by Cindy Knoebel
This continues our series highlighting women whose work and activism are helping immigrants caught in the dragnet of our country's immigration system.
Alejandra Carrillo-Estrada is an interdisciplinary artist who grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border of El Paso, Texas and Cd. Juárez, Mexico.
Cindy Knoebel: Your work is tremendously diverse, encompassing sculpture, poetry, jewelry, and performance art. Where do you find your inspiration?
Alejandra Carrillo Estrada: It comes from various sources. It can be a story I heard, a person I met, or something I picked up in the news. Or it can come from intangible places – like dreams, or from that semi-conscious, half-awake state just before falling asleep or waking up. And lately, of course, from my own personal experiences visiting with people in detention.
CK: Do your ideas generally take time to gestate, or do they strike you suddenly as fully formed concepts?
ACE: Both, really. But what’s most important is that I feel it’s genuine and authentic. When it’s time, it’s time. Materials speak to me because of my background is in metalsmithing. Recently, I found myself inspired by materials that my mother – she was an architectural student in Mexico City in the ‘70s – had worked with. These were miniature bricks used in modeling; they’re 50 years old and I felt they had their own migration story. Like a lightning bolt, I knew immediately what I wanted to do with them.
I set them as if they were precious stones, using silver and bezel wire, and called the jewelry line I produced #breakthewall. I was using the basic materials used in building a wall – bricks and wire – and used #breakthewall to counter today’s “build the border wall” narrative. I believe we can all take action; no one person can break the wall, but together we can.
CK: How would you describe your art thematically?
ACE: It has several layers. One is conceptual – I do consider myself a conceptual artist, which is why I use different mediums to express what I want. And I consider my work both political and poetic. Depending on how I want to envision a certain idea, sometimes I’ll decide that photography will have the strongest impact. Other times, it may be performance art, which I’m increasingly moving to.
I’ve crossed El Paso/Cuidad Juarez bridge so many times during my upbringing, and had an idea, a concept, of using it but wasn’t exactly sure how. In my video, “With(In) Penumbras,” another performer and I crossed holding two small birds I fabricated from stainless steel which were connected by a thin, 16 foot long string of miniature ladders.
We had to coordinate our walk and stances in the middle of this very busy bridge, to meet, connect and then separate – and repeat across the length of the bridge The contrast of slowing down, of being aware, together with the symbolism of birds as animals able to roam freely without borders, yet connected by ladders, was what I wanted to evoke.
CK: Tell me a little about your background ... and how your work has changed over the years, transitioning to socially conscious art.
ACE: Ten years ago I was not making work like this at all. Being more conscious of our political reality, and becoming involved with immigrant rights organizations, has helped shape my artistic vision. I just couldn’t turn my back anymore. I opened that door –and couldn’t close it. It’s my way of trying to cope with what’s going on today. It – artivism, the merging of art and activism to serve a bigger purpose – is a branch of the art world that really appeals to me.
CK: Since 2016, you've volunteered with Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID) in the Chihuahuan Desert. Do you regularly visit immigrants in detention?
ACE: I was still in grad school when I joined the group. I volunteered as a pen pal and in the summer, I’d visit detainees at the El Paso Processing Center. After I graduated last year and moved back here, before I even found a job, I started volunteering with AVID again. It helps fulfill my purpose as a human being.
CK: Can you remember the first time you met with a detained immigrant? What stayed with you from that visit?
ACE: It was a very impactful moment. Even though I went through all the training, I still had no idea what to expect. Basically, El Paso Processing Center is a prison. I remember very clearly a gentleman from Nigeria I visited who later became a friend. We’re trained to listen and not pry, but he was very open and also very desperate to connect with someone. He gave me a copy of his 40-page declaration, and other docs detailing his persecution by Boko Haram because he wanted to share his story.
He inspired my work, “Enjoy Your Freedom," two cage-like interactive structures suspended from a ceiling. “Enjoy Your Freedom” is intentionally placed at a certain height so that viewers can go inside. I made a rust transfer of phrases from my friend’s letters – including “enjoy your freedom” – in his handwriting, which are readable if you go inside the cages.
My friend ended up self-deporting out of Etowah, one of the worst detention centers in the country.
CK: Do you feel your art is continuing to evolve in a particular direction?
ACE: For me, it’s about bridging my emotions and depicting them in a conscious, healing way. If it can help heal my personal struggles, then perhaps my art can also provide a platform to people who are voiceless. That’s where I want my art to continue to go.
Alejandra Carrillo-Estrada is an interdisciplinary artist who grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border of El Paso, Texas and Cd. Juárez, Mexico. In 2009, she received a BFA from the University of Texas at El Paso, graduating cum laude and an MFA from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2018. She has participated in internships, residencies, and workshops throughout the country and has exhibited nationally and internationally. Her background as a public art administrator reinforced her commitment to create art that addresses issues of racial and social justice and migrant and refugee rights. Currently, she lives and works in her hometown and is committed to addressing border issues through the lens of contemporary jewelry and art. Her work can be viewed at https://www.akiceri.com and she can be followed on instagram as @ale_akiceri