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Maria de Los Angeles: Artist, Activist, DACA

As ICE raids are escalating, the artist Maria de Los Angeles in her art and her life poignantly underscores the terror and insecurity of immigration policy. Maria is among a group of people vulnerable to being deported under the new administration, about 70,000 youth known as DACA, (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals), a program enacted by Obama that gave children who had arrived with their parents without papers, the possibility to get a work permit, go to school, and have a driver’s license. But at the moment, as indiscriminate ICE raids escalate, supposedly for criminals, but actually sweeping up blameless people, Maria fears as much for her parents and her siblings and her friends as for her own loss of temporary status.

Maria de Los Angeles from the series “ICE raids” Courtesy of the Artist

I first met Maria de Los Angeles through “We make America” an informal group of artists making 100 Statues of Liberty in mourning, with tunic, torch and crown for the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. and New York City. The day after the election, she and Joyce Kozloff, (for whom she was working and who has a long history of art activism) called a meeting to decide what to do to build community and respond to the election as artists.

The result was “We Make America,” a title that suggests that we all contribute to what America is today. The verb “make” can also literally refer to contributions of workers, immigrants and the act of making things. Perfect. The group started small, then ballooned when it was put on Facebook the next day.

When I went to photograph the making of the props for the Women’s March, Joyce pointed me to Maria as a primary organizer.

Maria told me immediately that she was undocumented, but with temporary status under DACA. She was born in Mexico and came to California with her parents at the age of 11, growing up in Santa Rosa, California. She went to Pratt on a fifty percent scholarship. Since she could not get loans as a DACA, she managed to fundraise the rest of it (these schools are insanely expensive). Then she got a full scholarship to Yale, where the professors encouraged her to question who she was and discover what she wanted to say. She succeeded in finding her voice and avoiding being pigeonholed.

Last summer Pratt, where she now teaches, invited her to teach a course in Italy, giving her the opportunity to see the murals of Tintoretto in Venice, as well as the whole sweep of Italian Renaissance Art. The huge floating figures of Chagall in Lincoln Center also inspire her, as well as Siqueiros, the most radical of the Mexican muralists, who successfully paired radical politics with experimental media.

I recently saw an installation of her drawings and watercolors at Museo del Barrio in New York City where she was an artist-in-residence for several months. I immediately saw her connection to Kathe Kollwitz, as an outspoken radical and a woman addressing oppression expressed through dynamic linear drawings.

Maria de los Angeles draws with ink or watercolor on two types of paper, printmaking (which is manila colored) and drawing paper (which is white). Sometimes she draws figures on the lighter drawing paper, cuts them out and glues them onto the manila colored paper on which she also draws. The two tones create a dynamic that reinforces the primary theme of her work, the confrontation between ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials and Latinos, the threat of a home raid, a work raid, a traffic stop, leading to detention and deportation, the constant terror of a family being torn apart. But it is not a simplistic formula. The white people are not always cut out with white paper or all the Latinos in manila. That is of course because that is true in real life. In fact, some ICE officials are Latinos, and some Latinos are white-skinned (as Maria herself). But the two colors of paper create a tension, emphasizing the sense of confrontation because of the fear and hostility escalating daily.

She adds text as well, tiny words like “My America” “Our America” emerge in bubbles from the mouths of agents, or she writes longer texts around the edge of the drawing such as racist taunts and clichés. Maria de los Angeles breaks through restrictions, and conventions in her art, just as she would like to see the barriers between races break down.

A frequent motif is ICE agents swooping down from the sky on families trying to protect themselves. Families are represented by islands of emotional lines that suggest anguish, terror and self-protection. But sometimes salvation itself swoops down from the sky, to rescue someone from the agents on the ground.

Another theme honors the almost invisible contributions of workers. That format depicts a group of workers, precariously holding up the white world of privilege.

Maria de los Angeles also creates garments. She sews paper together, and paints them with confrontational slogans, such as “illegal” and “undocumented.” then takes a group of friends to do interventions, at places like the Trump hotel.

There are thousands of young people who will be affected if the DACA status is repealed, hardworking young people who have been given a brief reprieve. But as we have seen this administration is intent on wreaking havoc with the stroke of a pen. Pay attention to DACA, pay attention to the escalating ICE raids in Latino communities and speak to your Congressional representatives about keeping DACA and stopping the arbitrary raids.

~ Susan Noyes Platt

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