‘Coming out’ undocumented: Exhibit shows the faces of young illegal immigrants

July 14, 2012

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Fifteen large-scale black-and-white portraits dot the grounds outside Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. The young people depicted in the photos are all illegal immigrants living in Chicago who chose to “come out” and publically declare their immigration status as part of the Coming Out of the Shadows campaign. The exhibit, I Define Myself: Undocumented and Unafraid, runs at Hull-House through July 28, but will travel to other cultural centers in Chicago during the academic year.

To create the images, the museum collaborated with the New York studio of Paris-based JR. The famous street artist, who was awarded the $100,000 TED Prize in 2011, encourages individuals and groups to take black-and-white photo portraits and send his team the files. The artist and company then create enormous prints to send back to their creators, who display the prints in all kinds of non-traditional public locations. For example, a group of Native Americans in North Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation displayed their prints on construction trailers, garage doors and tepees; a community of novice monks in Chiang Mai, Thailand, hung theirs on the sides of houses and village walls.

JR has said he hopes to use the project, called Inside Out, to “transform messages of personal identity” into art. In the case of the Hull-House exhibit, Program Director Harish Patel said the portraits “call into question complex notions of visibility and identity” and “[play] with themes of legitimacy and authority.”

Several portrait subjects performed poems and read essays during an open mic session at the exhibit’s opening in late June, including Jorge Mena, a University of Illinois at Chicago graduate and one of the leaders of the immigrant youth justice movement. Mena’s poem, entitled “Immigrant Suicide,” deals with the deaths of 19-year-old Gustavo Rezende of Marlborough, Mass. and 18-year-old Joaquin Luna, Jr. of Mission, Texas. Both were undocumented immigrants who killed themselves within the past few years. Mena weaves lines from news reports about the deaths into his poem, such as these lines from a Metro West Daily News story, “Immigrant’s suicide leaves behind pain.”

This world would never be his own

Amongst trees he walked

I wonder what he was looking for?

Hanging himself from a tree in the woods of Massachusetts

Immigrant’s suicide leaves behind pain

He was told his dream would never be achieved

You can hear Mena’s moving recitation of the poem in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Jorge Mena spoke at an event presented by the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in June. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.