It takes closer inspection of a familiar figure that resembles the Virgin and Child to see that a painting of an immigrant mother and her son actually hangs on the walls of BronxArtSpace in Mott Haven. The painting, “The Virgin of Guadalupe Crosses the Rio,” by the artist Nitza Tufiño shows a woman adorned in a pastel pink dress and a green headscarf with her arms wrapped around a boy clad in plain, blue clothes. Both subjects are illuminated in fluorescent green and gold rays, like the religious icon, though their faces look sad, weary and drawn.
Though the immigrant experience at the southern frontier of the U.S. is hard to depict, the artists whose work is showcased at the “The Borders Crossed Me” exhibition make an attempt. The exhibition, which runs through Nov. 12, displays 13 artworks from roughly a dozen Latina artists who bring their own commentary on the emotional, psychological and physiological effects of immigration.
“There’s a destruction of culture, a destruction of happiness, a destruction of family and a destruction of an ease,” the exhibition’s curator Esperanza Cortes said, in reference to the immigrant experience when moving to a new place.
Through participating artists from Vistas Latinas, a collective of Latina artists, all of the artwork on display question what it means to be an immigrant. It is a universal theme that can be especially applied to a “super immigrant borough” like the Bronx, Cortes said.
For artist Blanka Amezkua, 45, who lives in the neighborhood, that question of identity arose when she moved to Greece from the U.S. In an untitled close-up, black-and-white photograph of the artist herself — which was taken by her husband, Leonidas Alexandropoulos — she has nails shoved into her mouth, a literal portrayal of how silent she felt in a far-away land.
“It brings to mind the time when I lived in a foreign country as an immigrant and not knowing the language fluently in order to express myself freely,” she wrote in an email. “I felt my voice was taken away.”
One spectator, Rich Kaplan, 68, of Pelham Bay said he saw a theme of courage emerging among the different artists. Having some experience with immigration through his wife’s family, Kaplan, a documentary photographer and professor at NYU’s film school, asserted that the nails seen in several of the artworks represented the hard work immigrants put into building a new life and planting their roots in their adopted land.
“You come here and what do you do? You need a living space and so you tack nails to [build] your home,” Kaplan said.
Artist Mary Valverde, 40, of Elmhurst, said she drew parallels to home and the immigrant experience in her artwork. “Diagram for Coordinates No. 2,” a black and white diagram of circles on the far wall of the gallery, illustrated how many indigenous cultures used the idea of sacred geometry in their architecture, textiles, rhythms and language.
She explained that her self-described “nerdiness” about geometry was rooted in the language barrier she experienced while growing up in Queens. Spanish was her first spoken language, which made it hard for her to relate to other kids who spoke English in school.
“I gravitated toward math because it was sort of an equalizer,” Valverde said. Immigrants can make connections to concepts and patterns regardless of the language, she said.
Many of the artists felt that their artwork connected with the immigrant experiences in the South Bronx, where a quarter of the population is foreign-born, according to data from the Department of City Planning. The artists agreed that it was important for locals to have access to art that speaks to them in their own borough.
“As soon as you cross Manhattan into the Bronx, you are crossing a border,” Amezkua said, adding that locals do not need to go to the galleries in Chelsea to see art.