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Michelle Ortiz (ACG ‘13, ‘12, ‘05, LTA ‘08) Featured In Philadelphia Inquirer

Local artist recognized for work on immigrant crisis

June 21, 2016

by Alexandra Villarreal for the Philadelphia Inquirer

A native of Philadelphia’s Italian Market neighborhood, Michelle Angela Ortiz was born to a Colombian mother and Puerto Rican father. These days, her work can be seen in places near and far, from Cuba and Mexico to South 6th Street. She’s an artist, but she’s also a storyteller, giving a voice to otherwise marginalized communities worldwide.
“I feel that some of the families that I’ve connected with are reflections of my parents,” she said. “Their children are reflections of me, and my story, and what I’ve gone through.”
On June 17, Americans for the Arts named Ortiz one of 38 Public Art Network Year in Review honorees for her local project, Familias Separadas. The project was highlighted through the Mural Arts Program's Open Source exhibition. This is the first time a local artist collaborating with the Mural Arts Program is honored by the Americans for the Arts Public Art Network Year in Review award.
The series, which focused on the hardships faced by undocumented immigrants in the United States, featured four installations at locations around Philadelphia from late September through October 2015. 
“The temporary nature of each piece is really connected to the temporary presence of undocumented families when they’re at risk of being deported,” Ortiz said. “By the end of the month of October, you see it, and then it’s gone. A lot of people were like, ‘Something’s missing.’ It was this sense of loss. And it doesn’t compare at all to the intensity of losing someone through deportation, but it does give a reference to this thought of ‘We just lost something.’ This image, this impact, this story has been erased.”
To conceive of each piece, Ortiz spoke with families through Juntos, a non-profit that advocates for the rights of Philadelphia’s Latino immigrants. The works are linked to minute-long voice recordings that explore the stories behind them. Two women suffer unjust deportation. A hardworking man is detained after 20 years in the states.
Eres Mi Todo - You Are My Everything - was the name of the installation at City Hall. Ortiz insisted that her painting be inside the City Hall compass, a global emblem for finding direction. She depicted Maria, a mother of five children. Maria is living in the states and is effectively a single mother: Her husband was arrested while attempting re-entry from Mexico. In fact, 94 percent of all American deportations in 2013 were of men, leaving households that needed two incomes to survive without resources for their kids, many of whom are U.S. citizens.
“Most of them are born and raised, and have been educated here in Philadelphia,” Ortiz said. “So then what happens to those families that are already struggling, but then fall deeper and deeper into poverty because of the effects of deportation?”
At Love Park, Ortiz installed Te Amo, a rendering of the necklace Honduras immigrant Suyapa wears to remind her of her eldest daughter. Beside Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture, and in a spot where undocumented immigrants often take their families to play, the symbolism becomes clear.
“What happens to love in the midst of immigration?” Ortiz asked. “What happens to love in the midst of deportation, not only when you decide to leave but then when you’re forced to leave? What happens to the love of your country, the love of your children, the love of your family?”
Perhaps the most recognizable work from Familias Separadas was Somos Seres Humanos, a truth that is often forgotten in the politicization of immigration. Along with 30 volunteers, some of whom were undocumented themselves, Ortiz installed the art outside of the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement building on 16th and Callowhill Streets, which is often the first stop for those facing deportation. A quote from Ana, a Guatemalan immigrant who was recently sent to her country of origin along with her daughter before a judge ruled their deportation unjust, the bold yellow letters read: “We are human beings, risking our lives, for our families and our futures.”
All of the works from Familias Separadas were intentionally placed so they could be seen from the air, making a schematic out of the lives of undocumented immigrants in the city. 
“If I were flying over Philadelphia and had an aerial map, these pieces would serve as little landmarks, or points of where the families have either passed by, shared, loved, or even worked,” Ortiz said.
They also open the possibility of a dialogue, inspiring discussion about subjects that are often too hot to touch directly and without an entry point.
“I feel that I’m expanding the conversation when I bring it to public spaces,” Ortiz explained. “You don’t usually see these stories represented. And for someone who was completely disconnected or uneducated about the issues of immigration, this is their way of connecting. People came and started asking questions or started sharing their own immigration story. And that’s the beauty of public art and being out in open spaces: having people be curious, but also starting those conversations.”
Ultimately, Ortiz would like to continue with Familias Separadas, spreading her message despite what she calls the current “anti-immigrant climate” in the United States, where, she claims, deportation has become more and more ubiquitous under the Obama administration and one of the presidential nominees constantly spews hateful rhetoric about undocumented individuals. She’s especially intent on promoting a welcoming climate in Philadelphia.
“”I still live on the block where I was born and raised,” she said. “I’m very much tied to the city. And so when I think about the issues of deportation and how undocumented families and immigrant communities are trying to make a future here, it’s really about posing the question to the citizens of Philadelphia and to the government, and to the neighbor who is a citizen or the person who could be an ally: ‘How are we creating a city that opens its arms to these communities that are trying to seek a better future for their families and a better life for themselves? How are we creating that?’”

Read original article here.

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