Artist Michelle Angela Ortiz talked to me about Familias Separadas (her work for Open Source), and the issues of immigration and deportation that she feels passionately about. As always with the Mural Arts blog, the opinions that are expressed are those of the artist, and do not necessarily reflect those of Mural Arts. Read on for Michelle’s thoughts on the artistic process, the way the stories of Familias Separadas will live on, and what’s next for her.
Carly: What first interested you in Open Source?
Michelle: When I first met with Open Source curator Pedro Alonzo, he spoke about the idea of bringing artists (local and internationally known) to Philadelphia to have them create artworks that relate to a social issue in the city. I was interested in the fact that Open Source is not just another street art festival that pops up, where the artist paints their work, and then leaves without true engagement with the community.
I had been working on my project "Familias Separadas" for over a year and a half with the support of the Leeway Foundation and NALAC before I decided to connect it with Open Source. I worked directly with undocumented youth and families in partnership with Juntos, a Latino immigrant community-led organization fighting for human rights as immigrants, parents, youth, and workers. I collected audio stories from undocumented families that reveal the moment their loved ones were deported and how their lives changed before and after deportation. I thought Open Source would be the perfect opportunity to highlight the project and present the families' stories in key public spaces.
Carly: Your piece, Familias Separadas, is temporary. How do you think that affects the power of the images and their ongoing story?
Michelle: I think that installing the works in high traffic public spaces really impacts the environment - people pass by and all of a sudden come in contact with the images. I believe that it will also impact the passersby once the large images are removed. There will be an absence in the space which reflects the absence of the family members that have been deported from our city. Since the images are temporary, it is important to document the works being installed in each location. TWEED video has done a great job doing just that. Each artwork is accompanied by an audio story that people can listen to on the blog. The stories will last and can be shared beyond the life of the project and be used to advocate for change within the immigration system.
Carly: Has any part of the process been a surprise or a challenge? Have you learned something new through this work?
Michelle: The challenge was securing the sites for the artworks. I always knew that I wanted to place images on the compass at City Hall and the ICE building on 16th and Callowhill. I was persistent in pushing forward to obtain permission to place these images, and the relationship that Mural Arts has with the city helped with obtaining permissions to lay my work down in key locations in the city. In addition, the work Juntos has done for immigrant rights for over 10 years also strengthened the project in engaging the community in the creative process.
I have learned more in-depth about the trauma of the families affected by deportation. I also have learned about how families are poorly treated in detention centers. And how important it is for me and others to support Juntos in their fight to shut down the Berks Detention Center in PA which currently incarcerates immigrant families, with children as young as two weeks old being detained. Families inside the prison have stated a laundry list of abuses such as verbal abuse, medical neglect, labor law violations, and sexual assault. The continued operation of Berks violates both Federal and State law and organizations like Juntos are currently fighting for the state to remove the license, thus forcing the prison to close.
My work in communities goes beyond creating the artwork. In this project in particular, it is about creating a platform for these stories to be told to educate, create awareness, and encourage people to take action. This project has reinforced how important it is for me to stand strong in my beliefs and help others understand why this work is so crucial to our city.
Carly: What one other Open Source project has caught your eye? Why so?
Michelle: The other Open Source projects that are interesting to me are Swoon's work with individuals recovering from trauma and drug addiction and Shepard Fairey's works about incarceration. Both projects were deeply engaged with the community participants. Also, both projects touch upon several similar issues presented in my works which are the issues of trauma and incarceration - both factors that play into the deportation machine.
Carly: What's the next project you're excited to work on?
Michelle: I am excited to continue my work in Mexico City this fall. I visited in March 2015, and now I will continue training 10 amazing street artists and graffiti artists in community engagement techniques and creating two 50' tall murals in Mexico City. Besides working with the artists, I will be working directly with two indigenous communities that have migrated within Mexico.
Carly: It’s great talking to you, Michelle. Thanks for your time!