Four art pieces that were part of an exhibit put up by House Democrats were removed from a hallway because Republican leadership said they displayed “politically divisive messages and offensive symbolism.”
The exhibit, titled “We Are Still Here,” marks the 10-year anniversary of the controversial state immigration enforcement law Senate Bill 1070. The works of 16 Mexican and indigenous artists decorate the walls of the hallway in the Democratic wing of the House of Representatives. The display includes paintings, prints, photographs and wood pieces that touch on local immigration issues, like SB1070, border deaths and family separation, and themes of Latino, Chicano and indigenous cultures and identities.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers, a Republican from Mesa, asked Democratic leadership to take down some pieces, according to Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe. They all specifically reference approved legislation, in this case including “1070” or “SB1070,” she explained.
Blanc said Democrats agreed to remove works that name specific legislation out of respect for the House’s rules of decorum.
“If he allowed Democrats to do this, it could open up the door for anyone to do the same,” she said. “Mr. Bowers is an artist. I give him credit for allowing the exhibition of the arts, and leaving it up to the viewer (to interpret).”
Two of the removed pieces of art were moved inside the offices of Blanc and Rep. Andrés Cano, D-Tucson.
The other two pieces, one that shows a Nazi-era symbol and another depicting former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio wearing two swatstikas, were returned to exhibit co-curator Carmen Guerrero. She leads Cultural Coalition, an arts non-profit that organizes cultural events highlighting Mexican and indigenous traditions.
Guerrero said the exhibit is meant to show how an artistic movement from immigrant, Mexican and Native American communities was inspired by SB1070 and continues to be diverse and vibrant.
“We wanted to go beyond 1070 and provide hope and recognition and dignity for people of color regardless of documentation,” she said.
In an email, House GOP spokesman Andrew Wilder said Bowers and House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez discussed the art display on Monday, the first day of the 2020 legislative session.
“They agreed that the placement of the artwork without the Speaker’s permission violated House rules,” Wilder said. “The corridors of the House building are not an appropriate place to display politically divisive messages and offensive symbolism, including Nazi swastikas… Speaker Bowers appreciates Minority Leader Fernandez for working with him to resolve this matter.”
The pieces with “offensive symbolism” were from artists Martin Moreno and Marco Albarran, who is also co-curator of the exhibits and runs the Calaca Cultural Center.
Albarran’s removed painting is titled “Chegrifo Payaso” a wordplay on Sheriff Arpaio. On two of the sheriff’s badges, a swastika is superimposed. Alabarran told Arizona Mirror he used the swastika to compare Arpaio’s immigration roundups to Nazi tactics used against the Jewish community.
Moreno’s removed work is a black-and-white banner depicting a skeleton soldier, with a Nazi-era iron cross medal on the chest, gripping a person by their shirt collar.
In a video about the exhibit taken by photographer José Muñoz, Guerrero said the piece represents the “hate and intimidation” many experienced as a result of SB1070.
SB1070 was signed by then-Gov. Jan Brewer in April 2010. The law’s goal was “to discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the United States.” It required police officers to determine the immigration status of people they contact, and made it a crime for unauthorized workers to seek employment. It also allowed police officers to arrest people without a warrant if the officer believed they committed a deportable offense, among other provisions.
In practice, many critics argue, SB1070 sanctioned racial profiling.
One of the pieces in the We Are Still Here exhibit shows a man and a woman standing behind a red truck. He holds a hoe, and she a bucket with home cleaning supplies. It was painted by Criselda Vasquez.
In an Instagram post, she wrote that the painting shows her parents, who are Mexican immigrants.
“When my parents pose for these paintings, their faces are reduced to extremely raw and somehow vulnerable expressions. Sadly, they strive to be invisible every day,” she wrote. “They have dealt with constant rejection, suspicion and fear so long, that it seems now that it comes naturally to them. I strive to capture how their expressions deliver that sense of tiredness, resignation, and quiet acceptance. It seems relevant to show that underneath all the politicization and underserved labeling this community receives, these are regular people just like all of us.”
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“The New American Gothic” 72” x 48” Oil on canvas 2017 As the American-born daughter of two Mexican immigrants, I illustrate their plight and the plight of many in my community with my art. I want to expose the heart-breaking pain of what a Mexican immigrant’s family goes through. I focus on bringing my family’s world into the light and out of the shadows. My paintings are best described as visual comments on the hidden daily reality of the Mexican-American experience. These portraits and still lifes reveal my family in their own authentic environment and expose how I live in two worlds. My paintings layer the American culture over the Mexican world. I feel society needs to be aware of the humanity on the other side of the door. The two most important people in my life, my parents, are also the two who motivated me to develop such a strong concept. When my parents pose for these paintings, their faces are reduced to extremely raw and somehow vulnerable expressions. Sadly, they strive to be invisible every day. They don’t have to pretend to illustrate the invisible. They have dealt with constant rejection, suspicion and fear so long, that it seems now that it comes naturally to them. I strive to capture how their expressions deliver that sense of tiredness, resignation, and quiet acceptance. It seems relevant to show that underneath all the politicization and underserved labeling this community receives, these are regular people just like all of us. In the long tradition of immigrants that come to the United States, they have made homes here and they are just trying to live a simple life with a bit of security and hopefulness for their children. -Criselda Vasquez #TheNewAmericanGothic #criseldavasquez
‘We start this decade inside the House’
Guerrero, the co-curator, recalled that when SB1070 was going through the legislature, protests were held at the Capitol. Among those protesting were the artists whose work is now displayed inside the House building.
“This is the public’s house that belongs to all Arizona,” Guerrero said. “Unfortunately, the doors are not always open to us. Last decade, we were protesting outside. We start this decade inside the House.”
Speaking from her office, Blanc also pointed out that it’s not just the artists, but among those who showed up to protest SB1070 at the Capitol were people who now hold legislative seats, like herself and Reps. Diego Rodriguez, Raquel Terán and Martin Quezada.
“SB1070 passed 10 years ago,” Blanc said. “But 10 years later, myself – a former undocumented, an immigrant who grew up in America that allowed amnesty for close to 3 million people like me – here I am serving in the Arizona House of Representatives… It’s pretty powerful.”
Blanc also pointed out to the increasingly diverse make-up of the state’s legislative body.
“Ten years later, we are showcasing through our visuals and experiences how a law has negatively impacted from our perspective, our words, our vision,” Blanc said of the We Are Still Here art exhibit.
Rodriguez, who was in Blanc’s office as she spoke to the Mirror, added, “And then it’s just our presence, and the expression of what we think is important.”