This Sunday, March 10, immigrant youth and their allies will gather in Illinois to make sure they and their communities are seen and heard with poster art, rallies and music. They’re commemorating the third anniversary of the “National Coming out of the Shadows” campaign. Back in March of 2010, immigration reform was a third rail issue in Congress, the immigrant rights movement was still reeling from a bruising defeat in the 2006 reform battles, and countless undocumented youth were struggling to reignite dimming hopes of one day living with dignity in the only country they could call home.
These days, the tone is different in Washington and so are the optics–a campaign led by young rabble-rousers has helped revitalize the national conversation on immigration, and by projecting their stories through the media, the act of “coming out of the shadows” has become a powerful statement about solidarity, social justice, and youth-led movement building.
The Immigrant Youth Justice League is organizing activists and artists to converge in Chicago and other communities to combine art and political messaging, and this Sunday kicks off a series of events that will broaden the public square that the movement has steadily etched out over the past three years.
But beneath these strong, defiant statements, there’s a more complex subtext in “coming out” as an undocumented youth, or creating art in the service of declaring one’s political presence. There’s that crisp tension between self-realization and collective activism, confronting a political spotlight while transcending it, to nurture internal transformation.
Marco Saavedra, an activist with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, who teamed up with other advocates last July to infiltrate the Broward Detention Center in Florida, issues this advice to the young migrant artist:
Open Letter to Migrant Artists
By Marco Saavedra
The real awful thing about being dumb enough to be born both an immigrant and an artist is that one suffers both identities & this two-fold condemnation is enough to destroy most persons. On the one hand, one must be bold enough to create in world that suffocatingly prefers commodities and standardization over free-spirits and life-activity. Moreover, if one happens to be an illegal, then, overcoming that particular mill with grace sufficient left over to become an artist means overcoming both adversity and then – if you are lucky – false praises.
In another time, the same could be said of the Negro artist: A nigger poet? A singing clown! And the indictment then would be to rise above a culture that has always fetishized minstrels. If at the end one is still alive, then, that tragedy, in which we’ve been both the main audience and the lead actors, grants us wealth enough to stand with the oldest of cantors. And why would it be any other way? Throughout time, fate, opportunity, and/or catastrophe endow some with the gift of vision and the courage of their convictions. The impact is not to become greater than their peers but to suggest “that it’s human nature to be divided against ourselves, that we are all on some level conflicted, displaced creatures, making our way within the diaspora of the human heart.”