Activism

Queer undocumented artist Julio Salgado speaks out

Artists often choose to take big risks: In 1971, Chris Burden made art history when he had his assistant shoot him in the arm; just last November, Petr Pavlensky nailed his scrotum to Moscow's Red Square cobblestones. These artists' transgressions were aesthetic choices; when Julio Salgado, who migrated to the United States from Mexico when he was eleven, creates art, his choices go further. When he dares to illustrate his experience as an undocumented, queer person living in the United States, he risks arrest and deportation for existing on this side of the border without state-sanctioned papers. To Salgado, the risk is worth it. The very same activists who inspired him to come out of the closet as both queer and undocumented have used his posters in migrant justice campaigns across the United States. Westword spoke with Salgado about his story, his art and his free workshop, Undocuqueer Voices: Stories of Growing Up Queer and Undocumented, which he will lead with with poet Yosimar Reyes on March 18 in Boulder. See also: Immigration activists deliver photos to ICE detainees [jump]

Westword: Talk about your story and how it informs your work.

I came here when I was eleven years old. I didn't speak the language. I like to be able to talk, and not being able to communicate when I got here was a huge thing for me. From a young age, I was always the kid who was drawing in the back of the class. I realized that art was a way to make friends. You can say so much with a piece of art.

That was 1995. That was also the year that I discovered the work of Frida Kahlo. Her work touched me, because there was so much emotion and so much of her in her work. I was like, "I want to be able to do that."

I grew up here. I was learning English and trying to develop myself. I never saw myself as an artist, but I knew that I wanted to draw and be creative in some way. All through high school, my teachers told me, "When you graduate, you can be an artist. You can go to art school." Because I didn't have papers, I had to figure out alternative ways to do the art thing. I wanted to go to New York and be an artist and do the things that young artists want to do. I couldn't afford it. Luckily, that year, in 2001, the law changed in California, and I was able to pay in-state tuition. I started community college as an art major. I did that for a couple years, and then I switched to journalism. That's how I developed myself as an artist.

You know, the whole undocumented and queer part, that was always there, but it wasn't like I was out to a lot of people in 2001. A lot of us who came from that generation, we were always told not to say anything. We were told: "Be secretive." You had to be really careful whom you told. If you confided in your counselor, they didn't know what to tell you. It was a secret, and I also connected it to my queer identity, which was also secret. I didn't tell a lot of people.

It wasn't until a lot later that people started coming out as undocumented. It wasn't until 2010 that they were coming out of the shadows and putting a face to the issue. I was older than some of those folks who were coming out, and I was really inspired by those actions. I wanted to do something about it. Art is what I know how to do best.

Continue on for more about how Salgado's art is used in the migrant justice movement.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris