by Rachel Melancon
The bulk of the immigration narrative is crafted specifically to comfortable white Americans, sitting in their homes and watching coverage on the news or through their feeds on Facebook. The images are shocking, chosen and published with the intent of stirring as much emotion as possible in the few seconds of attention that they will receive and then just as quickly, forgotten. The stories are heartbreaking, designed to inflame the passions of those so inclined. The uplifting dreams come true are written, to an extent, with the hope of demonstrating to the unforgiving anti-migration crowd how wonderful and helpful and useful other people can be, even if they maybe did not enter the US in the most orderly way. Stories or crime and victims are politicized so quickly that they may well not even be published, that the injustice suffered by any victim is so quickly consumed by yellow journalism and partisanship that it was never about the victim at all.
But what about the other voices, other ears, other eyes? After the moralizing bluster, when the cameras have stopped rolling and the mouse has scrolled past the last graphic image of someone’s dead father, who is left with the pieces of their broken hearts and echoes of their nightmares?
That is where Julio Salgado with Flowers on the Inside enters.
As their website proclaims, “Flowers on the Inside is a project imagined by undocumented artists, featuring undocumented artists, that provides a counter narrative to the cruel images we are bombarded with in the media.” That “recent stories and images have reinforced a constant state of fear, pain, and degradation for undocumented communities and families.”
And as Julio himself says, who doesn’t like flowers?
Julio is an undocumented artist who uses art as a way to speak out on his own behalf. He’s been creating art in politics since 2003, with a background in journalism and political art. He sees his role as uplifting needs and making sure that people in detention know that there are undocumented people outside that are fighting for “all of us.” Julio knows exactly what he is doing.
There is no artist union, nowhere for artists, particularly vulnerable artists, to come together and use their work to create the change they so need so badly. The Center for Cultural Power, formerly known as CultureStrike, fulfills that need. With the Center for Cultural Power, Julio brings movement groups and artists together and helps them work with undocumented artists. He checks in with the artists and makes sure that their work is seen and valued. The undocumented artists need to feel safe, not tokenized.
He also liaisons with Casa Arcoíris, a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, whose name means “rainbow.” Casa Arcoíris asked him to make an image for the letter that those in the shelters write to those already in detention. Forward Together is the platform for the letters being written. Julio is not recreating wheels, but connecting with people doing this work to make a cohesive whole, to reach the most people in the best way. Julio’s image features a lesbian couple and a single mom—he “tries to queer up all his art to include as many people as possible.”
“We all want the detention centers to be destroyed, but there are people inside who need to hear from us. While we work on the detention centers, we can’t forget about the people inside,” Julio explains patiently.
It’s been so successful that recently Flowers on the Inside has closed their website for submissions, although interested parties can always email Julio personally (see below). The project is so immense that they held translation parties in Los Angeles, around 30 people coming together to translate letters into English or Spanish, and even then they had to decide to limit themselves to those two languages while acknowledging how many indigenous, African, and Asian languages are also spoken in shelters and in detention.
But this is not about saving the world, or teachable moments. This is about saving Julio and all the other Julios.
Specifically, Julio is thinking about himself, his family. If he was detained, what would he want? What would he want to hear? He would want to hear from someone outside, that people are not forgetting about him. Even when he was been arrested for civil disobedience, he was arrested on his terms. Being stolen from work or picking up a child at school, he can’t imagine.
“I think not a lot of people who are saying that—put yourselves in these situations. It’s terrifying to be separated, to be forgotten.”
Messaging is important. It’s easy to leave anonymous comments shaming someone for not “doing things the right way.” It’s easy to state the obvious: that wow, detention must be cold and isolating and traumatic, and it’s not like they have inspirational podcasts in detention. So Julio is careful to only include what is needed, what is unsaid. “Don’t need to hear pity, no pobrecito. They need to hear ‘I’m out here, I’m waiting for your release, I got you.’ Positivity is underrated. They know things suck. They’re aware. Tell them something they don’t know—that people are with them and love them. The things they’re not hearing in those centers.” He says. “Casa Arcoíris said that’s what they need.”
Human dignity is the result of satisfied human needs: emotional, physical, mental, sexual, spiritual. When individual human needs are respected and the human encompassing those needs is valued, only then is human dignity achieved. So maybe sending a postcard with a flower to someone who has been in icy, lonely, deprived detention for a year, being told that they are disposable and undesirable, maybe that feels small or insignificant. But that one postcard, that one drawing of an iris, meets a need as crucial as food or clean water. 3000 postcards are 3000 needs to 3000 people and together, that is not a small, timid candle in solitary confinement. It is a bonfire in a community.
Julio is hard pressed to think of what he’d say to immigrants in detention. He only wants to hug them, to listen. And until he can physically do that, he sends them his drawings, featuring the color green for hope, with irises symbolizing hope, in honor of his mother’s name which translates to hope in English.
He admits that he is a “little jaded, very distrustful of politicians” and he was not expecting the wave of solidarity that came with the project. He saw people who wanted to help, who wanted to open their homes, to stay in touch with people. They offered spaces and relationships. They countered the invasion narrative. “Like look at all these people who really care,” he said. “The positive, loving response was really beautiful.”
While he doesn’t share words with people in detention, he has plenty of words for the general public, for those who choose neutrality or those advocating for his deportation.
“I made a poster that says ‘I’m no longer interested in convincing you of my humanity.’ If I have to try to convince you that I’m a human being, I’m not interested. I did that for so many years. DREAM was too much ‘I’m a good immigrant’ and just created a binary. Like only the good immigrants deserve things.”
Julio receives the comments, and sees the hate comments. Not interested in those people. Art is for him, and his communities, and if other people change their minds that would be great. He would happily want to talk to people in his community who have hope for redemption, but not hateful lost causes. He has hope and enthusiasm for people who want to do better and don’t know how or why, but not for those whose hearts and minds are locked shut. “Where are you willing to put your energy?” Julio asks.
Julio chooses hope.
Cover art by Julio Salgado is one of the postcards created for the Flowers on the Inside project. Julio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Artist quotes courtesy of Tina Vasquez @TheTinaVasquez
Rachel Melancon went to school for history and international studies, specializing in Western authoritarianism. She lives in the Deep South with her husband, a handful of animals, and her daughter.