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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

essay by Jesus Macarena-Avila


by Jesus Macarena-Avila

I. “Pilsen, Polvo, and the Immigration Rights Movement”

“By a vote of 80 to 19, late on Sept. 29th, 2006, the Senate confirmed a House bill authorizing, and partially funding the "possible" construction of 700 miles of physical fence/barriers along the border. The very broad support implies that many assurances have been made by the Administration, to the Democrats, Mexico, and the pro "Comprehensive immigration reform" minority within the GOP, that Homeland Security will proceed very cautiously.” -- John Barry 1

Last October 2006 I was invited to participate with South Project’s 2006 symposium and conference in Santiago, Chile. I was to represent an alternative cultural space called Polvo on a panel event to discuss the topic of “exile”. 2 Polvo was founded by Miguel Cortez (born in Mexico), Elvia Rodriguez-Ochoa (born in Mexico) and myself, and we are situated in the largest Latin American immigrant community in the city of Chicago. The three of us represents artists whose work for last ten years has not been fully recognised in Chicago, only recently, Polvo has gotten some attention from the mainstream Chicago art world. For ten years, we had mostly straddled networks outside of the United States (US) and beyond Chicagoland area. Part of this is that we represent not the mainstream artistic community,but we are pretty much grounded in Polvo’s surrounding community.

Polvo is in an area called Lower West Side, one of the neighbourhoods is known to most Chicago residents as “Pilsen” which had a large Czech community until Mexican immigrants began in the early 1950’s. 3 Nowadays, most Pilsen residents know it as “La Diesiocho” which means “18” since the largest main street is “18th Street”. Polvo had been situated there since 1996, we mounted exhibitions of issues pertaining to immigrants and Latin America. From our exhibitions being displayed in non-traditional spaces like coffee shops and people’s homes, we began to get noticed by Pilsen’s older generation of Latino/a activist circles. In 1996, we developed a website and “zine” covered in a multi-language format and we called it “Polvo”. It called local submissions (both offline and online communities) for critical thinking, artwork images and creative writings as devising a healthy network away from Chicago’s mainstream artistic community.

As Polvo, we were working as a “collective”, a word coming from “colectivo” (in Spanish), we felt that the mainstream art scene was a not receptive to the type of cultural production we performing in the Pilsen community. In today’s current affairs, Pilsen is undergoing a huge transformation due to urban gentrification. 4 We are maintaining a balance of community-based activism and cultural programmes with no funding, just hard work and commitment. Now we function out of a stable space since 2003, what was once a storage room for a candy store is presently an experimental “project” space. This humble space has become an epicenter for artistic experimenting combined with the idea of social concerns in contemporary art practices. Transnationalism is something that is very important to Polvo, because “networks” amongst critical thinkers, educators and artists can cause new ways of approaching and changes present social attitudes from within and outside of Chicago’s art world.

During the time I was preparing to attend the South Project event in Chile, I was coordinating three projects for Polvo one of them was an exhibition of new work by Melbourne based artist, Michael Capapas. In 2004, I had met Capapas during my residency with the former Hydra Studios programme at the Footscray Community Art Centre, with my exhibition curated by Carmen Grostal. 5 My personal experience interacting with Australian-Asian artistic communities, I saw connections in relation to immigrant experience in the US. My experience as cultural worker outside of the mainstream, doing invaluable cultural work in between the arts and community, I saw parallels in the implications of geographic borders such as the coasts of Australia and the two borders (north and south) between Canada, Mexico, and US. Capapas said in his artist statement for the Polvo media release: "It is probably because a large part of my life has been spent living in places where I felt I did not belong. Being an immigrant from the North, I have been a stranger in the South."

Border crossing experiences translate differently between Australia and US, many immigrants have braved the sea to arrive on the shores of Australia, many deaths go unnoticed similar to the many undocumented deaths of people braving the US/ Mexico borders. 6 I remember stories from mother about her despair and fear when she was crossing the border from Mexico into the state of Texas. She wondered what waits for her, in a pursuit of the “American Dream”, my father expecting her in Texas. They both were very young, lived out in the range and staying nights at different homes until they had reached their destination. It reminded me of the stories I heard from Vietnamese artists in Footscray, a west suburb of Melbourne. Their narratives of families waiting for loved ones to arrive to Australia. We shared our stories and found some connections because migrations of people all over the globe carry those stories very close to their hearts. They reflect courage and bravery that go beyond adversity for what most people strive for: quality of life.

Since 2006, immigration reform has been a hot topic in the mainstream US media and for many undocumented communities, mostly from Mexico, Latin America, and Caribbean. As the Bush Administration continues with their endless war with Iraq are now persecuting “illegal aliens” by trying to secure its borders from possible threats. In Chicago, which sometimes is known as the “city of broad shoulders”, has a long history with immigrant communities. Chicago has a large pockets of undocumented communities as hardworking laborers and Bush’s recent raids, sanctions and deportation of many undocumented workers has now caused damage to many working class households where their children has US citizenship by birth.

What stands in front as a form of agency for social change has been recent Chicago’s mobilizations of immigrants, undocumented workers, churches, social service organizations, etc. whom made history last Spring 2006. Thousands of protesters participated in an event called the “March 10th” March”. It was the stepping stone of what is now called the “Immigrant Rights Movement”. This movement is on the forefront with figures in the media like undocumented activist, Elvira Arellano although she protest has been met with much resistance from right winged groups such as the Klu Klux Klan and Minutemen. 7 She refuses to leave the US as an undocumented worker. She stands for her son, Saul Aguirre (who has US citizenship by birth) and her place as a hard worker in the US. In past article, she proclaimed, "President Bush has said he is in favor of legalization, and yet he is pursuing a relentless policy of raids, deportations, separation of families, and sanctions. This is hypocrisy." 8

Arellano’s story via the media has touched thousands of Latin American immigrant households in the US, both undocumented and residents. Her story represents values very important to family, security and providing a value system worthy to her son. I feel her story re-defines what it is to be a Millennium “American”. In a 2006 “Time” magazine interview with conservative, Pat Buchanan, he expressed that the “American” identity is in danger: “We spoke the same language, had the same faith, laughed at the same comedians. We were one nationality. We're ceasing to be that when you have hundreds of thousands of people who want to retain their own culture, their own language, their own loyalty. What do we have in common that makes us fellow Americans? Is it simply citizenship? Or is it blood, soil, history and heroes?” 9

Buchanan continues to state that old “American” values had gone due to recent social movements reclaiming new strategies. Myself as a child of immigrant parents, Arellano’s story is but an inspiration to make contemporary art as relevant cultural production. What are the American values in which Buchanan speaks about? But for me as a child of immigrant parents what has always been an obstacle throughout my whole life in the US, is the topic of “immigration”. In 1994, the government of California wanted to pass a political referendum, proposition 187 to seize out the “illegal aliens” (which is a patronizing label, in humane) in their state. Many art and activist circles in Chicago protested with art. I, myself organized an exhibition (pre-Polvo collaborative effort) called, “187: With or Without You” in which displayed immigrants artists depicting work responding to the proposition 187 in the state of California. It was mounted in 1995 at Malcolm X College and Robert Lopez Gallery; it featured artwork by predominantly immigrant artists. The intention of the show was to critique on how proposition 187 in the state of California affected immigrant communities and how these types of political referendums are inhumane. 10

Scholar David G. Gutiérrez recounts this referendum as “…an incident that is now widely considered to have marked a turning point in recent immigration history, an estimated seventy thousand people took to the streets of Los Angeles to protest the impending passage of California's Proposition 187. The statewide initiative, much of which was subsequently invalidated in a federal district court, was a frankly punitive measure designed to discourage unauthorized migration to California by denying undocumented residents and their children access to virtually all public services, including tax-subsidized health care, welfare programs, and public education.” 11

For my involvement with Polvo exhibitions and events is a powerful space to incubate creative culture as a social agency. For example, Polvo’s exhibition of Michael Capapas that happened in December of 2006 and was a rare opportunity to make connections between two countries to see what “borders” and what is the common bond of immigration between Australia and US. The beginning of this opportunity began months before the arrival of Capapas in Chicago during the months of January and February 2006. I had initially made contact with a social service organization, Coalition of Arab, African, Asian, European and Latino Immigrants of Illinois (CAAAELII) because I wanted to collaborate with them with the exhibition of Capapas. 12 His new artwork is focused on his immigrant experience in Australia, which makes his work a natural fit with Polvo’s mission. Since 1996, Polvo has been devoted to artists whose work explores societal concerns.

II. “South Project 2006: Examining Hemispheric Borders and Third Spaces”

The late Chicana theorist, Gloria Anzaldua evoked intellectual constructions using the physical border between Mexico and US as a third space in which cultural resistance is sustained. She described as an "…actual physical borderland that I'm dealing with in this book is the Texas-U.S. Southwest / Mexican border. The psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands and the spiritual borderlands are not particular to the Southwest. In fact, the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.” My position as man of color, Latino, Chicagoan, Midwestern, artist, and educator, Anzaldua’s “third space” works a healthy position to sustain identity or identities. Then borders could be seen as spaces that can be stretched out inward and outward for me to transform into something positive and to work out ideas.

Anzaldua’s intellectual works embarked on an intersection of imagination and a multitude of identities drawn from an existing social political landscape. Her cultural connections to the idea of “mestizaje”, the process of cultural and race mixing going back to the colonial era of Mexico, since the US southwest region belonged to the Mexican government until 1848. Mexico is home to many mixed blood populations, labeled “mestizo” since colonial times. Although the “mestiza/o” was a creation of both worlds, in such a society, a person’s skin color contributed to her / his upper rank position and privilege; skin color reflecting upon one’s connections to Western culture.

In order to continually divide and separate, more categories were created in the Spanish settlement. For example, if a “mestiza/o” married a European, they would produce a “castiza/o”. The “castiza/o” would have to marry a European in order to secure economic privilege and social ranking in the Spanish community. Historian Jonathan Israel wrote on “mestizaje”, explaining: "However the government has no objection to the ordaining of ‘castizos’, the offspring of Spaniards by ‘mestizas’. Indeed, it is clear that the secular clergy in New Spain, which we have classified as ‘creole’, has in its veins a strain of Indian blood also and was really ‘creole-castizo-mestizo’." Israel pointed out how a government can control a person’s genetic heritage by an invented label. 13

Anzaldua’s historic references to the “mestizaje” opens up a dialogue to explain the idea of a “third space” in which many elements can merge and exist in a fluid manner. This concept continues influence many Chicana feminist visual artists, writers, etc. within the Southwest region of the US. Even Australian based scholar, Maureen Perkins has referenced the “third space” concept in her theoretical framework on studying mixed race identities. Her preface to her book, “Borderlands: La Frontera” touched upon many prevalent points toward undocumented border crossings in the US. The geographical borders transformed into sites of resistance and cultural metaphors found in everyday life on the US / Mexico border.

She advocates that “... living on borders and in margins, keeping intact one's shifting and multiple identity and integrity, is like trying to swim in a new element, an "alien" element. There is an exhilaration in being a participant in the further evolution of humankind, in being "worked" on. I have the sense that certain "faculties"-not just in me but in every border resident, colored or non-colored-and dormant areas of consciousness are being activated, awakened. Strange, huh? And yes, the "alien" element has become familiar-never comfortable, not with society's clamor to uphold the old, to rejoin the flock, to go with the herd. No, not comfortable but home." 14

My interest in these ideas of “third space” and borders were pre-set in my initial introduction to South Project’s mission via my 2004 residency to Melbourne and curator Carmen Grostal. My interests were peaked when it heard of its mission and position to challenge and expand the concept of “north” and “south” territories of the world. Their planned design project to establish important networks of cultural exchange, programming, think tanking, and advocating culture make one to see that borders can be dissolve and transform. Creating spaces with partnering institutions and organizations for artists, curators, cultural workers, etc. to transform individually or collaboratively in grounding new approaches to idea and art making.

As I see it, “northerners” of the privileged sectors have visibility and tend to dominate as playing the “gate keepers” of culture. Although on may think that “north” and “south” is that the equator divides the “north” and “south”, it does not function like that for me in the Americas nor I think for South Project participants. I always felt the US / Mexico border of the Rio Grande is what divides “north” and “south” within the areas of economics, politics and dominant culture or how I would describe as “norte y sur”. Weeks before arriving in the city of Santiago, Chile to participate with the 2006 conference, US passed that there will be funding for “…the ‘possible’ construction of 700 miles of physical fence/barriers along the border.” 15 The construction of a wall is a cultural insult to Latin America and the Caribbean, a direct insult to the populations of Latin American immigrants and undocumented workers in the US. In the end, it is a harsh insult to Latin Americans and Caribbeans inside and outside of the US.

As an artist, I start to feel the “third space” that Anzaldua speaks about calls for a new transformation or enhancement. At South Proiect’s panel event, my presentation on centred on spotlighting the “March 10th March”, Polvo’s immigrant-theme projects and Anzaldua’s “third space” theory, I became very aware that everyone was in agreement with me, about that “wall” that reconfirms the US as the dominant culture, the master narrative. I knew that there would also be frustration and angry emotions expressed during my presentation, a child of immigrants of poor family who braved the harsh conditions of crossing “la frontera” (US/ Mexico border) as commonly known to many Latino/as in the US. Up to this date, many undocumented deaths of many people from Latin America and Caribbean going toward the common goal of the mythic “American Dream” have gone unnoticed to the average “American”.

III. “La Frontera: Imagining a Fourth Space”

“La frontera” is now to be transform again since Anzaldua’s interpretation. It calls for a reworking of it as a cultural metaphor, today right-wing groups such as the Minutemen feel that it is their “American” right to secure the borders with or without the US government’s approval, by literally chasing border crossers like a hunting sport. They have begun to intercede into whatever manifestations of protest for Immigration Rights Movement. As artists, cultural workers, educators, and art administrators, we need to find something within borders to resonate ideas, the ones with solutions. Of course none of us (or I) can save the world, but we can try to secure and sustain a space to allow thinking outside of the master narrative. It can be a newly transformed space to enable networks of information, ideas, art making, and humanist issues.

Is it naive for me to think that we could unite as a “multitude” against the dominant culture to address the wall that US plans to build on its southern border. Some view the US as Imperialist component of the “Empire”. I have been studying the "Empire" theory, which can defined as: “to seek a multi-national sovereignty through globalization.” The founders of the "Empire" theory, Thomas Hart and Antonio Negri, define it as: “... a series of national and supernational organisms united under a single logic of rule. This new global form of sovereignty is what we call Empire.” 16 My position as a minority lacking in political power living within US, it intrigues to understand their "Empire" theory. Hart and Negri make several comparisons between the United States and the "Empire". They claim that the Empire seeks sovereignty through a constructed constitution similar to that of the United States: “The realization of the imperial notion of sovereignty was a long process that developed through the different phases of U.S. constitution history.” 17

Negri and Hart discussed thoroughly those different phases like the race relations within the U.S. Issues of slavery and freedom ring within the different phases such as "colonial racism," which have existed for the U.S. since the discovery of the Americas. Empire theory offers a scholarly opportunity to this century to seek an alternative democracy with globalization issues. It operates using a nonviolent position to face a new type of oppression not relying on old colonial tactics. Although one can not solely just stand on theory itself to position her or his argument; my answer is “creativity”, for me it is the artistic practise. One needs to reflect on the “point of return”, meaning for me a place in within the “third space” concept in which can offer a ground to function like an observation deck. It can serve as a safety device to secure cultural roots but feed my investigative artistic sources.

I am have been working on a series called “Point of Return” or “Punto de Regreso”, since I am of Mexican heritage it makes references to Mexican art history. The series features site-specific installations examining cultural reclamation. The installations make historical references to Diego Rivera’s 1915 "Zapatista Landscape" painting exploring culture linked to displacement, landscape and memory. Through the usage of fiber and popular textile art, the concept and material intersect aesthetic concerns belonging to folk and popular art forms. Since the late 1960’s, Chicano/a artists in the United States have artistically focused their artwork on reclaiming Mexican heritage.

Chicano artist and scholar such as David Rosales wrote on Rivera’s "Zapatista Landscape": "This painting painted in Europe in 1915 could be painted in California in 2000 and still be relevant to the concepts of assimilation and misplaced histories of Chicano peoples. This painting was done by a Mexican who is far from home and working within Western Art historical means, but expressing colonial concepts of aggression and survival within assimilation issues." 18

I will continue to make my work in relation to the prevalent topics that surround me, joining other creative communities on straddling the globe on it axis. We should re-examine these “borders” in between to surpass geographic and cultural definitions. Also to be careful that in that “fourth space” allowing us to retain what make us different and still connected to our respective communities. In many ways, I think that Polvo is working within a “fourth space” using our cyber communities to extend our vision into the digital world. Our tools of communication and our worlds of imagination can collaborate and participate in a “fourth space” with it numerous points of returns.


1. This article discusses the wake of the US in its attempt via Homeland Security to protect the southern border in “U.S.-Mexican Border: Can Good Fences Make Bad Neighbors?” by John Barry (Thursday, June 15, 2000).
2. The conference took place at several spaces such as Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Universidad de Chile, Centro Cultural Mapocho during the month of October of 2006. For more information please log onto http:///www.southproject.org.
3. Pilsen has a long tradition of community arts since the Czech community lived there. When its past residents moving out to their suburban homes most of their deserted cultural spaces became sites of community based programs and low income artist studios which resulted from the 1970’s social movements within the present Mexican community.
4. Polvo had coordinated exhibitions inviting artist as well as community groups and organizations to discuss how gentrification is affecting Chicago communities.
5. My exhibition was mounted during the months of October and November 2004, “Invisible Flesh” with Gabriel Gallery at Footscray Community Art Centre (FCAC) initiated by two years of email conversations and preparations with Carmen Grostal, former director of FCAC’s Gabriel Gallery.
6. Many people from Central America and Mexico go across in many ways, one of the ways are through “coyotes”, who are drivers who drive people illegally, it is very dangerous situations due to harsh treatment and physical abuse.
7. Elvira Arellano, has been protesting Bush administration’s immigration reforms since 2005 organizing undocumented mothers in Chicago and with other organizations such as Centro Sin Fronteras. Since late summer 2006, she has been seeking sanctuary at a storefront church in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighbourhood and refusing to leave the US.
8. Elvira Arellano was interviewed for Medill News, Northwestern University, entitled “Immigration advocate refuses to appear for deportation” by Erin Zaleski on August 15, 2006.
9. He was interview in the Sunday, Aug. 20, 2006 edition of Time, “10 Questions for Pat Buchanan” by Jeff Chu.
10. This was the first artistic response to Proposition 187 to happen on a college campus as an group exhibition in the US.
11. He wrote the article entitled “Migration, Emergent Ethnicity, and the "Third Space": The Shifting Politics of Nationalism in Greater Mexico” examining immigration policies.
12. I had led community art programs with CAAAELII’s staff, community leaders, and youth with bookmaking workshops. The artwork resulted were exhibited alongside Capapas exhibition at Polvo last December 2006.
13. Israel wrote on the history of “mestizaje” in Mexico, “Race and Class in Politics in Colonial Mexico: 1610-1670”.
14. Anzaldua discusses identity politics and reworks the idea of culture existing next to each other in “Borderlands: La Frontera, 2nd edition”. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.
15. This article discusses the wake of the US in its attempt via Homeland Security to protect the southern border in “U.S.-Mexican Border: Can Good Fences Make Bad Neighbors?” by John Barry (Thursday, June 15, 2000).
16. Negri, Antonio. “Empire”. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001, p.7.
17. Negri, Antonio. “Empire”. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001, p.167-168.
18. David Rosales is an artist based in California who did comparative research on Rivera’s work with Chicano visual aesthetics.

Jesus Macarena-Avila is a visual artist working and living in the city of Chicago.
5 : : : P O L V O : : :: essay by Jesus Macarena-Avila LA FRONTERA: DEFINING ‘NORTE Y SUR’ IN THE AMERICAS by Jesus Macarena-Avila I. “Pilsen, Polvo, and the Immigration Rights Movement” “By...

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