Things That Matter

Migrant Portraits Won A Prestigious Smithsonian Art Award And The Artist Is The First Latino To Win

How do you illustrate the emotion of the U.S. immigration story without using any words? Artist Hugo Crosthwaite won the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition Friday, for accomplishing exactly that. Crosthwaite is the First Latino to win the competition, held every three years since 2006 by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Born in Tijuana, Crosthwaite grew up familiar with the starting point of the Mexico to U.S. immigration story. Today, he lives in San Diego, California, where he was able to interview Latinos living on the other side. The work that won him a $25,000 grant, is just one part of a series of interviews. 

Meet Berenice Sarmiento Chávez.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

“Set to the soundtrack of a dissonant guitar and a raspy voice singing in Spanish,” The National Portrait Gallery describes the video on YouTube. “This animated video reveals the dreams and experiences of a young woman from Tijuana who seeks to take part in the American Dream. Black ink, gray wash, and white paint—applied by the invisible hand of the artist— take turns to expose Berenice Sarmiento Chávez’s humble background and the threat of violence in her home country that pushed her to immigrate to the United States. The film suggests that the immigration journey is seeded with constant danger, especially for women and children.”

While the video editing work conveys a story, Crosthwaite’s drawings are improvisational.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

We first meet Chávez in her Mexican home. Then, a calavera is drawn into the backdrop, seeming to either place an idea onto Chávez or minimize her story to that of a cartoon. The American Dream, as depicted by a Micky Mouse lookalike, seems to be a familiar character to this angel of death.

Crosthwaite captured at least 1,400 images to create the video.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

Crosthwaite told CNN that Chávez honored her story as she told it, with embellishments and all. “We are defined by the stories that we tell ourselves, either real or imagined, to deal with difficult situations in our lives,” he told CNN. “Rather than playing the role of journalist where I recount a factual event, I have left the video open to interpretation just as Berenice left me with her vague and unsettling story.”

One by one, the women and children that migrated alongside her died.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

Chávez continues on, with her head down, carrying just a couple bags. Soon, the black cloaks of her lost friends overwhelm the image. Surrounded in a deep shadow of presumable grief, her delicately drawn face is covered in the thick swipe of deep black paint in a single moment.

The next scene shows Chávez trying to make her life in the U.S., surrounded by unseen wealth.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

Soon, these men, too, are cloaked in dark black paint. Then, their faces are embellished with the symbol of U.S. currency: a white dollar sign. This time, the rest of the portrait is overwhelmed by white paint. Instead of being overshadowed by the black paint that marked the death of her fellow migrant Latinos, Chávez’s face is covered by a stark white paint. She’s in America now.

Then, we finally see an intimate look at her face, only to watch a gun be painted inside her world.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

In an instant, the gun fires, and she’s once again overtaken by a stark white paint, that erases the detail of her person. It’s almost as if the gun has a similar perspective to the grim reaper. The details of her life, or why she is fleeing everything she’s known, are no matter. To the grim reaper, to the gun, to ICE, she is a caricature of what ‘migrant’ means.

Finally, we see a small child, living under a dome of black paint.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

Is it Chávez as a child? Is it her own child, who seems to be dressed in American fashion, left behind, alone? There are no words to this story. Our guess is as good as yours.

The last jolt of emotion is felt in the credits.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery / YouTube

After watching Chávez’s migration story – its hope, its deaths, and the resultant family separation – the video tells us this simple fact. The cheerful audio and traditional Mexican music we hear may be the beginning of someone else’s story. The cycle continues. Hope that is lost to U.S. immigration policies that result in migrants being deported without their children.

READ: David Zambrano of “DezCustomz” Talks to Us About Family, Art, And When He Finally Thought He’d “Made It”

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