Throughout Philadelphia, for the rest of the month, one may now stumble upon and listen to the stories of undocumented families whose lives were affected by deportations. Since September, a small number of large-scale public artworks based on these real-life narratives have been popping up around the city, created by artist Michelle Angela Ortiz. Part of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program’s Open Source project, Ortiz’s “Familias Separadas” (Separated Families) shares the stories of five families the Philadelphia-based muralist interviewed through five corresponding works, planted at five different locations. Ortiz installed the fourth yesterday and will unveil the final work some time next week.
The works are based off personal conversations Ortiz had over a year and a half with undocumented families, working in partnership with Juntos, a Latino immigrant community-led organization advocating for immigrant rights. The talks specifically recall the moments family members were deported followed by individuals’ descriptions of how their lives changed after a relative or they themselves were deported. A phone number also accompanies each piece; after dialing it, viewers will hear the audio recording of the represented story — which are available online on Ortiz’s blog as well; people may also leave their own messages, perhaps sharing their personal stories of deportation.
“I wanted to shift the focus from the statistics and numbers of people that have been deported and have others see the individual father, mother, or brother who has been torn apart from their families,” Ortiz said. “The temporary image that will eventually fade reflects the fading presence of the person who has been deported. I want to bring the stories of the deported back to the places where they worked, dreamed, and loved, and I want others to see the humanity that lies there.”
On Monday, Ortiz painted a large stencil of the slogan “WE ARE HUMAN BEINGS, RISKING OUR LIVES, FOR OUR FAMILIES & OUR FUTURE” in front of the US office for Immigration Review, aided by over 30 volunteers and community members from Juntos. The words form a quote by Ana, an undocumented immigrant mother who was initially forced to return with her daughter to their native Guatemala. In her interview, she recalls a chilling visit at 3am by two immigration officials who ordered her to leave her detention center, where she had lived for almost a year. A judge recently deemed the decision unjust, allowing them to return to the United States; Ana’s words now border the building where decisions to deport immigrants are made.
Other sites Ortiz has chosen include City Hall, where she painted for her first project a large compass enclosing a portrait of a family still divided today; and the city’s JFK Plaza (also known as Love Park for its Robert Indiana sculpture), where she has represented a gold necklace one immigrant mother wears to remember her daughter she was forced to leave. Even if the works are temporary, their location at such heavily visited sites ensures that many will hear the stories that express experiences familiar to only select communities.
“Philadelphia is a sanctuary for immigrants, and honoring their contributions to the growth of the city is crucial, especially during the current national anti-immigrant climate,” Ortiz said. “For these reasons, this project is important because it offers a platform to tell the stories of our undocumented immigrant communities that are often unheard in our city.”
Ortiz has not yet revealed the fifth and final work, which will appear next week in South Philadelphia near Dickinson Square Park, but it will tell the story of a woman who suffered domestic violence and is still today separated from her children.
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