By Melina Chalkia, Medill, Immigrant Connect June 2021
Hector Duarte unlocks the purple, wooden door to his studio — a building covered in a colorful mural, portraying a Mexican immigrant trapped under barbed wire, unable to move. As Duarte crosses the threshold of the building, the odor of acrylic paint and gesso dominates the atmosphere. Bright colors of red, yellow, pink and blue jump out of every corner of the room, with the butterfly in the center of every art piece — small butterflies, large butterflies, butterflies in cocoons and butterflies in cages.“I use the butterfly as a symbol of the migrant,” Duarte said. “The monarch butterflies migrate across three countries to go from Canada to Mexico, but they don’t need papers,” he added. “My people do.”
Duarte is a Mexican immigrant muralist, who moved from Michoacán, Mexico, to Pilsen in 1985, and has since found it difficult to integrate into this new community and culture. Through his artistry, he has found a creative avenue to tell the stories of adversity of his people.
His intention is to motivate the new generation of immigrants to embrace both cultures and stay connected with their roots — their people, their community and their land — while accepting and learning a new culture.
“It [migration] is expensive, it costs you, because you lose your human relation with your land and your people,” Duarte said. “We have to preserve our traditional heritage and take the best things from both cultures.”
When he first came to the United States, Duarte was surprised by how different everything was. The language was different. The food was different. The traditions were different. Everything was different. And that’s what it’s like for many immigrants.
“When I spoke English, people would not understand me. I didn’t know English and my pronunciation was not good,” he said.
Duarte’s accent was not the only thing that separated him from everyone else. His art was rejected by many Mexican artists, who painted in their own Chicano style, using bright colors and images of Mexican heroes. Duarte felt that he was losing his origin, his culture. But that’s when he started realizing that he had to leave some parts of his culture behind and embrace new ones. Even though it was hard.
“I started to change my concepts about art and started painting the same as the Chicano art, but in a different way, he said. “My intention is to create something a little more artistic and symbolic.”
Because of cultural differences in the United States, Duarte gained a deeper appreciation and love for his own Mexican culture. He learned to savor his roots through art, in remembrance.
Just like Duarte, many Mexican immigrants are able to find a cultural balance, embracing new traditions and new languages, while keeping old ones alive.
“We take advantage of this culture in America, but we continue with our culture,” Duarte said. “Por ejemplo. We eat tortillas here, bring all the food and ingredients and repeat the traditional ‘ceremony’ of making food. You re-create your culture and continue with this ritual and your home. And you talk in Spanish and celebrate the big celebrations in Mexico, the traditions.”
As an artist, Duarte also draws from his experiences living undocumented. Though he was documented when he moved to Chicago, his visa expired a few years later, after which he stayed undocumented until he got married.
“I felt that I was trapped in a box,” Duarte said. “I felt that any moment they would catch me.”Immigrants’ fear and uncertainty of getting deported makes it difficult for them to integrate and plant deep roots in this new home. They feel trapped; trapped by the law, poverty, the inability to communicate, to understand the culture.
“When the police criminalize people, they take their fingerprints,” Duarte said. The piece to the right incorporates three different concepts of the heart, the fingerprint and the barcode. Duarte uses the barcode and fingerprint to highlight the objectification of immigrant people as cheap labor. He demonstrates the human and kind nature of immigrants who only come to the United States to work, take care of family and not cause harm. “Immigrants do not feel welcome in this country and find it difficult to integrate and plant roots, since they are not seen as human,”Duarte said. “For me, it represents the ID of migrant people.”
Duarte’s art speaks not only to his own experience integrating, but to other immigrants’ stories too.
“In my art, I symbolize different experiences with people in different situations. That’s why I use the butterfly,” Duarte said. “Different stories, of people in different situations, who migrate and survive here, but don’t integrate totally to the society because they feel that the Migra is coming.”
The piece below represents the butterflies who migrate and survive all together, as one. At night, butterflies start moving to the trees, coming closer together and creating a bundle at the tree branch. Here, Duarte represents the unification of butterflies, which come together to provide warmth and security for one another, as with Duarte’s people, who migrate all the way from Mexico, but stay united and in touch with each other and their culture. With this piece at Mexico’s El Rosario monarch butterfly sanctuary, Duarte is also honoring two nature activists – Homero Gomez Gonzalez and Raul Hernandez Romero – who were killed. Duarte sees this act as a symbol of an attack against the butterfly migrants, who remain unprotected.Erasmo Salgado, an art collector, who migrated to the United States from Acapulco, Mexico, had a similar experience.
“When I came to this country, to support my family, in the beginning it was difficult and scary. My English is not perfect and I have a lot of problems,” Salgado said. “But I do what I can.”
As an immigrant, Salgado is fascinated by Duarte’s artistic expression of immigrant life in the United States and feels connected to the cultural duality present in Duarte’s art.
“His work of free expression represents immigrants one way or the other and he uses different symbols, mixing Mexican and American culture,” Salgado said.
Duarte’s art conveys these struggles, as well as messages about the significance of taking a second step further and integrating both Mexican and US culture.
“The intellectual capacity of Hector Duarte, as an artist, has no limits,” Salgado said. “Duarte’s work for the immigrant community and the culture here inspires us and represents us. He expresses our people.” Salgado has collected 30 pieces of Duarte’s work.
With immigration increasing constantly all over the world, Duarte feels it’s important to create art for immigrants’ stories. He described life in the US as living in a segregated society, where we don’t make deep, cultural connections with each other.
“This is why I push the new generation to learn about your father’s and grandfather’s culture and take the best things from them and put them in this time,” Duarte said. “You need to open your mind and heart to create something for the new generation.”