For a new “Migrant Stories” exhibit in Phoenix, artists are showing works inspired by time spent with migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Eight artists traveled together to a migrant center in April, for a tour arranged by the Kino Border Initiative, a binational organization that promotes solidarity and humane migration between Mexico and the U.S.
The exhibition was organized by Phoenix-based artist Diana Calderon, along with Kino board member Yolie Aleman-Rodriguez. “I chose artists who have a heart for the migrant,” Calderon says.
They include Edgar Fernandez, who grew up listening to stories of his own parents’ migration from the Mexican state of Jalisco to L.A. They walked days and nights in the desert, without food or water, while Fernandez’s mother was pregnant with his older brother. “My mom felt like giving up, but my dad told her they had to keep up the fight,” Fernandez says.
During the artists’ day trip to Nogales, they talked with several young people who’d traveled through the desert, hoping to make a new life in the U.S. Fernandez recalls talking to girls as young as 13.
“They travel from Central or South America, then get lost or trapped in the border region,” Fernandez says. Some recounted violence committed by human smugglers or border patrol agents, he says. “Some traveled by themselves and experienced the worst thing possible.”
Despite their struggles, Fernandez saw young women filled with hope. “No matter what they’ve gone through, they still want to try and cross the border again,” he says. That’s the feeling he’s tried to convey with a pair of paintings created for the exhibit, which runs through Saturday, September 29, at The Sagrado Galleria.
“I hope the exhibit helps people know these issues are real, and I hope it inspires people to create more exhibits on topics that effect our communities, including here in Phoenix.”
Immigration is clearly on the minds of many artists who do work in the Valley.
El Mac, an L.A.-based artist with Phoenix roots, has painted several murals featuring immigrant portraits. Recently, UA College of Medicine in Roosevelt Row hosted a Xico exhibition called “Deferred Dreams, Untold Stories” featuring works by DACA recipients, immigrants, and children of immigrants.
“Migrants Stories” is the latest exhibition to tackle the topic, which has gained national attention of late due to President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, including separating migrant children from their parents.
Calderon recalls the culture shock she experienced after migrating from the Mexican state of Chihuahua with her family when she was just 7 years old. “I had a happy childhood in Mexico, and I was surrounded by a large extended family,” Calderon says. “It was a shock to move to such an individualistic culture.”
Today, she’s working to make connections through art.
For the “Migrant Stories” exhibit, she painted the Virgin of Guadalupe with the face of a migrant girl named Jairo that she met while in Nogales. “I made her outfit look a little majestic, and the blue clothing reminds me of the water in the Rio Grande River,” Calderon says. Another painting meant to honor unidentified migrants who die in the desert shows a body laying down under a sheet, with a focus on the feet that traversed the desert.
Calderon chose mostly emerging artists for the exhibition, but Martin Moreno joined the lineup as well. He’s a Chicano artist who’s had a significant impact on the arts scene in Phoenix for several decades now.
Other “Migrant Stories” artists include Reggie Casillas, Luis Estrada, Rigo Flores, Sam Fresquez, Dara Handy, Lucinda Hinojos, Xylina Lopez-Katich, Adriana Martinez, and Gloria Martinez-Casillas. Sagrado Galleria co-founder Sam Gomez is also featured in the show.
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Hinojos, whose mural painted near the gallery earlier this year features the image of a migrant child, hopes the exhibition will help viewers have empathy for immigrants. “They sacrifice and suffer because they want to build a new life here,” she says.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Calderon. “I hope people take away compassion for other people’s journey,” she says. “You never know what people have been through.”
“Migrant Stories.” Thursday, September 20, to Saturday, September 29, at Sagrado Galleria, 6437 South Central Avenue; 602-413-3357; thesagrado.com. Free admission. During the opening reception from 7 to 9 p.m. on September 20, half of all proceeds from art sales will go toward migrant food, shelter, and other services.