News / USA

Mexican-American Artist Brings Immigrant Experience Out of Shadows

Multimedia

Audio
Shelley Schlender

Tony Ortega works on a project at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.
Tony Ortega works on a project at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Latino experience is a common theme for Mexican-American artist Tony Ortega. His work often examines the overlooked contributions of people - especially immigrants - who do manual labor.

An exhibit of of Ortega's work in Boulder, Colorado, is prompting conversations about the U.S. Mexico border, and those who cross it.

Life in the shadows

When Ortega talks about his art with museum visitors, he sometimes asks them to choose their favorite. Especially when those visitors are young.

The boys in one group all have parents who are immigrants from Mexico. In Ortega's exhibit at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, they see plenty of familiar images. Ortega - who works in charcoal, silkscreen and colored etchings - has drawn a maid tidying a hotel bed, a carpenter hammering a roof. Ortega asks the boys what kind of work their parents do.

Tony Ortega's work often examines the overlooked contributions of people, especially immigrants, who do manual labor.
Tony Ortega's work often examines the overlooked contributions of people, especially immigrants, who do manual labor.

"The same thing of the painting," says one. "My dad makes bread and my mom cleans houses."

"Yeah," adds his companion. "My grandmother who raised me cleaned houses also."

Ortega's grandmother encouraged him to go to college, the first in his family to do so. Her efforts to support the family helped him view laborers - especially immigrant workers - with a sympathetic eye.

"What I'm trying to do with the work is to try to make an invisible part of the population, people who take care of our kids, who clean our streets and our houses, who pick our crops, more visible," says Ortega. "I think they make major contributions, but they're in the shadows."

Shedding light

Art can help bring them out of the shadows, says Rich Lopez, a Denver attorney touring the exhibit.

"I've been a fan of Tony Ortega for many years. He's captured the essence of the Chicano Mexican American experience in his art for years and years, and his colors and images are quite memorable. The mechanic looks like my cousin."

Tony Ortega takes part in visiting artist programs and recently enlisted children to help him create a wall-sized mural about their neighborhood.
Tony Ortega takes part in visiting artist programs and recently enlisted children to help him create a wall-sized mural about their neighborhood.

Images like that mechanic have earned Ortega a showing in galleries and museums throughout the United States. He's also become a sought-after teacher, at Denver's Regis University and through visiting artist programs. For a recent project, Ortega enlisted children to help him create a wall-sized mural about their neighborhood.

"One little boy, at the end of the week, he says, 'Have we learned all the techniques that you can learn about painting?' I says, 'Well, there's not enough time in a week.' And he says 'Well, I want to learn all of those."

The ghostly outline of Speedy is superimposed over Tony Ortega's image of a laborer as a martyr.
The ghostly outline of Speedy is superimposed over Tony Ortega's image of a laborer as a martyr.

Exploring the immigrant experience

At the museum exhibit, Ortega asks the boys which picture to talk about next. They choose one full of electric-bright, scribbled images. Superimposed on those is the outline of a famous cartoon mouse. Not Mickey. It's Speedy Gonzales, a Mexican-American mouse, who always saves other mice from Sylvester the Cat.

"To me, Speedy's always helping the Mexicans. He's always saving his buddies against the gringo gato because Sylvester wants to eat him," Ortega tells the laughing boys.

Then he points out that - behind his ghostly outline of Speedy - is a man who carries water buckets, suspended from a wooden yoke across his shoulders. The man's legs look long and narrow while his arms, draped over the yoke, stretch wide.

Mexican-American artist Tony Ortega's work often explores the Latino immigrant experience.
Mexican-American artist Tony Ortega's work often explores the Latino immigrant experience.

"What is this guy doing? Is he like a Christ figure?" Ortega asks the boys.

The boys study Ortega's image of a laborer as a martyr, and discuss how hard work and sacrifice do not necessarily guarantee a warm welcome in America. There is more religious imagery in another piece on display.

It's an image of the Statue of Liberty. But not the green-robed Liberty with her proud, green face. Ortega's Liberty wears the blue robes of Mexico's beloved Virgin of Guadalupe, and her brown face looks kind.

The boys praise Ortega's exhibit. For some, this is a first ever visit to an art museum.

"People, Mexican people in the paintings that he does," says one. "They're all awesome."

His friend agrees. "He showed me how life could be for Mexicans, and that sometimes it could be sad, but sometimes it could have a great life."

Ortega was honored with the Colorado Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts for his work inspiring people to see the beauty and challenges of hidden lives.

His exhibit at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art is called, "Mi Frontera es Su Frontera," which means, "My Border is Your Border."

You May Like

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video Survivor Video Testimonies Recount Horrors of Guatemalan Genocide

During a conflict that spanned more than three decades, tens of thousands of indigenous Mayans were killed More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs