LOS ANGELES — Before Alessandro Negrete introduced himself to the crowded gallery, he did something not usually seen at art events.
He took the microphone and yelled the word “undocumented.” Without any instruction, the audience immediately responded screaming the word “unafraid,” the second half of the chant heard often at immigrant rights gatherings.
They were there for a unique art show: one created both for and by undocumented people. Everyone involved in the show—from the curators to the artists and performers, to the DJ and even the food vendor in the gallery—was undocumented.
“The spirit of this whole show is about resilience,” Negrete, 34, who co-curated the evening, said.
The one night show took place last Friday, exactly one week after local immigration officials in Los Angeles announced they had detained 160 immigrants in raids conducted across Southern California. The community is also facing Donald Trump’s recent executive orders, which call for more deportations.
Negrete told the crowd not to “ignore the fact that shit can be traumatic, but the reality is we were here before all this shit happened."
Negrete and his curating partner Yosimar Reyes, 28, said they organized the show because they were tired of seeing images of helpless undocumented people crying in news stories.
“We get robbed of our agency so often,” Reyes told me a few hours before the show opened.
He said the show was an attempt to counteract that narrative by showcasing undocumented people using love, resistance, and humor in their work.
The crowd erupted in laughter when Reyes jokingly told them they should "only cry on camera if they pay you." The audience seemed all too familiar with the narrative he was referencing.
“As an undocumented person, if you can laugh and make jokes right now, if you can continue to live your life, that is resilience,” Reyes told me.
He said the show was “not celebrating being undocumented, we’re celebrating that we’re thriving."
Reyes also noted that he often sees shows featuring U.S.-born artists with authorization to be in the U.S. presenting the experience of an undocumented immigrant. He said it was important this show only included the voices of undocumented artists.
Some of the art at the show spoke directly to the undocumented immigrant experience. Other pieces just happened to be created by an undocumented immigrant.
The host of the evening, an undocumented woman from Belize named Denea Joseph, first introduced a spoken word artist born in Mexico. Then came Julie Yeeun Kim, a singer born in South Korea who sang “We Shall Overcome” in a mix of Spanish, English, and Korean.
In one corner of the gallery sat a painting by artist Myisha Arellanus that explored mental health and well-being. The painting depicts two officers pointing guns at the subject’s head. One of the officers is wearing a hat that identifies him as a police officer while the other officer wears an immigration official uniform.
The painting can be interpreted in many ways, but it certainly makes you think about how local police officers collaborate with ICE agents. The vast majority of immigrants in ICE custody were not detained in raids. They were arrested by local law enforcement officials and then transferred into ICE custody.
Another artist, Eunsoo Jeong, reimagined the U.S. flag. with 13 different skin tones instead of stripes.
“This piece shows the ideal America that I dream of, with the flag representing the minorities in different colors and stars representing LGBT community,” said Jeong, who was born in South Korea and came to the U.S. when she was 13 years old.
Jeong said the art showcase was important to her because she was surrounded by artists “who are part of the same social condition that I’m in.”
Performances at the showcase started at 7 PM but by 7:05 PM the venue was at capacity. At one point about two dozen people waited outside in the rain hoping to get inside the show.
Reyes and Negrete say the spent little time promoting the show and spent no money on advertising. But still, the gallery was filled with 150 people in the room, and there was a line of people waiting in the rain to get in the show.
“It’s a testament that places like this are important and needed,” said Reyes