A cadre of well-known street artists recently descended on Phoenix to create a mural inspired by the quest for immigrant rights. It was created in partnership with both the Netroots Foundation, a Washington D.C. organization that uses online tools to promote participatory democracy, and filmmakers for Who is Dayani Cristal? A Tale of Death in the Desert, a 2014 piece exploring the issue of migrant deaths in the context of real lives impacted by the treacherous journey from Central America to the United States.
The mural was created to honor the work of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in Tucson, which works to end migrant deaths and suffering on the border between Mexico and the U.S.
Work started in mid-July at the building just west of The Monarch Theatre, which houses several small businesses including Cartel Coffee Lab. The building is just off an alley already home to murals by local artists, including several affiliated with the nearby Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center — whose work includes a mural bearing the immigrant rights slogan Sí Se Puede (which translates to “Yes We Can”). Painting the mural was timed to coincide with the 2015 Netroots Nation conference held July 16 through 19 at the Phoenix Convention Center.
But work on the immigration-theme mural ceased shortly after an anti-Joe Arpaio march from the Phoenix Convention Center to the Fourth Avenue Jail on July 17, which was organized as part of Netroots Nation efforts to promote progressive politics. After the march, the building's management changed its tune, according to Desiree Kane, a development associate with Netroots Nation.
Kane says she had secured permission for the artists to paint the mural on the building from Brad Routh of M1 Management, but she got a call shortly after the march passed the site at First and Washington streets saying they'd need to deal with more red tape before the mural could move forward. So they decided to seek another site.
Netroots chose Phoenix for this year’s event to raise awareness of immigrant rights. It's a fitting choice, given the Arizona legislature's history of conjuring anti-immigrant legislation such as Senate Bill 1070.
The 2010 bill required police to check immigration status for those arrested and detained when there is “reasonable suspicion” they are not in the country legally, was signed into law by then-Governor Jan Brewer. Several of its provisions have since been struck down by the Supreme Court.
SB 1070 inspired a plethora of protest art by artists in and beyond Arizona — including Lalo Cota and Gennaro Garcia. Several local art venues presented anti-SB 1070 exhibitions. Immigrant rights has long been a cause near and dear to many Arizona artists.
When Monique Sanderson Mata, local artist and co-owner of the Creation Station studio space and gallery located at La Melgosa on Grand Avenue, learned the mural adjacent to The Monarch Theatre was scrapped, she got involved in helping to find a new location for the piece. She called on Phoenix artist Beatrice Moore, who owns properties in the Grand Avenue Arts District including La Melgosa, which became the muralists' new outdoor canvas.
The mural depicts the lower half of a woman’s face, along with the top portion of her torso. She’s holding the photograph of her daughter, who died trying to cross the border between Mexico and the U.S. It’s based on a real case, according to Eduardo Pym, one of several local artists who collaborated on the mural. Rather than sharing the women's names, Colibrí Center co-founder and executive director Robin Reineke suggests people remember that "the mural is about all families of missing and lost migrants, not one person in particular."
The initial team of artists included Karlito Miller Espinosa (a.k.a. Mata Ruda), Jess X. Chen, Thea Ghar, and Chip Thomas (a.k.a. Jetsonorama). A pair of blue butterflies still mark the space where their work was begun, then hastily halted. It’s a beautiful bit of eye candy in a part of town overrun by massive advertisements cluttering the visual landscape.
Espinosa, whose work on this mural includes the central figure, has created immigration-related murals in several cities. His first solo exhibition, “Incurable Otherness” presented in 2013 in Brooklyn, explored the immigrant experience.
The mother and daughter image at the heart of this new collaborative mural is surrounded by hummingbirds and butterflies. “Our ancestors believed that people were reincarnated,” Pym said as he began painting the upper-right portion of the piece the morning of Thursday, July 23.
In Aztec and Mayan culture, Pym says, it was believed that men are reborn as hummingbirds and women as butterflies. Both, he adds, are migratory creatures. The imagery also references the case of a man who died trying to cross the desert in 2009, who was found with a hummingbird in his pocket.
The stars symbolize those who’ve died, says Chen, who used the tips of her fingers covered in thick white paint to make them. Flowers, painted by Oregon-based Ghar with a host of helpers who popped in and out as she was working on the piece, are a meant to signify mourning for those who died making the desert trek.
The mural has changed significantly since it was rendered on paper to include a simple pair of center-facing hummingbirds and several crescent moons. The image of a mother holding her daughter's picture came from a photograph shared by Reineke. As various artists got involved, they helped to create what became the mural's current design.
The Colibrí Center actually takes is name from the Spanish word for hummingbird. The women in the mural are flanked by two large hummingbirds, and several smaller hummingbirds populate the rest of the piece. Those on the mural's upper right corner were painted by Pym. Several just left of its center were painted by Jeff Slim, who worked next to Cota and Lucinda Yrene. Local artist Julius Badoni painted as well.
Artists finished the bulk of the mural Wednesday, July 20, although Pym began painting his section the following day. It was nearly midnight when Chen finished placing a wheat paste by Thomas depicting a small skeleton over one of the birds. Once it wears off, she explains, it will reveal a mother and her child.
Muralists also added wheat paste Google map-style dots to the desert landscape on the central figure’s torso. They’re meant to offer hope, says Pym. As they slowly fade away from wear and tear, they’ll symbolize a future with an ever-decreasing number of deaths suffered during border crossings.
Espinosa says the mural was funded in part by producers for Who is Dayani Cristal? A Tale of Death in the Desert, and Kane notes that a Netroots Nation crowdfunding campaign also provided funding for the piece. Espinosa, Chen, Thomas, and Gahr were paid for their work on the project, says Kane. Many others have taken part as well, painting on a volunteer basis or lending support in other ways. Their participation and process is well-documented on Chen's Facebook page.
As of mid-afternoon on Tuesday July 28, there were a few details yet to fill in — with some painting equipment still on site. Kane says she expects local artists will be adding to the piece, which she describes as "an ongoing expression of community healing," for quite some time. It's a gift, she says, to families whose loved ones have lost their lives attempting desert crossings. "There's a whole community thinking about them and their loss, who is mourning that loss alongside them," she says. "We encourage families to come and be part of the mural, even if it means to just leave flowers."
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In reality, they may only be able to leave flowers or other tributes nearby rather than at the base of the mural. There's a large metal fence and gate topped by barbed wire that runs across the front of the asphalt lot that borders the mural wall and is used by the adjacent business. Those eager to take photos of the mural should know that the fence often blocks access to the wall.
Originally conceived by Espinosa with an artist friend a year or so ago for possible placement on a wall or in a museum in another state, the artist says it actually came to Phoenix only after others approached about the piece suggested the topic was too controversial. What locals make of the mural is up to them, Espinosa says.
Moving forward, he says, it's up to the community to create the narrative. “My work comes from a very specific place,” he says. “But it doesn’t stay there.”
Editor's note: This post has been modified from its original version.