I struggled in writing this post because I wish to keep my relationship private, as I think it should be. You will find little sentimentality here because I purposely omitted it. This is a timeline of how political and personal events effected my life and artwork. At his request, my spouse’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.
· MAY 2001 Juan becomes a naturalized citizen of the United States.
· AUGUST 2001 we married about a month before 911 in a civil ceremony by a San Benito judge who clearly thought Juan was marrying me for citizenship purposes. We laugh about it to this day.
“Why didn’t you get naturalized while you were in the Army? You are SO dumb.” That’s what I said to Juan while he as seeking a position at a federal facility. Normally, with a military background, a veteran has preferential hiring status when it comes to federal jobs. Juan hung onto his Salvadoreño citizenship out of a sense of duty to his roots. His application was delayed due to his waiting on the naturalization process. When he was seeking this job, I worried about him working in what seemed to be a kind of a prison. “I don’t know why you want to work in a jail. What about Border Patrol?” I told him. “No. How am I going to work at catching people and then throwing them back, after what my family went through?”
I often think of this statement, “How am I going to work at catching people and then throwing them back, after what my family went through?” Ironically, in a few short years post-911, Border Patrol (or la migra) became transformed into Mega-Migra, known by the foreboding acronym I.C.E. Juan, who initially though he was dodging a moral qualm by joining INS (Pre-I.C.E.) ended up in the very situation he tried to avoid.
At this point in my life, I had no consciousness about my indigenous identity and had almost no exposure to Xicano or political art. I had always felt sympathetic to undocumented people, because growing up, they were part of daily life. They were relatives, classmates, and people who worked with us and for us. Having mean white boys call me a “wetback” in junior high, I knew that I was only a generation away or so from being “undocumented” myself.
AN EXPLOSION AND VIOLENT AWAKENING
· SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 The United States is attacked and the Towers fall.
I was pregnant with my daughter Yasmin, my middle child and I watched the towers fall from a television in my classroom. I was horrified. What kind of world was I bringing an innocent child into?
FROM UNDOCUMENTED WAR REFUGEE TO I.C.E AGENT
· NOVEMBER 2002: Ivan begins working for Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS)
Juan came to this country undocumented himself at eight years old as did most of his family fleeing the Salvadoran Civil War of the 1980s. Recently, he participated in a study of I.C.E agents who were interviewed by David Cortez of Cornell University. Cortez remarked on how unique it was to find an agent who had actually been an undocumented immigrant. In my opinion, it’s a good thing to have agents who have had similar experiences to the people they are working with. It’s never a bad to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes.
FROM MEXICAN CHICK TO XICANA ARTIST
· 2003 MARCH 1st INS becomes I.C.E. and Juan becomes an I.C.E. agent
· 2006 I go back to grad school and Secure Fence Act is enacted
· 2007 Juan begins working at Tent City
· 2008 Construction of segments of Border Wall (PF 225) begins
· 2009 MAY I graduate with an M.F.A in Studio Art
· 2011 AUGUST Juan ends work at Tent City
· 2011 OCTOBER Bureau Of Prisons takes over Tent City
I went through most of life being unaware of Xicano art and politics and was superficially exposed to it in college in in the 90s. It wasn’t until 2002 when I met an artist from San Antonio who came to the Valley and did a workshop on South Padre Island that I discovered a whole new world. I was teaching art at the high school level and although I loved it, I wanted to create more work myself. The trouble was I had very few ideas and found nothing that stoked my passion to create work. When I met this old school Chicano artist who created work that reflected his background and culture, I knew that was the kind of artist I wanted to be, an artist that created work that reflected their environment and culture.
This meant I had to reflect what was going in the Rio Grande Valley. And what happened to be going on was the construction of border fences, detention camps, as well as the greater context of post-911 hysteria over immigrants and brown bodies in the American media. Lou Dobbs (a conservative news anchor) was my sworn enemy, but I watched him loyally every day and his favorite term seemed to be the slur “anchor babies.” In 2006 I went to graduate school to get my M.F.A. in Studio Art and began some of the first work that included subjects such as anchor babies, borders, immigrant women’s bodies and monarch butterflies. In 2007, Juan begins working at Willacy Detention Center (a.k.a Tent City) the largest immigration detention facility in the United States at the time. In the evenings, he tells me about the days. I worry about him and all the people living and working there, wondering how such a thing can operate properly for all. Tent City becomes a place I go to in my mind.
I graduated with my M.F.A. in 2009 in the midst of Border Wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley. Somewhere between discovering Xicano Art and the construction of the Border Wall, my consciousness took flight and it’s still a work in progress. Although Juan’s work has caused much tension and even trauma in our lives, we have kept our family together. As an artist who creates political artwork that directly disagrees with I.C.E. policies, I am my own person who has strong opinions and beliefs. My artwork reflects my personal experiences and I am not hindered by anyone, anything, or any government agency.
This blog was originally published on Xicana Chronicles.