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Mario Pina stands next to his painting in 'Undocumented Heart.' Azucena Rasilla
Mario Pina stands next to his painting in 'Undocumented Heart.' (Azucena Rasilla)

In 'Undocumented Heart,' Day Laborers Turn their Migration Stories into Art

In 'Undocumented Heart,' Day Laborers Turn their Migration Stories into Art

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On the same day demonstrators took over the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. to protest the confirmation of controversial Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, across the country in Oakland, a group of day laborers presented their own protest in the form of art.

A total of 13 day laborers are part of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park’s newest indoor and outdoor exhibition, Undocumented Heart: Oakland Day Laborers Tell Their Stories. The artists are all members of the Oakland Workers Collective (a division of Street Level Health Project), a nonprofit organization that works directly with day laborers to ensure they are not exploited by employers, despite their lack of legal immigration documents.

Through the use of textiles, paintings and oral storytelling, the exhibition’s participants share heartfelt accounts of their own lives, detailing when they decided to migrate and what they went through to cross the border. While none of the members of the group consider themselves artists, hidden creativity results in a fascinating display of beauty. Artists Marion Coleman and Ramon Carrillo worked with the group for a year on depictions of personal struggles, resilience, the desire to survive, the consequences of separation, and the need to thrive despite the current anti-immigrant climate. What results is a display that starts a conversation: about the complexity of a broken immigration system and about the historical and political reasons behind individuals’ decisions to immigrate to the United States.

Santiago stands in front of the outdoor portion of the 'Undocumented Heart' exhibition.
María Natividad Santiago stands in front of the outdoor portion of the ‘Undocumented Heart’ exhibition. (Azucena Rasilla)

Undocumented Heart is divided into two sections—the outdoor portion consists of enormous vinyl banners, the indoor portion houses the day laborers’ actual artwork. Outside, the banners hang in chronological order starting with the story of the first laborer who moved to the States. Running along the bottom of these narratives is a timeline detailing what was going on in the United States, Mexico and Central America when each laborer migrated.

One of the most poignant voices in the exhibition is that of Mario Pina, a Mexican father who immigrated to the United States in 2004 from the state of Guerrero. Pina worked as a gardener, a job that allowed him to send a significant amount of money home—but when the company he worked for enforced the verification of immigration paperwork, he had to quit. “It was last year when they started checking papers,” Pina says of the moment he knew his livelihood was in jeopardy. He found support in the Oakland Workers Collective. “The [collective] helped us find jobs, and make sure that people we work for pay for our labor.”

A painting by Mario Pina.
A painting by Mario Pina. (Azucena Rasilla)

“When I was approached about the project I told them that I’m not an artist, and I didn’t go to school,” Pina says. “But they told me, we want you to tell your story.”


At the end of their workdays, Pina and the other participants would head to Peralta Hacienda for watercolor and textile workshops organized by Coleman and Carrillo. “Now seeing the end result of my hard work, I’m very proud of telling my story,” Pina says. “I want to make sure that people know that we are not criminals. We are hardworking people who come here out of necessity.”

A textile by Mario Pina.
A textile by Mario Pina. (Azucena Rasilla)

Pina is proud to talk about how his arduous work as a gardener paid for his children’s college degrees, including one who lives with him in the U.S. “Oftentimes people [like me] with a lack of proper legal status feel like everything is impossible. But as human beings, we have the same rights, papers or not,” he says. He beams with pride talking about both the physical work he does and the people he’s now reached through his art.

Similarly captivating is the story of María Natividad Santiago, who emigrated from Guadalajara, Jalisco in 1984. In the United States, she worked in the fields and as a domestic worker. At the opening of Undocumented Heart, during a moving spoken word and music performance, Santiago sang a song about birds freely roaming the skies, alluding to the fact that migration is a natural occurrence for all species, including humans.

A textile piece by María Natividad Santiago in 'Undocumented Heart.'
A textile piece by María Natividad Santiago in ‘Undocumented Heart.’ (Azucena Rasilla)

As people walk through the exhibition and read these migration stories, the setting of Peralta Hacienda, familiar and intimate, emerges as the perfect place to house the artwork the day laborers created in their year of workshops. Their paintings show homes and family members left behind, the textiles show expanses of desert—the settings of harrowing journeys. It’s easy to see their works and feel despair at the thought of the current administration’s attitudes and policies towards migrants. Yet while every colorful stroke of paint and every stitch represents agony and frustration, these marks also speak to an undeniable resilience.

‘Undocumented Heart: Oakland Day Laborers Tell Their Stories’ is on view at Peralta Hacienda Historical House through Jan. 9, 2019. Details here.

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