In the often ugly battle over immigration, culture resistance has energized the masses despite congressional inaction. 

While the detention complex continues to balloon and the Obama administration has tallied up more than one million deportations while states pass increasingly restrictive anti-immigrant laws, artists are redefining the fight by using culture as a weapon.

“Without those cultural elements, is a movement without soul,” says Pablo Alvarado, director of National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON).

NDLON is one of the most visible groups who promote the visually loud work of artists by sharing cartoons and posters in a weekly email. Over the summer, it also kicked off a traveling exhibit of posters featuring the powerful artwork of artists who contributed to their Alto Arizona Art campaign.

The Alto Arizona Art campaign has collected some 500 works from digital artists across the country depicting the struggle and call for human rights and human dignity in Arizona. Alvarado remembers the heated protests in Arizona where many immigrants confronted opposition from white supremacists, Minutemen, and law enforcement, and the negative portrayals of Latinos and immigrants.

“The arts helps you to define and capture specific moments of the struggle,” Alvarado said. “It helps portray the human face of the migrant story and what the world could be. That’s why it’s so important.”

NDLON encourages individuals to sign-up to receive it’s weekly email of cartoons and posters at altopolimigra.com and those interested in bringing the Alto Arizona exhibit to their town to contact them at info@ndlon.org.

Here are a few of the activist-artists redefining the immigration debate one picture at a time.

Ernesto Yerena

Ernesto Yerena Montejano is an artist living and working in Phoenix. He is the co-owner and curator of Hecho Con Ganas, a creative publishing company based in Los Angeles. Yerena has exhibited work nationally with Subliminal Projects, White Walls and Self Help Graphics and internationally with Galeria Estatal de Baja California. He has collaborated with Rage Against the Machine lead singer Zack De La Rocha, Manu Chao, photographer Aaron Huey and Philip Lumbang, and Shepard Fairey. He’s also been featured for both his art and activism in The Huffington Post, PBS NewsHour, BBC America, I Am Los Angeles, and Limited Hype Magazine. His is also the founder and curator of the Alto Arizona Art campaign (2010) as well as a founding member of the We Are Human campaign (2009). 

Montejano was born in El Centro, CA, a mid- sized farming town bordering Mexicali, BC, MX. Fueled by his cross-cultural upbringing, his art practice reflects his observations of the views and interactions between the Mexican communities living on both sides of the U.S. -Mexico border. Yerena’s work combines his mastery of stenciling and airbrushing, which he learned from his father, together with his own influence of street art, music, art from El Movimiento Chicano of the 1960’s, and contemporary Chican@ artists such as Jesus Barraza, Malaquias Montoya, Rupert Garcia, Melanie Cervantes and Favianna Rodriguez. 

According to Montejano, his work depicts his frustrations with the struggles of his community as well as defending their dignity and rights. In contrast to his contemporary themes, the artist pays homage to his culture by employing a vibrant color palette of orange, brown, yellow and turquoise, similar to colors used by the ancient Mexicas (Aztecs). He uses predominately uses spray paint for his pieces in which he experiments with textures and layering often sanding the surfaces to create weathered or distressed appearances.

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This was a collaboration with Shepard Fairey with support from Zack De La Rocha from Rage Against the Machine and Marco Amador from Producciones Cimarrón.


“We wanted to create a poster that would humanize the whole migrant community,” Montejano said.

Originally, Montejano was planning to create an image of a family but it proved difficult to create a memorable iconic image. With Fairey’s help, they came up with a single subject that could still represent the family structure - a little girl, holding roses, and making a fist. The image of the little girl used was based on a photo taken by Montejano in 2008 in Los Angeles.

The flowers represent dignity, the fist stood for fighting the power, and the colors referenced the Mexica nations flag, he added.

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For this concept, we wanted to illustrate that immigrants are leaving behind the violence in their homelands, which could be negative violence, wars, gang violence, mafia wars, said Montejano.

“It’s about people migrating and bringing peace with them, which is different from what Glenn Beck says immigrants are doing.”

César Maxit

César Maxit is a visual artist and co-founder of DC51 artist collective. He was born in Argentina at the start of that country’s Dirty War and trained as an architect in Texas. DC51 works with youth, local groups in the district and in coalition with several national environmental and human rights organizations on their visual and street outreach materials. He is a direct actions trainer with the Ruckus Society on strategic arts work with indigenous, migrant, and other impacted communities.

Maxit has experimented with various mediums for expression, means of production and avenues for publicly showing works over the years to explore how to harness the power of art in service of grassroots campaigns. 

“This work leads us to use the accessible tools around us, digital cameras, cheap and free photocopies, spray paint, house paint, brown packing paper, and cardboard,” Maxit said. “With a team of people, we can use screen printing and stenciling techniques to produce many prints which can then be pasted in pedestrian areas, to introduce new ideas to public conversation, to provide a visual presence to our organizing work, and to amplify the voice of our communities. Street art can bring people together to create art, spread our stories, and ignite new ideas about freedom and democracy in people’s minds.”

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Maxit wanted to design a poster that spread the word about the dangers of the 287(g) program.

“I cut a stencil of the “Brown is Not a Crime” design to paint posters for pasting and for holding at public demonstrations. One of the posters was taken to Phoenix, and a local artist realized he was looking at a stencil, so he cut a new stencil and made more posters. This began a long series of stencils cut by various artists to produce dozens of migrant rights posters in Arizona’s human rights struggle.”

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I had heard about an immigrant rights group using an image of a tree as a metaphor for migration in our family trees. I expanded on this idea by making the leaves in the shape of the United States and the roots in the shape of the world to symbolize the U.S. being a strong tree that depends on its migrant roots. Designed to look a bit like an ecological logo, it ties the two ideas together: immigrant roots, immigrant rights.

Melanie Cervantes

Melanie Cervantes is a Xicana activist-artist who sees her purpose as an artist as translating the hopes and dreams of justice movements into images that inspire people and galvanize  them to action. She combined a degree in Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley, her art skills, and her strong political foundation, to become a powerhouse “artist of the people.” Her work includes black and white illustrations, paintings, installations and paper stencils, but she is best known for her prolific production of political screen prints and posters. 

Cervantes employs vibrant colors and hand-drawn illustrations, her work moves those viewed as marginal to the center — featuring powerful youth, elders, women, and queer and indigenous peoples. Cervantes training as an artist began with her parents. She learned color theory while helping her mother select fabric for school clothes at Los Angeles swap meets, and then developed some of her technical skills by watching her dad re-purpose neighborhood junk into her childhood treasures.

Cervantes has exhibited at several galleries, including Galería de la Raza (San Francisco); and Woman Made Gallery and National Museum of Mexican Art (Chicago). She currently works full-time a Program Officer at the Akonadi Foundation, which supports movement building organizations working to finally put an end to the structural racism. With her mentor and fellow printmaker Jesus Barraza, she formed Dignidad Rebelde, a collaborative graphic arts project that translates stories of struggle and resistance into artwork that can be put back into the hands of the communities who inspire it.

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Cervantes talks about the making of “Brown and Proud” in her blog, and her experiences growing up in California when the immigrant community was resisting racial profiling, xenophobia and nativism as a result of Prop 187 as well as the proud culture of emulating Afrocentricity and Brown Pride of Black and Chicana/o youth of the 1960s.

“These experiences I had, as a youth, shaped the way I look at the world so when I started to learn about the craziness in Arizona with SB 1070, it was hard not to think back to my teenage years…

I wanted to revive the Brown and Proud slogan for the purpose of created a poster to affirm Raza all over but to do it from Oakland I knew I wanted to feature one of the young people who has organized here at home. Thanks to MySpace I snatched a bunch of great photos from the 2007 Oakland May Day march. The youth, I was really happy to have images of were, from Huaxtec (now Macehualli), a local grassroots organization.”

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Cervantes wanted to create a piece that would appeal especially to monolingual Spanish speakers. She drew inspiration for the idea after hearing a hybridized version of the popular chant of diehard futbol fans, which was melded with the inspirational motto “Si, Se Puede” coined by Dolores Huerta. 

I wanted to create something that connected a language of resistance with images that were fresh in our popular culture. The young boy with the vuvuzuela leads the march of resistance and resilience against the police-ICE, S-Comm and 287(g) tide of criminalization and hate. He leads the chant, from the rear, declaring that enough is enough and that yes we can turn the tide on toward justice.

Chandra L. Narcia

Chandra L. Narcia is of four different tribes: Akimel O’odham, Tohono O’odham, Laguna and Hopi tribes of Arizona and New Mexico. She is a Graphic Designer at Tumis and a Program Assistant at Seventh Native American Generation (SNAG) Magazine, both based in the Bay Area. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Communication Design and Art History from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. 

In her local community in Arizona, she has worked with the Akimel O’odham/Pee-Posh Youth Council as a Program Assistant and as a youth served as their President. In addition, her graphic design and photography have been displayed in Inked Magazine, Phoenix New Times, Voto Latino Website, among many other publications.

For Narcia, the Tohono O’odham Tribe, in particular, has been greatly affected by immigration laws because the reservation sits on the border. “The U.S. boundaries were drawn and a portion of our tribal land is in Mexico,” Narcia said. “The tribe is constantly under border militarization, which prevents our people from coming across for even ceremonial purposes. The injustice and attacks on human rights through terrible laws being past have been very upsetting and I feel the need speak my opinion through my art. I feel a connection to the struggles and will help in any way I can to get across a message of change, inspire action and to call attention to the issues.”

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Narcia was inspired by the many marches in Phoenix protesting the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona.

“It was clear that many coming here from other countries valued work and their families. They are contributing to the economy while the media tends to focus on the negativity and immigration as a crime. Although, at the end of the day, basic human rights are being violated and forcing people to live in fear. The idea is to “Stop the Criminalization of our Communities” and it is a way for me to get my own opinion of the issue out while, helping the message spread to others.”

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Narcia wanted to create an image that united the the Mexica and O’odham as one in the struggle for human rights.

“I was able to work with and meet many people who are undocumented and hear the stories of their struggles from Phoenix, Tucson to the Tohono O’odham Nation. The intense border militarization on O’odham land and the intense pressure on the undocumented in the city areas was the catalyst for this piece to be created. The immigration issue affects us all and together we are a much stronger force. In finding solidarity, we can fight human rights injustice together for our people.

Read this online at http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/09/redefining_the_immigration_debate_through_art.html


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