“Let’s talk about immigration
Let’s end your deportation
Let’s request invitation
Let’s demand rights
Let’s let’s let’s…
There is something quite gentle in Marco Saavedra’s voice. It is a wise-beyond-one’s-years type of voice.
I met Marco—an artist, poet, and activist—this summer in Charlotte, NC, while the city was hosting the Democratic National Convention. He was one of the undocumented artists showing his artwork as part of UndocuNation, a night of pro-migrant art and activism organized by CultureStrike and the Center for New Community. Though I’d only known him through Facebook, I had become a huge fan of his poignant portraits of fellow undocumented activists.
As a 22-year-old activist, Marco deals with organizing strategies I know I couldn’t have imagined at his age. Case in point: he and fellow National Immigrant Youth Alliance member Viridiana Martinez recently made headlines for infiltrating an immigration detention center in Florida, a hybrid political action and investigation that helped draw attention to the plight of undocumented immigrants caught in the nightmarish US detention system.
Recently, I asked Marco to talk to me about infiltrating the detention center, what it was like inside, and how culture can effect change. – Julio Salgado
Julio Salgado: When did you first come out as undocumented?
Marco Saavedra: The first time was after SB 1070 passed, during a vigil in DC in the spring of 2010. I was fortunate enough to be in DC at the time. There was a lot going on, the whole momentum of things. Seeing other folks doing it gave me the courage.
What led you to make the decision to infiltrate?
This was just one detention center, but we know these injustices happen all over the country. It’s a privilege to have the ability to do it. Not just being DREAM-Act-eligible, but also being in the right state of mind to do it. We were both mentally prepared and also we had the resources. You have feet in both worlds. We knew we had a way out. It was so easy to get out. It was easier getting out than getting in.
What did you do once you were inside?
Being isolated from the other world, it’s mentally and emotionally draining. For us, it was all about distributing the hotline number and explaining about the public campaigns and hoping that their families would contact us. There were very hard cases and you’ll see people who are ready to be deported.
Do you think you accomplished your goal?
It was a very ambitious goal. Underneath it all, how do you shut down the deportation system? You start with one detention facility, with a full review, and maybe others can follow. The way that we’re doing it right now is not aggressive enough. How bad is it that they’d rather kick you out than [let you] organize inside? ICE is so rogue that they’re not obeying memos. Question is, how do you empower those folks inside? How do you give them agency? You make ICE’s work harder.
How do you think culture can create change?
You want to honor detainees. But how do you honor it and use some of it for art? It’s a bit tricky. As artists in the movement, you’re always cognizant about setting boundaries. When I was in detention, I tried to copy other things I read. Art is essential in any context. One of the most important things you can do. The fact that you can create stuff, that makes you an agent. You’re doing something. I think that has to be one of the most empowering feelings. As undocumented artists, who do we have as predecessors? Who do we look to if not to other oppressed folks who have done art? It’s hard as hell to do art and I think it’s necessary.
Talk about your artwork.
Mainly what I do is paint. I really love it. It’s the medium that comes more naturally to me. As for inspiration, I am inspired by everything. Everything I see. Depicting people that you know in the (immigrant youth) movement is hard. You’re attached to that person. How do you not let that relationship get in the way? It’s really political to depict undocumented people. This is the identity that you cope with. Even if I am painting a landscape or a flower, the fact that I am an undocumented person adds so much meaning to it. Art can be seen as selfish. I think I’ve come to a greater peace with it. It’s like organizing. It’s something greater than yourself. It’s necessary to take time to create. I am trying to see myself as less divided and [being okay with devoting] time to my art and writing and feeling less guilty about it.
When did you started to write poetry?
It all started when I was in church. We grew up very religious. I didn’t have performance talents. I would work with my mom memorizing parts of the Bible. There were a lot of good stories I was reading. In the greater immigration bubble, I wasn’t hearing what I thought I could write about. I wrote because I wasn’t hearing my voice in what I was reading. I wanted to hear my own voice. I had the need to fulfill that voice. With visual drawing, that’s something I’ve always done. I just started to read Langston Hughes, Octavio Paz, and memorizing a lot of their stuff. When you read a poem and you memorize it, it’s almost like a prayer. In detention, there isn’t much access to art tools, so I tried to write a bit more, because you find space. Visual art came a lot easier. I am surprised people read my stuff. I never thought of myself as a writer.