Sandy Rodríguez takes nature and turns it into art.
And not in the conventional way, where an artist might pick up a flower and merely use it as an inspiration to its masterpiece. To Sandy, a single plant can be an artistic medium as oil paint or watercolor and it can produce a million things beyond its nature. In her new exhibition, You Will Not Be Forgotten, she takes terrible pain and turns it into something meaningful.
“I felt like I had to do something,” Rodríguez said. “There is so much hostility and misinformation towards Mexican and Central American and Latino communities — we are not just numbers or stereotypes, we are more than that.”
It was December 8th, and Jakelin Call Maquin, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who was crossing the border with her father, died in the custody of Border Patrol. The headline of the article announcing her death read: “she died of dehydration and shock.”
“I wrote those words down in a piece of amate paper and put it on the studio wall,” Rodríguez said. “I just couldn’t believe it, it was so horrific.”
Two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Felipe Gómez Alonzo, an 8-year-old Chuj immigrant, died of influenza while in the custody of the United States Border Patrol.
Rodríguez realized she had to take action, so she started working on the You Will Not Be Forgotten exhibition. For more than four years, she had been studying navite plants the U.S. Southwest and Mexico, searching for natural color sources based on ancient Mexican indigenous techniques that involve plants, seeds, insects and soils. Upon gathering and combining site-specific ingredients, she mixes her colors, grinds them down and then turns them into watercolor for her masterpieces.
She has been exhibiting works from this series since 2017. Codex Rodríguez-Mondragón, a series of bioregional maps and paintings about the intersections of history, color, medicine, and culture. One of the paintings was a map of children detention centers in 2018, for which she used ProPublica’s map.
You Will Not Be Forgotten, a continuation of her project is dedicated to the seven Central American children who died in US Customs and Border Protection custody during 2018 and 2019. The portraits, like in her previous exhibition, are painted onto handmate amate paper, a type of Mexican paper used in the precontact times.
“The paper is made in Puebla by a multi-generational Otomi families,” Rodríguez said. Amate paper, made from bark and spices, was used in Mexico to create codices, important texts by the Mayan civilization. When the conquistadors arrived,they destroyed the codices and outlawed the production of the amateur paper.”
“What they really wanted to do is erase their culture,” Rodríguez said. “And when you take someone’s culture away, you dehumanize them.”
One important element in the exhibition is the use of Maya blue, which can be seen on the backgrounds of the portraits and on the Guatemalan flag. It was created in the third century when Maya painters figured out how to make a permanent blue that would withstand being on terracotta, used as body paint, and in cave paintings and rituals. It is created by heating a clay with an Indigo to make a permanent blue that is very specific to this region.
“If [the children that died] are all Maya from the Maya region, their ancestors are the ones that created this blue, that is a sacred and a beautiful blue that is the fusing of underworld material, a clay, and solar world material, Indigo,” Rodríguez said. “It’s a very important blue, but it stands in for Central American communities in this work. It’s conceptual and symbolic.”
Just before thanksgiving Diana Magaloni, a close friend, visited and was so struck by the paintings that she wrote poems for each of the child portraits that are included in the exhibit. She also offered a valuable piece of advice. “She said ‘call upon healers of our history’ so they can protect us,” Rodríguez said. “and that’s why all those healers are there next to the portraits.”
Magaloni will join her later this month to read new text as part of their program on Feb 22, 2020 2-6 at Charlie James Gallery.
For this showing, Rodríguez wanted to do a map like she did for her last exhibition. However, when she reached out to Propublica to ask them about an updated version of the map, they said they had been denied access to that information. Nevertheless, Rodríguez chooses to focus on the healing aspect of her project.
“When I first started it I thought it was going to be a three year project, but there are so many things I still want to do I think it’s become an ongoing project,” Rodríguez said. “What I want people to take away is that we are not doing this work alone and together we can fight inhumane detention & family separation.”
Here are some organizations and nonprofits that support immigrants and family reunification:
CARECEN the largest Central American immigrant rights organization in the country, working for social and economic justice, and promoting cultural diversity.
Immigrant Families Together Reuniting and supporting immigrant families separated at the US/Mexico border and supporting border partners with critical needs.
Miles4Migrants a charity, dedicated to using donated frequent flyer miles, points and money for the relocation of those displaced by war, persecution, politics and more, to start a new beginning in a new home.
Doctors for Camp Closure a non-partisan organization made up of over 2,000 physicians and healthcare professionals from all specialties who oppose the inhumane detention of migrants and refugees who are attempting to enter the United States of America.
Families Belong Together the coalition includes nearly 250 organizations representing Americans from all backgrounds across the country who have joined together to fight family separation and promote dignity, unity, and compassion for all children and families.
Freedom for Immigrants organization devoted to abolishing immigration detention, while ending the isolation of people currently suffering in this profit-driven system.
Al Otro Lado a non-profit organization incorporated in California that provides legal services to uplift immigrant communities by defending their rights against systemic injustices.
La Raza Centro Legal a community-based legal organization dedicated to empowering Latino, immigrant and low-income communities.
Refugee Transitions a nonprofit agency providing free education, family engagement, and community leadership program services to people who have sought refuge in the U.S.