May 05, 2021

Article at KCET

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Julio Salgado's Art Uplifts UndocuQueer Existence and Joy

Life as an undocumented queer immigrant is difficult, but Julio Salgado has found that the arts practices he honed in school has helped him combat depression, negativity and stress. He eventually went on to use that creativity to uplift the voices of millions of people just like him.

Artist Julio Salgado couldn't believe the news when it happened. It was May of 2010 and five persons dressed in graduation gowns walked into the office of the late Senator John McCain, sat on the floor and refused to move. Tania Unzueta, Lizbeth Mateo, Yahaira Carrillo, Mohammad Abdollahi and Raúl Alcaraz locked arms and called on McCain to support the DREAM Act, legislation that would have provided a generation of undocumented persons between the ages of 12 and 35 with conditional resident status and a path to permanent residency.

"They totally changed the game when they were doing that sit-in in McCain's office because, up to that point, people were speaking on our behalf and they were f*cking getting arrested," says Julio Salgado. "I thought it was so bad*ss that they did that."

Their action launched a new wave of protests and activism in support of the DREAM Act that also inspired Salgado to be bolder with his art. It began simply as his way of recognizing the important work that many organizers and activists were doing on the ground to raise the voices of millions of people like him. Today, it has grown as a means to support and uplift people who identify as both undocumented and queer, just as he does.

"The five people who you saw sitting down [in McCain's office]," he says, "Four of them identify as queer."

Salgado began drawing as a kid in his native Ensenada, Baja California. He can't remember a time when he wasn't drawing, and his art skills won him a cake in a drawing contest hosted by a local radio station held during el Día del Niño holiday.

Salgado's 2013 illustration, "Queer Butterfly." | Courtesy of Julio Salgado

In 1995, Salgado and his family took a trip to Los Angeles. His parents soon chose to keep the family in California and overstay on their visas due to his sister's health problems. She was diagnosed with a life-threatening kidney disease and he and his family moved permanently to Long Beach to get her the treatment she needed.

Salgado turned to his art to help him communicate and connect with others in his new surroundings.

"My sister got really sick," he explains, "and she actually ended up needing a kidney transplant, so my mom gave her one of her kidneys. When your child is sick, you're not going to care about the political environment, which at the time was very anti-immigrant."

Salgado turned to his art to help him communicate and connect with others in his new surroundings.

Salgado's 2015 illustration, "Bigger Than Any Border." | Courtesy of Julio Salgado

"I was always drawing during class," he says, "and I remember other kids would be like 'damn foo', you know how to draw? Can you draw my name in cool letters? Can you draw me?' So at a young age, I started really using art to make friends and I [realized] people like you if you are creative. It was my way of making friends and communicating."

After high school, Salgado dreamed of moving to New York to study art and become the Mexican Andy Warhol. Those dreams were dashed when he learned that his status as an undocumented citizen prevented him from applying for financial aid. His parents were also living from paycheck to paycheck.

Salgado stayed in Long Beach and took on various menial jobs such as a dishwasher and construction worker as he contemplated his next move. Months later, the World Trade Center buildings in New York City fell on 9/11; The anti-immigrant fervor in California in 1995 paled in comparison to the nationwide vitriol and hate launched against anyone perceived as foreign and un-American immediately after the attacks.

Salgado turned to his art during this time to help him cope with all these changes and events. He drew and wrote in various sketchbooks and journals that he kept to himself. These helped him deal with the depression and feelings of loneliness that affected him during that time.

"Of course, I look back and feel like I was a big drama queen," says Salgado with a laugh, "but you feel alone. You feel like 'am I the only undocumented person that is trying to go to college?' I was doing construction work, I was washing dishes and I was like 'this can't be it.' I think I got that from my mom, I got that from my Tío Chicho, who wanted more … and I wasn't talking about millions! I just wanted to be able to go to school and study. Having to convince people that you're worth those things, it was exhausting, but it got me through it."

Salgado's 2013 illustration, "Homoland Security."

"It was my way of dealing with a lot of these things," he continues. "I always say that I can't control a lot of things, but I can control my art. So it was my way of controlling how I was feeling. As artists, I always say that we're blessed to be able to use this form of therapy."

Salgado eventually enrolled in classes at Long Beach City College where he focused on art and journalism. It was here that he started his first professional foray into art when he signed up to create political cartoons for the school paper.

"This is a way to make fun of politicians," he explains. "I was very affected by a lot of things that politicians were saying and I was putting them into art. It was essentially my opinion."

He immersed himself in the works of Aaron McGruder, creator of The Boondocks, and Lalo Alcaraz, especially his political cartoons dealing with California's Prop. 187 — a now-overturned initiative that denied undocumented immigrants access to public benefits like non-emergency health care and public education. Salgado later transferred to California State University Long Beach, which he credits with his political awakening. It was there that he met and collaborated with other undocumented students to talk about their experiences, publish zines and host events together.

Known for his political cartoons, Lalo Alcaraz's work has grown more popular than ever. Learn more about him in this oral history.

Those early days at LBCC and CSULB were the first steps towards a life of arts activism, which was later spurred on by the protest in McCain's office. Soon after, activist Jorge Gutierrez urged him to create what became Salgado's UndocuQueer series of portraits in 2012. The series consists of painted portraits of immigrants' rights activists who are undocumented and queer. Each portrait also includes a quote by the subject. Carrillo, who sat in McCain's office years ago, is the subject of one such portrait.

The purpose behind the series is to remind people that the bulk of the work in pushing the national conversation on immigrants' rights, in planning and executing protests and all the other unglamorous, behind-the-scenes work was done by UndocuQueers. It's also to expand the conversation behind the perceptions of who these immigrants affected by these laws and policies are.

One of the illustrations in Salgado's 2012 UndocuQueer portrait series. | Courtesy of Julio Salgado
I started making those pieces ... for our communities to understand that if we're talking about accepting people or creating policy that doesn't criminalize us, we can think about other folks who are also part of our communities.

On multiple occasions, Salgado has had to educate numerous people about the diversity of people who identify/are labeled as undocumented. In one such instance, he and others traveled by bus from California to Washington D.C. for a massive march on the capitol.

"A lot of them were faith-based groups," recalls Salgado. "There were some immigrants who were very homophobic that would say homophobic things and, like, how do you navigate those spaces? You have to educate people, which I don't have a problem with that. Working in kitchens with a lot of immigrant men and their machismo, you learn how to use humor."

"That's why I started making those pieces," he continues. "It was for our communities to understand that if we're talking about accepting people or creating policy that doesn't criminalize us, we can think about other folks who are also part of our communities."

"It was the same thing in queer spaces," Salgado adds, recalling a similar incident that occurred during a Pride event in Long Beach nearly 10 years ago when the conversations around the LGBTQ community centered on gay marriage and military enrollment.

"There was this Wells Fargo float at Pride and I was booing them," he explains. "Some gays around me were like, 'This is not the time to be booing.' And I was like, 'Y'all know that Wells Fargo benefits from the incarceration, or invests in the incarceration, of immigrants.' I was trying to have this conversation with white gays and they were like, 'yeah, but this is a time to celebrate, it's not a time to be booing people.' In my head, I'm like, Pride started as a riot! And all of a sudden, you're being told that that part of you needs to be okay with the gay party?"

Since producing the UndocuQueer series in 2012, Salgado has continued to paint portraits in various styles. The subject matter still relates to a life lived as undocumented and queer but has shifted from a demand to acknowledge one's existence to simply existing on one's own terms. In that same year, for example, he created a piece that features a student dressed in a graduation cap and gown flipping the viewer off with one hand. The text above them reads "I'd Rather Die Undocumented Than Die For Your Acceptance." Another piece in 2017 features a graduation cap sitting on the ground. The text above it reads "No Longer Interested In Convincing You Of My Humanity."

Julio Salgado illustrates on a laptop at a desk. | Courtesy of Julio Salgado

"At this point where I'm at in my life, I want to make art that is not just focusing on me being sad all the time," says Salgado. "It's time to move on. Let's make art that really gets into all the things that we are as immigrants, as queer people, as people of color. One book, one film, one piece of art is not going to cover it all. We need a lot of voices."

To that end, Salgado launched The Disruptors Fellowship via the Center for Cultural Power in Oakland. The fellowship is designed to support "emerging television writers of color who identify as transgender, non-binary, disabled or undocumented/formerly undocumented" in Los Angeles by providing them with mentorship, master classes and a monthly stipend to support their work to disrupt the status quo in Hollywood. This year, fellowship winners will learn from Linda Yvette Chávez, co-creator of 'Gentefied' and Josh Siegal, a writer on '30 Rock,' who will teach a master class.

"I've been really lucky to have been able to connect with people that are working in Hollywood," says Salgado. "My art has been used in a couple of TV shows and that's nice, but let's create networks, let's create systems that gets us there because I wouldn't be here without the mentorship of other folks."

Julio Salgado holds one of his illustrations. | Wil Prada

Salgado is also the resident illustrator for Cumbiatón, an intergenerational dance party founded by Zacil Pech and Norma Fajardo in 2017 created with the intention of forging an inclusive and safe space for undocumented and queer people of color. He sees it as a fun way to create a positive environment for marginalized people while also utilizing the space to educate others.

"When I was in college and I was introduced to the Riot Girl movement using music, using punk shows to educate folks, I was influenced by that," explains Salgado. "We need to do that in our communities ourselves. I think it's great and it's messy and I love it!"