Documenting the undocumented through art

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by Jenn Chen, Arts Writer

Julio Salgado is an undocumented queer activist, and an unapologetic one at that. At the beginning of his October presentation in the Conrad A. Elvehjem Building, Salgado stated with power, “as a queer artist of color, I don’t want to wait until I’m dead for people to talk about my art. Yo, I’m still alive, and I’m going to talk about my art.” As a pioneer of art activism that gives a voice to undocumented queer youth, Salgado reflected on his beginnings as an art student and the provocative pieces he has worked on.

Moving to the U.S. at the age of twelve, Salgado had his doubts. “I didn’t speak the language, my friends were all in Mexico, I didn’t want to be [in the U.S.],” Salgado said.

Entering seventh grade in an unfamiliar environment, Salgado found solace in art class; with art as communication, he didn’t “need to speak to talk.” At the beginning of his interest in the visual arts, Salgado became inspired by the works of Frida Kahlo. “Imagine seeing the work of Frida Kahlo [as a] little queer chubby brown boy,” Salgado laughed. “You have that moment when you’re like, “I want to be an artist.”

However, for the first few years as an art student in community college, Salgado couldn’t connect with the traditional artists taught in class. He ended up changing his major to journalism. “Then I came across the work of Gustavo Arellano, Lalo Alcaraz and Aaron McGruder, men of color who were using journalism to really talk about the issues that are happening in our communities. They were people I could relate to.” After reading Arellano’s article on smuggling a deported undocumented student, Salgado emailed Arellano to become his mentor. Arellano took Salgado under his wing and supported the young activist when he started creating political cartoons and other progressive content for the school newspaper. “I was using cartoons and writing… to better my language. I had this platform where I could talk about the issues that were important to me. I wanted to write about being queer and undocumented.”

Salgado found the school newspaper’s reach of topics limited because his editors only wanted content that was relatable to the general public. He left the paper to help start a magazine called El Reflejo, which was his “first introduction to do-it-yourself journalism.” El Reflejo became popular during his time at California State University Long Beach, as it shared the narratives of underrepresented students like Salgado.

One distinct piece of legislation that followed Salgado through his academic career was the Dream Act, a bill introduced in 2001 that could give undocumented youth a path to citizenship. In 2010, there was a “final push” to make the Dream Act happen and during Salgado’s last years in college, a group of students “totally changed the narrative” by speaking out about being undocumented, an act previously unheard of for fear of deportation. Salgado found a role in documenting this “history in the making” through journalism. He started taking images from the media and claiming them back with his art, adding the term “I Exist.” Many of the undocumented students were also queer, which gave birth to the term “undocuqueer.” Salgado sought to hear the stories of other “undocuqueer” through social media, which transformed into the project, “I am UndocuQueer!”, a series of portraits and statements that gave marginalized migrants a way to be heard.

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Salgado has continually been a part of collaborative “artism” since college. With “The Ashes,” a video in collaboration with fellow undocumented activist and poet Yosimar Reyes, Salgado proves that “you can put the real narrative out there” about undocumented queer individuals in a world where “the media doesn’t get who you are.” On the YouTube channel “Dreamers Adrift,” Salgado and his colleagues shared day-to-day experiences through the series “Undocumented and Awkward” and the currently running “Osito” series, which is in the works for season four.

Salgado’s work ranges from protesting retailer American Apparel’s advertisements with his project, “Undocumented Apparel,” to his provocative series against the dominance of white actors in mainstream sitcoms, where he replaced classic characters in shows like Roseanne and Friends with people of color.

Salgado discussed his favorite project, “Que Siga La Fiesta: Queer and Trans People of Color Club Takeover.” After the tragic event in Orlando this summer, Salgado created the piece “No Dejen De Bailar,” or “Don’t Stop Dancing.” Continuing with that idea, he decided to document queer and trans people of color at different clubs and bars where they were “claiming their space.” He stated, “I wanted to make sure [to] document when you’re alive. Safe spaces look different for different people. [This project is] a way to make sure that people remember that we’re here.”

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One piece particularly inspiring is his self-portrait, “Yo Existo.” In his presentation, Salgado stood in front of a slide with the image of an oiled-up, muscular front-cover male model. He stated, “there are standards of beauty that we continue to push on ourselves. I don’t look like that. That’s why I want to make my own [versions of] shows, my own cartoons. Nobody’s going to want to put me on the cover of magazines.” Coming full circle, with the inspiration of Frida Kahlo, Salgado decided to draw himself. Using the Monarch butterfly, a symbol of migration from Mexico to the U.S., Salgado created a self-portrait of him embracing his identity as an undocumented queer artist, with the words “I Exist,” “Migrant Queerness” and “Love Family Unity Peace” in both Spanish and English.

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Ultimately, Salgado is inspired by other queer migrant artists who have stories to share. Salgado proved again and again that his work has grown through collaboration and continues to evolve through his voice on social media. In a world where mainstream media often forgets or misinterprets the stories of many minorities, Salgado is committed to sharing the narratives of artists and individuals with backgrounds of being queer, undocumented, or both. “I’m always reaching out and asking other artists what [they’re] making,” Salgado stated. “I want to make sure everyone knows each other… I want to make sure people know your face.”

Photo credits: 1, 2, 3

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