An Undocumented Artist Shares Her Experience of Alienation in the US

Arleene Correa admits that she has felt miserable her entire life as an undocumented immigrant, never being seen for the person that she is, and now feels she has nothing to lose.

Arleene Correa “Estado Santuario (Sanctuary State)” (2017) 11 x 15 inches, pigs blood on mounted watercolor paper, (all images courtesy the artist)

At a recent talk at Postmaster’s Gallery, I happened to fall into conversation with a woman who identified herself as Arleene Correa, a student at California College of the Arts and an undocumented resident of the US. I met Correa because she is participating in an artist residency program that has brought her to NYC for a semester.

On finding out that Correa was here in the country outside of the official apparatus for immigration and residency I was immediately interested in talking with her about her experience — especially given the current administration’s hostility toward immigrants, in particular those from Mexico and Muslim-majority countries.

Correa’s family is originally from Mexico. She was born there to a father who worked intermittently in the US, and her parents brought her to California in 1997, when she was three. Correa has four siblings, and two of them are also undocumented. In the following conversation I find out what her experience has been in the arts community in California, and why she has decided to out herself.

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Seph Rodney: Hey, Arleene. You are attending California College of the Arts, right? You were about to get into what your experience has been like there as an undocumented person.

AC: I mean, what do you want me to talk about? Because there’s so much. I can start with the process of applying to art school and how that was?

SR: Great. Please do.

Arleene Correa “Te Perdono (I Forgive You)” (2017) 11 x 15 inches, pigs blood on mounted watercolor paper

AC: [It] was a huge mess, and I did it by myself with no help. Previous to CCA, I was at a community college in Napa Valley. There was always help for people to transfer to other schools; there were counselors, but nobody ever knew how to deal with an undocumented student. It was almost as if they didn’t even encourage me to move forward because there was just no knowledge of how that would even happen.

The process of me applying to CCA was my jumping into it full force and saying, “I want this; I have to make this happen.” The first time I applied to CCA I was accepted, but CCA is extremely expensive, and I couldn’t afford it. This was before the Dream Act was in place, so there was absolutely no financial aid given to undocumented students.

When I was at the community college, I was paying for that all out of pocket, which was an expense, but it was still possible … about $500 a semester. I believe the tuition for CCA per semester is somewhere around $23,000–$25,000.

SR: Wow.

AC: When I applied and I was accepted, they said, “Well, how do you want to pay for this?” I was just like, “Well, I can’t write you a check.” I explained to them my situation, and they said, “We don’t know what to do about that. You have to try to get a scholarship or something.”

I had to defer, and for a whole year I dedicated myself to figuring out how I could have tuition paid for at CCA. Then Obama enacted the Dream Act, which allowed undocumented students in California to receive the Cal Grant. I would call the Cal Grant office almost every day and ask for help. I’ve always kept a GPA of a 4.0, so having a higher GPA allows you for a higher scholarship through Cal Grant. Even then it was just extremely difficult because the office didn’t know how to deal with me either. They were like, “You know, do you have a Social Security number? Like, what is the deal with this and this and that?” It was always led from one person to another to another. It was just this almost never ending circle.

I also wasn’t fully embracing being undocumented, so it was something I rarely talked about. During that year I decided if I want to get anywhere, I have to be completely open about who I am and where I come from and what I want to do. The following year I reapplied to CCA, and I was very aggressive, I guess you can say, in my portfolio and in my written paper. I addressed all of my issues, and I said, “You know, I have no money. I don’t come from a wealthy family, but I have this passion. And I’m undocumented, and this is what fuels my passion to create art, because ideally there’s this dream of changing the world through art.”

Again, it was all by myself. There were no counselors. There were no programs to help. I’ve looked back now, and I’m just like, how did I get through all that? It seems impossible to jump through all the hoops, especially when you don’t have a Social Security number and nobody can find you in the records and nobody has a record of you and you’re just this invisible person.

The process of getting to art school was extremely difficult, but once I pushed through that I was able to receive the highest scholarship that CCA offers. They call it [the] Diversity Scholarship. Essentially, I was accepted because I am different from everybody else.

Arleene Correa “Soy Humana, No Soy Illegal (I Am Not Illegal, I Am Human)” (2017) 11 x 15 inches, pigs blood on mounted watercolor paper

SR: OK. You were saying to me last week that you didn’t feel very supported by your professors.

AC: Oh no, definitely not.

SR: Can you talk about that a bit?

AC: Yeah, of course. Since I do talk about the social-political weather that we are in in my work and it is extremely aggressive, I paint with blood, pigs’ blood, and I make these socially unaccepted paintings — I guess you could call them. In the process of this, especially at CCA, it felt like there was absolutely no support for what I was doing.

I created work, and asked if I could display it at the school. They allowed me to use a hall in our San Francisco campus. When the work was up, nobody talked about it. The faculty ignored it. They would walk by it every single day, and nobody would say anything. It was discouraging because anytime that any student puts up work in our name, the school and the faculty, the painting department, everybody, they’re documenting the artwork and sharing it with people and on social media. My work was actually up for an entire month, and while it was up none of my professors talked about it. Nobody acknowledged it. Everybody just pretended it wasn’t there.

It’s just always felt like I know that I have been pushing boundaries with my work because work like this is not created often. It feels like I’m alone most of the time. The response that I get even in critiques from professors and from other students is that I should be making work that is more beautiful. They don’t necessarily discourage political work, but once it’s there, they want a certain format so that it follows what’s accepted.

Arleene Correa “El Jefe De Deportaciones (The Chief of Deportations)” (2016) soft ground etching and pig’s blood on BFK Rives paper 22 x 30 inches

SR: You’re saying that because you’re making work that isn’t aesthetically pleasing that you’re being ignored. You’ve concluded that this is based on what? On your being undocumented or the kind of work that you make, or a combination?

AC: I think it’s just based that there’s a lot of disconnect. People don’t know how to understand the work because they don’t understand my position. I think anytime that you’re dealing with culturally charged work there is a sense of almost not being able to criticize it or talk about it.

I mean, I hate to use this example, but the white man does not understand the struggles of a colored person. Therefore, when I present this work, they’re just like OK, it’s there and we see it, but they can’t talk about it. They can’t discuss it any further because it’s so culturally charged, and it’s something that they lack that it doesn’t allow for a connection to be established. [There is] a lot of critique on the technicalities of drawing and painting, the presentation, more so than the content and meaning. That usually never gets discussed.

SR: What brought your father and mother from Mexico to the States?

Arleene Correa “Es Tu Decision (It Is Your Choice)” (2016) pig’s blood, gold leaf, photo transfers and India ink on watercolor paper, 83 x 42 inches

AC: My father had come for work once, and he always talked about how it was easier to make money here. He never liked the idea of staying here permanently until 1997 [when] my parents decided financially and for security purposes it was the best thing to do for the family, which I don’t understand because the whole process of us getting here was extremely risky.

My mother actually handed my two siblings and I over to a woman she didn’t know. They’re called coyotes. She handed us over to her on the Mexican side, and she took us into a car and brought us over to the US as if we were her children. Then my mother and father crossed the desert and walked until they got to the US border and came over on this side. My mother said, “You know, I hoped to see you on the other side, but I never knew if I really would.”

SR: I want to get on to what you would you like to see accomplished through your education and your art practice.

AC: I’m [with] 17 other people that have absolutely no idea what my life is like. There is no way that I can explain to them the privilege that I feel for being undocumented and being poor, because this life has allowed me insight into humanity [that] you can’t buy.

My dream is for my work to take on some of that experience and share that with others and allow [people] to see that undocumented people are human and that we are not defined by our legal status. When I moved here to New York I met someone, and they asked me what I did. I said, “I’m an artist, and I talk about politics, and I talk a lot about immigration mostly.” They said, “Oh, well, how would you know?” I said, “Well, I’m undocumented.” They looked at me and they said, “Oh, you’re one of those illegals. I’ve never met one of those. I can’t believe I’m talking to an illegal,” as if I was not a real person. I have never felt so devalued. I have never felt like, I was an alien from a different world. It was devastating but also extremely motivating because those are the types of people that I hope to reach

Arleene Correa, “El Mangonero (The Mango Man )” (2017) 26 x 32 inches, Conte crayons on brown paper

SR: One more question: Why are you willing to sort of come out of the closet and declare publicly that you are undocumented?

AC: If I’m being a 100% honest, I have felt miserable my entire life. I have felt like I have never been seen for the person that I am, and I have nothing to lose. There is nothing to lose anymore because we are living in a time where my existence is not validated, so coming out and showing the world who I am is the least that I could do. It’s an honor to be able to say that I’ve made it this far and that there is a Mexican artist who is not afraid. I’m not afraid. There is nothing I’m afraid of because I’ve basically already lived the worst.

SR: When we first spoke that you told me that you were in the process of becoming documented because you are married to an American citizen.

AC: That’s correct, yes. A lot of people have the idea that undocumented people don’t try to get citizenship, and that is, I think, one of the biggest misconceptions. It’s not like there wasn’t any effort. It’s just the system is so messed up that there is no opportunity. There is almost no humanity behind this system of immigration.

SR: Thank you.

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