Though her exhibit, “Make America Great Again: Doors Not Walls,” local multidisciplinary artist Haydee Alonso aims to change the meaning of President Donald Trump’s famous campaign mantra.
The exhibit, which opens on Thursday, Aug. 10 at the Centro De Los Trabajadores Agricolas Fronterizos on 201 9th Ave., is a collection of artwork made by children of Mexican immigrants and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees. The display will stay up until Thursday, Aug. 24.
“MAGA is a community project involving immigrants and families that have been affected by border policies in direct or indirect ways,” Alonso said. “Immigration controversy started way before Trump, but the way he verbalized the situation with such disdain motivated me in such a peculiar way.
“How was it, that we were all having this conversation without really listening to the people that were directly affected?” Alonso continued. “To the families being separated or the pregnant women being detained for wanting a better life for their unborn child? Why weren't they getting a say in such a heavy controversy?”
To help create the exhibit, Alonso met with ICE detainees and first-generation American children every Saturday for more than a month.
“I work with detainees, offering an outlet to creatively express their journey,” Alonso explained. “The medium in which their testimony is materialized is through art workshops, which range from origami birds, collage profiles and activities that focus on personal story telling and heritage.”
An artist who specializes in sculpture, photography, jewelry and metal work, Alonso earned her bachelor’s in Fine Arts from the University of Texas at El Paso and a master’s in the same field at the Royal College of Art in London. Her work has been exhibited in France, Portugal as well as the U.K. She was born in El Paso, but raised in Juarez.
“The concept of a border came very late for me,” Alonso said. “For a really long time, I didn't realize I was crossing a bridge to another country to go to school. For me, it was simply a bridge that connected my home to my place of education.”
Alonso recently received the Artist Incubator Project grant from the El Paso Museums of Cultural Affairs Department.
“The proposed project has to involve our community in one way or another,” Alonso said. “I applied April 2016, when Trump was still running for president and ‘make America great again’ was very new and still had this strange sting to it.”
Her inspiration to incorporate sociopolitical elements into her project was fueled by Trump’s campaign rhetoric – which often became a source of controversy with remarks like, “When Mexico sends its people … They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
The nonprofit La Mujer Obrera helped connect Alonso to the children of Mexican immigrants. To work with ICE detainees, Alonso got to know members of the The Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee. In order to hold workshops for the detainees, specifically at the Otero County Processing Center, Alonso said she had to attend an eight-hour orientation.
Some of the detainees Alonso met were South American and fled their countries to escape violence. ICE reportedly detains between 380,000 to 442,000 adults and children per year.
“They’re treated kind of like prisoners; when you can visit them depends on their last names, and you can only visit them for an hour,” Alonso said. “And there’s this window, and you have to pick up the telephone.”
Many of the detainees had hardly dabbled with art before Alonso’s workshops.
“One who was from El Salvador would really get lost in the artwork,” Alonso said. “In one of the activities, I made them outline their hands, and she really took her time. She really thought about the details and what colors she was going to use and she drew the national bird of El Salvador.
“That was the whole point of them doing these art workshops,” Alonso continued. “To make them forget their situation for a second.”
Alonso said that she plans to hold more workshops in the future.
“People have been so amazing in donating materials, and there is still the opportunity to donate if anyone is interested in getting involved,” she added.
Her project helped her receive recognition from NowThis News. In the comments under the Facebook video about Alonso’s project, which was posted by NowThis Her, one El Pasoan wrote, “I still feel that if they are here illegally then they need to go and come back the legal way.”
When asked how she would respond if this was said directly to her, Alonso said, “It’s very easy for people to comment and give their opinion, which of course they’re entitled to, but they have very limited information.
“For example, say you and I want to cross or ask for refuge. Say you decide to go the right route, and I try to cross illegally. You, who did the right thing, and I, who crossed illegally, are both put into detention centers while our immigration status is being figured out.
“But you see, the difference is that you won’t be able to get out on bond. You will have to stay in the detention center until you figure everything out, while I, who crossed illegally, am eligible to leave in bond. There’s a lot of discrepancy in our immigration laws.”
Alonso is currently working on a series of mini-documentaries, including some on her project, with filmmaker Meylen Pang.
“One of the documentaries is about immigration lawyers and their take on immigration laws and how they feel the system is arbitrary,” Alonso said.
Although Alonso listened to detainees’ stories of adversities, she said that their strength was also worth noting.
“I think it’s important that we understand that these immigrants and these detainees – yes, they have suffered a lot – but they’re resilient,” she said. “They’re strong.”