Artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez brings migrant and undocumented issues to light in a new episode, “Migration is Beautiful.” The episode is part of a documentary web series, “Voice of Art” which airs on Pharrell Williams’ I am OTHER YouTube channel. The episode focuses on artists-activists using online and offline art and activism to bring about definitive changes to immigration policy and perceptions of immigrants, and spotlights not only Favianna, but actress and activist Rosario Dawson and Pulitzer-prize winning author Jose Antonio Vargas. We caught up with the artist for the scoop on the episode, art as activism, and how you can get involved.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up in Oakland, California, and was raised by parents who had migrated from Peru to California in the late 60s. Like many Latino migrant families, my parents did not have a college education, but worked tirelessly to make sure I was an all-star, honor-roll student. I showed signs of being an artist very early on, winning art contests as a child and being on Spanish television sharing my art. I was obsessed with drawing and making paper compositions, and my parents would let me convert our kitchen to my personal gallery. Although they were always very supportive about my art, they were very pushy about me pursuing a career in medicine or engineering. I could care less about math or science, but I obeyed, and spent my summers and Saturdays in math camp. I never took a formal arts class in high school, because I was too occupied with the taking care of my college requirements and excelling in physics, chemistry, and calculus. Although I ended up getting numerous scholarships and getting accepted to UC Berkeley, something did not feel right to me. I felt like I was living a life defined by my parent's goals, and not mine. Not until I turned 20 would I make a change and never look back.
When did you start seeing art as activism?
I started making art because I didn’t see positive images of myself as a woman of color when I was growing up, and not only did I feel invisible, but also failed to see myself as a vibrant part of American culture. Growing up in the 90's, it was rare to see empowered, strong, bold Latina women in film, in magazines, in the books I had to read to pass my high school English classes. And what I DID see, was filled with hate for Latinos. When I was 16 years old, our governor in California, Governor Pete Wilson, introduced the first state based piece of anti-immigrant legislation known as Proposition 37. This was the first time I began to hear words like "illegal" used against me and people in my community. I also witnessed the ways in which so many of my Latino peers were not being served by the school system, and were being profiled as "gang members" or as non-college bound students. Racism at the institutional level was so blatant to me in my high school years, that I had to do something. It's then when I became a community organizer and helped organize students in my school, leading marches and walkouts to protest anti-migrant and anti-youth legislation.
Art became a way for me to have a voice, to break tradition, and to redefine myself.
How did you get involved with this specific project/episode?
Art has opened many doors for me. It has opened the doors of the world, literally, and I have been fortunate to meet many other artists who are also committed to social justice and who want to build a better world. And while I spent a good chunk of my adult life organizing for political change, I felt something was missing. The artist in me did not always feel included in the political spaces. In fact, I think most people did not really see the powerful role that artists could play. I have always believed that artists can transform politics in a way that no other medium can. So a few years ago, I decided to try to merge my two worlds and to support as many of my fellow artists as I could. Especially Latino artists. Although we now make up 50 million of people in this country, we are extremely underrepresented in the arts. And this must change.
Why/how do you think art can be used as a means of activism?
Not only does art have the power to shape thoughts and change hearts, art also has the ability to shape our laws, change society, and speak truth to power.
What's the significance of the butterfly motif?
The purpose of the butterfly, is to reimagine migration as something beautiful and natural. The symbol of the monarch butterfly had been adopted by various migrant rights organizations, artists and lovers of justice. It was not my idea; it was an idea that's been circulating throughout Latin America for a number of years now. I love to see how it has grown and I'm happy to be an artist that helps disseminate this message.
Like the monarch butterfly, human beings cross borders in search of safer habitats. Like the monarch butterfly, human beings cross borders in order to survive. The butterfly is ultimately about our right to move.
What were you hoping to accomplish in the moment at the DNC? What were you feeling?
I was tremendously inspired by the bravery of the undocumented riders of the No Papers No Fear Ride for Justice, like so many people around the country. I wanted to go to the DNC with a group of artists to make my voice heard, and to stand in solidarity with the riders who risked arrest. I didn’t know what to expect, but when things were happening, I felt a tremendous source of collective power, as everyone there did. I felt the power of unity and the power that we each have by makings a statement with our bodies, with our art, with everything we have. I was humbled by the sheer fierceness of the undocumented mothers especially, who bravely spoke out against the injustices and successfully sent a message to the entire world!
What are your thoughts on Rosario? On her presence at the DNC?
I met Rosario many years ago during a hip hop delegation to Havana, Cuba, and I have always been inspired by her commitment to activism. Rosario does not just call herself an actor, she calls herself an activist. She has used her visibility as a culture change to raise awareness, and that is something I hope to aspire to as well. Our time on this planet is short, and I believe that we should use our voices to build a better world for all.
What were your thoughts on Jose Antonio Vargas and his immigration stance?
Jose Antonio Vargas is a close friend of mine and has always looked out for me as an artist. He constantly is making sure that I spend time on my art practice, and I'm incredibly thankful for his friendship. I met him just a few weeks before he came out in his article in the Washington Post. I see Jose Antonio Vargas as an artist, specifically as a writer. He has achieved in very little time what would have taken others years to do. I think one of his biggest gifts to the migrant rights space was his front page story on TIME Magazine. I love that is he dedicated to discussing immigration not just as a Latino issue, but as an issue facing ALL human beings, from ALL walks of life. And wow, I've learned so much from him about the sheer numbers of Filipino undocumented folks living in this country.
Can you tell me about your two organizations, CultureStrike and Presente?
CultureStrike seeks to support the national and global arts movement around immigration. It is a network of artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and other cultural workers who want to fight anti-immigrant hate by amplifying the stories of migrants. Presente.org is the country's largest online Latino advocacy organization that works to elevate the voice and profile of the 50 million Latinos living in the United States. I co-founded both of these organizations because I believe in the power of culture, and in the power of information. Not only is this about creating culture, it's about disseminating it.
What do you hope viewers "get" from this episode?
I hope that viewers are inspired to understand that their voices and their actions matter when it comes to speaking out for migrants. We cannot idly stand by while unjust laws are devastating people, children, mothers, students, and workers around the world. I hope that everyone who watches this can help talk to their communities about the need for humane solutions, and start helping spread messages that undocumented people should not be criminalized. I take huge inspiration from the LGBTQ movement, who with their stories and use of art and culture, was able to shift the attitudes in this country. We can do the same.
In just a few days, we will hear renewed promises for immigration reform from our President and elected officials. In the past, these promises were followed by a sharp rise in deportations and tragic devastation of migrant communities on many fronts. More than ever, we need for everyday folks to help share a vision for what REAL immigration reform looks like - REAL reform that offer a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million migrants in the U.S., no less. REAL reform that ends the nightmares of deportations and an end to failed enforcement programs. REAL reform that allows us to see the beautiful human beings that migrants are. No more delays, no more excuses.
What’s your hope for art’s influence in our culture?
Art rocks. Too often, Latino families don't encourage our children to be artists, dancers, playrights, writers, poets, or musicians. We have to stop and understand that culture is a key way to make sure our communities thrive. Let's just not encourage our young people to pursue math and science, let's push them to also be artists. The current and next generation of Latino children is yearning for more content that reflects who we are.
Watch the trailer below and catch the episode on the I am OTHER YouTube channel!