Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 28, 2006 with the permission of the Snite Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Snite Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



A Blueprint to the Heart of Migration


by Amelia Malagamba-Ansótegui

Arizona State University



The first part of the title of this exhibition, Caras Vemos, Corazones no Sabemos: The Human Landscape of Mexican Migration, is taken from one of the most popular sayings, or dichos, in Mexico as well as in Chicano/Mexican communities in the United States. Los dichos are a vital part of the vernacular wisdom of these cultures and remain current to the extent that they find practical application in daily life. Los dichos open a window into the deepest features of Mexican popular culture. Faces Seen, Hearts Unknown is a dicho that I heard my mother and father use countless times. It refers to superficial judgments about someone's life experience and character when based solely on the recognizable features of human faces. The soul, character and wisdom of an individual are found in the heart, according to this dicho, and not always reflected in the face. In repeating this dicho, my parents shared a traditional warning that, in order to know and understand an individual or a community, one needs genuine access into the heart.

The hearts of the migrants in the United States -- that is, their soul, character and wisdom -- are largely invisible to the social majority. While at times we see their faces, the migrant heart is unacknowledged in the daily routines and public discourses of this country, and the contributions migrants make to our society are easily taken for granted. What is acknowledged, what is consistently counted, are faces statistically tabulated in order to promote or modify laws based on political interests and products of debates lacking a full understanding of the phenomenon. The mantle of invisibility -- under which migrants at times shelter or at times are cloaked -- has been reinforced by the types of jobs available to them and is interwoven through human disinterest throughout major segments of United States society. In essence, this mantle of invisibility can stretch both ways. For instance, when do we have human contact with the cook at our favorite restaurant? When do we start a genuine conversation with the person who takes care of our children? We see the faces of these migrants, but we do not know the heart of this community.

The impetus of this exhibition is to facilitate deep, human contact with the heart of Mexican migration to the United States. Art is an intrinsic part of that heart. Artists have historically been receptacles and translators of the feelings and sensibilities of not only their own hearts, but that of their communities as well. This exhibition and its participating artists are no exception. For more than forty years their genealogies have been party and witnesses to the phenomenon of migration and, as such, they have opened their heart while opening hearts beyond their communities.

The generosity and honesty of these artists has resulted in intimate visual narrations of love and its absence, encounters and disjunctures, rootings and uprootings. These images explore the struggles and visions of the migrants, as well as their spiritual traditions and their insistence on keeping these traditions close during difficult journeys. Some authors have described the aesthetics of fronterizo and Chicano art as baroque. [1] Although this approximation is correct in the sense that the baroque, especially the Mexican baroque of the 17th and 18th centuries, allowed the participation in and embrace of a multitude of aesthetic positions, often times opposed to each other, it is also true that the artistic sensibilities of the artists in this exhibition have produced what Tomás Ybarra-Frausto has called the rasquache aesthetic. [2] In the rasquache experience, the formation of sensibilities is tied to existing possibilities. In other words, one makes do with what one has. The rasquache aesthetic, as this author would say, means hacer de tripas corazón, or "to pluck up one's courage." [3]

These multitudinous rasquache and baroque aesthetics are compulsory and necessary in representing the wide variety of experiences and the countless textures inherent in a mass phenomenon that affects -- and is affected by -- millions of people in the United States and Mexico. This phenomenon encompasses different generations, different migratory experiences, different socioeconomic strata, and multiple places of origin, nationality, race, language, gender and age among many other recordable factors. Therefore, this exhibition does not display a unified view of the migratory experience to the United States, but rather it opens to the emotional and contextual avalanche of thousands of hearts affected by this diverse and multigenerational phenomenon. As we come face to face with a wide range of expressions seldom experienced or acknowledged in the official discourses on migration, our first glance can be highly subjugating. It is precisely this experience that provides the inspiration of the artists and the work included in this exhibition, which I invite you to delve into and experience with an open heart. Caras Vemos, Corazones no Sabemos: The Human Landscape of Mexican Migration is an exhibition that encompasses multiple techniques, from engraving to painting, installation art to video, and one that offers an opportunity to create a deep and human connection between the faded faces of the migrants and their living, beating hearts.



Migration has been and continues to be one of the defining factors in the socio-political landscape of the United States. Mexican migration to the territory that this country now occupies has a long history, beginning with nomadic tribes that inhabited the present border region before the Spanish conquest and continues in spite, and because of the establishment of geopolitical demarcations that followed the territorial annexation of 1848. The migrations continue with the movement of people from the urban and rural areas of Mexico. Beginning in the 20th century, the social, political, spiritual and cultural realities associated with migration have had an existential impact on the lives of the Mexican origin populations in the United States as well as Mexico. However, in the past fifty years, this phenomenon has become much more visible. Today migration is a very important part of the public discourses in political and mediatic realms. The impact of migration has been different for both countries, but, consistently, it continues to model, on different levels, the daily life experiences of Chicanos and border people. Migration has systematically permeated the urban and rural areas, changing the cultural and physical configurations, altering the relationship between the human and physical landscapes.

When we think of migration, we think of movement, of an effort of human displacement that has purpose and interest. It is an act in which a spatial displacement occurs, one place emptying and another becoming occupied. In migration-art and migration-culture relationships, however, the spaces 'emptied' do not cease to be inhabited, and the new spaces 'created' by the displacement in turn create new spaces. When the human being disappears, or migrates, these spaces continue to be inhabited by transnational relationships created by history in light of personal and collective imaginaries, and by the symbolic spaces that translate this movement. Migration also modifies the spaces of gender relations and traditional human relations. Identities are transformed, posing highly provocative questions about how to negotiate new personal, local, national and transnational identities simultaneously. Finally, new relationships are established between visual and verbal cultures across borders as well. It is in the apparently unoccupied spaces, and in those recently inhabited, where new aesthetics are created, power relationships are tackled and challenged, and racial matters are questioned. The artists included in the exhibition are archivists of the story of migration, its history, and the symbolic spaces created by the displacement of immigration. Caras Vemos, Corazones no Sabemos is thus a cartographic record. In this exhibition we find documentation rich in emotional impressions and interpretations of the migratory experience.

Caras Vemos, Corazones no Sabemos: The Human Landscape of Mexican Migration provides documentation, rich in emotional impressions, on the paths of the physical and imaginary journey between Mexico and the United States, as well as a multitude of interpretations of how navigation through these geographies of the heart is translated into the sections that make up this exhibition. The first section is an introduction to its general theme. The work of Cristina Shallcross translates the vernacular spirituality associated with Peregrinaje, La Jornada/The Journey, as a via crucis of the border crossing that the artist reveals photographically on the votive candles (2004). Shallcross forces us to think about the popular practice of visiting sanctuaries and the meanings of the migrants' votive petition for a safe journey. It is the transformation of the migrant's journey to a pilgrimage that, in practice, act as a petition in motion, offering up all of its sorrows for a miracle.

Malaquías Montoya, in his serigraph Undocumented (1981), tackles Los Obstáculos del Camino/Encountering Barriers. The iconic presence of the barbed wire is a direct reference to the walls, the fences and wire mesh that divide Mexico from the United States. In this context, they serve as an obstacle and as a cross, piercing the body of an undocumented person. In this work, the allusion to the blood sacrifices practiced during the Mesoamerican period is translated into a contemporary blood offering that takes place on the border crossing.

Las Geografías Humanas/Human Geographies are referenced in Magú's work Aztlán Rifa (1977). The use of Mesoamerican iconography and symbolism, as well as the reactivation and reclamation of the founding myth of Aztlán [4] in the context of the contemporary automobile, exposes the tensions and the richness of mestizaje of Mexican-American communities in the political and cultural debates of the 1970s. Virgi Iñiguez proposes, in From the Beginning We Have Been Here (1995), a past farther back than Aztlán-a past that reclaims the cave paintings of civilizations that, the artist suggests, have not disappeared completely. Iñiguez recreates these images to shape new maps emphasizing the corn cultures of the past and the heritage of this ancestral food in the Mexican/Chicano communities in the United States today. Iñiguez's work touches upon aspects of the past necessary for and challenging to Las Negociaciones de Identidad/Negotiating Identities.

Caricatures have been and still are part of popular culture. Humor is always upheld by the culture that produces it, and the work of Lalo Alcaráz gives us new avenues for the use and critical interpretation of symbols created in the mass media as strategies for the construction of the imaginaries. These and all of the other works that make up the exhibition contribute directly or indirectly to the construction and maintenance of Los Recuerdos y las Memorias/The Construction of the Imaginary, the Memories and the Re-membrance.

Each of the five sections of this exhibition emerges from thematic and technical tendencies present in Gilberto Cárdenas' collection. The first theme, titled The Journey/El Peregrinaje, La Jornada, explores the mythical and everyday experiences of people immersed in the migratory experience. This section creates a visual narrative that includes, as a starting point, the decision to start the trip and continues through the course of the journey to the arrival at the final destination, with or without papers. Of equal importance is the treatment of the mythical journey to Aztlán, the place of origin of the Chichimeca peoples, which inspired Chicanos in the seventies to create their own origin mythologies. Thus, pilgrimage not only denotes the movement associated with migration, but also refers to the spiritual routes and goals reflected in the works of this section.

Encountering Barriers/Los Obstáculos del Camino, touches on the barriers and limits that are found along the migratory routes. These barriers and limits consist of physical as well as social, cultural and geopolitical obstacles. Many have been constructed to sustain a legal framework used to penalize migrants for taking job positions in the United States, which no one else desires. Institutions and corporations often justify these barriers and limits in order to manifest the perception in the United States that it "has lost control of its borders," a perception highly manipulated by the political winds of different periods and administrations. In the geographically Mexican part of this journey, there are emotional realities that likewise create obstacles, such as violence and exploitation. These barriers and limits have produced, in Chicano and border art, moving iconographies and visual narratives that have inspired other migratory and artistic communities around the world.

Migration has substantially transformed the geographical realities -­ physical as well as emotional -- of the communities involved. The works in the section titled Human Geographies/Geografías Humanas explore the transformations of the migrants' cultural and emotional imaginaries. This section touches on the immediate materiality of the experience of local communities and thwarts the stereotypical generalization that the migratory phenomenon is an experience stemming from the urban economies and geographies, and their connections to the global exchange networks. The artists' insistence on a human geography that articulates the emotional and mnemonic repertory of the migrants results in a conglomerate of deep associations with the memorialization of personal as well as spiritual records. In this section, the everyday objects emerge as points of entry into a geographic interiority marked as much by the trauma of the crossing as by the faith in a prosperous and peaceful future.

Negotiating Identities/Negociando Identidades, deals with the identitary negotiations resulting from the migratory experience. In their articulation of migration, these artists examine the fragmentation, dislocation and re-articulation of old identities into new and complex ones. The result is a multi-level narrative that encompasses bilingualism, the multinational and transnational experiences, as well as the re-localization and construction of new identitary mythologies and paradigms.

In the last section, Constructing the Imaginary, Memory and Re-membrance/Construyendo el Imaginario, los Recuerdos y las Memorias, we enter into the world of memories. The decision to leave the place of birth, of adolescence, of family and developed community affiliations, requires a resort to memories as a source of nourishment and sustenance in new geographies. But the memory processes are selective and transformative, and new memories from these new locations are also added. How do we understand the past and yet place bets in our present? How do we employ the wisdom of tradition and memories in order to transform them in innovative ways? How do we remember the fragments of who we were and how are they still a part of who we are? How do we begin to imagine our connections with our communities? In order to attempt an approximate response to these questions, as individuals and as communities, we resort to the underground waters in the rivers of memory. Throughout the virtual and real trip we take as individuals in the construction of our imaginaries, cultural products such as family histories, the photo chests of grandparents, sayings, prescriptions and practices of faith as well as the transforming labor of visual artists serve as points of entry into hearts unknown.



In the summer of 2002, my interest in Chicano art and the art produced by Mexican artists along the northern border of Mexico led me to start a curatorial project that had the good fortune of finding a like mind in Gilberto Cárdenas. Dr. Cárdenas generously made available his magnificent private collection, upon which this exhibition is based. The project is aimed at investigating the various articulations that take place between the aesthetic, iconographic, symbolic and technical strategies used from the start of the Chicano art movement. These articulations represent and discuss a phenomenon that we Chicanos, as well as border people, have experienced since 1848: Mexican migration to the United States. In addition to my academic interest, this project is driven by an intimate interest -- I am also part of the migratory phenomenon, as a migrant and a border person, a fronteriza -- an interest that is based not only on my personal history, but also on the collective history of all of my compatriots with or without documents.

In 2002, migration continued to be a current topic of interest for the academic devoted to studying it, for the artists that have developed an artistic language inspired by its dilemma since the 60's and for the transnational migrant communities that were already growing concerned about the new challenges that would surely arise due to the events of September 11, 2001. But in that year it would have been hard to imagine or predict the levels of intensity and xenophobia reached in the public discourse about Mexican migration, especially undocumented, in the United States as well as the ensuing mobilization of the Mexican communities around the U.S. in 2006, when the exhibition Caras Vemos, Corazones no Sabemos: The Human Landscape of Mexican Migration to the United States opened at the Snite Museum of the University of Notre Dame.

The dates scheduled for the opening of this exhibition could not have been more relevant if they had been planned to coincide with these events. Although it should be pointed out that one of the main objectives of this curatorial project has been, since its start, to provide an alternative vision and response to the negative public discourse ever present among certain circles of the United States society. This alternative response is intimately linked to the way that the artists included in this project live and imagine. We hope that this effort will be a contribution that enriches and broadens the artistic and cultural dialogues in and between the United States and Mexico and collaborates in the understanding of the migratory phenomenon in their human and cultural dimensions as well as the multiple contributions and complicated facets and artistic, cultural and social negotiations present in the artistic narrative of the Chicano and border artists.

The hearts displayed in this exhibition are many. The artists included here have given in their works expression to an emotional repertoire, at times nourished by anger and frustration at the magnitude of the wound, as has been described by the writer Gloria Anzaldúa when she discusses migratory trauma, but many more times informed and nourished by an invincible love for the human landscape that characterizes this very complex experience that is migration. [5] This exhibition opens the heart of a collector impassioned by the transforming visions of these artists and by the commitment to articulate alternative discourses based on the desire to create a more just and humane world. Finally, my heart is opened in this exhibition as a curator inspired by the experiences as difficult as they are beautiful of the Mexican migratory communities to the United States, the visionary labor of the artists in this display and the loving effort of a collector that has allowed the preservation and exhibition of so many and so important materials. It is my desire that this exhibition will touch many of your hearts and allow for a more ethical and humane reflection on the migrants' many faces, which we see, and of their hearts, which we do not know.

1 For an extensive discussion on the contemporary baroque see Elizabeth Armstrong and Víctor Zamudio-Taylor, Ultra Baroque: Aspects of Post­Latin American Art (San Diego, Calif.: the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, 2000).

2 See Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, "Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility," in Richard Griswold del Castillo, Teresa McKenna, and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, eds., Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965­1985 (Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California, Wight Gallery, 1991) 155­162.

3 See Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, "The Chicano Art Movement, the Movement of Chicano Art," in Steven D. Lavine and Ivan Karp, eds., Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (Washington DC and London: Smithsonian Institution, 1991).

4 For more information on the myth of Aztlán see Virginia M. Fields and Víctor Zamudio-Taylor, The Road to Aztlán: Art from a Mythic Homeland (Los Angeles, Calif.: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2001).

5 Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco, Calif.: Spinsters/Aunt Lute Books, 1987).


About the author:

Dr. Amelia Malagamba-Ansótegui is professor of Latino art history at the Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Malagamba-Ansótegui has intimate knowledge of this genre as an artist, as a fronteriza and as former director of the Department of Cultural Studies at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF). Her work with Taller de Monotipia, Imágenes de la Frontera is an example of her efforts with artists along the border. Her scholarly work focuses on contemporary Chicano, Mexican and border visual culture and art.


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