These days there’s no shortage of people making art in response to Trump’s xenophobic America and his violent impact on immigrants, but it is rarely the undocumented immigrants themselves whose work is on museum walls. For example, the 2013 exhibition “State of Exception” at the University of Michigan Institute of Humanities Gallery was inspired by anthropologist Jason De Leóns’s “Undocumented Migration Project,” a study of the violent effects of crossing the border. However, it was the work of Richard Barnes (based in New York) and Amanda Krugliak (based in Ann Arbor, Michigan), artists who responded to the fieldwork, shot video, and photographs along the border, that was on view rather than the work of immigrants who’d risked their lives. Outside of gallery walls, undocumented immigrants are more likely to be portrayed in the news as crossing the border or in custody, implying criminal actions. A study by the Norman Lear Center found that on television Asian, Black, and female immigrant characters are significantly more often portrayed as criminals or less educated. (Define American, who ran this study, is also a sponsor of Crossin’ Borders.)
In 2013, around 267,000 undocumented immigrants were living in the United States. Under the Trump administration, an average of 4,219 undocumented immigrants with no criminal background were arrested each month. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, 44.5 percent of Chicago’s immigrant residents in 2016 were from Mexico—the next nations with the most representation were China (6.4 percent) and Poland (5.8 percent). It’s imperative for these communities to be given means to represent their own experiences.
Crossin’ Borders, a new print magazine, combats the stereotypes and mispresentation of queer undocumented people of color by collecting voices and work of artists who represent those marginalized identities. The publication focuses on immigrants’ own experience of border crossing, exploring the emotionally taxing experience of traumas from the violence of migrating to this country imperil their livelihood. The magazine is a form of resilience bringing undocumented artists together in a tangible product celebrating community, creativity, and the ability to thrive.
The catalyst for the magazine first came in early 2018 when artist and desginer Brian Herrera decided to go public about being undocumented. “I noticed a lot of the mainstream media did not really talk about the immigrant experience from an undocumented artist’s perspective,” he says. “It was hard to relate to a lot of the narratives being told.” Herrera turned to the Internet for a sense of community and inspiration. After being awarded a nomination through Define American’s first fellowship for undocumented artists in early 2019, he was able to put funds into his project for the magazine and continue that work for the community.
Herrera, born in Veracruz, Mexico, crossed the border and came to Chicago when he was 11 years old. Now 22, he hasn’t lived anywhere else. “I started playing around with graffiti a year before I moved to the U.S. and doing more street art when I was in high school here in Chicago,” he says. Inspired by his mom, whose side-gig involved photographing drag shows for Latin nights in Boystown, he decided to become more involved with graphic design and Photoshop. He says teaching himself graphic design was another way to elevate his art practice.
Crossin’ Borders launched its first issue on November 15, and it highlights the intimate, emotional, and personal artwork of undocumented artists who live on the east coast, midwest, and southern parts of the United States. The empowering debut issue celebrates these artists and features Karla Rosas, an illustrator living in New Orleans whose work expands on the stories and lives of migrant women; Clandestino, a Chicago street artist whose wheat pastes present discussions about gentrification; and Scheherazade Minah, a Black Muslim poet from Nigeria.
Herrera’s decision to learn graphic design has paid off—the first issue is nothing short of beautiful. The cover’s simple design features a line-drawn brick wall with a single plant flowing through a hole in the center, clearly resembling the wall that divides the borders but also all of the communities that power through. The magazine’s design alternates between text and vivid images with brief descriptions by the artist below each piece, allowing the creatives to share their biography and artist statement.
“Print media is super important,” Herrera says. “In a digital world where mainstream media is controlled by capitalistic agendas and racist CEOs, having a printed independent publication that you can touch, feel, relate to and learn from, is a radical reminder we are still human and that we depend on each other’s communities to thrive.”
Herrera hopes to publish issues annually and grow the Crossin’ Borders team in 2020. “I want our second issue to feature artists from all over the country and have a release event in 2020 here in Chicago,” he says.
“Queer Black and Brown DIY art scenes are the roots of uplifting and honoring each other’s existence,” Herrera says. Chicago queer spaces gave him the courage to accept his own queerness and to “be public about being an undocumented immigrant,” Herrera says. “I am thankful for the growth, experiences, and opportunities I found in these spaces, and the plan is to use this publication to contribute to the communities I flourished in so that other Black and Brown folk can empower themselves.” v