Phoenix artist brings awareness to issues affecting undocumented people through her art

Gloria Martinez-Granados will be showing her art piece, "The Uncertainty of Higher Education" at the Phoenix Art Museum.
Gloria Martinez-Granados will be showing her art piece, "The Uncertainty of Higher Education" at the Phoenix Art Museum.

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In her home, in the Central City neighborhood just south of downtown Phoenix, Gloria Martinez-Granados works on putting together the finishing touches on her latest piece, meticulously planning how she would fit copies of various IDs of her art into cardboard boxes. She would need to fit 2,000 ID cards for her piece being shown at her exhibition.

Martinez-Granados was given the Lehmann Emerging Artist Award from the Phoenix Art Museum. Her piece “The Uncertainty of Higher Education” is being shown starting this month. It is an expansion on her ongoing exploration of what it means to be an undocumented person in Arizona.

Her own experiences navigating higher education influence the direction her work takes as a lithographer — a highly labor-intensive printmaking method. Those experiences would also turn out to be the catalyst of Martinez-Granados becoming an artist.

“I just never grew up thinking, I would be an artist,” she states. “Being from a migrant family you are always ingrained that you're going to be a doctor or you're going to be a lawyer or you're going to be you know. All of these professions that are going to give you a stable life. So art was not one of those things,” she said jokingly.

Martinez-Granados was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. She and her family would migrate to a couple of places before arriving in South Phoenix. She remembers experiencing the July summer heat when she was 10 years old.

“We all packed up and drove over here and got here when it was just like an intense heat that I had never experienced,” she laughs.

They would move to a couple of apartments and houses across the southside as her parents were able to afford better living. Martinez-Granados would start the 5th grade that fall and continue to attend public school and go to high school at South Mountain.

“That's kind of where I got my foundation in art,” she explained. “They have an arts magnet program, they had this photography class that I took, they had a fiber arts class that I just fell in love with.”

Art her way of communicating

Art gave her a space that was unique in that there was no right or wrong answer. She felt like she had a sense of belonging when she started to create.

Like many others who grow up in south Phoenix, she has pride in having community there.

“It was people that looked like me and people who were struggling through the same struggles that we were struggling with and just trying to make it through and making the best of life,” she explains.

At 16, her peers were all going to get their driver’s licenses and starting to get jobs, but she couldn’t. She was undocumented.

She won an art competition for the then newly constructed Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Her art is in the children’s hospital, but she couldn’t accept the award because she was undocumented.

After graduating high school, she got a scholarship to go to school and study nursing. She graduated and even though she had all the merits to be a nurse — a good one at that — she was unable to continue her career, because she was undocumented.

This is a painful memory for her. The kind that she can’t tell without her voice cracking.

Her conclusion on that chapter of her life was that “When it came time for me to fulfill that profession, I was ready for it. At the end of the day, I was trusted to care for people. But when it finally came to the point where I would benefit from it, that's when it ended.”

She would pick up the pieces with art. Grieving but finding a medium that would not only allow her to process what she had experienced, but also able to monetize, to provide for her young, new family. Her time in the arts community gave her a sense of purpose again, the same kind of belonging she felt when she was first introduced to it in high school.

In 2012, DACA or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was announced under the Obama Administration. It had been nearly seven years since Martinez-Granados' time studying to be a nurse. She thought that she might want to go back and study for the NCLEX as DACA made it a possibility for her to be able to fulfill her career.

That’s when she decided that she would go to art school at Arizona State University. She had found a different way to heal people.

At art school she was exposed to printmaking, picking up the medium after thinking that she would be studying fiber arts instead.

The art of printing is making adjustments to shape the way a copy will be made. Copies of documents, like a photograph that her family gave a “coyote,” or human smugglers, to cross into the U.S. This brought back memories and questions of just who Gloria Martinez-Granados is.

“It brought these thoughts about how I have been growing up not really knowing how to identify myself,” she said. “Finding a place to belong has always been a challenge for me.”

Printing out documents of hers and her family was her way of showing the state that she existed. It was an answer to the claim of her being undocumented, showing the paradox of the label by leaving a paper trail of her life.

Thousands of IDs in support of an Arizona ballot measure

If passed, Proposition 308 would allow any student, regardless of status, the ability to pay in-state tuition if they graduated from an Arizona high school and have lived in the state for two years prior to that.

Recent polls indicate that two out of every three Arizona voters support the proposition.

Reyna Montoya is the founder and CEO of the community group Aliento, which played a key role last year in getting Proposition 308 referred to the ballot. She attests that this proposition would greatly impact the lives of young, undocumented people in Arizona and their ability to attend college.

“It would mean that they get to pay the same as their peers. I think that sometimes we think so much about the politics that we forget that policy impacts real people. They're not asking for a handout, they're not asking to pay less,” Montoya asserts.

Opportunities like this are what Montoya believes can help Arizona retain the talent of young people who leave because of this financial barrier.

Aliento serves the undocumented, DACA and mixed immigration status families of Arizona. Their mission is to help them transform their trauma into hope, and a part of that is through art.

Art has seemed to have always had a place in the fight that the undocumented community has had for their rights. Montoya believes that this is due to the power that it has to create empathy.

“It allows people to see themselves and imagine what they do if they were in the shoes of someone else,” adding that the awareness that is created is a meaningful tool to communicate with others.

Giovanna Aviles also sees just how valuable that art driven by and made by the community is, especially in Phoenix.

Aviles works with CALA Alliance or the Celebración Artística de las Américas as the Community Engagement and Education Manager as well as with the Phoenix Art Museum as a Program Coordinator for First Fridays.

“I think art has been such a large component of the movement. I remember back in 2010 when SB 1070 was happening a lot of the young Latine/x artists really came together to create different pieces in response,” she remembers.

Aviles has seen firsthand this impact and the changes to how the community talks about their citizenship status.

“It was just not really something we would (openly) talk about, until the movement gave us permission to actually own it,” this is part of the reason why Martinez-Granados' piece is so meaningful to Aviles.

Aviles has seen the piece put together now at the museum.

“The room where the piece is has a large window where a lot of sunlight comes through. Immediately when you walk into the room, you see a really large piece that is the height of the floor to ceiling window,” she describes it. Upon closer view you see that there are pieces of paper suspended in a wall like formation. “You’ll notice that it’s prints that have different IDs. IDs upon IDs upon IDs,” Aviles added.

These are the 2,000 IDs.

Gloria Martinez-Granados will be showing her art piece, "The Uncertainty of Higher Education" at the Phoenix Art Museum.
Gloria Martinez-Granados will be showing her art piece, "The Uncertainty of Higher Education" at the Phoenix Art Museum.

They are representative to the number of undocumented high school students who are graduating high school in Arizona and having to pay out-of-state tuition.

For Martinez-Granados this is a direct response to Proposition 300 and the Arizona Board of Regents decision to extend the out-of-state fees to DACA recipients. That opened up wounds and trauma for her as once again her academic career was in jeopardy.

Through her eyes, these opportunities to be able to get ahead were being diminished if not outwardly stolen by governing institutions that were not made for people like her and the rest of her undocumented community.

“Our systems are created within white supremacy and we need to be able to see where that is happening at every level and come in to do something about it,” she asserted.

Martinez-Granados uses her art to call it out and to bring awareness to the plight of her community. Her latest piece serves as a reminder that this proposition on the ballot can be life changing for many.

She hopes that people can connect to the piece, regardless of who they are and if they are coming from a completely different walk of life.

“Anything that happens to you affects me and vice versa. It doesn't matter if we know the person down the street, if something happens to that person it'll affect us. It's part of our community, it's part of our state, it's part of our nation.”

Have a question you need answered? Reach the reporter at Follow him on Twitter @raphaeldelag.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix woman creates art to communicate views on undocumented people