Arleene Correa Valencia Makes Immigrant Labor Visible in Portraits of Napa Workers

Mexican artist Arleene Correa Valencia thinks a lot about where she can go and where she can’t go, and about whose bodies are welcome in which spaces—especially in the realm of fine art. Growing up in Napa as an undocumented immigrant, she witnessed firsthand the wealth disparity of the wine-growing region; while members of her family worked in the fields picking grapes, limos passed by conveying people to wine tastings.

“My life has always been this in-between,” she says. “I try to be very cautious of my place and what it means to be an artist who's investigating these very specific issues.” Correa Valencia was born in Arteaga, Michoacán and came with her family to the United States when she was three years old.

'María Dolores' by Arleene Correa Valencia (courtesy of the artist)
Arleene Correa Valencia, 'María Dolores.' (Courtesy of the artist)

In a series of portraits of field workers, Correa Valencia establishes a relationship before she broaches the topic of painting her subjects. She explains how she wants to make their often invisible labor tangible to art audiences by physically inserting brown faces into white-walled spaces. These portraits, she says, reflect the resilience and extreme work ethic of her Latino community.

After fires swept through the region in 2017, ash and smoke in the air made any outdoor activity unsafe, and yet vineyard workers continued to pick grapes—they couldn’t afford to stop. Napa, Correa Valencia says, “is so rich and full of wealth, but also is home to some of the most cruel conditions for human beings.”

'Para Mantener a Mis Hijos' by Arleene Correa Valencia (courtesy of the artist)
Arleene Correa Valencia, 'Para Mantener a Mis Hijos.' (Courtesy of the artist)

Her openness about her own undocumented status is part of her desire to make hidden truths apparent through her art. “There's definitely a lot of shame that comes with being undocumented, especially when you're younger,” she remembers. Correa Valencia qualified for DACA and in 2018 completed a BFA in painting from California College of the Arts, where she has continued graduate studies.

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As she’s gotten more attention for her practice, her father has worried for her safety. “I was like, ‘Dad, a lot of people talking about this haven’t necessarily really lived it,” she says. “I have to try to show people what it’s like.’”

The two of them are now collaborators; she consults her father on just about every piece of art she makes. They developed a technique that lets Correa Valencia paint on wooden pallets—cheaply made objects meant to support goods from place to place, easily discarded by the side of the road. For Correa Valencia, the metamorphosis from trash to artwork is a metaphor for her family’s own immigration story. “I believe that we transform ourselves,” she says, “from being considered nothing to being something.” —Text by Sarah Hotchkiss

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