Border stories come alive
By JUAN ESPARZA LOERA
Vida en el Valle
(Published Tuesday, August 7th, 2012 11:09AM)
FRESNO Victoria Valdez told herself not to cry.
It helped that she had seen the 'Vidas en las Sombras' (Life in the Shadows) exhibit a few days earlier when she cried out her emotions about the journey her husband, an undocumented farmworker, had made through the desert to start his life in the United States.
But, what made the exhibit more special was the fact that her son Enrique Montañez, an incoming sophomore at McLane High School, discovered the real background about his father.
"Two years ago during the immigration debate, my son wondered why his father couldn't get a driver's license, or why immigration reform was such a controversial topic," said Valdez after the opening reception of the exhibit at Arte Américas.
"How do you explain these stuff to children?" she asked.
That was the goal behind the exhibit spearheaded by McLane art teacher Marc Patterson, who came up with the idea after reading the book 'The Death of Josseline,' about a 14-year-old Salvadoran who was left to die in the Arizona desert.
Seven hundred students and several teachers invested 50,000 hours to come up with a mixed media exhibit highlighted by a replica of a border wall, a duplicate of a desert gully littered with items shed by the crossers, and paintings that explore a student's view of immigration.
The entire exhibit -- from the plastic figures on both sides of the border wall to the paintings -- were created by the students. The leaves in the gully were carefully constructed and hand-painted. Details were given to show backpacks, cell phones and rattlesnakes.
Patterson wanted those stories told by his students, who began by writing essays and getting information from their parents and other family members.
"You don't see this kind of collaboration at other high schools," said Patterson, who recruited colleagues Matt Marhenke, Paul Germain and Rommel Contreras to help with the art.
English teachers Donny García and Melilssa Reimer edited 300 stories. Theater teacher Kellerie Aldape worked with the students in coming up with a play based on those writings, while biology teacher April García and videographers Manuel Bonilla and Aaron Fitzgerald also helped.
"This was the single most important school project of their lives. This means something," said Germain.
Latino students worked alongside Southeast Asian and white students.
The best thing about the exhibit?
Easy, said Germain.
"It was amazing how little my Hispanic students knew about the immigration issue," said Germain. "How can you not know this? Your parents came across the desert!"
The students had to get that information from their parents, coming up with stories about a proposal at the border wall, a woman who went back to get her shoe, and, a little girl whose care was entrusted with a coyote until her mother could pick her up.
Montañez discovered that his father, originally from Choix, Sinaloa, México, could not avoid stepping on cactus at night. Lights would have been helpful, but they would also have given his location away to border officials.
"You can't see anything at night," said Valdez. "He would have to take them out of his clothing and shoes."
When Montañez' father realized the extent of the project his son was working on, he exclaimed, "¡Mi greñudo está en algo!" (My wild-haired one is involved in something!).
"I almost didn't know anything about immigration and stuff like that," said Montañez, who jumped at the chance when he heard there was extra credit available.
Valdez said the exhibit helps parents better explain the immigration issue to their children.
"We have no idea how to explain it," she said.
Patterson said the artwork was designed to explain the experience of an undocumented person.
The plastic figures were created by students under Marhenke's direction. Students would wrap plastic wrap around a person in the correct pose, then use rolls and rolls of clear tape to hold the pose. The resulting coccoon would then be cut away and then reformed.
"The ability to do that was incredible," said Germain.
"When I gave them the opportunity to be themselves, the stories just came out. I just got out of the way," said García, the English teacher.
Patterson hopes the exhibit, which ends Aug. 30, can become a traveling exhibit for others to see. However, that would take funds at a time when school budgets are being squeezed. McLane has about $1,500 in its art budget for four art teachers.
"A lot of these stories could become movies," said Marhenke, the art instructor. "They are that cool and they are that interesting."
They are also emotional enough to move Valdez to tears.