Paola de la Calle’s Art Helps Us Imagine a Future Without Forced Migration

On June 26, 2019, the front page of The New York Times showed the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, floating on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico. All the weeds in the photograph are in motion, pulled to the left of the frame. Perhaps this is how the wind weeps, roars, and mourns the violence of border crossings.

In the photograph, the water is muddy, and Angie’s left arm is seemingly holding her father’s neck. Neither of their faces is visible. Her father’s T-shirt, which wraps tightly around Martínez Ramírez’s torso, also shields Angie’s upper body. Angie’s shoes still protect her feet; her father has had no such luck. His knees dig into the river’s floor and his bare feet float above water. Martínez Ramírez’s limbs give the allusion that he can still move; that his body is in control. This is not the case. Neither of them survived.

Taken by journalist Julia Le Duc hours after Martínez Ramírez’s and Angie’s deaths, shared by the Associated Press on social media, then repurposed online and in print by The New York Times, the image subjugates Martínez Ramírez and Angie to perpetual laboring. In appearing on the cover of The New York Times alongside the title “Photo of Drowned Migrants Captures Pathos of Those Who Risk It All,” the publication asks the father and daughter to render a certain narrative tragedy for readers or for anyone who is walking by a newsstand, or scrolling through Instagram, TikTok, and more.

“In an ever-growing migrant United States, how do we learn to see the immigrant as more than a foreigner and/or an illegal alien? How do we remember those who die in their migratory journeys? And how do we collectively imagine a future without forced migration?”

Alán Pelaez Lopez

The narrative labor forced upon the two is a juxtaposition to the image of Mexican migrants and other Latin American and Antillean migrants as “drug dealers, criminals,” and “rapists,” as former President Donald Trump disparangingly called them. In an ever-growing migrant United States, how do we learn to see the immigrant as more than a foreigner and/or an illegal alien? How do we remember those who die in their migratory journeys? And how do we collectively imagine a future without forced migration?

For 31-year-old Colombian American Paola de la Calle, the answer is art. As the Boston-born daughter of two undocumented Colombian parents, de la Calle’s life in the U.S. has felt limited by the controlled images of Colombians as drug dealers; Colombia as a geography of war; and the narrative that undocumented people are a criminal group. To combat xenophobic tropes, de la Calle uses her art as a way to reimagine migrant futures. Through large-scale textile collages, installations, and sculptures, she introduced a visual grammar to characterize the migrant as human and Colombia as a geography of life and joy.

Walking a thin line between spectacular hope and tragedy, de la Calle’s first solo exhibition, In This House We Are All Buried Alive, refuses to reproduce traumatic images of migrants by centering her own political consciousness as a U.S. citizen who grew up in the conditions of illegality and silence. “The solo show really came from starting my therapy journey and looking at the way in which I was experiencing the world and not being able to connect growing up in a mixed-status home and how that related to my fears of abandonment and the way I was showing up in the world,” she tells Refinery29 Somos about the exhibition, which was on view at SOMArts Gallery in San Francisco in July and August.

“To combat xenophobic tropes, de la Calle uses her art as a way to reimagine migrant futures. Through large-scale textile collages, installations, and sculptures, she introduced a visual grammar to characterize the migrant as human and Colombia as a geography of life and joy. “

Alán Pelaez Lopez

The artist’s childhood fear of abandonment came from the fact that immigration officials could have detained and deported all the adults in her life. To address this legal and social anxiety, de la Calle takes to art because, in her words, “Art has allowed me to zoom in on the parts of the stories I can talk about.”

“Hanging Archive,” one of the most compelling pieces in her exhibition, consists of photographs, Google Maps images, and video stills printed on seven large chiffon tapestries. They hang from the ceiling, and their placement mimics the shape and aesthetic of a blown-up film role. Much like a movie, the piece transports the viewer to a different place. For migrants who cannot return to their countries, the land they once knew may no longer exist: Demolished buildings, the displacement of ecological organisms, and even traces of the migrant’s history disappearing can make a place unrecognizable.

Although there are no people represented in “Hanging Archive,” the artwork invites us to relate intimately to Colombia, which means that a person removed from their home can still be in community and witness their country. When one cannot go back to their countries, Google Maps and Google Images serve as mediators of digital travel.

“Art has allowed me to zoom in on the parts of the stories I can talk about.”

Paola de la calle

With “Hanging Archive,” de la Calle insists on memory as political work that alleviates the silences and erased histories of Latin America. She pairs this memory work with a text-based art piece titled, “My Accent Changes and The Crack in the Sky Grows Between Us,” which depicts 30 terracotta roof tiles that spell out “The Crack in the Sky Grows Between Us.” An ode to de la Calle’s grandfather, the piece reflects the 10-year gap in de la Calle’s early adulthood when she did not travel to Colombia and her return to the country three months after the passing of her grandfather. Prior to his passing, de la Calle planned to carry out a series of ethnographic conversations with her grandfather so she could archive his life memories, ideologies, and desires.

“I was just thinking about how the sky was the one thing that united us. We shared the same moon, but the sky is this blanket that covers us. … Borders create this sort of crack in that sky,” de la Calle recalls as she reckons with the reality of living through settler borders. Borders don’t only exist between nations; the border haunts the memory of migrants and those who were born in migrant diasporas.

“I was just thinking about how the sky was the one thing that united us. We shared the same moon, but the sky is this blanket that covers us. … Borders create this sort of crack in that sky.”

PAOLA DE LA CALLE

“Nothing is neatly tied together [in my family history],” de la Calle explains as she shares the story of her last name. During a trip to Colombia, she learned about a distant family member on her maternal side named Bejamín de la Calle. Although the artist can’t recall the details of how she found out about Benjamín, she remembers being told that he was a photographer that the family exiled for being queer. Born with the last name “González,” the artist opted for “de la Calle” to invite Benjamín back into the family archive. In this name change, remembrance becomes a daily practice that challenges queerphobia, and Benjamín can engage in a different type of border crossing, a return home.

For migrants, the question of return is always a challenge: Will they welcome me back? Will my home still exist? Does anyone remember those who have left?

In an installation titled “A Calling Card is a Portal,” composed of 17 ceramic calling cards placed side by side on an entire gallery wall, one card reads: “Entre Aqui Y Alla,” which may critique the popularized trope that Latine people in the U.S. are neither from here nor there. Melania Luisa Marte recently critiqued this concept in Plantains and our Becomings, her debut poetry collection. The Afro-Dominican writer proclaims: “Ni de aquí ni de allá is a farce,” arguing that nation-states and borders don’t create belonging. For Marte, belonging exists in the systems of care one invests in and in how one shows up for others.

“The in-betweenness of migration is not something de la Calle wants us to run away from. She’s not chasing roots or routes; she’s chasing political futures where it is easier to breathe.”

Alán Pelaez Lopez

The series of calling cards is akin to the poetry of formerly undocumented cultural worker Sonia Guiñansaca whose poem “Calling Cards” proclaims: “These calling cards / Have heart beats / We survive through phone lines.” For both Guiñansaca and de la Calle, nonhuman objects have the capacity to transform us, to breathe new lessons into us where migrants can be both in between here and there.

The in-betweenness of migration is not something de la Calle wants us to run away from. She’s not chasing roots or routes; she’s chasing political futures where it is easier to breathe.

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