What Paper Carries: Student Artist Josue Romero on DACA, Art for Change, and Dreams Deferred

by Sarah Fisch September 12, 2017

Josue Romero (Image via Kens5,San Antonio)

On February 16th of this year, 19-year-old San Antonio college student Josue Romero was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after a class B misdemeanor arrest on marijuana possession in Bexar county on February 14. Romero, a student at the Southwest School of Art and alumnus of Say Sí, the acclaimed San Antonio arts education nonprofit, is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). One week ago, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA would be repealed after six months.

A quick response and social media outcry from the San Antonio community, including Say Sí supporters, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), and Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-TX 35th District), led to Romero’s release. The bus he was traveling on was on its way to Pearsall Detention Center, where he faced possible immediate deportation to Honduras, a country he left at the age of four.

“Josue was always a great mentor and role model, and when you look at our core values, that’s something we believe in a strongly,” says Jon Hinojosa, Artistic/Executive Director of Say Sí. “He came up to our program from six grade on, and we were able to give him a job [in college]. DACA made it easier for him to go to school, and for us to hire him, and from for him to move from being invisible to visible.”

Say Sí is a year-round, tuition-free creative youth development program that provides students in San Antonio opportunities to develop artistic and social skills in preparation for higher educational advancement and professional careers. It has provided opportunities in visual and performing arts, multi-media and peer-to-peer and adult mentorship since 1994. Say Sí has been recognized with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wallace Foundation, and received the Coming Up Taller Award presented by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

On Friday, Say Sí released the following statement on DACA:

“SAY Sí Community,

On September 5, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, is being rescinded. According to Sessions’ statement, DACA-eligible individuals are lawbreakers who adversely impact the wages and employment of native-born Americans. We disagree and do not support this decision.

SAY Sí has supported immigrant youth for 23 years. We have served DACA recipients and immigrants and deeply value their contributions to our community and country.  At SAY Sí, we strive to cultivate a culture of support, creativity and purpose for ALL young artists. Decisions like these hurt our young people. We stand in solidarity with our immigrant brothers, sisters, families, friends and allies and will support them in the coming months.

This month our young artists are sharing latinx histories and stories through our annual Cuentos y Culturas Latinx Heritage Month Showcase. We intend to remind our patrons of the vital role immigrants play in our communities. They are teachers, artists, community leaders – they are human.

We encourage you to stay informed, support DACA recipients and learn how you can use your voice to make a difference.”

“It was a statement from the Say Sí community,” Hinojosa tells me, adding “we have to be careful in this kind of political climate as a nonprofit, you have to be smart about that, but that statement was definitely something we all took part in, Our staff, our board and our students feel really strongly about this, because we have been invested in these young people since the beginning of this organization, and we wanted to let people know that it wasn’t a political statement, but a human rights statement. It wasn’t about politics, it was about humanity and our commitment to the young people that we serve and our alumni as well.”

“We have an inviting space that showcases our student work. We invite people to go to our website, to come to our events, and to support our program, but more importantly our students.”

I visited Say Sí’s bustling premises, a hybrid community center, arts laboratory, and experimental exhibition space, to catch up with Josue Romero on Monday, September 11. Staff and students were busily installing art for this weekend’s opening of Cuentos y Culturas Latinx Heritage Month showcase.

Glasstire: How are you holding up?

Josue Romero: I feel good about being in my third year at [the Southwest School of Art.] I have a better idea of what I want to do with my work, I have developed not only as an artist but as a person. I feel really comfortable in my circles, not only socially but work wise.

GT: Due to your DACA status, were you concerned when you applied to college?

JR: It came up naturally, as far as having ID. Luckily, the school is working towards accreditation, so as far as financial aid goes that wasn’t an option, but things came up as I was applying to work study and trying to get paid, that kind of thing. I’m very grateful because the school has been incredible in wanting to work with me, and especially after everything that happened this year, they were incredibly supportive and stepped in to help any way that they could, as far as they are able to legally, as far as making sure I feel comfortable, safe, and welcome at the school. And aside from the administrative stuff, I feel really comfortable there in the community. [After I was released], I came back and gave everybody hugs because it was just nice to see everybody again.

GT: With DACA rescinded last week, being under this designation, how do you cope with the emotional weight of it? 

JR: I’ve got to say that work does help a lot. Lately I’ve been looking a lot more into specific philosophies, how to strengthen myself internally, my disposition, my demeanor, towards those kinds of things. And my work naturally gets informed by that, and that in turn informs me about how I should proceed as a person. So, despite everything that’s happened, I feel calm, and the community helps a lot.

GT: How did DACA change your outlook, and your sense of the future possibilities?

JR: Before DACA things were different; you had to be in the shadows, a lot of people don’t feel comfortable letting people know about their situation. I think it feels different this time around. At least [it feels that way to] me, because I know people are supporting us. And it’s not about hiding anymore, it’s about fighting. DACA’s the bare minimum, they’re crumbs. We’re not fighting for crumbs, we need more than that. It’s not fighting only to get DACA back; it’s about getting what we deserve as people. I’m sure a lot of people recognize that, it’s obvious. But the people in power, it’s hard to tell what their agenda is. But I can’t keep going on like this where it’s just a game of hot potato between Congress and the executive branch. Something needs to be settled, because 800,000 people’s lives are on the line. The only place they know is here in the States, and to play around with that — it’s injustice.

GT: Especially given our immigrant history; [that most] people in the US have relatively recent ancestry that comes from somewhere else and were in the same situation; it’s like that has become abstract.

JR: I guess it’s weird, how people want to be selective about their history — like forget the fact that all of us are immigrants and instead let’s remember what America stands for, blah blah blah. It’s nonsensical, all of it is. For me, the best way to contextualize [anti-immigrant populism], and it’s hard to, but I’m trying to get an understanding of the historical context, considering what kind of things would inform certain dispositions, and even when it seems ridiculous, trying to understand what is coming behind those attitudes. And also trying not to hate or point the finger, right? Because that’s what’s been happening to us.

GT: But there’s got to be an element of anger to what you’re going through. Do you feel it and channel it towards something?

JR: Anger doesn’t seem to do much, unless it’s channeled, right? You push those energy and efforts elsewhere, mostly into my work and in the effort to try to understand. I focus on what’s in front of me — at my work at school, and here. There’s still a sense of tension, like when my dad and I get to talking about it at home, when I talk to other people in my situation — I can see it in [their] eyes, I can hear it in their voices.

GT: Do you feel a responsibility as an artist to represent that, or to document it?

JR: I don’t feel like my nature is documentation. I feel like there’s a lot of people who are doing that, and of course it’s necessary, but I guess I’m trying to think farther ahead.

I’m trying to consider of the alternative to this. Where is it all coming from to begin with? Like with the elements of nationalism — what that entails, the collectivist attitude. I don’t feel like I associate with Honduras, but it’s hard to try to associate with this country. But mostly I can associate with San Antonio, because this is the place I really know, this is the place I grew up.

GT: You’re a San Antonian.

JR: Mmhm. [Chuckles.] But even then I don’t feel prideful about it; it’s the place I appreciate and enjoy.

GT: Do you see yourself leaving after Southwest School?

Definitely for exploration, I feel like it’s important to get to know other places if only to look at the past, to get some perspective on living here, but I want to say I’ll eventually come back. The places, the people I love are here, and I’m sure I’m anchored at least to some extent within San Antonio, but there are lots of places I’d like to travel.

GT: Tell me about your involvement with Say Sí; how did that come about?

I started at the end of sixth grade at Bonham Academy, which is pretty close, just down the street. John Sigmund, who used to work here, did a presentation at Bonham. I was already artistically inclined, to some extent —I liked to draw and that kind of thing, but very minor things. It was a place that was free to come to come and you got to develop some skills, and there was even a possibility to make money, and that was enough to sell me. I brought over what sketches I had, I had a sketchbook, and they saw something in me, and I entered into the middle-school program. I would come every Saturday, until I graduated from middle school, and then into high school. I went to Brackenridge which is also very close by. I was always off-put by art classes in high school.

GT: Really?

JR: At Say Sí, it’s baby steps right, and it’s structured, but you have more freedom, and as you go through [its] high school program, you propose things that you want to do, I feel like that was really important for me. I grew a lot within that space, within that freedom, and I learned that I enjoy working three dimensionally, like building things with my hands. And eventually I found my way into the wood shop, where I started developing a lot more. One of my instructors, Tommy Hopkins, really nurtured me in the wood shop. Even when I wanted to do something… that was a little questionable? The best way, of course.

So I was there seven years as a student, and I’ve been here for the last two years on staff. My official title I think is “sculpture tech,” but then we never decided on formal title. I am in charge of the workshop, keeping it clean and organized, actually rearranging and reworking it to make it more efficient and accessible to the students. That’s my main job, but I find myself helping with install, building tables and pedestals — and then my favorite part is working with the kids directly and helping them develop certain ideas, Not every project, but a kid will say I have certain ideas and I want to build something, and they come to me or are sent to me and I am glad to help.

GT: Do they generally know, these students, that you are an alum?

JR: Yeah, most of them. And what’s great about it is that our middle-school program is set up so that as a high school student, you mentor the middle-school students; you can apply for a job as a mentor. So I was mentored when I was in middle school, then when I was a high school student I mentored some students. There’s a person just behind you, actually — I mentored her when she was in sixth or seventh grade. Now I think she’s a sophomore or junior? It’s hard to keep track, but it’s great to see these kids as they keep growing, and going through the same things that I did.

GT: Switching gears to contemporary art, is there anyone working either locally, regionally or nationally whose work you have a particular interest in?

JR: I’ve been looking for that actually, and no one has that role immediately, although the first artist who came to mind is Vincent [Valdez]. I got to talk with him recently; he’s been in town. I had this discussion with friends recently [that] he sort of prophesized… the whole KKK kind of resurgence, right? And when he started that work, we are all obviously talking about it, like, “what are you talking about? This is not a thing.”

And now you see it on TV, and you see it on the streets — not like everybody can have a vision of the future, but he shows that it’s not just radical people, or the marginal parts of society — it’s people you wouldn’t question otherwise, every day people, like your neighbors, people you work with. It’s rooted deep not only within society but in the way people are raised, and it’s institutionalized. Even if you don’t consider yourself racist, you probably have some racist tendencies, even in minuscule things like stereotyping. They don’t seem that harmful, but they’re still part of the whole, and they still contribute even in minor ways. And I don’t want to blame anyone in the specific, but it’s about how do we move away from that as a society? And it’s very important to confront it, but I’m wondering what is the next step, because confrontation makes people uncomfortable. But change is not necessarily achieved that way. So how do we actually get people to consider racism thoughtfully and to do something about it, rather than just feel threatened? Because most of the time people get defensive about it, like “No, I’m not racist.”

GT: So how does one achieve that communication through visual means?

JR: For me, it’s natural, and based on a lot of things I’m reading — to base it on the self, first. To make sure I’m in a good place. And it’s not like there’s a specific place to reach, but I’m constantly checking myself. There’s a lot of clichés about this, right? Be the change you want to see in the world, but more so actively continually doing it, building your process, even separate from specifically racism — questioning yourself — where did you adopt values from?

It all seems pretty natural, but it all comes from somewhere. Questioning the collective mentality, that community you grew up in, the religion you adhere to. To point out what’s most relevant to me, or what’s affecting me, and to look at this nationalistic point of view. You adopt the values that your nation believes in, because you’re patriotic…, and you adopt them without question. I feel like that’s a lot of where the problem lies. It’s okay to adopt values from the collective — the people around you — but at least give it a thought and consider them for yourself as well.

GT: So what you’re talking about to some degree, is disrupting this collective narrative of history.

JR: Yeah, like America just stands for the greatest values possible. There just aren’t enough people who are willing to question that in the slightest.

I’ve been studying paper-making as a practice in the last year. It’s something I’m really enjoying, and it also goes along with my growing interest in philosophy. And so the concept behind [some of my art is] using the paper as a form of armor, which is basically what I’ve been describing to you and how I cope with all that’s happening right now — that practice allows me to be in a calm frame of mind. It’s not that people are inherently malevolent or evil, even if it seems that way. By doing this work it helps me to see it, and not deflect it, but not be offended or hurt by it.

[One] piece is called Philosophical Armor. I tend to be pretty straightforward when it comes to titles. I like to let the work speak for itself. There are still things I don’t like about it; I was still trying to play with ideas.

It’s flax paper, which is pretty strong. And structurally, it’s got strength. In other words, it’s not store-bought paper. The idea there is that it’s not going to physically protect you from anything. The idea is the thing that paper carries. That’s the reason I like it as a medium, because it’s historical, to carry ideas is not only through space, but through time. We are able to take on the ideas of previous artists, previous scientists, previous thinkers. It steadily progresses us forward.

GT: Was there a performative element?

Yes, the culmination of that piece of work was to use it in a runway show. I did walk in front of a crowd, and aside from some of the visual elements of the piece, I was speaking as well. Kind of a call to action, right, and considering the collective – well, I use the quote from Carl Jung, to paraphrase: the collective is important, and collective action is important, but fundamental change has to start within the self, start within the individual.

GT: Which is an American value — the notion of the individual. The notion that an individual can reinvent him or herself, become whatever they can be. Which makes this all the more ironic.

JR: Indeed, right? It’s absolutely ridiculous. We believe in the rights of the individual so devoutly — that’s the thing, we only believe in it because we adopted it from the collective, from the place we were raised in. We don’t question it, what individuality actually means, what it entails. If we were actually to examine that, we’d have a different definition of rights.

Another project followed quickly after Philosophical Armor. The same kind of concept, but this time it was a tent — a structure. Sort of a similar idea, which is the idea of ideas as protection [laughs]. In this case, it’s something that is meant to be carried with you. I was playing with what the actual form should be; first it started out as a fortress, but I wanted it to be [something] you could pitch anywhere.

This is closer to what I want to do going forward. And while I don’t want to be specifically talking about DACA, it’s feeding these ideas, definitely. I’m trying to grasp more of the undercurrent — which ideas are in conflict at this time.

It’s something I was definitely taking into consideration — how permanent the structure might or might not be. It’s important that it’s strong, which is why I used the flax paper, but at the same time it won’t hold against all elements. This piece was actually presented in front of City Hall. And in that context, the collective can drown the individual. I also inscribed into the bamboo, which is a more permanent material than paper, so that once the paper is gone, what are the foundations?

I’d like to think of the individual as the nation. This is maybe less of a practical thing. I think a metaphor would be implemented as a satire of the nation and its practices. For example: you need a photo ID for people to be able to tell you that you exist. In the future I’d like [to address] things like how DNA might be a better indicator to identify somebody. To meditate on all the things that our nation or state would like to confirm [vis a vis] what is legitimate, and draw connections to what that means to a person. The constitution, based on individual values, right? — the term ‘constitution’ having two meetings here. The birth certificate as a Bill of Rights, birth as a declaration of independence. All of those things as elements of the individual. I’d like to have an anthem as well. All of this conceptualizing moves towards an ability to empower yourself — and consciously doing so, not just because it feels right.

GT: I’m thinking of the people who may be reading this, who may not be able to relate directly to how rescinding DACA would impact people it’s been protecting. What’s worst-case scenario, for you? What would deportation to Honduras mean?

JR: The first and most immediate thing is loss of everything we came here for, worked for. My dad had only the best intentions for me; he wasn’t considering his own well-being or agenda. He wanted a better future for me — an opportunity to get a better education, and also to escape the problems that Honduras has, which are mass crime, lack of a good education, and no opportunity. Just a better life in general, and I don’t feel like that should be a crime.

But then the loss of everything I know, as well. The place I feel most comfortable in, school, Say Sí, all of that would be taken away and I wouldn’t be able to come back. Aside from that, I would be going to a place I don’t know whatsoever — a place where they’ll kill you for having a cell phone out in public. Where if you are alone, you’ll not only get mugged, but quite possibly murdered in the street. Beyond that, there’s no opportunities there as there is here; there’s no contemporary art. Art for art’s sake.

GT: Do you feel in your work like you are communicating with your family? 

JR: You know, sometimes I have a trouble explaining what I do to my dad, my brothers. They say: “Something like graphic design, you mean? Something practical?” And it’s hard to articulate to them that I’m examining political structures. [Laughs.] But that wouldn’t be feasible in Honduras — your first priority is survival. Basic survival. Providing food and shelter for your family, for yourself. Life-or-death survival. So I’m very conscious that, although my family doesn’t have a ton of resources, I come from a place of privilege just by being in this country. I have a platform.

GT: What does the U.S. lose by rescinding DACA?

JR: By losing the 800,000 Dreamers? These are 800,000 people who have desire, and the incentive not only to do good for themselves but to do better for their communities. To give back, and improve the society we all live in. When you tell them no, you shouldn’t want to do that, you shouldn’t improve society, you have to leave — well, what is the message you are trying to send? You’re crushing the image of what America wants to be.

GT: Is there anything else you would like the reader to know? Anything you’ve been mulling over for the last year and a half, or particularly in the last week?

JR: This is a human struggle. We’re disconnected from the past, and history. Even though it’s incredibly pressing right now — DACA and the new resurgence of racism, although it’s not that it ever went away, it just has a bigger platform now — but you have to consider that we’re probably going to be dealing with this for the entirety of our existence as a species. So know that we have to keep fighting. We can never turn a blind eye, because it’s going to grow again. We have to actively combat it. And the best way to combat it starts with the self, with you as a person. It’s an active process.

The interview has been slightly edited for length.

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