New Jersey-based artist Maria de Los Angeles has an Ivy League education, is featured in art shows across the country, and uses her art to offer a look into the lives of marginalized folks in America. She’s also undocumented — but doesn’t let her immigration status dictate her life. Through her art and activism, she continues to fight against a system that wants to see her fail.
Born in Michoacan but raised in Tabasco, Mexico, de Los Angeles lived most of her life in the U.S. in the shadows. That is, until Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was implemented by former President Barack Obama in 2014. Back then, DACA alleviated some of her fears — it allowed her not only to pursue higher education but also to unearth a love for art and activism — but the artist and Yale graduate still had reservations.
De Los Angeles, now 29, was hesitant to believe that the government would do what it promised to do through DACA: protect her from deportation.
The artist was 11 years old when her parents decided to emigrate to the U.S. “I was old enough to be upset. I was aware that it was dangerous,” she said. Her family traveled to Tijuana and from there, de Los Angeles and her younger siblings were brought to the U.S. by a smuggler, also known as a coyote.
“She gave us sleeping medicine and then drove us across, to L.A.,” de Los Angeles recalled. “When I woke up, I didn’t know where we were. We were with this stranger and I was worried for my [four] siblings — I’m the oldest, so I’m very protective.”
It’s now been nearly nine months since President Donald Trump decided to phase out DACA, and de Los Angeles — along with about 800,000 other undocumented immigrants — continues to wait for relief.
In September 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded DACA with Trump’s sign-off. Since DACA was enacted through an executive order, Sessions didn’t need congressional approval to end the program. In a statement, Trump asked Congress to find a legislative solution for Dreamers, setting a deadline of March 5th, but no fix has been delivered.
Things started to look up on April 24th, though: Judge John D. Bates of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia ruled “that [DACA] protections must stay in place and that the government must resume accepting new applications.” He gave the administration 90 days to justify its decision to rescind DACA.
But then, on May 1st, seven states, led by Texas, sued the federal government to end DACA — yet another setback for Dreamers like de Los Angeles, since they still don’t know if there will ever be a permanent solution to their immigration status.
“It’s important to stay vigilant and keep fighting for our Dreamers,” de Los Angeles told us. “Before I came here, in Mexico I never felt that I was less than human. I never felt restricted by this.”
Being constantly treated as less than and left to wonder whether she’ll wake up under the threat of deportation has its psychological impacts. Dreamers and undocumented immigrants have “always been marginalized by society, and have always known what it’s like to have restrictions,” de Los Angeles said. “At the end of the day, you know that [DACA] is just a renewal, that it’s not proceeding towards immigration reform. It’s not potential citizenship.”
De Los Angeles thinks back to her early days in the U.S., running around Roseland, California and trying to enroll her younger siblings in school. She was so preoccupied thinking about their education that she forgot about her own.
At the time, she was around 12 years old and planning to work in the grape fields with her parents. But when a friend suggested she enroll in the seventh grade at Lawrence Cook Middle School, she signed up; she had only a second-grade education and no English language skills.
“It was a big learning gap,” she said, but she quickly became fluent in English and soon cultivated a love for art. “I have always liked art since I was little. I would sketch, and now I had somebody to teach me, I had materials.”
De Los Angeles never stopped working toward her dream of pursuing art. Now, she showcases her work across the country.
“No one can take [away] the fact that I’m an artist or that I have my education,” she said. “People in our situation should do their best to get what they want regardless of our legal status. At the end of the day, we will have what we create.”
Currently, her art is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — on view until October. The exhibition, A Universal History of Infamy: Those of This America, was curated by artist Vincent Ramos. It displays works by contemporary Latinx artists, writers, and activists “exploring loss, resilience, and the political potential of poetic expression.”
De Los Angeles also had a solo show, Transcending Myths, at Southern Oregon University’s Schneider Museum of Art in March, which is where she showcased three sculpture dresses and over 1,000 drawings that portray the psychological impact of migration.
She’s come a long way since she was a 12 year old caring for her younger siblings in Northern California. The artist currently resides in Jersey City, New Jersey and has an MFA from the Yale School of Art. After graduating from Yale in 2015, de Los Angeles began teaching at the Pratt Institute (where she earned her BFA) as a visiting professor. Through Pratt, she’s also had the opportunity to teach abroad in Europe — an opportunity difficult to come by for undocumented immigrants.
“You have to be invited [to a country] to apply for a travel permit if it’s not a family emergency,” she explained. After receiving a travel permit, de Los Angeles had an official legal entry point, “which is really important because as an undocumented child smuggled in, I didn’t have that legal entry point before.”
It’s been almost 20 years since de Los Angeles left Mexico, and sometimes it seems as if there’s little connecting her to her past life. Currently, advance parole travel permits have been suspended for DACA recipients so de Los Angeles cannot travel out of the country.
And with the Trump administration’s continued attacks on immigrants and their rights, there’s little hope for a path to citizenship, or for de Los Angeles to reconnect with her roots.
“I’m sure that I will realize how I’m not so Mexican anymore,” she said.
Still, the artist acknowledges that this is all bigger than her and her personal traumas and experiences. To her, the issue is collective. “It’s about all of us. It’s about undocumented immigrants living in the shadows, still living in fear, and who aren’t protected at all, who aren’t eligible for DACA.” De Los Angeles added, “They’re being attacked left and right, and their lives are also just in limbo.”
The issue of immigration transcends and spans generations.
Since immigrating here, de Los Angeles’s family has grown: Her parents had two more children — American citizens. Plus, she now has eight nieces and nephews. Three generations of young men and women who continue to be both directly and indirectly affected by our country’s inhumane immigration policies.
De Los Angeles’s Deportation Series, a collection of over 1,000 drawings, looks at not just her personal traumas and experiences with a border separating her birth country from her current home, but also beyond herself.
“[They] are about the raids, the border scenes, and my thoughts. Some are serious and others are funny. They are colorful because I can’t bear the darkness. They are lovely because we all need hope,” she explained in an interview with LACMA‘s Erin Yokomizo.
Her drawings depict her tumultuous experience as an undocumented immigrant, but they also critique U.S. immigration policies and the oppressive systems that continue to hurt her community.
They came out of imagining herself being deported, and from her fear of not belonging, something many families in this country can relate to. The fear of not belonging; fear of being ripped away from their loved ones, their communities, and the fear of being stripped of all they’ve tirelessly worked to achieve.
Fear, however, is the last thing keeping de Los Angeles from doing the work and using her art as a method of resistance.
Although de Los Angeles longs for the day when she can reconnect with her Mexican roots and culture, she stresses that she has a lot of work to do here, now. “My concern [is] the psychological impact and the actual physical impact of what’s going on in the community beyond me, because I am very privileged,” she said.
With an Ivy League education and access to a support system, de Los Angeles says that “if anything were to happen to me, I would be able to get some help, but the people who are in the shadows, taken away, they don’t have as much help as some of us do.”
De Los Angeles continues to teach, hold workshops at the Arts Students League in N.Y.C., and unapologetically showcases her work every chance she gets. This month, her art will be on display at N.Y.C.’s Robert Mann Gallery for In Her Hands, an exhibition “[reflecting] the rise of women’s voices around the world that exemplify the inclusiveness of true feminist power.”
Her work speaks volumes about the countless ways this country demonizes marginalized folks. One of her sculpted works, for example, The Family Dress, made out of canvas and paper, speaks to the history of colonialism. Another similar dress, which she wore to a fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, features phrases such as “DEPORT ME” and “DACA.”
Through her sketches and drawings, de Los Angeles lets us in on the collective traumas, past and present, of undocumented individuals who want nothing more than to escape murder, violence, and oppression in their home countries. Her art continues to add to the conversation about identity, legality, and migration.
Even with the odds stacked against her — her work permit, granted through DACA, ironically expires on the 4th of July — Maria de Los Angeles exists fiercely. She lets her traumas as an undocumented immigrant, woman, and artist inspire her work — but she never lets them hold her down.