"Después de la Frontera" at Creative Alliance highlights stories of youths and families fleeing Central America

Artists explore personal and political complexities surrounding immigration to the U.S.

A 10-year-old boy named Marcos, wearing a mismatched tracksuit, leads a march down a dusty street and shouts into a bullhorn as he advances toward the photographer, Armando Mejía, who took this picture. Marcos is with the activist group Viacrucis Migrante, which fights to protect people on their journey through Mexico from the area known as the Northern Triangle of Central America (the countries Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala), before they eventually get to the U.S.

In other photos on the same wall, by Levi Vonk, activists march and carry signs that say "no más sangre" (or "no more blood") and others stand on top of La Bestia, the dangerous train line used by many people to escape into the U.S. Other photos depict individual people, and the wall text next to each picture tells a brief story. There's the skaters from El Salvador, and a different kid named Marcos who wants to open a taqueria with his brother. There's 15-year-old Brayan carrying a cross while other marchers carry flags and signs in one photo. He says he's seen his friends get killed by gangs, and that he wants to make it to Memphis, Tennessee to live with his uncle.

Each piece in the group show "Después de la Frontera/After the Border" tells stories about people migrating—and seeking refuge—from their homes in Central America. People leave for a variety of reasons, including poverty and gang violence, and because the works in this show are so varied in media and approach, "Después de la Frontera" comes at these issues from multiple angles and offers a closer look at the realities that people face when they leave their countries, in addition to the issues that push them out in the first place.

"I was really drawn to some of Levi's photos that he was already posting [on Instagram] because it's images that we don't see, that we don't have access to. It's a very distant place," curator Tanya Garcia says. "I think it's really powerful to see what's going on in Mexico right now, what people are talking about, because I think we hear a circular story happening here, being recycled in the media." (Full disclosure: Garcia is a contributing photographer for City Paper.)

Vonk's and Mejía's documentary-style photos of the Viacrucis tell a story that doesn't appear to be reported in the U.S. Garcia says that the Viacrucis bring attention to the violence, corruption, and excessive military that people face when they get to the border between the U.S. and Mexico. In contrast to the photojournalistic aspect of this work, other pieces here lean toward a more personal narrative, as with Edgar Reyes' photo-based work about his family. And the video interviews Garcia did with four people who all recently migrated to the Baltimore area delve into the difficulties that made them leave, as well as those they met when they got into the U.S.

All of the works in this show are political in some way, but some are more explicit, like Eric J. Garcia's smart political cartoons. In one, a gang member (with a tattoo for the MS-13 gang and one that says "hecho en Estados Unidos," or "made in the United States") pulls at a kid who's trying to cross the border, while Lady Liberty lends her hand and Uncle Sam holds her in a headlock. And some works are more practical and educational: An animated iPad video designed by Silvia Mata-Marín offers a step-by-step guide to the process of becoming a legal resident in the U.S., geared specifically toward minors who'd find it useful as they attempt to leave. And on another wall, Emma Cervone and Mata-Marín's neatly designed timeline presents the facts on immigration from these countries, and tries to sum up and make linear sense out of the various causes (which often implicate the U.S., such as Nixon's instigation of the war on drugs and the United States' involvement with the civil war in El Salvador which began in 1980) that have led so many Central Americans to leave their home countries in hopes of better opportunity—and safety—in the U.S.

Michelle Angela Ortiz's pieces interpret the stories of two people who've made it to Philadelphia, though whether or not they'll be allowed to stay is uncertain. On the right hangs a huge close-up rendering of a necklace that says "te amo" in cursive, laser-cut into a large masonite panel and lit with a soft LED light. The piece on the left is a silhouetted portrait of a boy. Strokes of red acrylic paint bring out the planes of his face and give shape to his baseball cap. Cutting across the gray surface of the masonite board is a tangle of barbed wire which glows pink from the LED. The accompanying wall text explains that this piece, 'Enredado' (or 'Entangled') depicts a 17-year-old named Gerson, whose journey was difficult but he had "the encouraging words of young men who traveled with him."

Gerson's story rings familiar after watching the interviews that Tanya Garcia filmed of three anonymous minors and one woman (a 14-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl who both left Honduras, a 16-year-old girl from El Salvador, and a mother from El Salvador) who each tell their stories. "I think stories, individual stories, are so important," says Garcia. "I mean I can talk about someone's experiences but I've never lived them. And I think it's so much more powerful for someone to speak for themselves."

The interviewees do speak for themselves in the video (titled 'Sigo Caminando' or 'I Keep Walking'). The Honduran boy's eyes gaze downward for a few seconds as he talks quickly about his parents getting robbed and then killed by a gang; he says, "things happen." The Salvadoran girl was brought over by a coyote—a smuggler, which often costs a lot of money and isn't guaranteed to be safe—while the Honduran girl rode atop a train for part of the way, all alone. Some stories are hopeful (the Salvadoran girl was reunited with her mother and speaks cheerily about starting anew) while others are uncertain at best (the Honduran girl talks about an abusive foster family who made her extremely depressed and led her to cut herself). Gangs are a huge reason people flee the Northern Triangle; the mother shares that her daughter has inexplicably been put on a gang's hit list and, at 19, is too old to safely make it past the border and stay. The mother is hopeful for her children, but at the same time questions her decision to come here, and wonders if this life is really any better.

These interviews are important, and specific stories like these are often missing from debates that simply revolve around "securing our borders." Edgar Reyes' prints offer a peek at his perspective on the struggles he and his family continue to face when it comes to migration and racism, and even when fleshed out with his statement near the piece, we still can't grasp the whole story—which is fine. We get that these pieces are an act of reverence or honor; his triptych of prints appear like a religious altarpiece for his family's history. A photo of a mother holding a baby becomes the centerpiece of the prints, flanked by two smaller prints with a young girl as the focal point in one and a young boy in the other. Older photos of relatives are somewhat ghostlike, superimposed over these images, along with imagery of headstones and the Virgin Mary and walls with peeling paint.

Nearby, Valeria Molinari's prints show a map of the districts between the U.S. and Mexico. Printed on red, white, black, and blue paper in inks of the same colors, so that you have to catch them at the right angle to read them, Molinari's poem perforates the composition and questions the arbitrary nature of borders and limits, as well as the reductive and clearly offensive term "illegal," which many conservatives like to use as a noun rather than an adjective, denying the struggles and even the personhood of so many people who are trying to live.

"Después de la Frontera" presents a needed amount of nuance to these issues, but leaves them open for us to listen more and educate ourselves further. "Even with the presidential elections coming up, it's not really being talked about," Garcia says of the violence and economic issues in these countries which have contributed to recent surge in youth migration over the past few years. "Everyone's just so infatuated with Donald Trump or like Deez Nuts in North Carolina polling 9 percent, you know, there's so much happening that we're so totally oblivious, but we have a hand in it all."

"Después de la Frontera" is at the Creative Alliance through Sept. 26. For more information visit creativealliance.org.

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