We all saw those images of then newly-elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, embracing Syrian refugees at the airport as they began their new lives in Canada. I was obviously happy for these families getting a second chance at life. What I wasn’t expecting was sadness and bits of trauma to resurface.
I’m a refugee. I didn’t know this growing up; maybe because Justin didn’t meet at the airport (you still can, boo) and/or because it’s a complex concept to accept: part of it means that somehow you get to survive while people that you may know and love, might not. And once you get off that airplane, you have to be thankful about being a place you don’t recognize and may never come to understand.
This space is reserved to introduce our featured individual but I mostly spent it talking about myself. The thing is, I wouldn’t have come to my current understanding of my place in Turtle Island if it wasn’t for Francisco-Fernando Granados. His work and his words have pushed for a retelling of my story. I’m not his student but I don’t doubt he is an incredible arts’ educator, as he is an artist.
It took me a long time to actually call myself a refugee. I’m still trying to unpack why I was seemingly OK to refer to myself as an immigrant but not a refugee. Why do you think that hesitation exists?
It’s such an intimate decision, to talk about yourself a refugee, isn’t it? I have seen that for a lot of people the hesitation exists out of a certain sense of shame.
Portrayals of refugees often imagine the experience as one of absolute need, completely disempowered, and in a way, a position without desire.
It’s also easy to see how things like everyday racism, classism, and xenophobia can make it very hard for somebody to talk about themselves as a refugee. Especially if you are among those who get to stay, who get to take root in a new place, those of us who weren’t deported. I used to feel like I couldn’t call myself a refugee anymore once we got permanent residency because it felt like disrespect to people who are still in that process. I used to imagine it as a sword hanging over my head every day. I remember after the hearing, every day when I left from school, I would walk back home not knowing if the letter with the results from the Board had come back. My heart would skip a beat as I entered our place, and if there was nothing, I felt a sense of peace, and I relished in it. Once we knew we were going to stay and we could build a life here, and I no longer had that daily feeling, I felt like I couldn’t really claim that experience for myself anymore.
And I think for some time, I was able to forget that I was a refugee. Who can blame anybody for trying to forget? The thing I’ve eventually realized is that you can’t really forget. I can’t forget.
Perhaps some people are better at forgetting than others. For me, life has had a way of reminding me where I come from. In this sense it’s a bit like how I’ve experienced my queerness. I am so lucky to live a day-to-day life where the people around me are either queer or don’t make an issue out of the way I talk, or me holding my partner’s hand in public, or whatever. But that has so much to do with living in an urban setting, in a arts community…I forget I’m a fag. And I love being a fag, but I am not always thinking about just how queer I come across to folks who may not be used to it.
I feel a certain parallel with refugee experience. It’s so disturbing to see how stories about refugees will come and go from the headlines, because it creates the impression that a so-called ‘refugee-crisis’ is done once a country says they will accept X number of refugees. Or once you hear so-and-so got their refugee status or their citizenship.
I think the refugee crisis lives with you.
With the family. Every time a firework freaks you out, or when you call your family and they don’t answer. I don’t think you can completely unlearn that fight or flight reflex, that anxiety that comes with having been a refugee. In that sense, I am still a refugee.
At the same time, I am also a citizen, and I seriously believe in using the privileges of citizenship, a particular kind of civic voice and the power to vote, for holding governments accountable and speaking out against treacherous, discriminatory policies. Before I focused on my work as an artist, I worked for almost ten years doing immigrant and refugee community development and advocacy with a group of other ‘newcomer’ youth of different backgrounds back in the Lower Mainland, Greater Vancouver area. This group now continues under the name Pave the Road BC. When we started, we were empowered, and we advocated for ourselves. It would be too long to go into that story here, but the story of how that group formed and their history needs to be told.
I think that is the other reason why it’s possible for me to talk about my refugee experience. Because I had access to spaces where I had a sense of agency and belonging.
I am able to recognize that a person who is a refugee is more than just their need for refuge.
I have to admit that I was pretty excited to find Shakira and Selena references in your work. Did you ever worry that these pop culture references wouldn’t have a place in the art world?
For a long time I did worry, not so much that these references wouldn’t be take taken seriously “as art,” but because I feared that there would just be no context or point of reference here in Canada, where I still show most of my work. It has been really lovely to work with an artistic and curatorial collective out of Houston called Voices Breaking Boundaries. They do really amazing work, creating installations in homes in immigrant neighbourhoods in the city with local and international artists, collaborating with community members. It has been through my long-distance participation in a couple of their projects over the last couple of years that I’ve found the right context for all this work that exorcises my obsessions with Latin pop divas.
In terms of the place that these pop culture references have in the art world, I feel a right to claim them in my work. Partly because it’s so much a part of my sensory landscape. But also because I can think of Canadian artists who make work about the Rolling Stones or David Bowie—I also like him very much—and nobody bats an eyelash.
So then why can’t I turn a line from a Shakira song into a détournement, or let Selena redraw the Mexico-US border in a single speech-act during her last concert.
These women are major cultural figures. Same with somebody like Jennifer Lopez. I think the way she has crafted her persona is a fascinating allegory of US upward social mobility. It carries so much power for the cultural imagination of Latin Americans in the that country. To me, these pop figures are as interesting as the thinkers that I love to read, like Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak, or art history, or politics. I think it’s important to recognize their power. But it’s also important to remember that, like all of us, they exist in an economic context, and they work in commercial media. So I think there is room to quote them, and to quote them in ways that are not just celebratory, but to also turn these references for critical purposes.
I often wonder what I would be doing had my family stayed in El Salvador. Do you think your life in Guatemala would resemble much of what you do now?
It would probably be very by-the-book. Who knows how my queerness would have played out. I try not to think about it too much, I am afraid of what would have happened.
I’ve had a few questions directed at me about the Latinx community in Toronto, mostly about why it doesn’t feel very united. What is missing for you? What would you like to see?
I think we need to acknowledge that things like racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia continue to divide and stratify people within Latin American communities in the diaspora.
The question of unity makes me want to ask, ‘for what purpose?’ I think it’s important to think about who claims a voice for a collective, and why. I’ve never been a nationalist. Culturally, my sense of belonging is quite pan-American. I feel an aesthetic affinity with Latin American conceptualism; my pop culture references in Spanish are come from Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Spain. And I feel a deep and joyful sense of belonging with my friends whose mother-tongue is also Spanish.
At the same time, I think it’s important to ask ourselves what happens when broad statements are made in the name of a community. And that is a double bind. We want to be able to say that the refugee community, or the Latin American community, opposes deportations and stands in solidarity with the Indigenous peoples of the lands we occupy. That is vital. At the same time, there have been conservative puppet masters bringing in racialized people by the busloads to Queen’s Park to protest the Ontario sex ed curriculum that teaches children about consent, gender identity, and the range of orientations. And they do this in the name of cultural values.
Community becomes an alibi to erase the range of perspectives and experiences that exist within our collectivities.
I would like to see a collectivity that is strong and can use its power, but that cannot be claimed or appropriated by a caudillo, a heroic figure. I always remind myself that the French Revolution created Napoleon, and that he started out as a revolutionary.
We mentioned Selena, of course. Are there are other Latnix icons you grew up with/influenced you that you’d like to acknowledge?
JLo, as I said. So many: Astrid Hadad, Lhasa de Sela, Rita Indiana, Concha Buika, Liliana Felipe, Chavela Vargas, Juan Gabriel, Ana Torroja, Rocio Durcal…I am decidedly hopeless when it comes to musical talent, but I admire them and I feel like there’s something about su manera de ser that is definitely influential in some incalculable way. Even early 90’s Thalia is kind of amazing to me.
Personally, I’m finding it hard to begin the year with positivity about the future. What are some things, tangible or concepts/ideas, that keep you moving forward?
The love of my parents, my cutie, my family, my friends.
My curiosity and the desire to spend more time in my studio.
My teaching, I feel like it keeps me responsible as an artist to somebody other than myself. And hunger. I am always thinking about my next meal.
Photos and interview by Karen Campos Castillo