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A Mexican-Born Artist, Activist, and DACA Recipient Considers an Uncertain Future

Maria de los Ángeles discusses her work, her relationship to her adopted country, and what DACA means in her life.

Installation view, “Citizen Installation” (photo by Cheyenne Coleman)

The fact of being undocumented never bothered Maria de los Ángeles until she had to apply for college. She was actively protesting Trump but says she has stopped, fearing retaliation.

Maria de los Ángeles is a 29-year-old artist from Santa Rosa, California. She lives with her boyfriend in Jersey City, New Jersey and holds an MFA from Yale University. Thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA), she is able to teach at Pratt Institute as a visiting professor in the associate’s program. Maria is currently preparing her next exhibition, an installation at the Schneider Museum in Oregon, where she’ll be showcasing three sculpture dresses, three dresses that people will be able to try on, plus 2000 drawings portraying the psychological impact of migration. It will be on view from January through March 2018.

Maria was one of the first organizers of We Make America, a group of artists protesting the current administration. She says that she decided to put off her street protesting, following her lawyer’s advice, to protect herself and her family.

I spoke with her via phone and email to learn more about her journey.

 

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Laura Calçada: Maria, when did you come to the United States, and what has your life been like since then?

Maria de los Ángeles: I crossed the border in 1999 at age 11 with my five siblings. I went to school in Santa Rosa, California, then I came to New York City and got my BA at Pratt Institute, afterwards I got my MFA at Yale. Everything’s been working out. I can’t complain.

LC: Arleene Correa shared with us her experience of alienation when she was studying at the California College of the Arts. On the contrary, you always felt encouraged by your professors. Were they the ones who instilled in you the will for a higher education?

MA: I went to school was because of my teachers: from the beginning, even in Mexico, they were very supportive of me. I loved school. I did very well, maintained a good GPA, and participated in academic programs.

LC: The problems arose when you wanted to go to university but your status didn’t allow you to apply for a scholarship.

MA: I applied to a few schools and got into one, but they said that I couldn’t get accepted because I was undocumented. I did not qualify for financial aid at the time in California. That situation has changed since the passing of the California Dream Act. I got accepted to Chicago Art Institute, UC Berkeley, RISD, and Pratt, and I decided for the latter. After a long phone conversation they offered me a $20,000 scholarship, but I had to match that amount.

LC: How did you manage to do it?

MA: I sold my artwork to friends and neighbors in my hometown, Santa Rosa. My friend Jack Leissring, who owns an art collection there, hosted art shows, a local paper wrote a story about my education and the money I needed … People bought pieces at prices ranging from  $25 to $5,000. I was at it the whole summer and I made it to Pratt. It was a big deal getting accepted to Pratt. Also, they raised my scholarship during the second year. Due to my status I was considered an international student.

LC: And then came the MFA at Yale.

MA: Yes. When I graduated, my senior painting professor helped me through my application process for graduate school. My teachers also aided me with the search for financial resources. Everyone at Yale — the administration, teachers, and the surrounding community was very supportive. 

LC: You founded the program One City Arts, a two-week program that provided art lessons to children and their parents in Santa Rosa, California. What was the motivation for that?

MA: I wanted to thank my community for making it possible for me to go to college. It was also in response to the shooting of Andy Lopez, the community was having a hard time, specially the youth. I raised money with the help of Los Cien — a local Latino organization — and other nonprofits. The program took place at the middle school Lawrence Cook benefiting 65 children and their parents. Local art store and businesses provided discounts for supplies and treated my students with ice cream and good food at the end of each session. The Luther Burbank Center for the arts hosted the final exhibition and celebration and it is currently a permanent program at Lawrence Cook.

LC: One of the things DACA allowed you to do was to travel, because DACA recipients can apply for a permit to travel abroad for specific reasons. Have you left the country?

MA: I spent about a month in Italy. I got an invitation from  the Pratt Institute in Venice to teach a drawing class based on the techniques of Tintoretto. I also went to Florence and Rome and I visited a friend who directs a school in Tinos, Greece. I still can’t believe I got to do that. I was afraid on the way back that I might not be able to enter the US. I guess fear works like that. It is very difficult for me to travel, there needs to be an invitation from another country or a reputable institution for it to be possible.

LC: Why did you take some months before applying for DACA?

MA: I got DACA when I was a student at Yale. During that second year I was able to teach as a student assistant to Robert Reed and work in the print shop. This provided extra income. I waited a while to apply because I was worried, distrustful and afraid to give my information to the government.The worst scenario is that we get deported and the US immigration enforcement has all our information. I don’t have a backup plan if DACA ends. I’m hoping the government will fix the current situation.

LC: What are the benefits of DACA?

MA: DACA gives me a temporary prevention from being deported, a work permit and the ability to travel abroad for specific reasons, although, even now we are advised not to travel because we could get stuck outside. Immigration lawyers do not trust the government.

LC: How do you see your future should the program end?

MA: If the program ends, I won’t be able to teach at Pratt. That will make me sad — I like teaching. I will be living off my artwork sales, as I already do, I pay taxes and sell my art. I don’t need my papers to own a business in the US, I just need these to work. I guess if I get deported I will just travel the world and eventually move to Mexico or somewhere else. I just want to be an artist and I don’t need DACA for it. At this point, we don’t really know what is going to happen. I don’t know if the government is going to take action to deport us, but it DACA ends I will try to become self sufficient through art sales alone.

LC: With the organization We Make America, you wanted the general public to understand the complexity of the immigrant system, the impossibility of being documented as an undocumented person, and the possibilities for art to address these subjects. How are you building this network of artists? How do you connect your art with your activism?

MA: I was a member in the first meeting, when we brought the group together. The artists use art to help convey messages during protests and events, I think it’s a very important group and I feel inspired by all the members. Right now I am not active in it, because the risk is higher for me than for the other members.

Photo by Esteban Jimenez

LC: Why is that?

MA: Technically I’m still undocumented. If you are caught up in a fight you can end up arrested and I don’t want to put my family through the trouble of  having to take me out of a detention center. My lawyers told me to be careful because anything could difficult my case. I don’t want to be seen as organizing people or groups for this reason. My activism has to be planned carefully, like the suitcase performance we did in Santa Rosa back in 2016 — a bunch of people carried suitcases to City Hall, a public art piece showing deportation — to request the city to become sanctuary. I wasn’t running the risk of getting arrested, city officials knew about the action. It was carefully produced and focused.

LC: How do you advocate for your community?

MA: I am currently co-curating a show with Susan Noyes Platt called Internalized Borders that will be on view at John Jay College next February. Many new Latino artists I met will be in the show. My current art is about identity, legality, and migration. Beyond that I use my ability to teach art to aid my friends who are organizers in creating more successful protests and events. I think if more people in this country understand who we are, and how we contribute to the economy and culture, then maybe we will be legalized. Art can address the experience and help people understand and see us and our humanity. We — the Dreamers — are very common people. We are people like them.

LC: How do you relate to your Mexican heritage?

MC: I am Mexican. I love the art, the food, the culture, and my memories of it. I would like to visit it again. I think I am bicultural in many ways. I can relate and be in my two worlds. I am more from here now, but I want to reconnect to my heritage. When we emigrate we lose some connection to our homeland and culture, but we can find it again through the arts and the community. At the same time, I love this country. It’s really my home, I would not want to be in any other place. I am proud of who I am and my accomplishments. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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