Down in the basement of Park Slope’s Brooklyn Public Library, Argenys Gonzales stands beside a painting of Jesus with his arms outstretched and explains its significance in rapid Spanish. An onlooker cuts in and asks him to describe his artwork, and he moves to another piece: an thick-lined American flag painted in the shape of the United States. He speaks in halting English, saying the work represents his feelings about his new home: since arriving from the Dominican Republic eight months ago, Gonzales has lived here in Brooklyn, got his GED, and is learning English.
Gonzales and his cohort of teen artists are part of Atlas: DIY, an empowerment center for immigrant youth. The paintings were part of a project to depict episodes in the immigrant experience, and they were the opening reception to ImmigrARTS, a panel on immigrant storytelling hosted in the library’s Dr. S. Stevan Dweck Center for Contemporary Culture. The panel was sponsored by the library and organized in honor of Immigrant Heritage Month by FWD.US and Welcome.US, two new non-profit Mark Zuckerberg initiatives to improve U.S. immigration policy and resources, as well as by the New York Immigrant Coalition, or NYIC.
ImmigrARTS featured four immigrant artists, all of whom have worked to tell the immigrant story through various creative media. Luna Atamian, the Deputy Regional Director of FWD.US, introduced the panel in a welcoming speech that described Immigrant Heritage Month, a platform for Americans to “tell the story of when they first felt welcomed” to the United States. Thanu Yakupitiyage, Communications Coordinator at The New York Immigration Coalition, moderated the panel, asking each artist to speak about how his or her work has furthered the effort to humanize the immigrant experience.
Luis Argueta, a Guatemalan film director and producer, spoke about his recent film, Abrazos, just released in June 2014. The documentary focuses on American children living in families of mixed immigrant status. Argueta said that he wanted to communicate that immigrants struggle to deal with the fear of living undocumented and foreign in the United States, a feeling he was used to: “fear was breast milk in my country,” he said. Now he works to stem the tides of fear at home.
Maria E. Andreu knows that fear. She came from Argentina as a child and was granted a smooth transition to citizenship at age 18 with the Immigration Reform and Control Act, but she remembers how it felt to be without legal status, to be limited in where her family could go and what they could tell others. To tell this story, she wrote the book The Secret Side of Empty, an award-winning novel about an undocumented teenager.
“The first time I shared the story was when I wrote the book,” Virgilia Kaur Pruthi admitted, referring to the newly released An Immigrant’s Guide to Making It In America, which gives the success stories of several new Americans. “Everyone has a story, everyone has a path to success,” Kaur Pruthi said, explaining that she wants to bring the stories out into the public eye with her work.
Felicity Hogan, the final panelist, said that “I realized I was surrounding myself with a surrogate family” when she came to America from the United Kingdom over a decade ago. As an arts administrator and the manager of the Immigrant Arts Project, Hogan wants to create these families and communities through groups that encourage arts and storytelling.
Blintzes and borsht at Brighton Beach. Steel drums and Soca on Eastern Parkway. Tacos and tostadas in Sunset Park. It’s hard to imagine a Brooklyn without the colors and flavors that immigrants bring, but Brooklynites don’t always realize the struggle that goes into making a new home in these neighborhoods. With artists and storytellers bringing those narratives to light, it’s easier than ever to love this borough.