One of my favorite aspects of the Margarita Cabrera exhibit was the cacti’s differing icons and symbols stitched into the jackets, exemplifying the most valued parts of the artists’ culture. Most notably, there were multiple references to religion and what the artists saw as emblematic of their religious, racial or cultural identity (like Christ, the Mexican flag, skulls, etc.). I found this extremely important as it gives the audience a greater understanding of how to represent Mexican culture–a question that can be necessary when trying to depict Mexican characters in comics but also trying to avoid stereotyping or mischaracterizations. In addition, knowing that the cacti were stitched by actual immigrants made the exhibit even more meaningful and I appreciated seeing their stories brought to such a popular medium. I especially thought the story that Margarita Cabrera told about a woman drinking from a cactus while dehydrated was shocking and so inspirational–and a story I would not have heard had it not been for Margarita Cabrera giving immigrants a platform for their voices.
I found Arriola’s comic strip on India to be particularly interesting because of the blatant cultural stereotyping. Arriola himself was working to educate his Anglo-American audiences on Mexican culture by attempting to subvert stereotypes and by casually including accurate representations in his stories. As Professor Serrano said, his strips did not always seem to disagree with stereotypes, but neither were the comics actively working to reinforce them. With India, however, Arriola saw fit to embrace a stereotype of Indians; Pepito reads a book on India and immediately plays dress-up with a makeshift turban and a (poor, abused) cat as his snake to charm. This does not appear to contain any criticism towards the stereotype–Arriola is just stereotyping for the sake of producing a comic strip with a punchline.
This brings up the complicated concept of immigrants’ (and cartoonists’) responsibility to represent culture. People in minority groups sometimes feel like ambassadors of their groups, such as a woman in an all-male workplace. Or, of course, such as an immigrant in a new place. The weight of representing an entire group of people is heavy and unfair for individuals to be forced to bear in their daily lives. Arriola should not have to produce comics that attempt to improve Anglo-Americans’ view of Mexicans or Mexican-Americans. On the other hand, if he does choose to address issues of racial stereotyping and immigration, should he try to address said issues in a manner fair to all?
I would argue that he has no duty to do so. A member of one marginalized group is under no legal or technical obligation to avoid adding to the marginalization of other groups. As a decent human being, though, and with the mentality of working together to make everyone equal, I’d say Arriola is being very hypocritical. This ultimately undermines his message; if it’s acceptable to stereotype people from one region of the world (e.g. India), then why should it be unacceptable for people of other regions (e.g. Mexico)?
I think my one of my favorite political cartoons by Lalo Alcaraz is “Can’t Have This Lettuce” in which Cuco Rocha removes the lettuce and tomato from Bill Clinton’s Big Mac due to his stance on immigration. Not only is this calling attention to the fact that capitalism runs our political structure, but also the fact that “illegal aliens” were/are the hidden creators of much of the food that we consume. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.” While the immigrants working in the agricultural sector of American food production are not at a literal slaughter house, the treatment of them as an invisible, yet necessary and exploitable force echoes the violence and objectification of the animals lead to slaughter.
Today in class, we discussed Gus Arriola’s Gordo and how his comic, while very clever and funny, still employed racial stereotypes. As an immigrant cartoonist, I was intrigued by Gus’s choice to use stereotypes and how at times they worked and at other times they did not. In the example of the comic strip where Papito culturally appropriates Indians by dressing up as a snake charmer. While this is offensive, Gus realized his audience was mainly white readers so he had to employ caricatures and stereotypes in order to provide comics that are “funny” and “popular” to masses. This type of compromise or artistic choice reminded me of Henry Kiyama and his The Four Immigrants. In Kiyama’s work, he also employs caricatures and negative stereotypes of Chinese immigrants as part of his attempt to get his comic into mainstream culture. While it is amazing that we get the opportunity to read about such amazing cartoonists especially through the lens of immigration, it can be disappointing at times to see these immigrant cartoonists having to fall prey to stereotypes and caricatures in order to be successful. It is understandable in some aspect given the era these two cartoons were drawn in, so it gives me hope with the current and future immigrant cartoonists that they do not need to compromise and cater to white mainstream culture in order to be popular and successful.
The other day I had the opportunity to ask Margarita a question regarding the importance of her work. My question dealt with the idea that she started this artistic movement in 2010, under a completely different political climate, and how it has evolved since then. I was under the impression that due to the volatile mindset of our current political leader in regards to immigration, the cultural artwork such the cacti would have an increased significance in our society.
However, she responded by highlighting that her mission generally remained the same from when she began back in 2010. She did recognize that the political landscape and discriminatory mindsets have changed and evolved since her original beginning. Although the world around her has changed, the importance of cultural perspective has continued to hold its value in our society. Margarita was firm in her mission, identifying that cultural perspective and the ability to sympathize with the basic human experience of those who look slightly different than you are crucial aspects of our humanity.
In addition to these sentiments of explanation, Margarita also highlighted the importance of understanding the stories of culture on a individual level. In which, she heard first hand information that described the lurid details of life as a immigrant or first generation American.
I believe that Margarita’s visit was needed for me to fully comprehend the importance of her mission. She managed to use the authentic nature of culture and storytelling to create an artwork that represents shared experience.
In class on Monday Margarita Cabrera discussed her vision for the final version of the exhibit. She wanted there to be upwards of 500 cacti all scattered around a room for people to weave their way through. The scale of that project is so different from the version that we got to see at the Wellin that it adds a new layer to the project. Last week in my blog I discussed how the art struck a balance between the individual stories and the collective. The repetition in the designs and colors used in the cacti connect each individual story to the broader purpose of the art. I’m not sure if expanding the concept to 500 cacti would help or hurt this balance. When wondering around the exhibit in the Wellin I was able to observe every cactus, and make note of all the unique aspects on each of them. When there are so many cacti, I wonder if the individual messages will fall by the wayside to the broader connection between all of them. The reoccurring images such as religious figures, the sun, and the stars will stand out more and become more important then a symbol that only occurs on 1 of 500 cacti.
I really enjoyed getting to hear what Margarita Cabrera had to say about her work Space in Between in the Wellin. It is quite unique to get to see an exhibit and actually hear what the artist has to say about their work in person. Although she evaded some of our questions, I was impressed with her passion for the pieces. I did not expect her to be so closely connected to each piece in the exhibit and each story represented. I appreciated how articulate she was about each person’s story as well as her own experiences with the collaborators. She seemed to truly allowed each participant to express their identity in any way they chose, and she was quite invested in their images and personal experiences. She did a great job allowing for the many different types of stitching and representations while still creating a cohesive exhibit that transmits an overall feeling of immigration, identity and transition. The impact of having Cabrera speak to us just expanded the way I thought about her exhibit and allowed us to think more deeply about her motivations behind the project. The talk did not change the way I thought about each individual piece simply because although she could speak to the stories of her collaborators, she could not speak to their individual thought process. She had to interpret their work as the artist just as much as we did as spectators.
Now that I’ve had the time to reflect on Margarita Cabrera’s visit, I think her comment that most struck me was about the man who approached her and told her that she was disrespecting the uniforms. Her response to him was that she doesn’t see it as disrespectful, but instead transformative, and that in her view, art is about transforming the materials. I thought that it was a really thoughtful and kind response, when she could easily and justifiably have brushed him off. She followed that by asking him about his immigration history, and helping him realize that, although he himself hadn’t immigrated, his ancestors had. This was a really effective way of getting him personally involved and bridging the gap between them. She said that he actually started working on the project after this, which I find really incredible. He went from a hostile viewpoint towards her art to actively participating in it.
Right now, stories like this feel rare- stories where people can listen, change their minds, and find empathy for a group that they were previously hostile towards. It was so good to hear about this, and it was easy to see how Margarita Cabrera’s genuine care and intellectual discussion of her art could be so disarming in a tense conversation. I feel lucky to have had a chance to meet her and hear what she has to say.
Getting to meet a professional artist is a rare opportunity for me. I have only been able to do so a few times before meeting Margarita Cabrera this week. I remember the first one I met was a poet whose work we had been reading in the weeks before she came to my school. My classmates and I had analyzed her work as though it was written by Shakespeare, and we were disappointed when the poet either couldn’t remember the intentions of her words or pointed out that there actually was no meaning beyond the surface of the words she had written.
Margarita Cabrera was different. She clearly put her heart into her work, and it showed. She had excellent answers for all of our questions and even touched on ideas that none of us thought to ask. My favorite part was hearing how she would ideally have her pieces set up in a final exhibit as an entire biome of embroidered cacti. I hope that that happens someday soon and that I’ll be able to see it and be a part of it.
After visiting the Wellin Museum these past few days and having the opportunity to speak with Margarita Cabrera I knew I had express my thoughts regarding her collaborative community-project “Space in Between.” Most of these pieces were embroidered with heartfelt stories of immigrant women and families, many of which struck a chord within me.
First, I was taken aback by the story of the Chilean woman who severely scarred herself as she attempted to survive. The group of people traveling in a truck and struggling to supply themselves with enough oxygen was just as striking. All these stories Margarita Cabrera spoke about are such powerful narratives that more often than not are never conversed publicly. Why? Because as Margarita Cabrera recognizes, there are not enough platforms for which immigrants can share their stories – openly and without fear. That is why, I find “Space in Between” to be such a powerful artistic project that helps communities engage in cultural dialogue.
As Margarita Cabrera continued her presentation, I was further intrigued by the religious iconography that covered many cacti. Such embroidered figures include crosses, candles, churches, and la virgin de Guadalupe (or at least that was my interpretation of this particular saint). These images convey the religious beliefs of many of these immigrants and through them we learn more about their culture/identities. In the United States, many bigoted individuals like to believe that immigrants and American do not share anything in common. However, as a nation that has a difficult time separating the State and Church (i.e. pledge of allegiance and insignia found on our currency), they fail to realize that they actually have similar (if not identical) religious beliefs. (I do not wish to generalize but given that Christianity/Catholicism was brought over from Spain, I find that a large portion of Latinos practice this roman religion).
Overall, I am so glad our class had the opportunity to see Margarita Cabrera’s work in person and ask her questions. I am also thrilled knowing that activist/artist like Margarita Cabrera exist and that through their work they are creating open spaces for community outreach/dialogue. After all, I firmly believe art is an important tool that can have the power to change the way we think about certain issues by creating spaces space for these issues to be acknowledged/transformed.