Responding to Donald Trump’s recent decision to end protections for immigrants in the DACA program, a former Walker Teen Arts Council (WACTAC) member, artist, and UCLA law student shares his perspective on the role of art institutions, including the Walker, in better serving as a place where—as Ralph Ellison put it—“the interests of art and democracy converge.”
In August, I made an appointment to renew my Mexican passport, an item that lingered on my “to-do” list for a decade. In a surreal coincidence, the day before my appointment at the Mexican consulate, the Trump administration announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). Rescinding the legal status of nearly 800,000 US residents seemed to leverage enduring immigrant stereotypes against a base whose vision of American is exclusionary. In this way, Trump’s announcement is the norm—DACA was the outlier. The next day, while waiting for my passport, I began to read the introduction to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). Ellison writes that art may fill a role which recognizes “stereotypes as a given fact of the social process, and proceed[s] . . . to reveal the human complexity which stereotypes are intended to conceal.” Fifteen years prior, as a member of the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council, I was lucky to meet some artists who fulfilled that role—Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, and Allora and Calzadilla—artists whose works interrogate their place in an America designed to elide their existence.
Racial exclusion has been encoded in our immigration laws since the first Naturalization Act, which restricted citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person.” In 1857, the Supreme Court decided Dred Scott, declaring that free black men “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” and were ineligible for citizenship, feeding tensions which led to the Civil War. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Homestead Act, bestowing land gratis to white immigrants, enticing millions of Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes to the Midwest who—like many immigrants today—fled famine, violence, and economic depression. Open borders presented white immigrants with greater rights and property than the enslaved blacks on whose free labor the country was built. It would be more than 150 years before our immigration and naturalization laws lost all explicit racial quotas. For me, this was in my parent’s lifetime. For many readers, these were the laws you were born into.
I was born in the city of Puebla, Mexico, home of the battle of Cinco de Mayo. It was my home until, at the age of five, my mother brought me and my siblings to Minnesota for summer vacation—and we never returned. I spent my formative years in St. Paul: watching snippets of the OJ trial, which led into afternoon cartoons; taking swimming lessons at the YWCA; singing in the choir at the Martin Luther King Center; and attending a Methodist church, replete with Wednesday-night hot dish dinners. I lost my native tongue, became a Minnesotan, and in that way, an American.
I went on to earn a painting degree from RISD. My younger brother taught elementary school before receiving his MFA, and now writes stories designed to teach empathy and inclusiveness to his young audience. My older brother became a nurse practitioner and has delivered thousands of babies and helped save the lives of hundreds more. Ours are immigrant stories, and yet, through a stroke of luck that had nothing to do with our individual contributions or sense of belonging, my mother passed us citizenship through jus sanguinis, the “right of blood.” My experience is not so different from that of many DACA recipients, but for an accident of birth. But it was growing up in America that made me a citizen in any visceral sense. I know Dreamers who were classmates, coworkers, and artists—some who did not know they were undocumented until they applied for their first jobs or college. Many who cannot remember a time before they woke up in their American beds, in American homes. None who fit the role of bogeyman.
As immigrants again find themselves painted as threats, I think of my formative years at the Walker and the power that art and its institutions can play during times like these. I believe the Walker must reflect on its role, as Ellison wrote, as a place where “the interests of art and democracy converge.” Representation in the arts should not be a matter of visitor diversity metrics and a paragraph in the annual report—rather, institutions must interrogate how they shape the perception of often-overlooked communities. Board members, curators, and leadership must work hard to reach out to and represent all of the communities that they claim to serve—especially when the Walker touts itself as a space that values different forms of media and perspectives. Institutions cannot be neutral arbiters, inhabiting abstract roles outside of everyday politics. Rather, their mere existence may often impose or reify dominant narratives. Or they can act as a site of intervention, sounding a cacophony of narratives, revealing a complex cultural dialectic. With the repeal of DACA serving as a reminder to immigrants that their presence in this community remains fraught, cultural institutions, including the Walker, should avoid complicity in rendering immigrants’ humanity invisible.