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

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Puerto Rico Defaults on $58M Debt Payment

Payment was due Saturday, default is first in country's 117 years as a United States possession More

Turkish Public Fears Jihadists More Than Kurds

Turkey facing twin threats of terrorism by Islamic State and PKK Kurdish separatists, says President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party 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.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs