“LET GO OF WHAT DOESN'T SERVE YOU.” The abolitionist cultural work of Melanie Cervantes

by Gloria Negrete-Lopez

In 1987 the writer and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa described the Mexico/U.S. border region as a “1,950 mile-long open wound” that violently uses steel fence posts and walls to split communities, bodies, and lands.[1] [open notes in new window] This queer Chicana feminist wrote that description of the border—an open wound and a place of wounding—decades before its updated militarization and technological surveillance system installed to police unauthorized border crossings. Anzaldúa’s words foreshadow the escalating violence and gore that Black, Indigenous, and non-Black immigrants of color face. That violence functions for the U.S. government “to distinguish us from them” in assigning undocumented immigrants the status of criminalized “other” for the “safety” of the nation/state.[2] U.S. mainstream media, popular culture, and governmental institutions utilize state-crafted visual tropes and negative stereotypes to justify anti-immigrant policies that legitimize the increasing militarized surveillance of the southern border.

Of particular interest to me is the critical juncture where state-crafted visual tropes enter public and legal discourse. This happens by way of the 24-hour news cycle and with photographs taken at the border used to control the so-called Mexico/U.S. border “crisis.” State-crafted visual tropes of “dangerous” immigrants rely on narratives of criminalization to manage migrant populations, thus normalizing exclusionary and deadly acts directed against immigrant bodies. In turn, this implication of criminality has led to the expansion of racialized and gendered border surveillance technology, higher apprehension and detention rates, and intergenerational dispossession. As a major part of this process, survey visual documentation (i.e. photographs and videos) of the Mexico/U.S. border contributes to visual tropes of immigrant “illegality” and “lawlessness.” For example, news about the Mexico/U.S. border often uses images of immigrants attempting to cross; these flash on the screen and sensationalize issues of movement and migration. Reports on the migrant crisis also often include voyeuristic photographs and video clips that stand in for migrant voices, pain, and suffering. These visuals simultaneously also the ongoing racialized and xenophobic terror that immigrant bodies are subjected to in the name of “homeland security.” From close-up shots of the faces of crying immigrant children as they are being separated from their kin to video footage of immigrants sleeping on the floors of crowded detention rooms, pictures of nameless immigrant faces look into the camera from behind cages/fences/plexi-glass.

I linger upon this visual documentation archive and the issues it raises for those of us involved in abolitionist cultural work. I closely examine news headlines, photo-journalistic narratives, and public comments made by U.S. government officials about immigration policy and border violence so as to interrogate the complex web of xenophobic imaginations with regard to Latin American and Caribbean immigrants.

Although many in the U.S. media and larger public zoom in on documents and representations of immigrant pain, they then bury them under the term “unauthorized migration.” I assert that there are other forms of imagining immigration. In this essay I want to draw the reader’s attention to the creative work of abolitionist artists who attempt to provide visions of freedom without borders. Abolitionist cultural workers such as the Oakland-based Chicana feminist multidisciplinary artist Melanie Cervantes (of Dignidad Rebelde) create visual responses to border violence in support of the communities that are exploited.[3] In particular, Cervantes’ screen-printing work uniquely provides transformative visual narratives that advocate for the abolition of border enforcement and policing. Through her art she builds up a call to action that demands that we all commit to abolishing borders and binaries.[4] Cervantes’ screen-printing practices affirm a community-based commitment to dismantle systems of oppression that criminalize and punish; as she puts it, she makes art for “the people around her and her communities’ desire for radical social transformation.”[5] Here I focus on Cervantes’ graphic screen prints “YA BASTA!” (2018) and “Let Go…” (2020) as offering a vision of transformation that moves viewers away from overexposure to immigrant suffering and towards alternate, abolitionist visions of freedom. Abolitionist creative cultural work calls for an end to the scapegoating, over-criminalization of Black, Indigenous, and non-Black immigrant communities.[6]

To understand the importance of such screen-printing work I wish to address the political and historical contexts that drive artists like Cervantes to reimagine migration in an abolitionist way. News articles from April 2018 to November 2018 serve as my focal points as each marks a crucial time in U.S. immigration politics during when family separation along the border became a mainstream issue covered at various levels of media discourse. By highlighting ten news articles and their accompanying photographs, I call attention to the important way Cervantes creates new or re-imagines visual narrative elements in response to news media’s ideological discourse about undocumented immigrant families.

I pose the following questions:

Abolitionist cultural work

TOWARD LIBERATION (2016) by Melanie Cervantes, designed specifically for the event titled “Profiles of Abolition: Abolition and the Radical Imagination” on February 20, 2016, and organized by the abolitionist grassroots organization Critical Resistance. This is an example of abolitionist cultural work and how it is connected to community organizing efforts.

Cervantes’ use of vibrant colors, layers, text, and symbolic abolitionist imagery is distinct in the ways that she decontextualizes dominant representations of immigrants under restraint, in favor of vibrant prints that center the liberation of immigrants. Immersing myself within this artist’s collection, I notice that it is Cervantes’ creative decision-making that activates key elements of what I call abolitionist cultural work. I define abolitionist cultural work as a set of visual and textual practices in artworks and cultural works that demonstrate envisioning futures without policing and incarceration. Linking the connections between creative practice and the end of imprisonment or detention ultimately reveals to communities and audiences why a militarized police presence along the Mexico/U.S. border is a form of containment and criminalization of non-white bodies, life, and imaginaries. The U.S. state-sanctioned operation of outlawing certain bodies is inherently dangerous to Latin American and Caribbean people migrating across the Mexico/U.S. border. For this reason, we must take a critical look at the visual representations of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers along the border as evidence of the urgency of abolition.

Abolitionist theory and abolitionist feminist art practice asks us to re-imagine what community safety and well-being can look like and how we can care for everyone in society without leaving anyone behind. Cervantes makes visible those dynamics of power between the state and those most vulnerable in our society, including those marked by “criminalization.” In response,I argue to dismantle the expectation that graphic imagery of violence enacted against immigrant communities be replicated. I encourage readers to consider my descriptions and critiques of photographs and language. I make this choice knowing that there is a boundless repository of media depicting immigrants crossing through the treacherous Sonoran Desert, immigrants  imprisoned in cages at detention centers, and communities forced into shackles while waiting to be transported to other detention sites. These scenes are constantly reproduced and re-enacted. The activists and cultural workers that I write about in my work refuse to include elements of a “visual iconography of social suffering.”[7] To be focused on portraying the wrists of immigrants in handcuffs and their bodies locked inside detention  cells fixates on stereotypes of racialized bodies in confinement, and thereby reinforces putting the label of “criminal” onto Black, Indigenous, and non-Black People of Color immigrants and asylum seekers.

Abolitionist cultural work is an active process by which artists and migration activists mobilize thought and everyday practices in their creative expressions that refuse and challenge violent anti-immigrant discourses, sentiments, and actions. Such  cultural labor functions as a practice of knowledge-making, co-creativity, queer and feminist praxis and is often utilized within a long-term organizing strategy.  I focus on abolitionist art to demonstrate how specific cultural productions effectively transform larger conversations surrounding the criminalization of undocumented immigrants. For this reason, I look at the visual representations depicted in Melanie Cervantes’ graphic screen prints “YA BASTA!” (2018) and “Let Go…” (2020) to generate conversations about the urgency of abolitionist cultural work. These two prints engage with community organizing: the first shows a caretaker and children throwing away border policing, and the second offers a declaration inciting all viewers to let go of preconceived notions of safety and surveillance. Again, abolitionist praxis re-imagines making “visible” counter-futures that do not rely on the criminalization of immigrant communities: “…other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.”[8]

The visual and textual practices embedded in Cervantes’ artwork constructively guide the viewer through critiques of different political and racist social designs. It is both a catalyst and an example of the commitment to embrace a collective vision of liberation. I think of Cervantes’ artistic practices as just one element of the cultural organizing kit necessary to make visible the overlap between borders and prisons. This art practice sounds a call-to-action for the repeal of white supremacist law enforcement and xenophobic immigration policies. Such cultural work functions as not only a response to state-crafted violence and restrictive policies aimed at criminalizing communities, but serves to recover Black, Indigenous, and non-Black immigrant power.

“Zero tolerance” immigration policy and punishment of
immigrant families along the U.S./Mexico border

At the southwest border, U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) enforcement officials stationed along the U.S./Mexico border kidnap and disappear immigrant bodies into a complicated web of immigration enforcement spaces.[9] Cervantes’ artworks question this exact kind of hyper-criminalization that immigrant communities are subjected to. The following section of this essay delves into a close reading of selected news headlines and photo journalistic coverage of movement at the Mexico/U.S. border during times of “border crisis.” This category of materials fuels and drives the work of artists and activists like Cervantes who critique the system through their visual narratives while re-imaging/imagining the past, present, and future.

Over the last 30 years, various presidential administrations have implemented a myriad of immigration policies, procedures, and institutional decisions to curtail unauthorized migration. These actions authorize the violence that is constantly reproduced by U.S. state actors and border enforcers. The Trump Administration (2016-2020) expanded the ongoing violent immigration process of family separation to curtail Latin-American immigrant caravans. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) enforce the policies enacted by presidential administrations. These two entities were heavily critiqued in 2017 by activists, border scholars, and community organizers as reports began to emerge that the Trump Administration was piloting a program aimed at separating children from their parents, guardians, and caretakers at the border. Supposedly such a violent strategy would deter migration from Latin American countries.[10] At that time, the larger “zero tolerance” immigration policy implemented by the Trump administration sought to reduce “fraudulent” asylum claims.[11] That “zero tolerance” policy instructed U.S. Attorney’s offices across the borderland regions to prosecute all immigrant people entering the United States without going through a “port of entry.”[12]

Despite the institutional and psychological violence inflicted against immigrant bodies, immigrant faces and bodies remain fixed within the digital archive of search engines (Google) and social media applications (Twitter/X, Instagram, Facebook), and they regularly serve as clickbait to viral news-stories. For example, a search through Google images using the keywords “border crisis” and “U.S. Mexico border” will reveal the visual tropes that casts Latin American and Caribbean immigrants on the border as criminalized people. Many photos depicting immigrants struggling against USBP and CBP officials show these state-agents as active enforcers of the law as they have a dominant uniformed presence. And when the photos show border officials in the process of pursuing and detaining immigrants. Often the agents have their faces blurred in photographs while  immigrant faces appear clearly without obstruction. The news stories using such photographs then become important archival pieces of evidence— in terms of narratives written about “family separation.”

Historically, the management of the Mexico/U.S. border at the turn of the 20th century marked a shift in the largely unregulated region, with state policy moving from one of open borders to surveillance and policing. The Immigration Act of 1924 provided funding to the border which in turn allowed the U.S. Department of Labor to create the policing agency known as “Border Patrol.” Subsequently, the Immigration Act of 1925 would criminalize border crossing. Across the years, these policies, along with the U.S. immigration system, have created a stereotypical image of what U.S. citizenship looks like and for whom this is accessible. According to many migration scholars, especially those working in border studies, limiting access to the U.S. nation-state was (and continues to be) a mechanism that reinforces white supremacist ideology. That is, state policy and the mechanisms of enforcement have an explicit bias that regulates the movement of non-white immigrants.[13] The U.S./Mexico border region is not a natural border. In fact, it is a human-made demarcation, a “1,950 mile-long open wound” on the land that serves as a reminder that nature, like the ocean, does not abide by borders. As Anzaldúa writes,

“…I stand at the edge where earth touches ocean
where the two overlap
a gentle coming together
at other times and places a violent clash.”[14]

Depictions of family separation in media 

Traumatic border photographs are weaponized as they depict a legal gesture of dominance and multigenerational exclusion of immigrant families by governmental institutions in the United States. A close look at articles from CNN News, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Huffington Post, TIME, and Wall Street Journal—all published in 2018, the year that Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration enforcement policy was signed into law— will reveal how media representation has become one of the many driving forces behind the need for art like that of Cervantes to circulate. I focus on widely shared news publications accessible online. One set of news articles reinforces binary visual tropes of deserving/undeserving migrants and further promotes an image of migrant pain and suffering. All these articles utilize the following terms: “separated,” “zero tolerance,” “families,” and “children.” The embedded photographs in the articles circulating at the height of “family separation” in 2018 highlight the role of photography as a political tool across various media and also within government documents on the topic  of migration. The photos are then often utilized and misappropriated as evidence of the crisis on the border. Understanding this context and looking at what is situated within and behind these visual narratives then provides insight into the political and cultural climate aimed at migration and asylum-seeking people.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears standing behind a podium alongside the Mexico/U.S. border as reporters and U.S. Border Patrol officials look on. Sessions announces the “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy enacted in 2018. [Screenshot of embedded video by KTLA for the Los Angeles Times, 2018]

In April 2018, The New York Times published the article titled “Hundreds of Immigrant Children Have Been TakenFrom Parents at U.S. Border” wherein the author uses the words “taken,” “separated,” and “removed” throughout the article to describe the violent state-sanctioned practice of separating immigrant parents and caretakers from their children.[15] The photograph embedded in this article depicts three immigrants standing in front of the camera, and one of them is holding a small child. What I find remarkable about this image is the fact that we do not see the faces or distinguishing physical features of the immigrants. Similarly, in May 2018 The Los Angeles Times published a piece entitled, “Children are likely to be separated from parents illegally crossing the border under new Trump administration policy.”[16] Both articles have similar narrative patterns: family separation is interpreted as punishment for immigrant parents entering the U.S. “illegally,” and the articles detail moments of “fraud” perpetrated by the parents who bring their children to the border. Each article utilizes specific talking points from the Trump administration that reproduce xenophobic tropes of immigrants to further criminalize immigrant people and communities. Furthermore, the articles do not discuss the immediate needs of parents and caretakers migrating with their children, and the authors cite officials who opt to use the term “smuggling.”[17] This specific terminology condemns immigrant parents, shames immigrant families, and further justifies the violent act of family separation.

Based on the misleading statements from the Trump administration about its “zero tolerance” policy, some news outlets provided a series of talking points about family separation at the U.S./Mexico border that repeated and restated evasive and dehumanizing statements from Trump officials without checking the facts. Articles ranging from left-leaning, center, and conservative right-leaning news companies all include narratives and photographs that demonstrate the varying  perspectives that circulated in the news between April and May of 2018. For example, in June 2018 Fox News published the article titled, “Debate over family separations intensifies after disputed 'missing' kids reports,” alongside an accompanying photograph.[18] The photo shows a mother embracing her children.

As opposed to other photographs and videos circulated during that time, this image does not appear to exhibit the familiar anguish and pain of immigrant parents as they are separated from their children. However, the article uses terminology throughout that focuses on the illegality and failure of immigrant and asylum seekers. The article goes on to blame parents for engaging in unauthorized immigration and does not blame immigration officials for the missing children but instead criticizes undocumented immigrant communities.[19] That same month, the Wall Street Journal published the article “Trump Policy of Separating Migrant Families Threatens to Engulf Immigration Talks.”[20] This article showcases two photographs that both demonstrate the inherent structural violence of the U.S. immigration system. One photograph is of immigrant parents with their children at a Catholic immigrant services post, and the second photo shows detained immigrants handcuffed standing in a single file line as they are moved inside a federal court on their way to plead guilty to “unauthorized entry.” The visual impact of photographs such as these generate state-crafted visual narratives that inform the political and creative artwork of Cervantes.  She strives to cultivate an alternate practice of looking and witnessing.