red liberty (Fall 2021), acrylic and pastel on bar mop | Marco Saavedra

red liberty (Fall 2021), acrylic and pastel on bar mop | Marco Saavedra

Known originally by the Lenape people as Paggank, or “nut island,” Governors Island is where the Hudson and East Rivers meet in New York Harbor and empty into the Atlantic. Where you can step into the sunset as New York City’s skyline opens to river, bay, ocean, and clouds above. In the fall of 2021, I was granted a residency at the island. I had avoided painting water my whole life and now found myself surrounded by it. Unable, unwilling, to paint indoors, I carried my canvases in a shopping cart to the edge of the water and made my best effort to apply what I have learned from J. M. W. Turner, Winslow Homer, and James Whistler. And naturally also turned inward: my family is Mixteca from San Miguel Ahuehuetitlán in Oaxaca, Mexico. Our Indigenous name translates to “cloud people” or “the land of the rain,” and even when we talk it sounds like laments.

Being illegal and now a political refugee in my homeland, from my homeland, means I have had to find home in occupied Lenape territory. And also lament for the original people of these lands who now reside mainly in Oklahoma, 1,500 miles away. My family and I crossed the border illegally in 1993 and settled 2,700 miles from our ancestral village, but there is a connection in all things native. Unable to return to my native home, I must connect and cry with the native land that adopted me: “by indirections find directions out” (Shakespeare, Hamlet). What was here before cranes, concrete, and crosswalks? What will remain after? I have never found the Hudson River, for example, a fitting name to the body of water I grew closest to, and I find the Mohawk name Ka’nón:no more musical and true.

Everyone is from this earth, everyone is Indigenous, everyone is illegal. And in the opposing equation: your alienation from your nativity allies you with power and estranges you from your home. And it is the moral position to be an outlaw in an inhumane system. And when the waters rise, and the last bubble bursts, and our grids fail, you will not be able to hide behind bureaucracy and capital, and will have to move or die. And the American Dream will no longer be a myth but a past, a rag to wipe our tears on and move on.

So I hesitated to paint the Statue of Liberty that couldn’t be avoided when I looked out at the water from the highest point on the island. The statue has always rung false and cheap to me. At Ellis Island, immigrants were denied, detained, deported. Their names were changed upon arrival. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn” (Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”). 

But I could not look away. The sun sets every day behind the statue and cloaks her in shadow, the last rays bathe her teal green into a wine-dark bloody red. And here was truth: both romantic and vicious, both engulfing and bright. To make red liberty (study), I applied my last acrylic paint and pastel (left over from a J. M. W. Turner study) to a flimsy rag we use to wipe the tables at my family’s mutual aid restaurant, La Morada. The rag’s surface is so loose and coarse that the whole statue warps with the creases, and my own violent relationship with her is also transposed. My allegiance as an illegal, Indigenous person aligns with the displaced and dispossessed:

For every hundred people who were
captured & enslaved, forty died before they
ever reached the New World.
. . . . . . . . . . .
I slide my ring finger from Senegal
to South Carolina & feel the ocean
separate a million families.

—Clint Smith, “And the World Keeps Spinning”

I have been denied, detained, and deported, and judge you illegal. And bless you with illegality. To be free from the cheap web of justifications we have used to divide families and justify displacement. And as much as I want to be stateless, I cannot run away from the white canon. As was said of W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk”: the work is an homage to a civilization that has largely denied it. And like Du Bois I must end all complaint with the same conclusion: “My soul wants something that’s new, that’s new.” That newness is allons, vamos, let’s go, coo’o. Is agency. Is the freedom to move, work, love, cross, return, especially when your biosphere is being destroyed. And my visa requirements are the same as all poets’: “I give you myself before preaching or law. Will you give me yourself?” (Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”).

My ultimate identity as an artist can only create and invite others to create and protest any form of repression that commodifies and consumes us. So in my walk I turn to you, the reader, to my inner child, to my children’s children, to my enemy, and to my ghosts:

Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!

—Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”

Excerpted from New Narratives on the Peopling in America: Immigration, Race, and Dispossession, edited by T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Alexandra Délano Alonso. Copyright 2024. Published with permission to Johns Hopkins University Press.

To learn more about New Narratives on the Peopling of America, read Paloma Griffin’s interview with T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Alexandra Délano Alonso.