Confronting undocumented immigrant issues with art

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The shrouded students were still, against the wall, for about 15 minutes. Photo by Jeff Jacobsen - UVU Review

A couple of shrouded figures on campus, huddled against a random wall, were enough to make some students feel like they were hallucinating.


The figures, two students participating in an art installation three separate days, showed up at three different places on campus. Friday’s installation was punctuated by the two artists shouting, “I dare to dream,” as students crowded past in a hallway near the bookstore, making reference to the DREAM Act.


“In the Shadows,” the brainchild of lifelong art lover Paula Montes, is a concept-based abstract art project shown on campus between Feb. 6 and Feb. 10, confronting issues that Latino immigrants are facing in American society today, both locally and nationally.


“What we were trying to transmit to people in this installation,” Montes said, “is how it feels to live in the shadows – how it feels to be an undocumented immigrant in the United States.”


Paula Montes, courtesy of Paula Montes

While Montes came into this country legally from Mexico six years ago to study English at BYU, and remained legally on a work permit to practice her trade as an architect, she knows all about how undocumented Latino immigrants in the U.S. feel.

Many of her friends are undocumented Latinos, Montes said, and all of them share feelings of frustration and desperation after leaving their homes, their countries and their culture, only to arrive in the U.S and feel like a “third-class citizen.” These immigrants came to the states because they felt they had no other option to provide a decent life for their families.


These immigrants, though, are not even the center of the issue. It is the second-generation undocumented immigrants who did not enter this country of their own volition that Montes really wants to spotlight.


“How are they going to go back if they grew up here? They have nothing in their countries,” Montes said.


The figures writhed and undulated in their shrouds, causing some students to stop and watch in wonder. Photo by Jeff Jacobsen - UVU Review

And they have nothing here, either. They want to work, they want to go to school, they want to contribute to the country toward which they feel kinship, but long-term goals like higher education and careers cannot be visualized easily for most immigrants because of the way the systems are set up. So they wait.


“They are always waiting, hoping that something’s going to change in this country, that there are going to be reforms, that something will happen,” Montes said.


That’s where Montes’ art comes in. It has, according to Montes, “that beautiful quality to transmit feelings and thoughts that words maybe cannot transmit.” Even though this subject is debated extensively on media channels throughout the entire world, there are aspects yet untouched by many media consumers and American citizens.


“There’s not going be any change until you are in the shoes of the other person,” Montes said. “When you understand their situation you are able to see more and you are able to expand your vision of our shared problem.”


The figures withdrew from their shrouds to shout, "I dare to dream," as students shuffled past, unsure of how to react. Photo by Jeff Jacobsen - UVU Review

And a shared problem it is, although some Americans, Montes claimed, think that immigration is “not their problem.” Some Americans feel like undocumented immigrants are held to a different standard, claiming American lawbreakers are held accountable, and undocumented Latinos are not.


The majority of these immigrants though, Montes said, are not intentionally breaking the law, and are willing to work within the law to officially become a part of the culture to which they now belong. Therein lies the spirit of Montes’ work.


Through her art, as well as her bilingual blog that offers articles helping illegal immigrants find legal alternatives and solutions, Montes seeks to bridge the cultural gap between Americans and immigrants. The gap that breeds hate and confusion, and that casts a shadow on so many Latinos.


Montes is planning several more installations this year, tackling this topic as well as encouraging Latinos, both documented and undocumented, to do all they can to become productive members of society. Tolerance, acceptance and understanding, Montes claims, are the keys to a healthy outcome of this widespread issue.


A closer look at the painted face of the shrouded figure representing life "In the Shadows." Photo courtesy of Paula Montes

“To understand the struggles, to understand what they go through,” Montes said, “you don’t need to be a Latino. You just need to be a human.”


By Jeff Jacobsen – Online Content Manager