unfathomable Strength’ is on view through May 12, 2018 at Galería de la Raza in San Francisco (2857 24th Street). For more information, click here.

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