Rethinking Immigration With Art

La Ruta Turquesa by Yreina D. Cervantez. Credit: Yreina D. Cervantez from the collection of Ramon Cervantez.

One of the areas today that most needs what art abounds in—creativity, artfulness, and vision—is immigration policy. The arts can contribute to rethinking immigration in both the popular imagination and in legal policy in ways that reflect the increasingly open, curious, and culturally interwoven nation, continent, and globe that we inhabit. The arts can also guide us toward policies crafted with greater generosity, compassion, and pragmatism than the immigration policies crafted during the nineteenth-century era of colonial U.S. imperialist expansion and pseudoscientific racism. They can guide us beyond cultural Eurocentrism toward greater openness, curiosity, and dialogue with the numerous cultures of our country and globe. When given the chance, apart from coercion, and in spite of prohibition, America’s peoples have long mixed with each other—liking, loving, and learning from each other.

A Visual Exploration of American Identity

Yreina D. Cervantez’s Ruta Turquesa and Tierra Firme, created in 1994 as a response to the Proposition 187 initiative to prohibit “illegal aliens” from using health care, public education, and other social services, recalls the archeological fact that the peoples of the Americas moved and traded freely across what only recently—that is, since 1848—has been called the U.S.-Mexico border, and that Latinas and Latinos in general are descended from the ancestral peoples of the Americas. The mid-1990s was also the era of English-only initiatives and of the resurgence of anti-Mexican and anti-Latina/o immigrant sentiment that recirculated the old nation-building myth that Mexicans and other “Spanish” were immigrants or foreigners, not really Americans. It is instructive that this cultural and racist chauvinism was fomented in the immediate aftermath of the United States’ annexation of Mexican California, alongside anti-Indigenous sentiment that set to work redefining “real Americans” as English and other northwestern European colonists, immigrants, and their descendents, as opposed to the descendents of the Spanish, mixed-race Mexicans, other Latin Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and the numerous Indigenous peoples who had survived policies of extermination.

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