Efroymson artist uses art to humanize challenges faced by undocumented migrants
Pushing a strand of magenta hair out of her face, Ruth Leonela Buentello recovered from a tearful moment. Buentello, this year’s Efroymson Emerging Artist in Residence, was recounting an incident in her hometown of San Antonio where nine migrants died in a case of human smuggling. The migrants, who were undocumented and had most likely just crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, died after spending hours in a Walmart van without air conditioning in the middle of a notoriously hot Texas summer.
“They were begging for their lives,” Buentello said. “And no one published their names, their family members. … I just don’t know how to not feel and not say something.”
Buentello, the University of Michigan’s third Efroymson Emerging Artist, recounted this event at her art exhibition, titled “Yo Tengo Nombre,” on Thursday evening. Around 30 people attended the exhibition and Q&A session at the Institute for the Humanities gallery.
Much of Buentello’s artwork, which included photographs and paintings, attempts to humanize the politicized situation at the border.
“The reason why I get really emotional with this work is because I feel like I identify with undocumented asylum seekers,” Buentello said. “When I see them, or when I see images of them in the media, it reminds me of my family. So, I keep thinking, what if these things were happening to my family. It makes me think about their humanity. I don’t create a distance and say, ‘Those are those people over there. That doesn’t affect me.’ It really affects how I go about in the world.”
Buentello said she decided to recreate “horrific” images she saw in the press using her family members.
“I said, ‘well, I have my family, I’m going to take pictures of them,’” Buentello said. “I asked them to pose, and so a part of that process back there shows my own brother and his children, recreating the same postures and the way people laid down, and doing that with them was so … I can’t describe how it felt to have them pose that way.”
Amanda Krugliak, curator at the Institute’s gallery, recruited Buentello from San Antonio to speak to issues of migration and humanize a contentious situation.
“Ruth’s show is part of a year of considering migrations and movements and humans, humanity on the move, the way that all of us live in a much more transient society, so it’s not just one group of people,” Krugliak said. “The show is really meant to bring us together as a community, rather than always thinking of it as ‘other’ or happening somewhere else. And these are all challenging images that speak to what’s happening now with the Hispanic community, and detention centers, and ICE raids, and again, how this really isn’t happening someplace else.”
LSA senior Andy Rivero attended the event as part of an assignment for his cultural anthropology class. As an immigrant from Cuba, he said he identified with the artist and her work.
“I think she really draws a compelling and a complete story about what’s going on,” Ribero said. “It was relatable to us. I’m a Latino myself, an immigrant. I wasn’t born in the United States. My parents were not born here as well. It’s really touching, and she really did a good job of telling the story of how immigrants sometimes get treated, and how tough life can be, sometimes, for us.”
Buentello said it’s important to recognize the contributions the Latinx community has made to the United States.
“I think it’s important for everyone in the country to talk about these issues, because, like I was telling some of the students — brown people, brown folks, Chicanos, Chicanas, Latinxs — there’s a huge labor force for the United States, whether it’s the food that you eat, the vegetables, the fruit, the meat that you get, who cleans your hotels,” Buentello said. “We’re in every kitchen serving people. I’m not saying that’s the only role that we play, but we play a huge role in making this country work. But there’s this disregard for our humanity, and lack of an acknowledgement of our contributions to this country, that are bigger than labor as well.”
Buentello’s artwork featured different mediums. One of her pieces, pictures of undocumented children in 2014, which she took during a stint working in a detention center, is printed on reflective material. The goal is to reflect the viewer’s image onto the photograph.
She attributes the use of these creative mediums to growing up with binational, multi-cultural experiences.
“A lot of (the materials) come from my experience in San Antonio, and going back and forth from Mexico, and having this binational experience of going to see family in Mexico,” Buentello said. “In San Antonio, and in Texas, and Mexico, they use a ribbon to decorate funerary objects and put them on the grave. It’s this very colorful and beautiful decorative, ornate objects, but they represent death, or the giving of something or offering to your loved one. I keep thinking about, those are symbols, signifiers for something else. I just want to reintroduce them, to put them next to painting, the history of painting and change that up.”
Buentello said she felt the use of these mediums is making art more accessible.
“I look at artists who are using this experience and changing the way we experience art,” Buentello said. “Because it doesn’t just belong to this elite. Storytelling, visual images belong to everybody. I’m trying to just let my experience at home, my experience in the community, let that be the first thing that inspires my work.”