Episode 05: Michelle Angela Ortiz
Earlier this year, many across the country turned to the ongoing crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, as families seeking asylum were imprisoned, deported, or separated, as part of cruel federal measures. For Michelle Angela Ortiz, a visual artist and muralist, the scenes were uncanny. Ortiz had worked for more than four years with mothers and their families at Berks, an immigrant family prison, thousands of miles from the US southern order and several hours away from her hometown of Philadelphia. Ortiz has worked to bring the stories of these detained mothers to prominent public spaces where powerbrokers may connect with stories of these mothers in new ways – including last year at Philadelphia’s City Hall as a part of the Monument Lab 2017 exhibition. Just last week, Michelle installed a new phase of her Familias Separadas project on the Pennsylvania State Capitol steps in Harrisburg, and around the city. Ortiz currently holds fellowships from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the Rauschenberg Foundation Artist as Activist program, and as Kennedy Center Citizen Artist. She regularly partners with organizations like Juntos and Shut Down Berks Coalition
Paul Farber, Host: Michelle Angela Ortiz, welcome to Monument Lab.
Michelle Angela Ortiz: Thanks for having me.
Farber: You have just installed your project Familias Separadas around the state Capitol of Pennsylvania. In this work, you represent stories of mothers detained at an immigrant family prison. Can you describe the installations?
Ortiz: The installations that are part of my Familias Separadas project are all in Harrisburg, PA. The installations are a total of eight, which include three large billboards, three bus shelters surrounding the Capitol steps. One very large installation that is 88 feet in length on the actual Capitol steps in Harrisburg and a 35-foot mural in Allison Hill, which is the heart of the immigrant community here in Harrisburg. It's also the community that's been the most targeted these past few years with ICE raids.
Farber: How did you get permission to install on the Capitol steps?
Ortiz: We went through the process of working with the Capitol and the exhibition department to ensure that the concrete vinyl decal that we're using wouldn't damage the actual Capitol steps. That was about a good month and a half process of testing the material to make sure that no harm would be done. The fact that the artwork obviously is temporary was something that was beneficial to us. I also had to submit a preliminary design. The design itself is a portrait of a mother and child. They were aware that the project centers around stories of immigrant families and specifically families that have been detained through the family detention system in the United States.
Farber: When you work in such a prominent place, do you have an intended message or outcome that you're looking to elicit in viewers?
Ortiz: Well, I think my intention for the Capitol steps was really looking at it as it’s the place where all the affairs go to that's associated with our state in Pennsylvania. What I understand about the Capitol steps is that it is a public space. It's where both Democrats and Republicans [gather], even KKK rallies happen and gather on those steps. It's an open public space where people are able to have freedom of speech and share their messages or share their stories. I felt that it would be incredibly powerful to bring the image of the eyes of Karen and her son Stephen who were detained at the Berks Detention Center for 651 days. Then after that detention, they were then deported back to El Salvador. I felt that will be incredibly important and powerful to bring her image and the image of her son back to the Capitol steps. There's this sense that after being released from the center, Karen was one of 14 mothers that were detained at the detention center that were detained for close to two years. I feel that what's incredibly powerful is being able to bring Karen and her son and her message and her story back to our state, back to the people who think that they've had her story disappear and reintroducing or in a sense actually reminding them that this is still a problem. That there are families still detained in the detention center. I also feel that it's incredibly powerful to amplify the voices of the mothers to have them, their portraits, their messages, at the forefront of all of the artwork that I'm presenting. How I see the Capitol steps is that public space, but that can still inform the viewer, inform people who are passing by, maybe upset some people. In the beginning of the installation, we had the top Republican in the state issue a press release angry about the mural. What I say is that if people are offended by the mural, they should really be offended by what's happening to these families, and they should really be offended that this is happening in our state and that we have the capacity to end family detention in our state and set an example for the rest of the country. I feel that that's thinking about centering her story and pushing that forward is I guess for me my inspiration for that space.
Farber: As a part of your process, you visited with mothers detained at Berks family immigrant prison outside of Philadelphia. What was it like for you to visit that facility and visit with the mothers?
Ortiz: Yeah, I visited the mothers starting I would say March 2017. I came at a time where the mothers felt mentally and emotionally exhausted. They had been fighting. They had been writing campaign letters. They were organizing hunger strikes and labor strikes for their freedom to be able to be released. The 14 mothers were fighting every moment that there were in that family prison. What I found just really moving and inspiring was I would go and leave Philadelphia, head over. The drive was about close to two hours, an hour and 45 minutes. We go to Berks. It's written as being a residential center and there's all these trees around. There are other places that are like senior homes. What's really a contradiction is that outside it's just really peaceful with these trees and quiet, but I walk in and everything's really cold. I have to give my ID. I have to say what's my relationship with the families that I'm meeting. Then I go into a little room with no cameras, no cellphone. I really only was able to bring paper, pen or pencil. Then I see the mothers in the waiting room. The longest length of time that I could see them would be between two hours or if it's a day with very low visits, four hours. There's a camera watching us all the time. There's a guard outside watching us as we're talking. In that waiting room, there's also two huge windows where you can look out into the restricted area, which is a park area, where the families are able to play basketball or ride a bicycle. It's a very small area that they have to go outside. As I'm visiting the mothers and their children are with them. When I visited the mothers, both of their sons were four and seven years old. And as I look out the window, I'm seeing other parents with their small children younger than that and younger than my son who's now a four-year-old. So, for me, it was more what would you want to share? What's important to tell about your story before, during, and how do you envision your life after detention? Because they were still detained. What I found that really I hold on [to] is that in the midst of all of this, they're still able to show so much love to their child, to give them a hug, to give them a smile, to let them know that everything's going to be okay, when I know that deep down inside they're not sure if things are going to be okay. I relate to that on so many levels as a child of immigrants, as coming from also parents who have experienced trauma, the trauma of poverty, the trauma of also dealing with having to make the decision of leaving, but not necessarily having the very same journey as some of these mothers have had in crossing the border. But there's things that are connected to how I see myself and how I see my own family. Then the connection of being a mother to a small child and just thinking as the mother's are telling me stories that their child's not receiving medical attention. They can't sleep in the same bed or caress their child to say everything's going to be okay if they're scared. They have to sleep in separate beds. There's always the risk of them being separated because if the mothers don't abide with the rules, then they'll be separated from their children.
Farber: What thoughts ran through your head during or after the visits?
Ortiz: It's very difficult for me to hear this because I think of myself and my own child, but I also have tried in all of my sessions and times that I met with the moms be as present with them in moments where they're sharing joyful stories and other moments where they felt anguished or they were just worried about what was going to happen the next day at the hands of the judge. I kind of needed that hour and a half or hour and 45 minutes over and back to kind of mentally prepare myself because at the same time, and I think this is really important as my role as an artist. Obviously I'm connecting with the moms on a personal way, but I also feel that I didn't set myself saying, "Oh, well, I'm going to do this for five sessions and I'll get this amount of information." It was really just building that trust and that relationship with the mothers and being okay with like yeah, two hours we spend together talking. We didn't do anything [Laughs]. Also, I think that I'm there to be present for them, right, and to offer another way for them to express themselves. They don't have time for me to feel sad or upset. Those kind of emotions I have to deal with on my own, but I think also, which I've shared every time I talk about Berks, is that it's really understanding my position and the privilege that I have to go into a prison, to go into this building that they can't leave, that it's a human right that they themselves have been denied. I take everything that was shared, everything that we worked together in terms of how this was going to be pushed out or communicated. Even now that they're outside of the center, I take it with a lot of care because this is their story. So I need to make sure that they are 100% on board on how their story is being told, how their images are going to be seen, who is seeing these images. So when you really think about the artistic voice or what are the final decisions of the artists, right, for me it's important in my creative process that they are a part of that process. It takes time and it takes trust. It takes revision and it takes those moments of okay, I'm calling you at 9 o'clock through WhatsApp, so you can see the final design because I even send it off to get printed, right? What I take of that, is that I am in awe of the strength and the resilience of the women, of all 14 women. I continue to be in awe of the strength of the families that are still currently detained at the center.
Farber: Last summer, headlines of immigrant family prisons were brought to the attention of people around the country, and this is an issue though that you have been facing at Berks with mothers that were detained. What was going on in your mind as you saw this become a national story?
Ortiz: During the month of June, I remember specifically because I was in an artist residency in Santa Fe. The intention of that artist residency was actually to sit down, make some really clear decisions on the project, begin to work on the designs, and listen to the video interviews that I did with each one of the mo thers, and really begin to kind of square out what was important in their story that I could share with them, and then work with them to see what would be pushed out. It was really difficult because this was a time that I really needed to just kind of relax and listen and to kind of process the work that I have been doing for the past three months prior. But what actually happened was during that time, I was wrestling with the sense of urgency to get these messages out, right, but then also the time that I really needed, that the project really needed, that the mothers and their stories really deserved. I couldn't just push things out that way. There was the struggle inside of me between the urgency and the time that I really needed. What I was able to do during that timeframe was that the mothers were aware of the attention that was happening, and so they decided that they wanted to send out messages specifically to Governor Tom Wolf. That became an opportunity within the national conversation that was happening around family detention to then push out their direct messages. Those were the very first video clips that went out public of the mothers sharing their point of view and also demanding or putting pressure on the governor to shut down the center. What I can also say is what happened in June has been happening for a very, very long time. I can say that when I first heard about Berks through both Juntos, which is an immigrant rights organization, and also the Shut Down Berks Coalition, which is my current community partner for the second phase of Familias Separadas, I was just finding out more information about what was happening not just on the state level, but on a national level of what was happening. These separations of families have been happening for a very long time at the border towns. There's three family prisons that exist in the United States. It's Carney and Dilley, which are in Texas, and the Berks Family Prison. How they call it is the Residential Family Center. Words matter. There's no mention of detention. There's no mention of prison within their title. What I felt with that sense of urgency, which is really difficult, right? I was able to share out other images that could be used during a slew of marches that were happening during that time and I was able to do that while being in Santa Fe, but then I also had to say, "Okay. This project really needs the time and I can't push anything out in the month June, at the height of all this attention around family separation." I think that I was in a sense happy that people were now paying attention to it, but the way that our attention span happens is like we're dealing with one topic and then it kind of dissipates. It's even more important that I continue to do the work with Familias Separadas and the stories of the mothers, but also I felt that that attention was happening at the borders. Why I feel that it's important to talk about Berks is that when people think about the larger immigration narrative, when they think about family separation, the first thing they think about is the border. They think about Arizona. They think about California. They think about Texas. No one is really thinking about Pennsylvania. I felt that from the very beginning with Familias Separadas, when I did my first set of installs in Philadelphia and really thinking about all these images of freedom and democracy, yet we live in a state where we have a prison incarcerating children that it was necessary, it still continues to be necessary, to push forward the emphasis on Pennsylvania. What's dangerous about what's happening at Berks is that with the increase of all of these children who have been separated from their families, separated from their parents, there's now a larger need to incarcerate them. There's a bigger need for these detention centers. There is business to be made. Berks County earns $1.3 million in the incarceration of small children and their parents in our state. What is dangerous about this situation that we're in, obviously the lack of attention around the issue is important to recuperate that attention. Then two is that these centers, these extra tents, these decisions of moving children from one location to another – so what we saw in New York, there was about 300 children that were moved to a shelter – in the Philadelphia just a week ago, there were 60 children that were placed in a shelter in North Philadelphia. For anyone who thinks that this is a problem or how it's presented in the media as a border issue, yeah, it started at the border, but it's expanding throughout our country. The biggest concern is that it's expanding and people –meaning county representatives, politicians – can see this as an opportunity to earn more funding, to be able to get some of those federals funds back into their respective states. That's why there's that urgency of shutting down the prison and finding other ways to take care of these children that were just looking for safety and refuge.
Farber: As you talk about the relationship between cities and municipalities, can you describe how the Familias Separadas project began in Philadelphia?
Ortiz: Sure. From 2011 to 2012, I was working on my project called Aquí y Allá, which means “hear and there.” It was a transnational mural still in Philadelphia located on 6th Street between Dickinson and Tasker. This mural came as a result of me seeing that there were some programming dedicated to the immigrant communities, specifically Mexican immigrant community, but it's very much centered around maintaining the Spanish language, learning about Mexican history, making sure that the children of the immigration families were speaking Spanish, but there was very little that was dealing really with the trauma of immigration or the cultural shock of immigration. What I decided to do was work with youth and not just youth here in Philadelphia, but youth within Mexico, both in Juarez and Chihuahua City, which are two of the cities where several families, many families, go through the border and then arrive to El Paso and then move up north. The concept was to have about eight to nine teens here in Philadelphia and then pairing them with eight to nine teens both in two high schools in Juarez and another one in Chihuahua City. I was able to make that happen because, I was already traveling back and forth to Mexico, to specifically Juarez and Chihuahua City, as a United States Cultural Envoy. Talk about having to navigate through the system, I had to navigate through the embassies. I had to find ways to really put the work and the messages of the communities at the forefront that at times didn't line up with the agenda of the embassy or didn't line up with the in country partner that had their own perceptions of how the community should be represented. What I also found was the many children who were left behind and they would have their parents living in the United States. Once I got back to Philadelphia, I found that there were teenagers who had been raised in Mexico by their grandparents from the age of seven or 10 and some of them crossed on their own to come and be reunited with their parents in Philadelphia. The concept too is just when I talk about traumas, it's like, "Okay. Not only are you leaving everything behind." People think when you come to a new city, you have to learn a new language. You're a teenager or you're becoming a teenager so you're dealing with self-esteem issues. You're trying to navigating through the school system. Then on top of that, you're trying to reestablish your relationship with your family, with your parents, who left you when you were three or two to be able to provide a better life for you and send money back home. You're in this like really again just that shock of just trying to kind of reconstruct the family dynamic and then at the same time, trying to move through and survive within high school and the city, just being in the city. What I felt that was really interesting was to talk about that process. It was interesting to present through the youth's perspective their own story and in a way that no one was going to judge them. I just went through all of thethings that these kids have had to go through, right? Then you add deportation to that and the impact is just so. Because now you're finally reunited with your family, with your parents, you're starting to establish some type of normality of what it means to be together, and then all of a sudden one of your parents are deported. Familias Separadas came at that point, in 2013, at the rise of deportations that were happening here in the United States. Every project that I do One project influences another and gives me the idea to do the next. I felt that really focusing again [on] the effects of deportations, which was again a huge national issue, still continues to be, but also really centering around Philadelphia. As I mentioned before, we have the Declaration of Independence. We have the Liberty Bell. We have all of these symbols and monuments dedicated to freedom and justice, but then at the same time, we have families who are being terrorized. I remember a summer where I had one of my neighbors being pulled out of his house and slammed up against the wall and handcuffed in front of his three-year-old. This was happening in South Philadelphia. ICE raids are still continuing to happen. We still have families that are trying to seek sanctuary. When we say we're a sanctuary city, we're not there yet, right? Organizations like Juntos and New Sanctuary Movement and the Shut Down Berks Coalition are organizations that are still continuing the fight, that are still trying to push forward a safe city for immigrant families. But yeah, Familias Separadas, the first phase was really focused on stories of five families that have been affected by deportation. Either they were at risk of being deported, they've had a loved one deported, or they were detained at some point.
Farber: How did you install the work in the city?
Ortiz: We had one of the images that really stood out or two images that stood out from that first phase of Familias Separadas was "Eres Mi Todo," which translates to "you are my everything." It's the story of Maria whose husband was detained and then eventually deported. He was sent to a prison in California for three years. It was very difficult for her because she was raising their five children and trying to see what was going to happen if he was deported, if she was going to go back to Mexico or she was going to stay in Philadelphia and raise her children who some are U.S. citizens, who were born and raised in Philadelphia, and I believe her eldest daughter is not. It was a dilemma because of each one of their statuses and what would that entail if she were to go back to Mexico. That image of Maria and the title of the piece, Eres Mi Todo, was placed on the Compass Rose in the courtyard of City Hall as the William Penn statue looms over her. What I felt that was really important and I walked through that space, I don't know, almost everyday for about four months. That's what I kind of do is I just walk through the spaces that I want to intervene. When you think about the compass, which is the permanent public art piece that's there by Edmund Bacon, the compass represents the sense of direction and trying to find your place. That's really just relevant to all of the families that are immigrant families and have landed in Philadelphia as a safe place for their families and for them to grow and for them to be able to thrive. This point, this Compass Rose, where north, south, east and west meet really becomes the physical visual way of me centering Maria's story as an undocumented mother in our city and how important that is. The other piece, which I felt really stood out from that first phase, was the "We Are Human Beings" piece that was placed in front of the Immigration Customs Enforcement building. This ICE building has jurisdiction to Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. It's the first point of the process of detention for loved ones. Talk about trying to think about permission. I was able to talk to the streets commissioner and to our benefit, we had an outgoing mayor at the time, which was Mayor Michael Nutter. We were able to grant permission to be able to place a temporary stencil, 90-foot-long word stencil that represents the quotes of one of the mothers that was detained at the Berks Detention Center. Her name is Anna. The quote itself says, "We are human beings risking our lives for our families and our future." It was placed at the exit point of the ICE building where loved ones are then transferred to prisons and jails to continue their detention time. What was really incredibly powerful at that moment was that we were installing this piece, I obviously needed the permission. This goes back to artist responsibility, right? It's not just about the work. It's ensuring that the people who you want to be there – and in my case, I wanted undocumented families to be a part of this process – I wanted them to feel safe, so I needed to ensure that they were going to be safe in front of this building that represents so much fear. I was able to get permission from the Commissioner. We actually had cops on either end of the street blocking us, and ICE agents were watching us as we were placing this huge stencil on the ground. It was just really powerful, right, to have all of the community members, allies, volunteers, we're all working together with this really powerful message that was coming directly from a mother that was detained. It was also something that I felt was powerful. I kind of want to imagine what were the ICE agents thinking as we were placing down these words. At the end of the installation, we actually chanted because we knew that people were in that building that detained. We wanted them to hear our voices. We also know that when people were exiting from the building that the folks that were detained were also able to see the message. I feel that these moments where things can seem pretty impossible, right? When I say that I installed something in front of the ICE building, people are like, "What and what permissions?" It's just really trying to stay positive, but at the same time ensuring that the folks that are working with me are safe. The success of the install was great, but I think what really remains with me was the act of everyone coming together and being fearless in the midst of this building that represents so much fear.
Farber: At this installation in front of the ICE building with so much clearly on your mind, especially around the safety and livelihood of undocumented families and supporters and allies, were you able to be present with yourself? What was your state of mind as the artist leading this really urgent installation?
Ortiz: What I was able to do because I knew that I was going to be caught up with the logistical things of how the artwork needed to be placed and how it needed it look, I kind of already knew okay, I was going to be in that mode of like, "Okay. Move this up. Level this." I was running up and down in the garage and looking from above because obviously I wasn't able to go into the ICE building to see how things were looking. I knew I was going to be in this production mode and having to direct everyone. What we were able to do is that right before the install, we gathered in a circle. We shared with everyone that was there and present why we were doing what we were doing. I say we because Juntos was there with me. Other families were there with me. I was able to share with them why we're doing this, right, and for who. I felt that it really was a great moment to kind of just center the intention of the work to know and kind of place like this is not just a stencil we're placing on the ground. I think that was the moment where I had said, "There are people inside that are now detained, that are in this building and are detained. We just need to keep them present with us as we move forward in putting this work down." That was a good like 10-15 minutes to kind of really put ourselves in that place that we needed to be to make it happen, to make the work happen. There was a moment after we finished the install where we had all the community members kind of line up at the edge of the installation. There was a photographer there with a video camera and he was able to just film all of us looking into the camera after we had finished what we've done. We even have some photographs of just the intensity of everyone's look, right? Including my own. My own family was there. It was just really emotional and powerful. It's one of the things that will always be one of those moments that I hold with a lot of care, right? It's like this is how I want all of my projects to be, right? It was something that was such a high moment or the climax, right? People were just so present and eager, right, to help, to work with one another. I feel that what was really beautiful was just seeing folks where they're holding this huge stencil and we're all working together, right? It's also a representation of the work that I do. I can never do any of this by myself. Whether they're folks that are physically on the wall working with me or holding the stencil or the conversations that I'm having with the mothers and in making key decisions on how to move forward with their stories, this is the collaboration part, right? This is the part where we never really could do anything on our own. We need each other. At the very end coming together, so kind of like having that opening of centering why we're doing this work and centering our intention, and then in the end beginning to chant knowing that we wanted our voices to carry and arrive to the ears of the family members and loved ones that were detained in the building that we were in front of.
Farber: In your collaborations with community partners like Juntos and Shut Down Berks Coalition, do you have to kind of work out agreements or points of understanding so that you can sync up artistic efforts and organizing efforts?
Ortiz: When I decide to do a project and I'm in the process of choosing a community partner, it's really about finding folks that have been doing this work, finding folks that have established trust with the community that push forward the voices of the community. They're not speaking on behalf of the community. They're creating structures in which the community themselves, when I talk about community, I mean undocumented mothers and teenagers and folks, that they are then sharing their own story, and they are given the tools to know how to share those stories. When I look at organizations like Juntos or look at other groups like the Shut Down Berks Coalition, those are the qualities that I try to look for, right, is how are they creating within their organizing and activism work ways for the community members to shine and to move forward and to advocate and to inform them in ways that they can defend themselves. But that by speaking out, they're not just advocating for themselves, but for their whole community. With any community partnership, I also think about it as a relationship, right, in the sense that there needs to be mutual respect, that organization are able to see the artwork and see the power that art has in the sense of maybe speaking to topics or presenting them in a very different way that doesn't necessarily end in a march or in a poster. Just thinking about other ways to really advocate and all those things are necessary. Obviously I've participated in designing posters. I've marched on marches, but it's also thinking about other ways in which the art can bring a message even further or presented in a way that might not be successful in other formats. I also feel that what I try to find are common values. For me, the work that I've been doing for now going onto 19 to 20 years now is really centered around narratives, is centered around the power of our stories. It's really centered around having our stories present and heard in spaces that are not necessarily listening to us. Again having the community at the forefront of the work. When I'm looking for community partners, I'm looking at the work that they have done and how their leaders within the places that they're in, but also I'm looking at how they interact with community members, how they are really thinking about that process of how the community is part of the planning, the community is part of how they want to be perceived or how they want to fight the fight. When I look into who I want to partner with, I ask myself all these questions. But also when I'm coming into a conversation with a community partner, it's really thinking about what are ways in which the artwork can support the work that you're already doing. In most cases, I'm creating images that are in neighborhoods where the people that I represented in the murals or public art installations are the people that live there. For Familias Separadas, it was really like taking big risk of saying, "I want this near City Hall. I want this at Love Park. I want this in front of the ICE building," and really just like pushing and pushing and pushing. Even to this day right now, "I want this image on the Capitol steps and how are we going to make this happen?" I think also it helps with bringing the visibility around the issue that is not just living within the community, but is actually being placed in areas that were not usually seen and how does that then advocate for the work that's already happening with the community partners.
Farber: Last year as a part of Monument Lab Philadelphia, we worked together on your project Seguimos Caminando, a projection on Philadelphia's City Hall. In the process of preparing and bringing that work to life, what did you learn about the city and about public art, and has that informed your work on the state Capitol?
Ortiz: Well, with the work that we did with Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking) which is coming from one of the letters from one of the moms that I was visiting at Berks, I think through the process and even looking for a location, I was always stressing to you like, "We really need this to be near City Hall. We need to have visibility." By chance, if there are any politicians that are coming through, we want them to be exposed and see this. We had several options. I think with our city, the benefit of living in Philadelphia is that we have a pretty robust public art program. We have organizations like the Mural Arts Program. We have curators like yourself and Ken Lum creating these like amazing city wide projects and really kind of pushing the boundaries of how we think about public space. There's already this kind of energy around okay, what can we do next, right? I think about this all the time is that obviously I focus my energy on the people that are my allies, who have identified themselves as supporters. What was great during our process, where the piece eventually landed, which was on the north gates of City Hall and how the gates unraveled with the animation projection and we were able to see the story of the mothers kind of unfold, was that we had some supporters on the inside in city hall to be able to push that forward. But it was always kind of like, "Okay. This isn't going to work. Now let's try this. Okay. That's not going to work. Let's try this. What are our other options. Overall we were able to pull it off in a sense of, to really focus on the support that we were getting. By having it on the north gates kind of actually it worked very nicely. It's a space behind our City Hall where people can actually contemplate. You're not being bombarded with other lights or other projections or other noises that happen on the other side where Dilworth Plaza is. It's a moment where you can actually be quiet. It became a really beautiful place for the projection to take place. Also, what I loved about Seguimos Caminando is that you're able to hear the story of Lorena and you're able to hear her voice echo through City Hall. There were several people who came up and said, "I just heard someone speaking Spanish. Then I wanted to see what was happening or I sat down and I just listened to her voice." For me, it was really powerful because in the energy and the noise that's always constantly happening in our city, to hear a voice that sounds familiar or that sounds like home and to identify with that was something that I felt was ... I was happy to provide that moment for people. I'm born and raised in South Philadelphia. I still live on the same block that I was raised on right by the 9th Street Market. My mom worked in the Market for 25 years. I'm really like deeply rooted in Philadelphia. I feel that to live in a city where I have the potential to intervene, to present new ideas, to find ways to tell stories, I think it's really a blessing because I can be home and still do all these amazing things in our city. I don't know if that answered that question. What I've learned, especially in moments that are the most difficult, is really channeling your energy on the people that will support you. So I can be in a room where, which actually did happen with the permissions for ICE, where I was in a room with four representatives from the city. One person was a definite no. Another person was a maybe. Then we had two or three other people that were a yes. I focused on the maybe and the yes's so that it would wash away the no's, and just maintaining positivity. I feel like also what's been helpful to me when I connect with city officials, when I connect with community partners, when I connect just with people who are not necessarily artists, I try to really think about ways that I can talk about my project and talk about the work or talk about my intention, right, like why am I doing this, and not only why am I doing this, but why would you want to say yes to this? Why would you want to support this and be onboard? I think that that's been helpful to me, too, is like thinking beyond then just what I want as an artist, but really thinking about the other person. When they're listening to my project, when they're hearing what I'm saying, I want them to be inspired or really want to support the work. I try my best to also communicate that and share that.
Farber: We're in the midst of an urgent moment where there's a crisis around immigration and advocates are making their voices heard. What are your dreams for your work and for this moment?
Ortiz: What I see happening right now is the lack of human connection. The lack of human connection allows us to, meaning humans, feel disconnected to one another in the sense that you no longer either have feel ings, your cause is insignificant, what you're going through is not valued or even, how do I put it, even acknowledged. It's really disheartening, right? I say this all not just as an artist, but as a person that's raising another human being in this world. We're living at a scary time where this is happening via social media. It's propaganda. It's pushed out. I guess for me the bigger picture, the dream, obviously, there's so many things that I want to happen with my work, but I also feel that I need to be grounded and be realistic. Like when I was doing the Aquí y Allá project, I understood that by just doing the mural that's not going to give citizenship to the eight undocumented teens that were working with me. That wasn't going to bring the kids that were stuck in the border over to United States. When I was visiting with the mothers, I understood that our letters or even the paper flowers that we created for Flores de Libertad for Monument Lab wasn't going to release them, right? There's to a certain extent what I know that I can do with my art. There's an understanding of what I can't do with my art, but what I know that I can do and what I have been able to do is remind the mothers of how powerful and how resilient they are. To give space to the teens for the Aquí y Allá project, to honestly just say, "I wish I was back home with my grandmother," to say, "I'm angry because I left and my grandmother passed away and I wasn't able to be by her side." To have a space of just honesty and truth and healing and places for us to gather. What will happen on Saturday November 3rd is the Shut Down Berks Coalition is organizing a gathering, for a state wide community action and community members are coming from different places from the state. The intention is that we're able to not just gather at the Capitol steps where the image of Karen and her son are present, but to actually walk to the mural in Allison Hill, which is as I mentioned the immigrant community that has also been severely under attacked by ICE these past few years in Harrisburg. To really utilize not just the work in the Capitol steps as a way to [share] the messages and testimonials of the families and creating that visual platform for that to happen, but to come back to the community and be able to be with one another and be able to use the mural as that moment to gather and to remind ourselves of why we're still fighting, to remind ourselves that we are beautiful, resilient people, happening right now with the caravan of the thousand plus families that are crossing all these borders, if that's not a symbol of strength, I just don't know. For me, it's like there's so much power in acknowledging the light that we all carry. I know that I'm sounding really philosophical [laughs]. But it's also just, for me, like I see my work and I said this before, it's just like I see myself as like a little firefly when there's places that are so extremely dark and I'm able to shine some light, and I'm also able to energize the light that's been dimmed within the other folks that are in that dark place. My mantra's always been how can I be both poetic and powerful in my work, but also how can I be that light in the midst of the darkness that's around us? And most importantly, how can I be the person that's connecting each other to that light source, right, that then helps do away with the darkness? That's the only way that I can really explain it in terms of how I see my work because in the most practical sense, it's hard to really think about to a certain degree impact or "what was the change that happened here?" I can only attest to the change that I've seen with individuals. I've seen perspectives change. I've seen a child's face light up. I've seen a mother cry. There's moments where people tell me things that I really was not sometimes prepared for, but I also see myself in them. I think that that's really about reinforcing that human connection and that's really what I want to push forward with my work.
Farber: Michelle Angela Ortiz, thank you so much for this conversation and thank you for all the work you do.
Ortiz: Thank you for inviting me and to share more about my work. Thanks so much, Paul.
Michelle Angela Ortiz’s Familias Separadas is installed in Harrisburg from October 26 through November 18. On November 3, Ortiz and her community partner Shut Down Berks Coalition are co-organizing state-wide actions to call attention to the fight to end family detention. Learn more at her website, michelleangela.com.