As I sat on the chair in Galeria de la Raza Saturday afternoon, a young man with an American flag scarf wrapped around his leg sat down on the floor beside me.
His questions were short, half in Spanish, half in English. "Where did you?" "Shoes?" He pointed to my sandals. Could he? He touched my sandals' soft worn straps and took off his sneakers, so hot around his bare feet. Okay, I said, he could try one on. I gave him one of my shoes and he slid his foot into it. Then we sat together, each of us with one bare foot, saying words the other one didn't understand, smiling to soften our miscomprehension.
I was at the gallery to see On the Wall, an exhibit featuring a large mural and video. The works, created by the Trust Your Struggle artist collective and artists from the Kearny Street Workshop, examine "the current issues of the immigration debate, such as shifting identities, cultural ownership and community building," according to the gallery's Web site.
The mural, which covers every inch of the gallery's walls, was created by four artists from the Trust Your Struggle collective over a weeklong period. When the show ends September 26, 2008 it will disappear. It is unique and ephemeral; its residence temporary. The mural's eventual demise is an obvious metaphor for migration and its attendant disruptions. We lose things when we move, it reminds us. We often do not get them back.
The mural itself consists of several scenes, some more intelligible than others. Some walls are a collage of figures and patterns, stenciled words and patches of color. A woman with long braids and a purple face bends over as though performing manual labor. Behind are painted strips of lace, mimicking the tiers of a dress. "They can't deport us," it reads in thick black type. Sprays of purple and red paint spread around the words. "1848" is written further up the wall, referencing the end of the U.S.-Mexico War, and the United States's acquisition of what is now California.
On another wall, a more linear tale is told. A cluster of cardboard houses, brightly painted and stacked upon each other, reside in a corner. A single clothes line reaches out from the village toward a gray and white ocean scene. A large arc floats atop jagged waves. Through the boat's below-deck windows, we see a crowd of pained faces. On the far side of the ship is another world. A monotone cityscape, also made of cardboard, rises in an indifferent heap. The two sites, one presumably in Latin America, the other in the United States, are drastically different, and the voyage between is an indefinite purgatory. Other visual motifs reference the tentativeness of migration. Hot air balloons float high up on the walls. Men trail behind hanging on ropes, sometimes falling to the ground.
I took what messages I could from the mural's visual storytelling. The line between Mexico and the United States has been drawn and redrawn, moved and hyphenated. The two countries are inseparable despite the border between them, economically and culturally interdependent. And the journey across is treacherous. To be a migrant, either in transit or at your destination, is to be in danger.
As I sat in the chair with my notebook in my hand, struggling over what to observe and record, I still felt I had missed something. I could look at the images and try to decode their meanings, but the translation was spotty, incomplete, and garbled. I want to think I understand immigration, that I can relate it to my own experiences of displacement. But my own journeys, from the suburbs to the city, and the West Coast to the East Coast, are drastically different than the one from Latin America to the United States. They are incomparable. And as I sat beside the young man in the too-big tee-shirt, struggling to discuss sandals and drugstores, my miscomprehension was too great to ignore.
On the Wall is at Galeria de la Raza, 2857 24th St., San Francisco, until September 26.