“I was three and I still have flashbacks of when we were crossing the border. Little bits and pieces. I remember when we were crossing the river. The adults would have me on their shoulders, and they had my twin brother. They would be asking, every hour or so, ‘Who has the little girl, who has the little boy, who has the twins?’
– Karla Duarte, 25, reflecting on her family’s immigration to the U.S.A.
Karla Duarte was on her lunch break at work when she learned she was going to lose her right to live in the United States of America.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions had abruptly announced that the Trump administration was rescinding DACA, ending many of the guarantees enshrined in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allowed undocumented youth brought to the U.S. illegally to apply for jobs and lead normal lives without threat of being deported.
At first, she panicked. What would happen to her now? Would she lose her job right away? Where would she work? Was she going to be deported? What about her family?
“I was very emotional,” she says. “I called my mom. I told her, ‘Mom, he just shattered my dream.’”
When she heard there would be a big march in downtown L.A. against the end of DACA, shock transformed into creative energy. Duarte wanted to bring something personal to the march, something that would allow her to reaffirm her story, achievements and right to exist in America.
With this epiphany and determination to join the throng, Duarte unwittingly joined an arts activism movement, as well. Museums and archives across the country, from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles are responding to the resurgence of protest art since the 60s by collecting its contemporary ephemera.
“People start to understand that these are primary historical documents that reflect the pulse of the time,” says Carol A. Wells, executive director at the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
Wells has collected political posters since 1981 and seen American society’s interest in signs and protest artifacts grow steadily for the past few years. The Center for the Study of Political Graphics is, in fact, at the forefront of a “new” category for this kind of art called Rapid Response Collecting.
Wells remembers the first time that a major museum institution in the U.S. began actively collecting protest signs in real time. It was 2011 and a crowd of people had gathered in Capitol Square, in Wisconsin, to demonstrate against a piece of legislation that would curtail the rights of public employees. Many protesters had started making signs out of pizza boxes, and the Smithsonian had selected a few for its collection at the end of the sit-in.
Those pizza boxes, for which preservation might have been a challenge because of food residue on the cardboard, weren’t chosen because of their aesthetic value, but because they visually represented a particular historical time.
“They’re an artifact of the moment,” says Wells. “It’s not like you’re going to pick up a Picasso or a Banksy. It’s about cultural importance.”
Since Trump became president, protests have multiplied, and so have the creative ways in which people affected by his administration’s policies have attempted to make their voices heard.
“Millions of demonstrators going into the street the day after inauguration was a new concept,” says Wells of the Women’s March. Then there was the Muslim travel ban, Black Lives Matter, the Dakota Access Pipeline movement, Charlottesville, and now DACA.
With each new social struggle, grassroots protest art flourished, “because and in spite of the president,” Wells adds.
Karla Duarte still has the two signs and T-shirt that she made for the September DACA march. She’s keeping them for future rallies, and wants to start wearing her custom-made shirt to work.
“I was hesitant,” she says, “but after the protest, I’m not gonna hide who I am.”
She’s accepted that DACA is over, but she’s no longer scared. “I’m gonna continue fighting, like I’ve always done my whole life, and hope for the best.”
Betty Avila, associate director of Self Help Graphics, an East L.A. organization that focuses on printmaking for social justice, is familiar with the crossroads between aesthetics and protest. “Sometimes it’s in the simplicity of the message that you find the most powerful works. It doesn’t have to be about the art itself,” she says.
Avila recalls that at the Women’s March, a man held a sign that read, “See you all at the next Black Lives Matter March.”
“It was just words, but it said so much,” she says. “A lot of people are experiencing an oppression that is essentially about deeming them voiceless,” she adds.
And so the act of protesting becomes a form of voice, and the poster, the sign and the T-shirt are also a form of voice. They represent the existential human need to be heard, and reflect society’s failures—visually and in real time.