I recently led a workshop on art and identity for a group of fifteen students at a Bay Area community college. The students, ages 18-22, are undocumented. They can legally attend university, but cannot receive financial aid. And, without social security numbers, there is no legal opportunity for work once they graduate. Many came to the US from Mexico when they were very young. Their parents came with dreams for a better life through their children’s education. The students carry those fierce expectations in their bones.
These students have formed a support group. I was asked to share my art and my process for creating it in order to build leadership and group solidarity.
We met on a sunny Friday morning. I began by telling them of my work in community and how I had always encouraged others to tell their stories, but had only recently begun to tell my own. I had found it easier to find my story through shaping objects with my hands. The group of students gathered around my sculptures and I invited them to touch the work and ask questions. I wanted them to have a direct experience with art- that it is something to take in with their senses and explore.
Then, with the help of the student leader who organized the event, we turned the focus of the workshop to their experiences and making art. We began by acknowledging our common experience of pain and trauma. We then invited them to call forth their dreams for the future: a college degree, meaningful work, a family, travel. Between the traumas we carry and the dreams we hold are obstacles that can get in our way. They began to name them: fear, insecurity, family, friends, society, discrimination, domestic violence, globalization…We asked how they felt speaking those words aloud, “embarrassed”, “vulnerable”, “We feel it but don’t want to talk about it, don’t want so show that it affects us”. We identified the obstacles that come from inside, from those closest to them, and from larger institutional forces. We likened the obstacles to arrows that can come from all directions and cause harm.
We invited the students to make shields of cardboard to protect themselves as they walk into battle against these forces. We asked them to represent five different strengths on their shields: family, culture, place of origin, name and something unique and special about them. We encouraged the students to find these images from magazines we had collected. They could then glue them onto the shield, add words with crayons and decorate it with colored tissue paper, making any shape for the shield that they might choose.
The work began and a tree formed, a cat’s claw, a teardrop, a hand, a circle. As they completed their shields, one by one, we asked the students to stand in front of the group and present their shield. They didn’t hold back. Tears came. A man admitted his mother was the only one in his family who supported him. Another confessed that he learned about his Zapotec roots during his time in jail, and learned to accept who he is. Another described his name in Nahuatl meaning “hand opening to the flowers”. A woman envisioned her future as an engineer, giving back to her community through scholarships. One by one they lined their shields in a row.
We thanked them for making such beautiful works of art, and by expressing their vulnerabilities, building support and connection within the group. I asked them to stand in a circle and close their eyes while I told them a story. It was the Shambhala Prophecy, a Tibetan Buddhist story told across the last 12 centuries, brought to the Bay Area by teacher and activist, Joanna Macy. The story tells of our need in these times for warriors of great courage who hold the dual strengths of compassion and insight. These undocumented students, struggling against the greatest odds for their education, hold the experiences, insights and courage of Shambhala warriors. I wanted them to know that.
In closing, we invited the students to display their shields in an art exhibit, on the night of their graduation. Each shield would be accompanied by their artist’s statement to educate other students, faculty and the college administration about who they are. They all agreed.