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

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.

Talk about how your work is used by the movement and what that movement looks like?

At first, I was making art as a selfish thing. I remember seeing the movie Exit Through the Gift Shop. In that movie, these street artists get their art out there by jumping into buildings and doing all these illegal things. They were all white artists. I thought to myself, "If I get myself into that situation and I do that shit and fucking go to downtown Long Beach, I'm going to get arrested." There's that whole racial profiling thing. I'm a bald-headed Mexican, and I don't have papers. So I went to the Internet, to Facebook, and I started posting all my images there.

There were people organizing folks who had that talent as organizers. I said, "I want to draw, and I'm going to speak out in my own way." People just started sharing it. It wasn't anything intentional. I didn't say, "Oh, I'm going to do this for an organization." It was like, "I'm going to put it out there because I have Facebook. It's free, and I can do that." People started sending me messages, and I started connecting with other folks through the Internet and eventually in person.

Making art is a way to tell a story. You are used to the news trying to tell the story for you. Whenever you turn on the news, you will see the border and people running across, and that was the narrative that was given. You are told, "Look at those criminals." That was our reality. Yeah, people were coming here, but there was never an explanation as to why they were coming. Why are they coming here? Who is coming here?

There were other stories about those of us who were already here, who were going to college and who were doing our own thing. The news wasn't telling our stories in their one-minute news clips. I knew there was a different story to tell, so I ended up shifting my major from art to journalism, because I wanted to tell those stories. That's why I started sharing my artwork. People started using it. I started printing posters, and people started using them. I was like, "Print them out." I'd send people the files, and you'd have people in Georgia or Chicago printing out my images and using them. That was pretty neat to be able to be helpful to other people who are in my situation in other parts of the country.

At what point did you start doing these presentations?

I'm not a professor. I didn't study art. Well, I did study art for three months, but quit because I didn't like someone telling me what kind of art to do. I never intended to be a professor. When I started getting these invitations, it was really weird, because I'm not an organizer, I'm not somebody who is doing a lot of that work. A friend of mine was one of the first students who did a sit-in. She was like, "If you don't go and explain your work, somebody else is going to do it for you. Somebody else is going to try to write stories about the art, and you are still alive. A lot of artists are dead. If they are inviting you to talk about your work, you should do it, because it's coming from your voice. As an undocumented, queer artist, you need to talk about this art and why you are doing it. It was often undocumented students at different schools who wanted me to talk. They wanted to talk about how we can collaborate and how the art can be another form of organizing.

My mentor Favianna Rodriguez does a lot of workshops. Many people feel uncomfortable and say, "I don't know how to draw." Favianna and I talk to them about collaboration. We're like, "If you have an idea, you can make something and put it out there." I feel like people think about it too much. They're like, "I wanna do this. I wanna do that." I'm like, "Stop talking about it, and stop thinking about it. Guess what? The more you think about it, the idea goes away." I try to spread that gospel.

Continue on to read more about Julio Salgado.

When you travel without papers, what issues do you face?

The first time I flew on a plane was a couple years ago. I got on a plane with one of my best friends, and I was like, "This is crazy." For so many years, people had said, "Don't go to an airport, or you'll get arrested." The fact that I'm able to travel without being scared of doing it is because of the work of undocumented activists who are like, "Don't act scared man. Walk like you own that airport. Don't feel like you don't deserve to do that."

It's that thing that we say to ourselves: "Oh, I should be quiet and not say anything." I'm thirty years old, and I'm barely learning these things. I'm usually careful about the things that I say and doubt myself. But that's starting to change. I'm learning it through art, and I'm learning it through the people I'm meeting along the way. It's really amazing.

Favianna Rodriguez must be an incredible mentor. Talk about your relationship with her?

I'd been of fan of hers when I was in school. I'd e-mail her, but she wouldn't talk to me. She's busy, and she gets a lot of e-mails, or whatever. Then we met through a friend. She said she had seen my drawings on Facebook and was trying to figure out who the artist was. We ended up meeting in late 2011. She had her show in L.A., and she invited me. There were a bunch of other artists there doing political artwork. She was like, "Yo, we need to sit down. Let's talk about your work and how I can help." She said, "I'm in the Bay Area. You need to come up, because the Bay Area has a lot of Latino artists who do political artwork."

I met Emory Douglas. I'm such a huge fan of his and the Black Panther movement and all that artwork and imagery he did. It was amazing how he painted black folks in a way that was dignified. There was this image of black folks as dangerous or whatever, and he changed that through his imagery. What I'm doing is nothing new. It's just a tradition of artists who want to document what's happening to their communities. Favianna has been affirming and mentoring me in a way that I never had anyone mentor me about art.

Talk about the risks involved in coming out, speaking publicly and being open about your status as an undocumented person in the U.S. How do you negotiate that?

It's been a process. Eleven years ago, we were all afraid to come out. From 2009 to 2010, there's been a whole generation willing to come out and say: "Let me show you my experience, so you can see the issue and not be afraid." That has really been the motto. "We are undocumented and unafraid."

It took me eight-and-a-half years to finish college. In 2010, when there was the first sit-in in Tucson, I remember being like, "Oh, I have a degree. I can't do that." I was feeling sorry for myself.

Continue on for more about Salgado.

Salgado continues: You have all these undocumented and queer people coming out and saying, "We're undocumented and queer, and we're going to sit in your office and do a sit-in and change that narrative." If you see that and you're undocumented, you're going to be inspired. That's the whole point. That's why people do those actions. They want to inspire the community. I think that's great: Come out and be who you are. For me, that's what pushed me to say: "Okay Julio, stop. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, and do something about it."

Could I get arrested? Could I get deported? Yeah. Sure. That's happened. We're a strong community. If you are in a deportation proceeding, we'll be there. We'll help out. I'm a privileged, undocumented person. I'm from California. I don't have any excuse. Right now, we're driving back from an action on the border, back to L.A., and we're about to pass a checkpoint, and I'm not scared. I'm not scared, because I know that if I was pulled over right now and detained, somebody's going to have my back. That's because it's a whole community that's doing this. That's why I'm not afraid.

What inspires you to take these risks?

It's because of the students. It's because of the youth. Up to a certain point, everybody was like, "The youth, the youth, the youth, the immigrant youth." But our parents are also courageous for being there for us and pushing us not to be silent anymore. It's been a huge inspiration.

Talk about the event in Denver?

I'm really excited. It's really cool that people want us to come, and the collaboration I'm doing with Yosimar is exciting. He's another really talented person who is giving another narrative about what being an immigrant is. A lot of his work is about making this country look at itself and talking about: Why is it that people come over here? Why are we so afraid to go back to Mexico or whatever country you're from? Why is it that we're talking about being good immigrants, when in reality, we're not always? Not everybody is a perfect immigrant. This idea that we're trying to show how good we are and how we constantly have to ask for forgiveness, I'm tired of that. I'm not going to be on my knees and ask for forgiveness, because nobody's perfect. Art is a way to talk about this narrative. I'm just so happy that it's getting out there and that people dig it. And some people don't. It's cool. They can do their thing.

Have you done these events before?

Yeah. I've done the art workshop and the art talk at other schools. If we don't do it ourselves, somebody's going to do it. They're going to write a thesis about it, and they're going to write their papers. Why can't I talk about my art? We are always striving to be accessible to the people who are going to see this art, because this art is a tool. It belongs to the community. It is important to have these conversations with the people who actually use the art and want to know more.

Salgado and Reyes will lead the workshop Undocuqueer Voices: Stories of Growing up Queer and Undocumented, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 18, in the ATLAS Building, 1125 18th Street in Boulder, on the University of Colorado. Admission is free.

Follow me on Twitter at: kyle_a_harris.

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

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