Humanizing Immigrants and Refugees – A Conversation With Emily Mata

A year ago on February 9th, 2019, I took a road trip to Santa Barbara to see an art show put together by Emily Mata, an art student at Westmont college. A photo I had shared with her was painted portraying the bond I share with an American citizen, despite our different heritage and race. Its aim was to deconstruct and delegitimize the concept of national borders, hoping the viewer would connect with and empathize with undocumented immigrants and refugees. I interviewed her, because I want other immigrants to feel how this experience made me feel — that their story matters outside of the context of how much they economically benefit or “burden” America — on this, Emily speaks volumes.
Q) Please tell me about the theme. What message were you trying to convey with your pieces?
A) I wanted my show to offer different perspectives on the conversation of immigration as it relates to Latinx people. Many college-age students who think their stories don’t have a direct link to immigration tend to see the issue as something academic or political. I wanted to expand that by offering something personal, artistic, and fluid.
Q) What inspired the theme, and how did each piece contribute to the overall message?
A) The theme was inspired by my own experience as the daughter of an immigrant, the experiences of my peers immigrant friends and family, and the collective experience of Latinx people whose stories are rooted in movement. Each piece was a window into a different story or perspective on immigration.
Q) What is your personal connection with this topic? 
A) My father came to the U.S.A with his family as a child. They were living way out in Michigan. Being isolated like that, his narrative is deeply formed by assimilation and pressure to conform to U.S. dominant standards of white superiority. This story is very similar to many people’s stories and very very different from others. I’m interested in how immigration is both a unifying and diversifying experience.
Q) Can you please talk about each piece individually? 
A) There were a series of abstract and semi-abstract paintings that were inspired by the Magnolia Warbler and the Western Tanager. These birds’ natural migration patterns cross the US Mexico border, so I used their colors, feathers, and patterns of motion as symbols for the natural movement of creatures across space and imagined boundaries.
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There as a large piece in which I taped and glued together news stories and photos about immigration. I then painted the poem “Ciudadanía” by Lilvia Soto on top. This piece, and the poem, was a challenge to the nationalism, elitism, and xenophobia that inform individual and national discourses surrounding immigration. The various documents reflected the rhetorical contexts of Latinx immigration in the U.S., ranging from WWII Bracero Program propaganda posters to Trump Tweets and protest signs. These words– laws, advertisements, literature, speeches– affect the way each person, especially those who are not a part of Latinx communities, will think about citizenship. The piece as a whole challenged the viewer to consider what it means to be a citizen. What is at stake for those who are not legally included in that category? How has our country has failed to recognize its flawed history and legal system? In what ways do we continue to fail to recognize the humanity of Latinx immigrants?
I had another painting in which all of the marks I made on it were words/anagrams created from the letters of the words “Illegal” and “citizen”. The identities of immigrants and their communities are far more nuanced than either of these labels could ever describe– they exist somewhere in between and far beyond this false set of opposites. The letters, when rearranged, took on new, liberated forms and meanings.
There were two other pieces entitled Unnamed Children. I took hand-made stamps of the letters that make up the word “asylum” and used them to make portraits based on a composite of images of children whose photos were featured in news stories about people seeking asylum at the U.S. Mexico border.
Finally, I had two paintings and a series of drawings based on pictures of immigrants and their loved ones. These pieces, one of which was the painting I did of you, were my favorite ones to make. I got to talk to people about their stories, the people in them, and why they were important.

Q) How diverse was your audience?

A. The show was up in my school so the main people who saw it were students, faculty, and staff. Because the school I attend is a predominantly white institution, there was a predominantly white audience.
Q. What kind of responses did you get? Which responses were expected, and which were unexpected?
A. In general, I got supportive responses. I was not expecting some of the thoughtfulness that I received from faculty and students that I didn’t know. It can get tiring to make work for white audiences, so I was especially happy when someone who identified as Latinx had something to say about the work.
Q) What were some of the emotions that you felt during during the creation process?
I felt proud, happy, moved, and determined. I am especially grateful for all of the stories that were shared with me as a result of the making and exhibiting of these pieces.
What would you like people to know about you or your art?
I’m still learning and developing as an artist. I’m set to release an updated website sometime this year. If people want to be notified when that happens, they can sign up at If people want to get in touch about a commission or collaboration they can follow me at @elmmata on instagram!

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