SPARC exhibit explores the emotional and cultural voids that immigration leaves behind

By Michael Reyes

Self-portrait of a migrant  by Enrique Gijon

Self-portrait of a migrant
by Enrique Gijon

In the United States, immigration stories are often about the arrival of strangers.

On the other side of the border, these tales begin with the notable absence of a neighbor, friend or family member.

The personal stories of Oaxacan villagers who have lost physical contact with loved ones to U.S. migration fuel the art of “New Codex: Oaxaca – Immigration and Cultural Memory,” a touring exhibit currently on display at the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice.

The Embroidery Ants of Tanivet — an all-women arts collective based in San Francisco Tanivet, Oaxaca, Mexico — spent more than five years working with recycled materials to create appliqué art pieces that speak to the impact of a husband, child or other family member disappearing from their lives.

“There are a lot of mothers who suffer because their children migrate and stay,” said Juana Lemus, a member of The Embroidery Ants of Tanivet. “Many families are left worrying, crying for their children.”

The exhibit includes a collection of multicolored fabrics stitched together to represent a collective experience of memory and imagination that speaks to what migration does to the mind, body and spirit of the families and communities that immigrants leave behind.

A rural village hit by hard by unemployment and government cutbacks to social safety net programs, San Francisco Tanivet has lost as much as half of its population to U.S. migration.

Most of those who’ve left San Francisco Tanivet head to West Los Angeles, which according to the exhibit is home to the largest number Oaxacan-born people outside of Oaxaca itself.

“I’ve heard all the stories and knew of all the struggles, but it’s not the same when you meet people who are affected directly — especially mothers,” said visual artist Marietta Bernstorff, who curated the exhibit. “It was important for me to see what would happen if we pushed art to the maximum and made [Lemus into] an artist and helped her arrive to Los Angeles.”

What happened was reunification. With the support of the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles, Lemus obtained a visa to travel with the exhibit and visit her son in Los Angeles. Until earlier this year, they hadn’t seen each other face to face in a decade. He was 13 when he left her.

“It’s a great surprise,” Lemus said. “I achieved it based on my works, my efforts, to be reunited with my son. It’s been a long time.”

The exhibit has also brought together other families separated by migration.

Art has also helped the village of San Francisco Tanivet heal from its losses.

Work on the exhibit began in 2010, when Bernstorff arrived in the village to do community development work and employed art as a tool for spiritual recovery and a generator of extra income.

Though a traditional art in the region, patchwork was not something the women of the village had practiced until Bernstorff arrived. Instead, they had relied solely on agriculture to survive on an average of 13 American dollars per week.

Art, it turned out, has been a more sustainable source of income that has improved quality of life for participating artists.

“Now that I’m seeing all this, I can say that art leads us to beautiful things,” Lemus said.

“New Codex: Oaxaca – Immigration and Cultural Memory” remains on display through Aug. 29 in the Durón Gallery at SPARC, 685 Venice Blvd., Venice.  The gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tuesdays through Saturdays. For more information, call (310) 822-9560 or visit