Steve Charles—Halfway through his talk to the Wabash students, faculty, and guests who filled the College’s Eric Dean Gallery Friday afternoon, University of Notre Dame Institute for Latino Studies Director Gilberto Cardenas asked his audience to “imagine you are coming here [from Mexico] to work in the underground mode—through an underground system dependent on illegal behavior and violence, through a system you don’t want but is your only way to work.”
The photographs, paintings, and other art from Cardenas’ collection that comprise “Across the Border: Perception and Reality”—this year’s first Wabash art exhibit—fire that imagination. They put human faces on complex issues, offering viewers a window into lives at the margins of survival. Sometimes startling images that first disturb, then invite empathy—rare glimpse of understanding into what has become one of the most polarizing political issues of our time.
Writing in the gallery guide for this selection from the Cardenas Latino Art Collection, Wabash Assistant Professor of Political Science Paul Vasquez says, “As you encounter this exhibit, you will doubtlessly think about the various ways in which Latino immigration and the United States affect each other. Hopefully, you will gain some insights from this exhibit that you did not have when you first arrived.”
Walking through the gallery with Cardenas himself, who has studied issues in immigration for over 30 years, you couldn’t help but gain some insight.
Cardenas pointed out one of the most disturbing pieces : a painting by Malaquias Montoya depicting a body wrapped in an American flag, strangled by barbed wire, and tagged “Undocumented.” The work is titled “The Immigrant’s Dream: The American Response.”
“Some people will be offended by this painting,” Cardenas said. “Yet to others, it means a great deal.” He told the story of a Mexican immigrant who fought in Iraq and was killed in action. When his body was returned to the U.S. it was “deported” to Mexico.
“We often ask how illegal immigration affects society, but we rarely ask how society affects illegal immigrants,” Cardenas said.
A photographer and writer whose books include the 1970s book Los Mojados: The Wetback Story and who founded Galeria Sin Fronteras III [Gallery Without Borders] in Austin, Texas, Cardenas added that he is “as interested in the artists as I am in their artwork.” He pointed out a work by Ruben Trejo, who was born in a boxcar in the Burlington Railroad Yard in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His father worked for the railroad and his mother and siblings worked the fields as migrant laborers.
Cardenas has also been one of a smaller number of scholars to study Latino immigrants in the Midwest, and his collection reflects that interest. One series of photographs by photojournalist Alan Pogue, whose work he has championed, first depicts a migrant family camp in San Diego County. The second photograph titled “Day One: Kokomo, Indiana” was taken in 1988 and shows a young mother admiring her newborn baby in a migrant worker’s shack.
Cardenas pointed out that immigration policy has established a constant supply of temporary workers for many of the most difficult jobs.
“Even in the days of slavery, slaves had to be taken care of to some extent. If their health was bad, the work they did suffered. But with temporary workers you just use them up, send them back, and get more.”
Standing in front of an early 20th century photograph of border guards, Cardenas recalled a confrontation he had with a border patrolman during his own studies immigration issues years ago. While the incident angered him, he said he is sympathetic to today’s border patrol agents.
“Patrolling the border is a hard, hard job,” he said.
“And how else are they supposed to do this work?” he asked, noting that the U.S. has developed a vested economic interest in enforcement—from jobs in the border patrol and numerous detention centers to the service industries that support them along the southern border.
“We need to move from a policy of exclusion to inclusion,” Cardenas said, recalling the immigration policies that allowed in so many nationalities into the country during the 19th and early 20th century. “We had an attitude toward citizenship that was inclusive—to include more people, and we became a stronger and better nation for it. Over the years to the present we’ve leaned toward more exclusionary principle—who can’t come in, who can’t have rights. We’re moving toward the negative instead of a positive direction toward human needs and values.”
Cardenas recalled a gathering he led at Notre Dame on the “Theology of Immigration.”
“When you think about it, Christ was an illegal immigrant,” he said. “And this is a global issue. More than 180 million people change their residency each year.”
Cardenas praised the work of the College’s Gallery Director Michael Atwell, who curated and selected the pieces from hundreds in the Cardenas Collection.
“Take a look at these,” Cardenas said. “Hopefully they’ll make you think—maybe they’ll make you mad.”
But you’ll never look at immigration the same way again.
Across the Border: Perception and Reality is on exhibit in the Eric Dean Gallery in the College’s Fine Arts Building through October 13.