On May 4, 2013, Ruben Ubiera's #IamHere was unveiled in Wynwood. This unique and subtly subversive mural is the result of a collaborative effort between the artist, his subjects, and the two sponsoring organizations—the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida and the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC). The artwork is striking, vibrantly-colored, and unapologetically political: it advocates for a humane immigration reform law that would give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. The mural is primarily made up of seven monumental portraits depicting Florida residents of varying ages and national backgrounds. All the individuals are rendered in Ubiera's signature "urban pop" style, with bold outlines as well as naturalistic shading and highlights, although each figure has its own distinct monochromatic palette. There's a violet young woman, a green pregnant woman, an orange man, a yellow-sienna girl, a turquoise young man, a magenta couple and a blue woman.
At the center of #IamHere is a portrait of eleven-year-old Viviana Rivas, a U.S. citizen whose father is currently in an immigration detention center. Viviana is the youngest of the mural's subjects, yet she towers over everyone else. Her outstretched, cupped hands frame a large teardrop shape, within which sits a white silhouette of a hand pointing upward. This hand is the mural's focal point, and tiny white butterflies flutter around it, while larger, multi-colored geometric shards radiate outward. The image exudes positive energy and a sense of spiritual rebirth—a symbol of transformation, of present-day suffering giving way to a brighter future.
Shalini Goel Agarwal, staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida and the first speaker at the mural unveiling and storytelling event on May 4, 2013; Courtesy of the author.
Shalini Goel Agarwal, Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Florida, opened the mural unveiling and storytelling proceedings by placing the palm of her right hand directly on the wall within that central white hand. "I am here," she announced, "because immigrant rights are civil rights." Agarwal's action demonstrated how an individual's hand appears symbolically magnified when placed on the mural in that spot. Viewers are encouraged to repeat the gesture, taking photographs of their own hands on the mural and sharing the photos via social media using the hashtag #IamHere. It's a simple but smart concept that encourages viewers to move beyond the role of passive spectators and become part of a larger community calling for change.
"The mural behind me," said Agarwal, "features several Floridians who have been struggling with our broken immigration system and have stepped forward to tell their stories. The mural makes clear that immigration is not a nameless, faceless issue. The people affected are our mothers, our fathers, our students, our teachers, our church members, our sisters, our brothers, our job-creators, our employees, our community members. They are here. Their stories need to be told."
Afterwards, several other distinguished activists and politicians made eloquent speeches in support of immigration reform. Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida, reminded onlookers of the Statue of Liberty and its welcoming words, then declared, "I'm here because we are all immigrants."
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who was born in Cuba, echoed this sentiment, proclaiming, "I am here because I believe in liberty and justice for all, not for some."
Representative Joe García, a son of Cuban immigrants, urged the audience to get involved. "I'm here," he asserted, "because immigration makes us better, richer, and a greater nation."
Three of the people portrayed in the mural also spoke, offering poignant testimonials of their personal experiences. Most moving was José Machado, who ended up in the foster care system after his mother was deported. He has not seen her since. "I will keep fighting,” he told the audience, “until all of our families are here together."
Cassandia Robert, an 18-year-old immigrant, standing in front of the unfinished portrait of herself at the mural unveiling and storytelling event on May 4, 2013; Courtesy of the author.
Viewers with smartphones can listen to José's story and those of the others in the mural by scanning a QR code on the wall. The code points to a website—www.ACLUFL.org/IamHere—with audio files of the people telling their own stories in their own words—in Spanish, English, Portuguese, and Creole. The site also includes a phone number that viewers can call to contribute their own stories in support of immigration reform. This use of interactive technology—including the photo-sharing component described previously—is a timely way to combine art and social advocacy in the digital age. And it's the most interesting and creative aspect of #IamHere.
Several onlookers offered their opinions on the mural. Enide Dufresne, a daughter of Haitian immigrants, gave my favorite response: "I love it because even though they're going through a hard situation, the depiction of each individual is hopeful, and they're not downcast. You can see that something positive will happen after all."
I too found #IamHere to be a powerful and inspiring work of public art. Ubiera, himself an immigrant (from the Dominican Republic), has captured strong, dignified likenesses of most of his subjects, and he has anchored them in a dynamic arrangement of sharp triangles that lends the mural cohesiveness, even while reflecting the influences of other street art nearby.
Nevertheless the mural has two main problems. The awkward depiction of Viviana, the central figure, is the most frustrating. Her face runs across multiple surfaces—not just the main wall, but also a horizontal beam that protrudes significantly from the wall—which means that from almost any angle, she looks distorted. This is only exacerbated by the difference in texture between the bumpy wall and the smooth metal beam. In addition the young girl's body appears oddly masculine. In fact, one passerby I interviewed thought the figure was transgender—a logical response, and one which would not be problematic, if that had been the artist's intention.
My other issue with the mural is that, in spite of the compelling stories of the people portrayed, the composition itself displays hardly any trace of their narratives. Linking to those stories on a website is a fresh and exciting idea, but many pedestrians are not going to take the extra step of scanning the QR code to visit the site. So it seems a shame that the painted imagery on the wall itself doesn't tell us more about what these people have gone through.
Note: On May 21 the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill, which, while positive in many ways, does not address all the issues highlighted by #IamHere. The bill stands a good chance of getting passed in the full Senate, which has a Democratic majority, although supporters have not yet lined up the sixty votes that would be needed to prevent opponents from filibustering it. Meanwhile, in the Republican-controlled House, many conservative members have expressed adamant opposition to any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Speaker John Boehner has already rejected the Senate bill as written, and a bipartisan group of eight representatives is working on its own immigration reform plans. One of the eight, Representative Mario Diaz-Balart—a Cuban-American Republican whose district is in South Florida—has reported that "a deal in principle" has been made. However, as of this writing, the group has not yet released any specific proposal.
Mural for the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Immigrant Coalition
on NW 24th St. at NW 5th Ave. (2337 NW 5th Ave., Miami, FL 33127)
May 4 - September, 2012
(Image on top: Ruben Ubiera, #IamHere, detail of the completed mural showing all 8 subjects; photo courtesy of the author)