Hopeful,'Unapologetic' Art Rebrands the Immigration Movement

Activist artists are reshaping immigration.

ByABC News
February 27, 2013, 4:24 PM

March 1, 2013 — -- Every year, during their mating season, millions of monarch butterflies make the journey from Canada and the U.S. to a small town in Mexico called Angangueo where they coat branches and leaves like gobs of black and orange paint. Migration is built into the monarch's DNA. For that very reason, the creature has played a central role in the rebranding of the undocumented movement. The choice in symbol is simple: Migration is natural, borders are not.

Gallery: Art From the Immigration Movement

Whether it's plastered across buses, screened on t-shirts or painted on billboards, the monarch has spread quickly thanks in large part to a group of West Coast artists -- including Melanie Cervantes, Cesar Maxit, Jesus Barraza, Ernesto Yerena, Julio Salgado and Favianna Rodriguez.

Through their work, these artists have helped shift the the movement by making art that reflects a more positive tone said Rodriguez, a California-based printmaker and activist. Phrases like "Undocumented and Unafraid," "No Papers No Fear" and "Migration is Beautiful" have grown in popularity -- a stark contrast from some of the movement's former posters which responded to the media's depiction of immigrants like, "Who's the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?".

"It's about setting forth very positive messaging about who we are," said Rodriguez. "We're not politely asking for our rights anymore, we're demanding them."

Although the butterfly has been in use for more than a decade in various Latin American migration posters, it wasn't until the last year that artists began "popularizing the symbol" within the current immigration debate.

On July 29th of 2012, a group of more than two dozen undocumented activists gathered in Phoenix, Arizona and painted a 1972 sea-foam green bus, using monarch butterfly stencils and black and orange spray paint. They named the vehicle the "Undocubus" and traveled across the country, stopping in 10 states to protest the failures of immigration policy before the Democratic National Convention.

Although artists like Cervantes and Maxit used the monarch iconography in images protesting Arizona's SB1070, the painting of the Undocubus was a turning point for the symbol because it married the art to the members most associated with the debate. After appearing on the bus, the monarch started showing up in more artists' prints and paintings. A corresponding hand sign -- thumbs interlocked and fingers spread open like wings - also became ubiquitous in protest imagery.

"I think it's kind of like a logo now, a very affirmative shorthand logo for what the movement is positing," said Carol Wells, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG).

Wells says that shifting the narrative from one of "victimhood" to one of "empowerment" has been an important step in most protest art movements.

"If a movement is going to be successful, it can't just be negative all the time. There has to be this message of hope, like the one we're seeing now," said Wells.

In many ways, protest art has been for the immigration movement what music was for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

'We shall overcome,' that was a pretty hopeful message," she said.

Much like the work of musicians in the 1960s, the work of artists has helped galvanize the base and bring new individuals into the immigration reform movement. Because the movement is multilingual and doesn't center on one language, imagery has been a particularly effective means for doing this.