By Leigh Morrow
Nature’s autumn artist has skillfully painted the vineyards outside my window in Canada, where I write this, and I hear the sound of geese doing practice flights above my house. They will repeat their flights until that unannounced day when they suddenly leave and the sky is filled with their distinctive V patterns. Their migrations can be as long as 2,000 to 3,000 miles (up to 4,828 km), and the geese are capable of flying up to 1,500 miles (2,414 km) in a single day if the weather is good.
Their stamina and resilience, however impressive, is not confined to their own species. Migration is a natural occurrence in nature. Many species must leave where they were born to find food and water elsewhere, often during harsh winter weather. Migration is a built-in mechanism for survival, and we humans are no different.
Today, an estimated 5- to 7,000 people, mostly from Honduras, are walking through Mexico in a migrant caravan in the hope of reaching the United States. They, like so many, left spontaneously, fleeing violence and poverty, desperate for a better economic opportunity than what exists at home. They are on their migration with little more than the clothes on their backs and what they could quickly throw into backpacks.
It has long been thought that, nearly 40,000 years ago, migrants from Africa to Asia sheltered in the caves of Sulawesi Island in Indonesia, and created paintings of animals they encountered, signed with hand stencils. These early artists illuminated the experiences of displacement, exile, and the common thread of human mobility.
“Undocumented Heart: Oakland Day Laborers Tell Their Stories” is a year-long project of the Street Level Health Project and Peralta Hacienda Park in Oakland, California. The project explores the experience of migration from Latin America to the U.S., and included a series of community dialogues throughout 2018. The dialogues and final celebration (October 6, 2018) in the Park told the migration stories of 13 workers who left their homes, their families, and their way of life in Mexico and Central America to work undocumented in America. Participants are all members of the Oakland Workers’ Collective, which is part of the Street Level Health Project. As undocumented people, participants faced serious risks in “going public,” but a risk they were willing to take if it meant a better public understanding of their reasons for migration.
Textile artist Marion Coleman, painter Ramon Carrillo, and graphic designer Jeff Norman worked with the group for a year on writing about and visualizing their personal struggles with being separated from their homes and families, their resilience and ability to survive, and what it takes to live in America’s anti-immigrant climate. The day laborers were paid for their work on the project; the final celebration featured an indoor-outdoor art exhibit, with work and performances by the laborers who told their stories.
Exhibit curator Holly Alonso commented, “Most day laborers find relative safety in silence. Undocumented Heart fills this silence. That these day laborers have shared their stories is an act of bravery for them.” Many tell of harrowing journeys, like that of 18-year-old Israel, who traveled from Guatemala on “The Beast,” also known as the “Train of Death”: “The Beast is a train that passes through El Salvador and Guatemala. On the train every one of us – 800 to 1,000 people – were travelling on top of the train cars, some one way, some another. They tied me with a rope so that if I fell asleep I wouldn’t fall off.”
The project starts a conversation about the complexity of the chaotic U.S. immigration system in the context of the reasons individuals chose to leave home and journey to the United States. The outdoor portion of the exhibit, designed and photographed by Jeff Norman, presents large vinyl banners depicting the arrival of each laborer in the U.S., with a timeline of historical and political conditions that have controlled the lives of Latin Americans since the Conquest. The indoor exhibit shows paintings, drawings, and quilts by the laborers. (Through January 6, 2019, the outdoor portion of “Undocumented Hearts” is on view at the Historic Core of Peralta Hacienda seven days a week, while the indoor portion is open Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 2:30 – 5:30 pm at the Peralta House Museum.)
Mario Pina is a Mexican father who came to the U.S. in 2004 from the Mexican state of Guerrero. Until the U.S. started checking immigration documents in 2017, Pina worked as a gardener, sending enough money back home to raise his family and even send his children to college. In an interview with San Francisco’s Public Broadcasting Service station KQED, Pina said, “When I was approached about the project I told them that I’m not an artist, and I didn’t go to school. But they told me, ‘We want you to tell your story.’ Now seeing the end result of my hard work, I’m very proud of telling my story. I want to make sure that people know that we are not criminals. We are hardworking people who come here out of necessity.”
With paintings of missed families and familiar homes, textiles of harrowing journeys through expanses of desert, the exhibit hopes to promote compassion for those who have made a huge sacrifice and migrated for a better life, for themselves and their families, and the amazing resilience of the human heart, regardless of whether that heart is documented.
Leigh Morrow is a Vancouver writer, and co-author of Just Push Play- on Midlife. She owns and operates Casa Mihale, a vacation rental in the coastal village of San Agustinillo, Mexico.