Immigrants: Art Informing Advocacy

Immigrants lined up – Ellis Island 1902

I care deeply about immigrants. At all stages of the immigration process, immigrants have been patients, colleagues and friends. We share much in common as I, along with them, have worked through the process of coming to peace with my new country and surroundings.

Though I like to think I know a lot about my immigrant friends and their lives, and in many ways I do, I have never lived as they do. It has been far easier for me to find jobs and conduct legal business; to buy a house and enroll my children in school. There are things I don’t have to worry about in my role as a citizen. Gone are the days when my husband traipsed through the back streets of Cairo attempting to get an Egyptian birth certificate for one of our newborns, only to take the documents to the American Embassy and have an Egyptian on staff congratulate him on our “baby boy” who was, in fact, a baby girl (but who would know that from the translation on the documents intended as proof for our “Certificate of an American Born Abroad”)

Because of my love of immigrants as people and familiarity in the long process of making America “home”, I read with interest about an artist in New York City named Tania Bruguera. In order to raise awareness and advocate for immigrants she is living with “five illegal immigrants and their six children, including a newborn, while scraping by on the minimum wage, without health insurance”, and all this in a tiny apartment. Through the process she has taken space that was previously a beauty supply shop and turned it into a headquarters for a new advocacy group: Immigrant Movement International.

Her agenda is clear and could be called PoliArt – that’s my word for it – a blending of her politics and her art. She wants to offer “English classes, legal help and impromptu performances” and in the process empower immigrants. Her roommates, it turns out,aren’t too thrilled. In her words “They don’t get it. They’re not very excited”.  It’s easy to understand why. As they work hard to obtain legal papers and make a life, why would she give up what they want so desperately? And of course, when immigrants come to the center, they have no use for art. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs would place art fairly high up the pyramid. Immigrants care about a place to live, food and safety.

The article challenges me. While I could armchair discuss her motives, Tania is forcing herself into a place where she can feel the process and discomfort deeply.  She doesn’t want to just “hear things in the office,” she wants to “feel them”. Feeling them frames her art and subsequently her advocacy.

As a performance artist she recently took her “art’ to the subway where she had immigrants ride the train and recount their stories to the person next to them. While journalists use the art of writing, and photographers use pictures to paint thousands of words, she has decided to use the “literal human face” as her art and tool for awareness.

Even as I read about this artist, I am aware she is living this way for the short-term. I have other examples in my life of those who have done similar things in the United States and in other countries for the long-term. A surgeon who gave up the chance for a successful and lucrative practice in the United States to work for years unknown in Pakistan, medical journals refusing to publish some of her articles because “they couldn’t be true!”. Successful professors, nurses, linguists – all doing the same for years at a time. Interesting that the NY Times has never written articles on them, and probably never will. Their names and stories are written in an invisible, eternal pen.

As I think about this artist and others who leave a life they know for a life that challenges and informs, I’m left with a mixture of feelings. One is skepticism and another grudging admiration, but the most important is a feeling of being challenged. Do I care enough about people to live among them and know their world, not just about their world? What am I called to do for issues I care about and am I willing to go that route? These are the things I think about as I sit in the early morning on my big couch, full of comfortable pillows. No one else is awake – it’s just me, the pillows, and my big questions without easy answers.

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