By Lindsay Buchman
De Aquí Para Allá is a solo exhibition by Stephanie Garcia curated by Rami George at PostScript Gallery in the Crane Arts building. Garcia’s work includes audio and imagery mined from childhood memories, exploring familial immigration stories through epistolary forms, family archives, and audio-documentary. Spanning conversation from the gallery, previous projects, and written exchanges, Lindsay Buchman interviews Stephanie Garcia on her current and recent work.
Lindsay Buchman: In spending time with your show, along with your previous projects, I noticed that you often dedicate your work – “In honor of all those who have dreamed…”, “To all those whom have made it from there to here and to all those whom have not”, or even in the instance of your printed ephemera with the stories of undocumented immigrant workers for gallery viewers to take (Intercambio) – you are committed to paying homage to the lives of those who have been marginalized, silenced, and erased. What is the role that dedication plays within your work, and how do you choose to employ strategies to center these voices?
Stephanie Garcia: For me, the dedications within my work serve two purposes. One purpose is to honor those involved in the project that have chosen to remain anonymous for safety reasons. The second purpose is to honor all of those that have similar life experiences that will never be given the opportunity to share their story. The dedication is about acknowledging the countless people that, as you’ve put it, have been, are currently being, or will be marginalized, silenced, and erased. Their lives and experiences are just as valuable as anyone else’s and they deserve to be recognized and remembered. Much of my work is about creating a space where the stories of undocumented immigrants can be heard and inviting the viewer to just listen.
LB: Your exhibition is comprised of 4 central pieces, De Aquí Para Allá, Te Quiero, From Here to There, and La Paz Sea Contigo, which are all in conversation with one another. You mentioned the importance of spatial distance between De Aquí Para Allá (video) and From Here to There (video), situated directly across from each other in the gallery, as a gesture to the metaphorical distance you are trying to embody. Both videos utilize the story of your mother’s border crossing, as well as your childhood recollection of learning what it meant for your parents to be undocumented. In your audio interview with your mother (De Aquí Para Allá) and your own autobiographical account (From Here to There), you touch on the importance of maintaining cultural heritage, the relevance of family photographs, and the risk taken to continually maintain ties to México. You seem to be thinking about space – metaphorically, physically, temporally – and how it can be articulated through the voices of your subjects, your writing, and the positioning of images and objects. Could you unpack how these spatial relationships function for you?
SG: Both the placement of the videos and titles of the two pieces have a ton of significance to me. De Aquí Para Allá translates to From Here to There. Firstly, the title and placement are a reference to the physical distance of my mother’s journey from México to the US. Secondly, this space speaks to the passage of time since my mother arrived in the US to me realizing what that journey meant. Thirdly, it signifies a change in the narrator. This is not only evident through the change in voice, but also the change from Spanish to English, my mother and my preferred spoken language. Lastly, the placement and title are a metaphor for how the journey back through memory and family photos has changed my current understanding of my lived experiences and familial relationships. De Aquí Para Allá and From Here to There are placed across from one another because they are retellings of the same memory, but from two different perspectives. They are in dialogue with each other yet can stand alone. The viewer must move between the two in order to fully understand the whole story.
LB: I’m still thinking about your description of the show, in which you point to gaining new insights about the complexities of your upbringing, reminding us that these understandings are no less resolved; this seems to be playing out in your work as well. In Te Quiero, you present hand-written, kraft paper letters as a correspondence between you and your mother, where you discuss discrimination against migrants, ‘the land of opportunity’, your parents’ pathway to receiving citizenship, and your ability to attend college based on the sacrifices they made for you. You end the dialogue shortly after your mother says that her life is good now (even though we are privy to her harrowing experience in your videos). While there is hope embedded in her story, you make a conscious decision to contrast this with La Paz Sea Contigo, which functions as a vigil for those who are in plight; La Paz features a single candle altar, serenaded by Ha Venido el Señor, with fragmented images visualizing the southern California terrain – an aerial view of the mountains crossed. How would you describe the relationship of these works? Are you interested in problematizing the viewer’s experience as a way to deepen their understanding of this unresolved position?
SG: I actually cannot take any credit for the description of my show! My wonderful friend and curator, Rami George, wrote that based off of conversations we had about my new work. He’s an amazing artist in his own right.In answer to your questions, yes, I am interested in problematizing the viewer’s experiences. The letters in Te Quiero, which translates to “I Love You,” are written documentation of what our familial love has had to endure over time. They focus on my mother and my shared experience, of the love between us. In some ways, they are a recognition of how incredibly fortunate I am to still have my parents. La Paz Sea Contigo, which translates to “Peace Be With You,” is a shift from the personal narrative to a much larger, political narrative. It serves as a reminder that there are still many people hoping to make it from their country of origin to the US and there are many who have not made it from there to here. It is also a reference to the immense amount of faith that immigrants have when crossing the border in pursuit of a better life. The lyrics to Ha Venido el Señor translate to “The Lord has come to bring us peace.” To me, the journey of undocumented immigrants does not end once they’ve successfully crossed the border. I hope that many find peace once they begin their new lives here. La Paz is also a memorial for those who have lost their lives in pursuit of a better life. I hope they have found peace as well.
LB: In your previous risograph newsprint, You may say I’m a dreamer…, you position John Lennon’s Imagine with DACA (including the song’s relevance at a DACA protest), DAPA, and your own dreams, making a case for the validity of people’s hopes and aspirations to see and affect change. You are quick to state that you do not think this alone will solve the world’s problems, but suggest there is value in recognizing people for their humanity. There seems to be a recursive effort in your work to humanize your subjects through storytelling—through a type of meaning-making that edifies the human experience. Do you see vulnerability and connectivity as feeding into this process?
SG: Absolutely. You may say I’m a dreamer… arose from the sadness I felt of seeing people being treated as less than human simply due to their citizenship status. People were being discussed solely in political terms and it disturbed me. By reducing human beings to nameless figures, to objects, it almost made the mistreatment of them excusable and it is not.
There are some people who have never met an undocumented immigrant before. Their opinions are based off of the negative portrayal of undocumented immigrants they see in the news or what they’ve been taught by their family or friends. Their idea of who the vast majority of undocumented immigrants are is grossly misconstrued. By humanizing my subjects, I hope that people will begin to realize we’re all not that different. I hope that they will start to have a bit of compassion for their fellow humans.
LB: Considering the role of the voice—audibly or within writing and narrativity—there are many voices one assumes, but yours consistently holds a tone that rests between calm and emotively charged. No matter how many encounters I’ve had with your work, I find it difficult to experience without having a visceral mind-body response. The voices you communicate in, your way of editing, leave just enough raw information to keep one’s heart lodged in the throat, and yet you return to spaces of hope despite your descriptions of pain, and what, for many, has been lived trauma. What has the process of writing been like as you’ve harnessed personal and public accounts into your work as an artist?
SG: It used to be a very difficult and emotionally intense process. When I started this work, I knew I would hear deeply moving and perhaps disturbing stories, but I don’t think I could have ever prepared myself for the journey I was about to embark on.
Before I start interviewing people, I make sure to clearly explain to people why I am interested in interviewing them, what the interview is about, where their stories will be shared, etc. I tell them they can tell me as much or as little as they want, can refuse to answer a question, and can always contact me afterwards if they no longer want to be involved. For those who are not documented, safety is both a concern and a priority. I never record their names or the location where the interviews were conducted.
The actual interview process is an experience I’m not sure I’ve quite learned to capture yet. This is to say that although many people will hear someone’s story, it’s such a different experience hearing a story from the person themselves in a place that is familiar to them. I’ve seen people cry and I’ve laughed with them in the back of their grocery stores and in the kitchens of their restaurants. I’ve been invited into their lives with open arms and with such kindness and generosity. I’ve seen how resilient they are. You really have to be there to understand that experience.
With family members, collecting stories can be somewhat harder. When I started this work, I knew that I wasn’t just putting myself out there—I was putting my entire family out there. They’re very supportive of me as an artist, but I do not want them to feel obligated to share their story simply because they love me. It can be difficult to navigate that at times. Deciding to incorporate my own memories into my work was another big step. I had never talked about my experience with anyone apart from my sisters. Though it brought up a ton of emotions, writing helped me make sense of my childhood and my relationship with my parents.
Language is another thing I grapple with when writing. All of my interviews are conducted in Spanish and I myself translate the stories. I am constantly thinking about what words or phrases I should leave in Spanish either because they lose their meaning when translated into English or because I want a non-Spanish speaking viewer to figure out what it means. Translation takes a long time, but it gives me time to sit with these stories, to really understand them. Once I finish writing or translating, I’m always left with this feeling of have I done enough? Am I doing these people justice? Am I doing the right thing? People have trusted me not only to share their stories with me, but for me to share their stories with others. It is a really great honor. People tell me that it is enough that I’m getting their story out there because perhaps it will make a difference in the world and will further our people’s cause. When I first started making work, I had a hard time believing that it was enough. Sometimes I still struggle with that feeling, but I remind myself there is only so much I can do.
LB: I keep thinking back to Audre Lorde’s The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, in which she states: “Your silence will not protect you” [re: her silence not protecting her as she’s confronted with her own mortality]. But it’s the opening line that seems apt for your work, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” In talking with you, it is clear how much emotional labor goes into sourcing your own personal stories; there is risk and there is urgency. Could you discuss your decision to share what is most important to you in such a direct, transparent, and public way? Do you envision your use of language transforming into action?
SG: I remember the moment I decided to start making this kind of work quite vividly. It was on September 5, 2017—the day it was announced DACA would be repealed. I was sitting alone in my room when I got the news and started to sob. I called my mom and she told me, “Esto no es algo nuevo.” (“This is nothing new.”) She was right. The uncertainty and fear that many were experiencing at that moment was nothing new.
After that phone call, I realized that I not only needed to do something, but that I had finally reached a point in my life where I felt safe enough to be able to do something. My parents had become citizens when I was a teenager and we no longer needed to live in the shadows. I recognize that for some people coming forward is not possible, as they still have much to lose. I also felt (and still feel) that by allowing the government to mistreat undocumented immigrants and spew hateful rhetoric about them and other marginalized groups with little to no consequence, we would begin to normalize that behavior and language. I could not, and will not, be complicit in that.
I envision my use of language transforming into action. As I mentioned before, I know that not everyone who encounters my work supports undocumented immigrants, nor will my work necessarily change their stance. What I do hope is that it will cause them to pause and think about someone in their own life that has cared for them, that has showed them compassion. Regardless of their political leanings, I want viewers to acknowledge that undocumented immigrants are people and that they should be treated as such. As a country, we need to start finding solutions to the crisis we are currently facing.
LB: In your audio-interview, De Aquí Para Allá, your mother describes the process of traveling with a coyote and the fear and danger of crossing. There is a response you made that stuck out to me where you ask about those who are lost during passage, and she responds with “…but for those that people don’t know, who knows how their family knows?” How would you describe your relationship to loss and uncertainty? Do you consider your work to be an attempt at marking those who are invisible as a result of this passage?
SG: That’s a really good question. I’ve come to be comfortable with living in uncertainty and with loss, for better or for worse. Growing up, I was never sure that my parents would be home when I got there. That sense of uncertainty was my normal and it terrified me at times. Apart from that, my parents, my siblings, and I had to figure out how to navigate the US together. There were so many new things we encountered as a family that my parents had never encountered before. It was a learning process for all of us. Some situations we faced required great faith and trust of others. I learned how to be comfortable with not knowing what came next.
Today, many members of the Latinx community, regardless of their citizenship status, live in uncertainty. People don’t know if their DACA status will be renewed, if they will be caught during an ICE raid, if they’ll have a safe border crossing, or if they are detained, if they will ever leave the detention center. Fear and uncertainty are being used to strip people of their sense of safety.
To me, loss can be about losing someone physically, it can be losing a sense of who you are or who you thought you or someone else was, or it can be losing a sense of security, among other things. All of these things can be both sad and terrifying. Additionally, I think for me, loss and uncertainty have made me understand my parents’ decision to come to the US. They chose to cross the border even though they knew losing their life was a possibility. That’s not an easy decision.
When I asked my mother that question, I was trying to draw attention to those who are invisible as a result of this passage. Family and friends of undocumented immigrants expect to receive a phone call from their loved one telling them they have crossed safely or that they were caught and are returning home. I remember the anxiety that used to fill my house when we knew someone was attempting to cross and the immense sense of relief everyone felt when we heard their voice over the phone. For those who do not receive a phone call, they are left wondering what happened to their loved one. Family members in the US, particularly those who are undocumented themselves, will not call police out of fear of deportation. For those either in México and in the US, it may take months before they know what happened. Much like the dedications within my work, I chose to end the video with this question in order to make space for those who will never be identified or ever be reunited with their families again. They deserve to have a moment of recognition.
LB: Your new work is preceded by Yo Lo Que Quiero Es Romper La Piñata, in which you trace the history of the seven-point star piñata through China, the Spanish colonization of México, and into the present-day practices of birthday celebrations; but Yo Lo Que Quiero positions these histories in relation to contemporary violence against Latinx bodies, alongside an audio interview with your father describing his border crossing, and a video that shows you breaking fragile, clay piñatas with a bat. You described this work as “a reminder of the impact this slow violence has on the individual and on the family unit,” referencing the political climate as necessitating this demonstration. This project seems to run parallel to your audio-interview of your mother’s crossing, but you mentioned being more at peace with De Aquí Para Allá. Could you expand on the difference of each work? In a political landscape that continues to escalate its injustices towards the Latinx community, how has your experience of making your work shifted?
SG: This past year, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to support artists and activists around the country whose work addresses long term inequities in monuments. One of these artist-activists, LA native Joel Garcia, posed a question that deeply resonated with me. Speaking on his own work, Garcia asked, “How do we take a place of trauma and turn it into a place of healing?” His question was at the forefront of my mind when creating De Aquí Para Allá.
Yo Lo Que Quiero Es Romper La Piñata was the first time I sat down with my father and asked him to tell me the full story about his border crossing and life shortly after settling down in the US. Though I had been making work around undocumented immigration, this was the first time I was closely examining my own family unit. During that project, the government was also threatening to once again increase efforts to strip naturalized immigrants of their citizenship. Here I was creating a record of my dad’s crossing in his own words and publicly sharing it with the world. The fear of losing my parents was slowly returning. I felt as unsafe as I had prior to my parents receiving US citizenship.
When I broke the piñata with the bat, I had a reaction that was completely unplanned. The video ends with me breaking down and saying, “I don’t know what to do.” The year leading up to Yo Lo Que Quiero I was making project after project surrounding the topic of undocumented immigration, with little or no break in between. I was not giving myself the time to process what I was experiencing. Additionally, when I traveled home to LA, I heard stories of people attempting to cross the border, met people who had narrowly escaped ICE raids, and said good-bye to family friends who were returning to México because life in the US had become too difficult. I was surrounded by stories of undocumented immigrants, both in my work and in my personal life. Reading the news did not help as I knew things were going to get worse, though I never could have imagined the atrocities occurring now. I realize that I had lost hope.
After I graduated, I stopped making art. I needed a break to process the emotional journey I had been on and to figure out if this was work I wanted to continue making. I also needed to begin to trust myself as an artist outside the confines of school. Within this year, I’ve come to accept that I will never be able to remove myself from the narrative of immigrants as it is inextricably linked with my own. I’ve learned how to be kind to myself when creating this type of work.
I find it fitting that I feel most at peace with De Aquí Para Allá, a work involving my mother, as she is the one who started me on this journey. I think back to our conversation in 2017 and what she told me. The injustices the Latinx community is facing have been occurring for a long time and people are now starting to pay attention. Regardless of whether new policy that protects immigrant rights is enacted, the effects of the traumatic experiences the Latinx and undocumented community are undergoing will last well beyond this administration. We need to find ways to repair the damage that has been done.
Something else that’s helped me find peace with this work, is that I’ve met, talked, and collaborated with people this past year who have been doing this kind of work a lot longer than I have, who have lived through far more than I have or ever will, and they are still fighting for what’s right. They haven’t lost hope that change is possible despite the escalating injustices towards the Latinx and other marginalized communities. I take great comfort in that.
Stephanie Garcia is an interdisciplinary artist based in Philadelphia. She utilizes storytelling, writing, sound, and installation to examine political struggle and social inequality. Garcia holds a BA in Fine Arts from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the current Editorial Coordinator and Assistant Curator for Monument Lab and a Community Engagement Coordinator for a local nonprofit that focuses on park revitalization and stewardship.
Lindsay Buchman is an interdisciplinary artist based in Philadelphia. Her work explores image-making and writing through print and lens-based media, pivoting between language, intersubjectivity, and site. Buchman holds an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania, and a BFA from California State University Long Beach. Exhibitions of her work include the LA Art Book Fair at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Los Angeles, CA), The Danforth Museum of Art (Framingham, MA), Icebox Project Space (Philadelphia, PA), and Torrance Art Museum (Torrance, CA); artist talks and panels include the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Institute of Contemporary Art (Philadelphia, PA), and The Print Center (Philadelphia, PA). Buchman is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Skidmore College.