Butterflies, the Statue of Liberty, ice, families torn apart: These are just some of the symbols and images being embraced by artists to express the challenges immigrants face in America today. The migrant experience has been a permanent motif in arts and culture — from the Old Testament to "Of Mice and Men". But as the debate about what to do with the 11.1 million people here in the U.S. illegally rages on in Washington, migrant works — from visual art to films to music to even children's books — take on new political meanings.
"Through arts and culture, you can inspire people. You can move their hearts and minds to think differently," says Favianna Rodriguez, an artist and co-director of CultureStrike, an online magazine and national organization of migrant artists, performers and writers. CultureStrike was formed in reaction to SB 1070, a controversial Arizona immigration law passed in 2010 . "Our goal was to encourage more positive views of migrants and share the stories of migrants and create inspiring and compelling content," says Rodriguez. Her group coordinates, publishes and promotes works that range from political cartoons to poetry,
But not every piece of art being created is part of a coordinated effort. Much of it is emerging organically, says Tamar Jacoby, the president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA. "What happens is all the different changes that lift a question up for politics to consider it also lifts it up for artists to weigh in on."
Either way, pro-reform activists are hopeful that it will change the debate in their favor. Many look to the LGBT movement and other social causes for inspiration. With the Supreme Court currently considering gay marriage, and politicians by the dozen coming out in favor of same-sex marriage, many credit pop culture, in the form of movies, television, music and even video games for changing the public's perception of such relationships.
Artists say dismantling the association immigrants have with being illegal, aliens, criminals or even terrorists is an important step to gain support for legislation and other pro-immigrant measures.
"These laws are very complex and very nuanced, " says Rodriguez. "It is easier to use analogies and symbols and create a groundswell of these symbols being used over and over again."
Monarch butterflies, which migrate from Mexico to Canada, are a recurring theme in migrant art. "That is very parallel to the human story of why people immigrate, says Rodriguez. "The process of moving is something human beings and living beings do naturally." The Statue of Liberty is also a popular image, as is ice — a play on the acronym for the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement.
La Santa Cecilia, an L.A.-based band, recently released the video for its song "El Hielo," ("hielo" is the Spanish word for "ice"). It tells the story of three undocumented immigrants who fear ice "loose out on the street" and the actors in the video are people with real-life ties to the issue of immigration.
"We really wanted to focus on not just telling the story but humanizing the story," says percussionist Miguel Ramirez, "So that people who are struggling through the immigration process aren't just seen as statistics or numbers or criminals for that matter, because a lot of times they're criminalized in the media."
La Santa Cecilia worked with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Americas Business Council to produce the video, and the band performed at last week's immigration rallies on Capitol Hill. Other pro-immigration reform policy groups, such as the Center of American Progress, have promoted migrant art, by screening a number of immigration themed documentaries and fictional films.
Migrant art has even reached children's literature, with the upcoming release of "Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote." The brightly illustrated fable, written for 4- to 8-year-olds, portrays the journey so many immigrants undertake, as a young rabbit named Pancho looks for his father, who has traveled to "el Norte" to find work. A coyote—the term used for immigrant smugglers—accompanies Pancho on his trip, only to turn on Pancho. Pancho escapes and is reunited with his father, who has been robbed and thus might have to make the dangerous journey back over the border.
Corrected on 4/25/2013: A previous version of this article misstated the name of an organization that helped produce “El Hielo.” It was the Americas Business Council.