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Heldáy de la Cruz

We the Dreamers

Sept 6, 2018 at 2pm


HELDÁY DE LA CRUZ: I wanna tell you all a little bit about the journey of this project that grew to be bigger than what I had in mind for it. The project is called We the Dreamers. Before I get into it, though, I'm gonna go back to Mexico in 1991 to give you a little bit of history of myself and why I'm doing the work that I'm doing.

So my hometown is called El Jazmín, and it sits at the base of a volcano called el Volcán de Colima in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. I’m a jalisciense and a very proud mexicano. My family history has always been really special and mysterious to me because it doesn't really exist. It was wiped out by colonization, and I've had to make peace knowing that I will never fully know my background.

I'm what we would call a mestizo, which is a person who is a mix of European and Indigenous descent. My family emigrated to the United States when I was two years old, and we made our home on a farm in eastern Oregon. So two of my dad's brothers bought the neighboring homes. So I grew up with a huge family presence and eight cousins to kick it with all the time. It was at the age of 5 that I learned that I was undocumented, but that doesn't really matter when you're a child. It really starts to matter when you are a teenager, and you start to hit roadblocks. You can't get your license. You can't legally work. You don't qualify for financial student aid. And these are just some of the ways that being undocumented affects you.

So I wasn't allowed to work legally in the United States until I was 22, when the DACA program was first introduced during the Obama Administration. DACA stands for “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” and maybe some of y’all know what it is now since it's been in the news for the last year since the program was rescinded. But this program was really special because it changed my life drastically. It allowed me to pursue an education in graphic design and apply for jobs that I actually really wanted to apply for.

So today, I work as a graphic designer and illustrator, and my work is heavily influenced by my struggle. My intersectionality is as a queer Latino and undocumented individual. So these are two pieces up on the screen. On the left is a collage I did of my papa Benja, who’s my grandfather. He passed away a few years ago. And I'll describe the piece. It's a portrait of my grandfather with a sabila plant behind him and some native prints, as well. I did this piece because it was a really heartbreaking time because he has—he had—10 children, my dad being one of them. And out of all 10 of his kids, my father was the only one who was unable to attend his funeral in Mexico due to his status. So that was a really difficult time for our family.

On the right is a more recent illustration. It's an illustration of Dolores Huerta who worked alongside Cesar Chavez in the farmworkers movement. She actually coined the saying, “Sí, se puede,” which maybe folks know, and for decades, worked for farmworkers’ rights. I made this illustration after talking on the phone with my father one day and telling him that I was reading up on Dolores and the National Farmworkers Association and that I had remembered him being a part of the union because of the little eagle logo. So it's an illustration of Dolores holding up a sign that says, “Huelga,” which is Spanish for strike. And on the corner is the logo of the organization. And I remember this logo from being a little kid and going to these meetings with my dad. He let me know that Dolores actually came to one of their chapter meetings where he got to meet her and then led everyone on a march. So I found out that this was actually my first march, as well, as a 3-year-old, walking alongside my dad and Dolores Huerta.

Here are a couple more examples of my work now. On the left is written the word, “queer,” which is also layered with some botanical illustration. And this was a part of a bigger group show that I organized called Queer Typography Show or QTs for short. [audience chuckles]. This was a total of 30 posters between three of us that were graphic designers and identified as queer. On the right is a piece called Displace, and it depicts a large hand pulling a head from a naked body. And this was me trying to get exploratory with some of the feelings I had when Trump was elected.

When that happened, I started to feel less grounded. I needed to devote more of my energy into understanding how we got here and how I could be a part of the resistance. So I spent a weekend at Standing Rock with four friends, and that experience sort of catapulted me into using my art for activism. And so the images are, on the left is my four friends painting a banner that was supposed to hang on the side of the camp. And then on the right is me holding a Salmon Nation flag at our campsite.

When I came back from Standing Rock, I was a part of a group art show here in Portland called Broken Promises, and I'd created this piece. It's a black snake that represents the Dakota Access Pipeline being cut in half by an arrow. And this piece I was selling at this art show with all the money going to Standing Rock. And I was really excited to know that it sold for $200 and to be able to give that money back to that community. And for me, it was my first taste, or one of my first tastes, of understanding how simple it can be to contribute to a movement.

So that leads us to We the Dreamers, which is the organization that I co-lead today. So when Trump was in office, I knew that he was gonna come for all of the groups and eventually come for the Dreamers as well and the undocumented community at large. So I wrote a letter, just generally to the universe, to the Internet, whatever, that got picked up by the Huffington Post, which was amazing. And I talked about my experience in this country, growing up undocumented and then how the DACA program changed things for me and why it was important to keep this program alive. And sure enough, on September 5th of last year—yesterday marked a year of that—the Trump Administration took away the DACA program or tried to, is trying to actively take away the DACA program. This program has only existed for five years and was the reason a lot of us were able to work legally and have a state-issued ID for the first time and a Social Security number. So without this program, over 800,000 of us have two years or less left in the country and have to start planning moving out of that. So we have these expiration dates looming over our heads.

So when this announcement happened, I decided to make my own announcement two days later. So I announced this art show, We the Dreamers, an art show to defend DACA. I had no money, no venue, and three months to plan this event. I asked for help and met some really amazing people along the way who also spent countless hours collaborating to bring this show to life. This show featured 10 illustrations of 10 DACA recipients and their stories. We sold out the show. I did seven interviews, doing radio, television, blogs, newspaper. And we had over 700 attendees and made $16,000 in donations, which was crazy. And that went money all went back to three organizations that were doing the daily work for immigrant rights: Pueblo Unido, Oregon DACA Coalition, and United We Dream.

So this is our group now. It's not the full group ‘cause it keeps changing and growing. And we don't like to call ourselves an organization. We're not a non-profit. We are a group of nine friends who meet monthly, and we plan events that center this undocumented narrative through art. And it's bringing both the undocumented and documented community together, allowing us to share these experiences. That's us creating a stage for ourselves because there wasn't one there before.

So I wanna talk a little bit too about intention versus impact. This is something that I learned a lot at Standing Rock and that I take with me. In the midst of all this with We the Dreamers and all the movements that are happening, I often find myself wondering what it means to become part of a movement. And so these are the three things that I ask myself: Who does the movement belong to? What skills do I have? And how can I contribute responsibly? The responsibly is a really important piece to it.

And the answers that I came up with for myself are that the movement belongs to the community that's being affected, and they should be the ones leading. If I don't belong to the community, I should step back and not take it on as my own fight, but I can play a support role instead. What skills do I have? How do I take the things that I'm good at and support the community? And how can I contribute responsibly? Making sure, again, that you're not taking stage if this isn't your movement and figuring out how to best function as a support instead.

So I wanna also talk a little bit about this other project that popped up around the same time that we started doing this work. And this is not in bad blood at all, but it's sort of a critique coming from the undocumented community about this project. It's called Faces of DACA, here in Portland. And the organizer actually, we sat down with him over coffee to talk through this project. He wanted to pick our brains around how to best go about this. And bless their hearts, I had a really hard time with the way that this was being executed. And I was mostly just shocked to learn that there was no DACA recipients and no undocumented people at the table for this project. And so we strongly suggested that they do that. And I don't know if they ever did, but I would hope so. The point being though, is that when none of those voices are in the room, what you get is a handful of super-talented collaborators—photographers, designers who are putting this thing together—but they're making the decisions on how we tell our stories. And this is, you know again, a matter of intention versus impact.

And for this I think about this quote a lot, and I adore this. “You want the golden treasures of my culture, but you don't want me.” I love this quote because it couldn't be more true for people who have their cultures appropriated all the time and sensationalized for headlines and because it applies pretty directly to the undocumented community that lives liminally in a place they call home but actively gets pushed out.

I'm gonna switch to my computer ‘cause I forgot to print all my notes.

This is another image that made headlines all over the world. It's called "Mexican baby peering over the Mexico-United States border," and it depicts a large-scale image of a child, you know, hovering over the wall, peeking over. This was done by a French artist, JR. And this artist travels all over the world to places that are experiencing poverty or some sort of political tension and creates these installations. It's a great concept, and I appreciate it very much. But my issue with it is that it's not their story to tell.

And you know, one of the reasons I felt that way too is because there was this other image that surfaced of this artist, JR, having tea with a border patrol agent. And I think this is a really dangerous image because it sort of paints a really skewed picture of harmony between these two worlds, and that's not true. Border patrol agents are notorious for taunting and abusing and killing people who look like immigrants, and they've severely hurt the communities there. So to put on this facade is completely erasing the brutal history of the area. And JR has said things like, “I see no borders.” Which, to me, is very similar to, “I don't see color,” when people talk about race. And that’s erasure, right? And so I see that it's really easy to not see those borders when you have the privilege of not seeing those borders, when you have the ability to fly somewhere and have the money to do this thing and then fly out when you’re done. And it's not his lived experience to be in that space in that area.

And so if I were to suggest to folks another way to look at or try to learn about the communities in the border, Radiolab podcast has three episodes called Border Trilogy. And I would like to warn everyone it can get pretty graphic, but it is a much more true idea of what is going on there. And it interviews many people on the border and allows them to use their voices to talk about their experiences.

So art and activism: I don't wanna jump too deeply into this. But there's the same, you know, we all know about this propaganda and history: Rosie the Riveter, Keep Calm and Carry On, Uncle Sam pointing at you saying, “I want you for the U.S. Army” and how some of these iconic pieces stick with us with movements, right? So instead, I wanna focus a little bit on some of the projects I've seen.

This is a photo of one of our events. One of the folks on our team, V, worked on a zine series called Esto Es Para Ti (This Is For You). And that is specifically a collection of art and poetry and writings and thoughts from undocumented people, for undocumented people. And this has been a really successful zine. I think there's five total. And it's actually being picked up by some universities now to be taught in classes or talked about, at least, which is really amazing.

I, myself, joined the Creative Action Network earlier this year. It is a website that allows artists to upload their artwork, and the artwork is sold in posters and whatever other formats. And a lot of the stuff is social justice-oriented, and that money goes back to the artists themselves, as well as numerous non-profits listed on their website.

So after doing a year of this work now, you know, we did a lot of panels, we did a lot of presentations and speeches and rallies, all the things, fundraising for organizations in town, we finally took the summer to reflect on ourselves and find the ways in which we could be better, which our group could be better. And one of the things that we did recently is change our name. We changed our name to Power to the Dreamers. We felt like that was a much more inclusive statement, one that somebody could wear on a t-shirt, somebody could have on a poster. Whereas We the Dreamers feels really isolating, and there's some conflict around who is a Dreamer, what does that mean? And you know, Power to the Dreamers is still not the best way to capture the undocumented community. Some people hate the word “Dreamer,” and so there’s a lot of discussion there for sure. But we felt like this was a baby step for us to move forward and try to be a little bit more inclusive with our work. So that's the updated poster, just says Power to the Dreamers instead of We the Dreamers.

So this art show that we had last year that had the 10 illustrations of 10 DACA recipients, these are two of the portraits. On the left is my friend Jonathan, and on the right is my friend, V. And so we haven't announced this yet; we’re still figuring some details out. But we are planning to do round two of this, also taking place on December 1st this year. And we don't have a name, but what we're gonna do is bring back these illustrations, these 10 illustrations, and we're gonna add 10 more. And instead of continuing to find DACA recipients to illustrate, we're gonna do the parents. We're gonna talk about the parents’ stories, and the reasoning behind that is that our goal is to humanize the undocumented community and the undocumented narrative. And people think about DACA, and they think about squeaky clean individuals who “broke the law” but should be here because they're the kids, right? Not their fault. And that's great, but we want to move past that, and we want to talk about the parents and the generations before that missed those deadlines, missed those timelines for programs like this. So that's happening on December 1st. And again, just our team just trying to tighten up our skills and tighten up what we’re doing and how we’re messaging is what we’ve learned in the last year.

And this is a portrait of my mom that I started doing. It's not complete, but this is sort of the idea of the portraits, is also trying to find a way to capture joy in them as well. I think a lot of the time in the undocumented community, we get held back by our struggle, and we get held back by these stories that are tragic and sad. And we're trying to find a way to honor that and also think about the ways in which we can allow ourselves to experience happiness as well.

And lastly, I wanna talk a little bit about supporting the undocumented community. I have been asked a lot in the amount of times that I’ve been on a stage how people can help. So I made a little convenient list.

Number one is change your language, if you haven't already. This is me, this is the undocumented community, myself specifically, asking folks to stop using the word “illegal,” asking folks to stop using the word “alien.” It's incredibly isolating and dehumanizing. And talking about the community makes more sense to use the word “undocumented.” Because no human being is illegal, and it further feeds the idea that undocumented people are criminals and don’t deserve respect. And it strips away our power.

Number two is intention versus impact, and I talked about that a little bit, but just keeping that at the forefront of your mind with the ways in which you interact or want to interact or engage and volunteer, what have you, with this movement.

Three is educating yourself and understanding the full story. I feel like I know a lot of it, but I don't know it all. And I'm currently reading a book called An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, and it's really telling. And it's something from the perspective of my community, as well, which I've found really important.

Talking about it, normalizing, I guess, the idea of this movement with family and friends is super important. Calling representatives and voting, also important. And then committing to showing up. I think that sometimes we all get really fired up about some big injustice, and we wanna show up, and we wanna be there. And then when the movement keeps going, we tend to drift away from it because we did our part and we showed up the one time. So I think, to me, this is something that I found really important, is the commitment and the follow-through with showing up for communities.

And with that I guess I just wanna leave you all with one of my favorite quotes by Audre Lorde, “Everything we to do has to contribute to the struggle, because everything they do is grinding us into dust. And we will not be ground.” Thank you.


Heldáy de la Cruz

Photo of Helday de la Cruz wearing a "Power to the Dreamers" shirt and speaking into a microphone

Heldáy de la Cruz is an undocuqueer and Latinx Illustrator. His work is deeply rooted in his intersectionalities with a strong call for activism through the organization he co-leads, We the Dreamers. Heldáy has been featured in the Huffington Post, Milk X Magazine (Hong Kong), and the Define American Film Festival.