May 25, 2007

During Immigration Debate,

Artists Rustle Feathers From Afar

By Raymond R. Beltran

Just when the word Republican was at the bottom of the popularity totem poll, two San Diego artists, from afar, reminded lawmakers that it’s not as bad as being a “Know Nothing Republican.”

Victor Payan and Perry Vasquez bought ad space in the popular Washington ‘beltway’ newspaper, Roll Call, during the beginning of the immigration debate this month, resurrecting the words of historic Republican president, Abraham Lincoln:

“As a nation we began by declaring ‘all men are created equal. When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes, and Foreigners, and Catholics.’”

The ad finishes, “Republicans in the Know Say Yes to Fair Immigration Policy. Don’t Be a Know Nothing. Be a Republican.”

The word ‘Yes’ was created with a configuration of pennies.

“We’re really focusing on what Lincoln meant as immigration advances in Congress,” says Payan. “There are some real border-closing policies in the [current] bill that I think people should know about.”

Bottom line: “Contact your representatives,” he says.

The term ‘Know Nothing’ applied to the North American nativists, somewhat depicted in the film Gangs of New York (featuring Leonardo DiCaprio) who spread fear and created violent wars with the German and Irish immigrants of Lincoln’s time, who were mainly Catholic.

When they were ever questioned about their criminal activity, they were told to respond “I know nothing.”

So, as co-consipirator of the ad Perry Vasquez puts it, the ad was to create a division between real Republicans, like Lincoln, and the Know Nothing nativists.

And the shiney pennies spelling ‘Yes’? They not only gleam with Lincoln’s face smirking in judgement at how his party has transformed, but hint at the economic issues immigration has always summoned.

“The ad is in your face,” Vasquez says. “We liked that about it. It’s the kind of ad we thought would make Democrats chuckle if they saw it. As for the Republicans … it should give them an identity crisis.”

Roll Call was chosen among a slew of Capitol Hill journals, the two say, because of its accessibility to the audience they’re trying to reach, the sixty year old lawyers who are creating law in Washington, D.C. who frequent the paper for its insider perspective and daily reports on legislative development.

With a silent benefactor sitting behind a silhouette of secrecy, the two were able to get the $11,935 to run the full page piece. They originally wanted to create a spoof, the Emancipation Immigration.

“Ultimately, that didn’t end up being quite the focus, but it did get us thinking more about OR (Original Republican) Abraham Lincoln’s famous compassion,” Vasquez says. “How did we get from the Republican Party of Lincoln in 1855 to the Republican Party of 2007?”

As debates seem to be bleeding into June, surpassing the two week deadline Washington originally made for itself, Democrats say they are doing all they can to create a family-based solution while Republicans are talking about beefing up border security. The talk of 12 million undocumented immigrants gaining legal status is being tossed around but only after millions are spent on security measures. Capping the amount of guest worker programs is still on hiatus, 200,000? 400,000? Who knows, but as they continue to cut and paste and rewrite, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are still knocking on barrio doors in San Diego on behalf of Republican president, George W. Bush.

He and Vasquez have been at the forefront of mingling the immigration issue and local arts in their movement Keep On Crossin’, a response to the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. that comes with a manifesto, a lovable cartoon mascot and a ceramic statue used for Keep On Crossin awards, which have recognized “crossers” like Michael Moore and The Dixie Chicks.

Their work is actually on tour and currently as the Museum of Contemporary Art’s TRANSactions: Contemporary Latin American and Latino Art exhibit.

Since the ad was published, Vasquez said he began getting inquiries from other Washington papers to place the Know Nothing ad with them too.

He says it’s roadside art and a little whacky, but at the very least, it has money in it … something that might appeal to his target audience.

Nonetheless, they too are doing their part as artists to try and provide solutions. Engage, you know?

“Did you see that France is proposing to pay immigrants to leave?” asks Vasquez most sarcastically. “Maybe we should try doing that instead of building walls. It might turn out to be cheaper.”

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