When Margarita was 11, she left Veracruz and crossed the border with her mother and sisters. And for the next three or four days, it was as if she had been caught in a nether world of perdition and distress.
First her mother and sisters were separated from the group of immigrants, lost somewhere in the desert. Later, they were held hostage by the very men — “coyotes” — who acted as their paid guides and who, now, wanted more money: $1,000 for each of Margarita’s two siblings.
Meanwhile, Margarita, traumatized by the experience, remained among the dozen or so men who also had made the journey from Mexico and who teased her about her terrified family tripping through the dry terrain somewhere nearby.
This story, and 18 others, have provided inspiration to visual artists in South Carolina tapped to create works for a special exhibition called “Ecos: Resonances of South Carolina Latino Stories,” on display at the Columbia Museum of Art until July 22. The participating artists have roots in several countries, from Mexico to Brazil. One, Felix Maceda-Baizabal, recently was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and now is self-deporting to Mexico.
“Ecos” is the offspring of an oral history project managed by The Citadel’s Marina Lopez and Kerry Taylor that started in 2010. The ongoing project, called “Las Voces del Lowcountry,” is meant “to document the life and contributions of the Latino immigrants in the Lowcountry,” according to Lopez. It comes at a time of heated debate and significant controversy over U.S. immigration policies, especial the detention and prosecution of asylum seekers and children who, in thousands of cases, have been separated from their families.
“To this day, we have collected more than 40 interviews,” Lopez said. “‘Las Voces of the Lowcountry’ digital exhibit highlights 13 of those interviews and focuses mainly on three themes: the experiences of working-class immigrants and their children, the impact of immigration policies on their lives, and the emergence and development of Latino social and political organizations.”
For the "Ecos" museum show, which received financial support from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, Lopez and Taylor enlisted the help of Columbia-based nonprofit Palmetto Luna Arts to issue a call for artists and select participants. The goal was not just to transform compelling personal stories into visual narratives but to highlight the work of Latino artists.
“We knew there was a vibrant and growing artistic community around the state but needed help to find it,” Lopez said.
More than 50 artists submitted applications. Meanwhile Taylor and Lopez culled through the oral history recordings to select stories that seemed to invite a visual treatment.
“From the many wonderful and meaningful stories we had in the collection, we chose 25 audio segments,” Lopez said.
One year ago, they met with artistic director Diana Farfan, an artist herself who contributed a painting to the project, and together they worked out the technical and logistical guidelines.
Soon, selected artists were listening to the oral history narratives and choosing stories they wanted to portray.
Kerry Taylor, a professor of 20th-century U.S. history, has been at The Citadel for eight years but has worked on oral history projects since the late 1980s, he said.
The “Las Voces” project was meant “to assert the basic humanity of Spanish-speaking immigrants against a backdrop of anti-immigrant legislation at the state level,” Taylor said, referring to restrictions set in place during the tenure of Gov. Mark Sanford.
The oral history initiative, and now the “Ecos” exhibition, are really the consequences of Lopez’ experiences as a social worker serving members of the Latino community, he said.
“She felt a cultural and political intervention was needed,” Taylor said.
Lopez worked with the Charleston Dorchester Community Mental Health Center as a bilingual home-based family counselor from 2000 to 2012, then served as program coordinator of the MUSC Family Literacy Program at the Northwoods Children’s Care Clinic until 2015, when she joined The Citadel.
“During these years, there was a change in the narratives that dominated public discourse around issues of Latinos and immigration, and these became progressively more vitriolic,” Lopez noted. “These stereotyped ideas shared profusely on our local media contrasted deeply with my own experience working with the immigrant community and the stories of struggle and strength I heard (and witnessed) daily in my professional practice.”
She took note of the discrepancy between perceptions of Latinos and the actual experiences of Latinos.
“I felt then that the Latino community in general, and the immigrant community in particular, was talked about, analyzed and explained by others,” she said. “I was troubled by that and became interested in documenting personal narratives, on preserving these voices.”
Oral history was a perfect vehicle. So was art.
'I will find you'
Sammy Lopez’ acrylic and India ink painting is titled “Don’t Leave Me.” It is the story of Margarita, separated from her family during their crossing. Lopez said he drew from Aztec lore to portray the creature — half coyote, half bird: a combination of Huitzilopochtli (God of War) and Huehuecoyotl (God of Mischief) — that pulls Margarita’s mother away from her.
He used bold primary colors and a visual language drawn from comics and animation, he said. The girl’s desperation is depicted clearly, but so is her strength and resolve as if her mother’s words are ringing loudly in her ears: “No matter what happens, I will find you.”
Lopez is half Colombian and half Puerto Rican. He has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years and now is a graphic designer at the Columbia Free-Times. He works closely with his brother, Dre Lopez, also a graphic designer, and the two of them operate Piensa Art Company, a vehicle for their freelance projects and art-making.
Lopez, who is well assimilated and speaks fluent English, said the “Ecos” project has afforded him a chance to examine his heritage and identity and to raise awareness of the issues affecting Latinos.
“I would like to be more involved in the Latin community,” he said. “This is my way of reconnecting.”
Ivan Segura, director of Palmetto Luna Arts, said his organization, really more of an artist collective with an active board of directors, was formed in 2008 to help Latino artists secure grant funding.
“We’re growing a bigger network of artists,” he said. Today, there are about 150 statewide who are affiliated with Palmetto Luna Arts.
With an eye toward quality, Segura and Farfan, who also sits on the board of Palmetto Luna Arts, put the roster together for the “Ecos” project, he said.
A moral response
It didn’t take much convincing for the Columbia Museum of Art to jump on board.
Museum staff already were familiar with Palmetto Luna Arts, and they were intrigued by The Citadel’s oral history project.
“The museum’s mission is telling human stories,” said Joelle Ryan-Cook, deputy director and director of external affairs. “In our world, we just want to be able to present ... the broad human experience well.”
So it was a no-brainer to embrace this opportunity.
“It is spreading a message that needed to be heard,” Ryan-Cook said.
The good old days of merely presenting art deemed important and explaining that art to museum patrons are gone, she said. Nowadays, institutions rely increasingly on partnerships and collaborations, and they seek to raise cultural and aesthetic questions rather than dictate answers.
In this way, added Director of Education and Engagement Jackie Adams, the museum “creates a neutral, safe, democratic space” in which a variety of voices can be heard.
That’s why she was glad to receive Marina Lopez’s call about a year ago. Lopez wanted the “Ecos” project to kick off with a bang at a reputable state institution that could help legitimize and bolster the enterprise, Adams said. And that’s just what happened.
“It’s been phenomenal,” she said. “People have been extremely moved.” They are lingering before the art, reading the descriptions (in Spanish with English translations) and seeking to process the information. “I think they can really see the depth right off the bat,” Adams said.
Lopez said depth was the point. The immigrant experience is multifaceted and diverse, though it is too often reduced to legal vs. illegal, she said. Immigration policies, especially those implemented recently, often fail to take into account sufficiently the human costs, she said.
“Concerns for these increasingly draconian policies have fed all our projects and the sense of urgency of our work from the beginning,” Lopez said. “In our country, 5 million American children have at least one undocumented parent. Our moral response cannot be more deportations and family separations.”
Documenting the stories of individuals has become more urgent than ever, she said.
“We collect and preserve recorded memories of the Lowcountry residents, but it is through sharing and making these stories available to the public that we contribute to the public dialogue and better understanding of our history and culture,” she said. “With this multimedia exhibit, we hope to attract a broader audience. We anticipate some people will be interested in the artwork and others will be interested in the immigration themes. Hopefully, most of them will be touched by the quality of the artwork produced by Latino artists in our state and moved by the urgency and humanity of the stories.”