Set against the political backdrop of bitter immigration debates on Capitol Hill, a class of ASU students is working on building bridges through their art and immigration stories from the community.
The class, titled Facing Immigration ll, is organizing two community painting events with Hugo Medina, a local muralist and a faculty associate at ASU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at ASU, for their project “Barriers and Bridges.”
The class is offered through ASU's Humanities Lab, which connects interdisciplinary faculty teams with students from various academic and cultural backgrounds to take on complex issues facing society, such as immigration.
The first event at ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus will host conversations with attendees about their personal immigration stories. At the second event, which will take place at a to-be-announced location somewhere in downtown Phoenix, community members will come together to paint the mural that Medina will have traced out after hearing individual stories from the first event.
Brittany Romanello, a doctoral student in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, is working with those involved with the project to organize the events. Romanello said the project aims to humanize immigrants and help connect people to one another’s stories.
“We had to ask ourselves, 'What will alleviate stressors or instances of oppression or discrimination?'” she said. “Because we know Arizona has been a hotbed for that as a border state.”
Arizona became notorious for the passage of SB 1070, the so-called "paper please" law that required local police to check on immigration status when they had reasonable suspicion someone was in the country without documentation.
The collaboration between Medina and the class comes at a time when lawmakers in Washington are engaged in debate over funding for the border wall and President Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency on the border.
Yolatl Perez, a senior majoring in Spanish and a current student in the class, said that humanizing immigrants is incredibly important in Arizona because national debates on immigration are centered around what is happening in the state and the people who live there.
According to the Pew Research Center, there were 275,000 undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in Arizona in 2016.
This demographic is in particular need of empathy, said Perez, whose parents immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. before she was born.
“One of the main conversations around (undocumented immigrants) in mass media is around their (costs or benefits) to the economy,” she said. “I think art can help bring their humanity and their stories back into the conversation.”
Romanello said ASU alone is a wealth of immigration stories.
According to the ASU website, ASU hosts over 13,000 international students from 136 countries.
Some of the feedback that the club received from international students at the first mural painting event last year included one student who said it “made me feel open to sharing my story and who I am” and another who said “this project helped me become less shy as an international student," according to Romanello.
However, she said that the mural is not just for the stories of new immigrants or international students, but for every American who is descended from immigrants or has been affected by immigration, "which is everybody," she said.
Medina is an immigrant himself from Bolivia who received his citizenship in 1998. He said that he faced adversity as an undocumented immigrant, but found that art is a way to transcend obstacles to communication that are centered around controversial topics like immigration.
“(Art) helps tell a story but it also breaks down barriers,” Medina said. “You don’t need to understand the language or agree on policies, politics or religion. It’s just the art.”
He said that he strives for his art to be both “positive” and “educational," and wants to explore what it means to be human.
Medina said he plans to use the same approach when integrating individuals' stories into the mural.
“Whether it’s my mural work or my gallery work, it all revolves around everyday people and everyday struggle,” he said. “It’s about our humanity.”
The first event, called Intergenerational Storytelling and Mural Design, will take place on April 12 from 1 to 3 p.m. at ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus.
There will be two community paint days on April 19 and 20, where members of the community can come and help paint the mural.