Of monarchs and migrants — the arts of the immigration movement

Chalk art in Berkeley, Calif., in September 2012. (Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski)

Chalk art in Berkeley, Calif., in September 2012. (Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski)

Bold colors. Transfixing traditional patterns. Provocative declarations. Gut-wrenching narratives. These are part of the vivid images and stories that you might have witnessed at immigration events across the United States over the past few years. In these ways and more, the immigrant rights movement embodies several generations of movement-building lessons from artists and cultural workers. Today, however, at the mass events being held in Washington, D.C., and across the United States, cultural contributions might not be front and center. Among organizers, the strategic value of arts is getting short shift from those who only see art as a tactic and who are blind to its broader value.

Today’s rallies honor the moment seven years ago when 70 cities rallied against anti-immigrant bills in Congress, and they strive to recreate that success in defense of the 11 million undocumented people in the United States now — at a moment when immigration is once again at the center of the congressional agenda with a bill that proposes a pathway to citizenship. The D.C. rally’s line-up includes famous orators and musical performers, but resources were not made available to support many of the grassroots visual artists who have contributed so much to the movement’s growth. The groups working on immigrant rights in the United States have come a long way recently, and graphic artists, singers, storytellers and others have played no small role in this.

Standing on the shoulders of the civil-rights movement’s freedom fighters, LGBTQ activists and others, artists have helped to define what it means to be an immigrant, and to be counted as an activist. Through their cultural work, they have painted a positive vision of immigrants as not only a natural part of U.S. society but also a people who are living through a quintessential story of transformation. Artists are generally freer of the logistical constraints that limit political organizers, and this helps enable them to serve movements as visionaries, outside-the-box thinkers, and vanguards of a more beautiful and vibrant world to come.

Consider, for instance, the widely used image of the monarch butterfly as a graphic representation of the migrant. Beloved for its beauty and its seemingly miraculous migration across huge distances, the monarch embodies hope for those who must travel great distances to survive and find opportunity. Their pattern of migration takes monarchs from Mexico to Canada through the United States, spanning lives of several generations; no one butterfly makes the whole trip. How new generations know to return to their ancestral grounds is still the stuff of scientific mystery. And for the activist artists who support immigrants, this mystery conveys the message that holding on to one’s cultural heritage across generations can be a wellspring of strength for a long struggle. Migration and transformation, in fact, are what make us beautiful.

Poster that uses a variety of Native American and natural symbolism.(Facebook/César Maxit)

Poster that uses a variety of Native American and natural symbolism.(Facebook/César Maxit)

In the same way that the LGBTQ movement has been represented with rainbows of vivid colors, the butterfly has now become an iconic image of the immigrant rights movement. Similarly, too, the power of “coming out” is being harnessed by today’s undocumented immigrants, who are now willing to be open about their dreams of equality and justice, often at risk of arrest and deportation. Groups like No Papers, No Fear use the tactic of openly declaring their undocumented status as a way of building a community capable of fighting the fear and violence unleashed by the federal immigration system. In the summer before the presidential conventions, many activists took their message on the road with No Papers’ UndocuBus to (literally) drive home the need for politicians to address immigration issues.

The early suffragists who harnessed conventional idealizations of women to promote their right to vote, and the early ACT UP activists who incorporated their expertise in public-relations, design and theatrical performance into their strategic plans, modeled a way of building movements in which artists and cultural workers have a seat at the strategy planning table. Art becomes more than a pretty banner or concluding song. Migration is Beautiful, for instance, is a film featuring Faviana Rodriguez and others that illustrates this comprehensive approach.

Consider also a new video that highlights the high cost of U.S. immigration policies: “Ice El Hielo.” It follows in the tradition of the unforgettable 1950s film Salt of the Earth — acted out by actual striking miners and their immigrant wives and families who together took on corporate bosses in their company town in a fight for better living conditions and basic dignity. The actors in “Ice el Hielo” are themselves undocumented — several of whom are currently embroiled in legal fights of their own; Salt of the Earth was blacklisted in the United States. Even though one is a full length feature and the other a music video only a few minutes long, both are all the more moving because the stories are told by people facing these issues for real. There is incredible power in affected people telling their own personal and community stories — a power that can motivate, uplift, humanize, move to action and even win over would-be enemies.

Embracing patterns, graphics and colors of native traditions has not only enhanced the immediate experience of immigration activists and those coming in contact with the demonstrations and events, but it has also served to coalesce the movement. If you see some of the compelling images at the rallies today, let them serve as reminders of the value of cultural work in the broadest strokes. Crafting strategic campaigns with the guidance and involvement of cultural workers can do more than enliven a drab rally; it can validate the ancestry of front-line communities in this struggle and provide a font of support for difficult transformations on the path to a brighter world.

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