While their dreams pave our streets and their culture colors the spirit of Los Angeles, undocumented immigrants remain threatened, and their humanity often denied.
In our current political climate, there is an overt attack against undocumented communities, which relegates an erasure of their heritage and the muddling of their voices. However, undocumented artists proclaim their existence through the lens of a camera, the stroke of the brush, and dance of the pen—bridging together art and political opposition in an effort to rise above suppressive forces.
I sat down separately with two artists from different corners of Los Angeles who have created avenues for expression cemented in their experiences as undocumented immigrants.
In conversation with artists Féi Hernandez and Seo Yun Son, I witnessed th e collision of the political and personal lives of the artists, as both elements frame their art as political resistance. Their artworks illustrate their experiences, blurring the man-made borders that impose an illusion of one’s own limitations, reminding us that citizenship does not predicate one’s humanity
Living in Inglewood, California, Féi Hernandez is a once-undocumented poet, illustrator, painter, and educator. Through the intermingling of multiple art forms, Féi has carved out an artistic space to create pieces deeply rooted in ancestry, spirituality, and community. Living in the shadows for 20 years, Féi shares stories about the abandonment of fear, the interactions between love and resistance, and the need for visibility in the undocumented community. With the recent release of their new project, CL[AMOR], Féi draws a link between art and activism.
Sitting inside a coffee shop in Inglewood, I waited for Féi. It was just a few minutes away from my home, and as a result, I found myself in a familiar space surrounded by the clamoring of a city I became acquainted with through episodes of my life. Knowing that Féi and I shared a connection to Inglewood underpinned a distinct bond before our meeting.
When Féi entered, the energy of the room shifted. Their walk, smile and warmth were enchanting. We moved outside to hear the sounds of the city, rather than the stammers of the air vents. Enveloped by the breeze and hums of Inglewood’s streets, we began our interview.
THE PAPER MIXTAPE:Who is Féi Hernandez?
FÉI HERNANDEZ:I am a full time art teacher, organizer with PSL (Party for Socialism and Liberation), and I also spend my time avidly performing and creating art.
TPM:What art mediums do you interact with?
FH:I use watercolor, but I especially love pentel calligraphy ink pens. When I write I paint worlds with words; when I paint I can’t help but let the words take up space and be subject matter.
Handing me their recent project, CL[AMOR], I flipped through the pages, noticing the Spanish phrase, “Todo a Su Tiempo,” which translates to, “All in good time.” Remembering hearing this phrase as a child, I asked Féi about their roots.
FH:I’m Mexican. But I’ve done some deeper searching, there’s Pima Indian from my grandmother’s side and from my dad’s side there’s Tarahumara Indian.
Sharing their family’s indigenous origins, Féi began to speak about the importance of maintaining strong links to spiritual practices. Curious about how art and spirituality align for Féi, I asked if creating art manifested as a spiritual experience.
FH:Spirituality is my art. In High School, I found out I couldn’t get college grants because I didn’t have my documentation. I think something in me cracked; my soul poured out and it wanted a venue. Often times when I’m drawing, I find myself ejected. It’s a hardcore meditation.
TPM:Explain the title of your new project, CL[AMOR]?
FH:A long time ago, I wrote a poem entitled “CL[AMOR]”, and it was about the moment my mom decided to leave Mexico, and how my grandma wanted me to stay in Mexico.
Juxtaposed by a man’s laughter behind us, Féi shared the story of their mom’s departure from Mexico.
FH:My mom wasn’t safe. When she fled Mexico, my grandma was possessive of me. I wrote this poem because everyone was screaming and bickering. But it’s also on the basis of my family’s love, my mom’s love, self-love, and queer love.
TPM:There’s this quote by feminist and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde, that goes, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Is self-love political?
FH:Fuck yes. Absolutely. It is how we sustain ourselves. I’m literally an open book when I’m on stage [reading my poems], or when I’m sharing an art piece. For me, that’s resistance.
TPM:How do you feel your art creates a space for undocumented queer people?
FH:[My artwork] is all about occupying space. [But the conundrum is] how do you create space when you’ve been told you cannot have and do not exist in a space? I started writing and creating art because I didn’t see [space for undocumented, queer people] anywhere. For me, that has always been my reason for coming back to Inglewood: to be the mentor I never had and provide the spaces where people can see themselves; it’s a violent thing to grow up not seeing yourself.
Claiming one’s existence in a society that thrives off of the invisibility of undocumented people is an act of resistance. I asked Féi how claiming a space through art validates their existence.
FH:My artwork specifically is my queer liberation. It’s [also] about my undocumented-ness, my invisibility, and how to claim space. It’s my spirit on page. I lost fear before I got my documents. I said “No… who are you to fucking tell me that I don’t exist.” My mother taught me I was a human. In my poems, you’ll hear the word “Mom.” More than for myself, I do it for her silences. I’m not gonna ignore what she said to me. I’m here, and I’m not going away.
For many undocumented artists, it is difficult to separate their art from their being, making their creations inherently political. Their physical body is often considered a battleground—the subject of debate rooted in notions of legality and nationality.
Seo Yun Son, a UCLA alumni and undocumented artist, explores this question of how to preserve oneself when one’s “self” is inherently threatened. Seo seizes this political aspect of her identity, and navigates this territory through photography, writing, and educating.
Seo Yun’s art is informed by her experience as an undocumented Korean in America, with underlying themes of family, visibility, and personhood. As an artist, Seo Yun views art as a process of claiming space. As an educator, she extends her activism into the classroom as she facilitates political discussion amongst her students centered on Korean American identity, social issues, and the implications of art.
After driving through the narrow roads of Los Angeles, I met up with Seo Yun in her apartment. Upon entering, I was overwhelmed by a sense of hospitality and openness—one that I immediately wished had enveloped her every time she entered a space. Eyeing her eclectic collection of knickknacks—which included a ukulele, cacti, and various postcards—I caught a sense of Seo Yun’s charming nature. Her cat pottered around us, and we fell into rhythm. I opened my notebook and asked Seo Yun to share her history with me.
SEO YUN SON:I found out I was undocumented when I was about 18 years old and applying to college. My grandparents withheld that information until it was deemed necessary to know. When I found out I was undocumented, my hopes, dreams, and aspirations felt threatened. I didn’t know if I could afford college. I felt that I was in limbo; there were a lot of opportunities I could not attain due to my undocumented status.
THE PAPER MIXTAPE:In this “limbo,” did you struggle with how society perceived your personhood?
SS:I felt like I was neither here nor there. Not only was I technically not an American, I was removed from the Korean culture. It was a loss of identity.
TPM:What role did UCLA play in providing you with resources?
SS:I got connected with the Bruin Resource Center where they hosted a space for IDEAS, an undocumented student group on campus. They helped me realize that I was part of a community.
TPM:Does your art stem from this desire to help the emergence of community?
SS:When I was at UCLA, the art community was insular and very white. I realized [unlike some peers], I couldn’t afford to make art for art’s sake. I had my own politicized body at stake.
TPM:When did you come to grips with the reality that your existence carried political weight?
SS:I worked under the table for a while in the garment industry. It’s fascinating because if you trace the Asian American diaspora in the United States, a lot of Korean women worked at garment factories, including my relatives. It was interesting to see that parallel. Working at the factory was when I realized my own politicized body. I started making work about that.
Finding ancestral connections between her working environment and the history of Korean Americans, Seo Yun understood the intersection between her family lineage and contemporary society. Naturally, her art became informed by her realization. I asked Seo Yun about her art piece, Undocumented, which is a series that features three images from government encrypted documents. She brought out the three prints stored in a large folder and described them as well as the broader nature of her art.
SS:I was interested in the hierarchy of documents. These scans are from the first document that was processed when I found out I was undocumented in 2012.
Focused only on official notices, I wondered whether Seo Yun attempted to highlight the importance of what would appear to be merely a paper for anyone who did not have a familiar connection with it.
SS:These documents have a lot of weight. Viewers can appreciate the appearance of it, but upon a second glance you notice something more. You see, ironically, the Statue of Liberty. You see this symbol of freedom and refuge on a document that tells me I’m only a series of numbers generated to track my presence.
These documents give Seo Yun the opportunity to work as a teacher in the United States. As an educator, she makes it a goal to encourage social critique and political debate.
SS:All my students are Korean American; it is a privilege to teach them. It’s also important for them to see a vocal Asian American teacher, which reverses the stereotype that we are silent sufferers. I can’t be silent on issues, there’s agency in
speaking for myself.
TPM:What do you feel the future of the undocumented art community holds?
SS:I do see an effort in the art community to stimulate discussions on political issues. With my undocumented students, I see how being undocumented can stifle your creativity because the future seems uncertain. All I can hope for is visibility [for disenfranchised people]. Our survival is our revolution.
While current immigration laws seem to establish impenetrable boundaries, art challenges the notion that we must leave these mandates undisturbed. Féi and Seo Yun embody an activism that is far reaching, as their protests reside beyond the canvas and notebook and seep through classroom walls and city streets. As artists, their stories and creations provide a glimpse of a community whose art has often been buried by mainstream media. While both artists highlight the variety of the undocumented experience in Los Angeles, they claim and sculpt their identity—an act of self-preservation. In a world that attempts to silence and dehumanize undocumented peoples, the undocumented art community remains vocal, triggering political discussion as their art becomes a weapon for resistance, a proclamation of self-love, and a sculptor of identity.