Reflections on “Immigration, Identity, and the Arts”

Image caption: Artists featured in “Immigration, Identity, and the Arts,” a program presented by American Composers Forum and East Side Freedom Library with support from the NEA Big Read

I was born in Córdoba, Argentina, and lived in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Missouri for the last 14 years before moving to my current home in Los Angeles. I’m drawn to plurality, mixture, movement, and change, which fuels my creative practice as a composer and multimedia artist. My transnational experience has allowed me to develop a capacity for adaptive communication, and a comfort with the ambiguity of multiple coexisting realities and narratives.

After joining American Composers Forum in August 2022 as Director of Artist Support, one of the first programs I participated in was “Immigration, Identity, and the Arts,” a series of five conversations with artists presented in partnership with East Side Freedom Library as part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read program. Our series is built around Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir, The Best We Could Do, which chronicles her family’s escape after the fall of South Việt Nam in the 1970s and eventual migration to the U.S.A. as refugees.

Our intention for “Immigration, Identity, and the Arts” was to contemplate the experience of immigrant communities in the U.S.A. through artists’ stories. We see artists as social commentators and visionaries within their communities. As agents in the process of healing and bonding, artists can help facilitate our understanding of new and complex ideas or missed perspectives through cross-cultural pollination.

Natali Herrera-Pacheco, "I’m not an American Woman" (2015) -- Photo courtesy of the artist

Natali Herrera-Pacheco, “I’m not an American Woman” (2015) — Photo courtesy of the artist

Meditating with artists throughout the series has made it clear that there is no single immigrant story in the U.S.A. Each individual story has been sculpted by the context of migration in global, domestic, and personal histories, and by each person’s distance from the generation that initiated the migration. We have also seen common imprints left by the experience of displacement in people’s perceptions of self and in intergenerational relationships.

Thi Bui’s longing for a deeper connection with her parents powered the creation of The Best We Could Do. In Chapter 2, “Rewind, Reverse,” she expresses, “How did we get to such a lonely place? I keep looking toward the past, tracing our journey in reverse, over the ocean, through the war, seeking an origin story that will set everything right.”

In our Oct. 29 session, Thai-American composer Mary Prescott described the same deep desire for connection and understanding, and explained how she uses her creative work to reconnect with her heritage: “To connect past and present was something that came up pretty naturally with my project. My Thai side is a history that I didn’t grow up knowing. So, when I began my project Tida, that was really in an effort to learn who I was and a side to myself that had been unknown to me since I was pretty young.”

In our Nov. 12 session, Hmong-American author Kao Kalia Yang provided a defiant view of how artists can instill a deeper sense of humanity and urge audiences to engage with a receptive mind and spirit: “The role of an artist is not to seek agreement or disagreement in the world; it is to deepen a bigger understanding… I’m looking to present what is true of my home for the world. And I don’t care whether you agree or disagree. It is your deeper understanding that I’m looking for; it is the pulse of your humanity that I’m looking to feel.”

Yang also named a lack of trust and space as an issue for BIPOC artists in the U.S.A. She noted that they are rarely granted the privilege to experiment and to make the mistakes that are essential for the development of an artist’s voice and craft. “We never think about what we could do in certain spaces because we’ve never been welcomed into those spaces,” she said. “We’ve never gotten the opportunities. No institution has said: Kao Kalia Yang, I trust you to learn about this and to do it.”

In our Feb. 5 session, we zoomed in on the vast land that we call Latin America in a conversation I hosted with Mexican-U.S.A. composer J.E. Hernandez and Venezuelan-U.S.A. composer Victor Marquez-Barrios. The first challenge often faced in discussing Latin America and its diaspora is the lack of an appropriate language to express and understand such a diverse and highly mixed population. We discussed how the ‘Latin’ part of the name Latin America only refers to the aftermath of colonization with the imposition of Romance languages. This name represents the intentional and perpetuated erasure of the Indigenous people of this region. It dismisses the hundreds of officially-recognized living languages, their millions of native speakers, and the immense heritage and ancestral knowledge that remains vital.

This reductionist view of Latin America continues to be perpetuated through U.S.A. government agencies. In the 2020 Census, 45 million people of Latin American descent living in the country chose the “Some Other Race” self-identification category. This presents a serious data issue, if we cannot accurately identify who these people are. In this neglectful framework assigned to the 670 million people south of the border, the “Some Other Race” people living on either side of the border become a blurry annoyance — or a cheap convenience.

Narsiso Martínez "Legal Tender / Moneda corriente" (2022) -- Photo courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery

Narsiso Martínez “Legal Tender / Moneda corriente” (2022) — Photo courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery

When I asked Hernández the question we all need to ask ourselves — How are you decolonizing yourself? — he responded: “The colonialist dogma to succeed is always to erase, it’s always to divide… I’ve been gearing my language to trend towards compassion and having a deeper sense of connection in my daily conversations… The less categorically I think about people, the less I reduce people to numbers, the more I feel liberated from this sense of colonial baggage, which I feel that I carry in many, many ways.”

Reflecting on the stories shared through “Immigration, Identity, and the Arts” so far begs the question: How many vital perspectives have we missed? Colonialism has hindered our systems of valuing, cataloging, preserving, and disseminating human knowledge worldwide. The only way we can move forward is to recognize the essence of the problem by asking ourselves: Do I trust that knowledge exists beyond my experiential, cultural, geopolitical, spiritual/religious limitations? Am I genuinely interested in the experience of others? And am I capable of granting it the full dimension of “truth”?

Plurality, mixture, movement, and change are the norm in reality. Sometimes we are so close to being able to “see” a perspective previously inaccessible to us, but it gets lost in translation when we fall short of truly switching viewpoints. We must continue to inquire, lovingly but relentlessly, and with the honesty of the artists presented in our series. Resonating with Thi Bui’s book title, if this is the best we can do, then we will be on the right path — an intentional path where infinite curiosity can inform a different set of coordinates and perhaps facilitate a vision for a society based on a kinder relationship with Mother Earth and solidarity with fellow human beings.

“Immigration, Identity, and the Arts” concludes on June 1 with a discussion with author Thi Bui, as well as an improvised musical performance inspired by her book. Click here for updates about the location.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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