Casitas voladoras (Tiny Flying Houses) is a collaborative sculptural performance with undocumented immigrant day-labor workers from the state of Chiapas, Mexico, living in San Francisco, California, and with the community of El Pital, Honduras. The work focuses on sculptural public interventions as a form of claiming social protection and as a reflection of the New Sanctuary Movement.
Human fragility is the reality of thin skin and brittle bones, housing hope and spirit and something primordial and yet divine. We make sanctuary, shelter, makeshift homes and temples to hold us, protect us, and ultimately support us as we develop into our full capacity as humans. The realities of human migration within a geopolitical context present challenges with each step—sometimes life threatening at particular borders, both those imagined and those formed by natural geological features. When considering the world we currently live in—replete with multiple, dynamic veins of migration—the impetus, means, and fragmentation of movement results in situations that require attention and care. Artist Caleb Duarte asserts, “My work deals with survival. Within this declaration, there is a shift made to what is essential—from that a break occurs from western assumptions of what is considered beauty, success, knowledge. The collective reimagines and contemporaneously reclaims body, mind, and spirit—again as an imperative to survival.”
Within this historical imperative for personal and collective survival, the arts find a way to be both a force in shaping experience as well as a mirror reflecting actions and intentions. These opportunities of engagement present a window to review and revise in the present tense. In The Archive and the Repertoire, Diana Taylor explores how performance can transmit cultural memory and identity.1 This underpinning idea of transmission exists as the foundation in Caleb Duarte’s work, seeking to both guide and interrogate assumptions of distinct time and place. The objective of the artist as guide in this work serves to establish norms of understanding while building community that allows for the future art action to take hold—inviting unexpected outcomes in both material and form. The process is contemporaneously spontaneous and amorphous. The collective expression of disparate voices elevates the issue, allowing participation and often altering perception. Howard Zinn describes this transaction as transcendent in that the artist creates a space or event that transcends the immediate. In this unapologetic motion there might be beauty or even mayhem; most importantly, there is an intentional engagement of the collective.
I used to think that the role of Art was to challenge logic; to enact or impose a magical realism into society’s notions of a shared reality. Like the DADAist after the war, the Impressionist, Expressionist, Povera artist or Surrealist. But now, within the chaos and absurdity of our current social political climate, and the paraded cruelty supported by many, I realize that Art must retreat into logic; into a sober sanity as a standard of reason, a reason guided by the displaced, the exiles, or by an indigenous knowledge of survival, resistance, and endurance.2
Casitas voladoras is an example of one such work that engages the collective imagination within time and space. The project was imagined within the context of the Sanctuary Movement established by a coalition of faith-based organizations and individuals to support undocumented migrants who were fleeing unrest in Central America in the 1980s. The movement, currently recognized as the New Sanctuary Movement, emerged in direct response to the US foreign policy of that time and continues to protect immigrants in faith-based spaces. This policy backed dictators in the civil wars in Central America, causing thousands of refugees to flee for their safety.3 The US government did not recognize them as political refugees and they were denied legal entry to the United States. The refusal of asylum seekers and the deportations that ensued led to uncertainty and insecurity on return to their countries of birth. The New Sanctuary Movement began in churches along the Mexican border, and has expanded to include more than 1,100 churches in forty-four states that support undocumented migrants.4
Casitas voladoras is a performative collaboration that Duarte began with day laborers in San Francisco in 2008. The sculptural performance, in dialogue with the New Sanctuary Movement, included the construction of a miniature church that was carried through the city as an urgent art action. Participants, including undocumented migrants, artists and other members of the community took personal responsibility to create sanctuary outside of a church or NGO—an act of identifying and reclaiming safe space by undocumented people in a major US city.
The following year, Duarte and his father Francisco traveled to El Pital, Honduras. In the small river valley community, the Duartes’ original intention was to collect oral histories and stories of migration for an independent publication entitled Casitas voladoras. Francisco Duarte, himself an immigrant from Mexico, was more than familiar with stories of immigration from throughout Latin America. The interviews and time with the community lent to the development of a trusting relationship with the community of El Pital. The community had previously worked with Caleb Duarte on several projects that had clear objectives, such as painting the school logo and helping to design the layout of the new library. As a result, a sense of trust was established, allowing Caleb to be honest and also playful when talking about the realities of migration in this rural Honduran town, where each family had at least one member in “el Norte.” The conversations fueled the construction of tiny houses made from bamboo from the Cangrejal River and from bedsheets. The tiny houses were then carried by the children in a procession that sinuously wove through the community and across the river, finally resting in the large multi-use field in the center of town.
The work was not finished there. After a celebratory close in El Pital, Caleb moved north to California’s Central Valley, where day laborers constructed more tiny houses, precariously balanced on long thin poles that reached to the sky. The next iteration created a full circle, with Duarte returning to San Francisco to work with undocumented immigrants from the state of Chiapas, Mexico. In this ultimate procession of theatrical protest, Duarte and the workers extended Casitas voladoras as a living, human-held structure using bedsheets and two-by-fours that caravanned with both real and implied weight through the busy streets of the Mission District, stopping traffic and drawing attention to the sculpture and the people carrying it.
Casitas voladoras exists as one example of performance in a continuum of responses honing a collective voice and vision. Through activation in these diverse venues the audience is invited, and at times forced through the act of bearing witness, to imagine how these structures and processions invite sanctuary. The playful houses held by those participating in informal, and often invisible, underground economies provide a new dialogue through the language of sculpture and performance in the context of a now protected hypervisibility. In this vision the nuance of organization, iteration, and production charge both cause and effect in the act that occurs.
Another example of such engagement occurred with Entierro, a performance that took place in a small autonomous Mayan community in Chiapas, Elambo Bajo. EDELO (En Donde Era La Onu / Where the United Nations Used to Be), a collective of artists and activists in Chiapas that Duarte cofounded, began working with children of Elambo Bajo. In the first phase of the project the EDELO artists asked community members to bury them in the earth. The artists in turn created a game with the community, wherein they would bury community members using the metaphor of planting a seed that would burst from the earth and emerge as a fruit-bearing tree. This game hinged on the concept of breaking away from a colonized mind-set, shifting to one focused on the earth and a cosmology centered on acknowledgment of the violent histories carried by our bodies.
Entierro traveled north to the Fresno Art Museum, set within the white-wall aesthetics of a museum with an art audience. In an attempt to present a similar energy and physical experience, Duarte asked a young Chicano tattoo artist to perform, trapped in a large rectangle of earth within a constricted circle for the duration of the opening. For three hours a tension was created in the viewers as they observed the young man with a stoic, sweat-stained face, held by the confines of earth on all sides. His actions drew out the weight of the experiential that is carried by our bodies, and that we hold as we negotiate a myriad of lived experiences.
Zapantera negra is yet another example of a far-reaching community art project that made visible the relationship between the Black Panther Party and Zapatista movements. In this project, which has continued in the form of a traveling exhibition and engagement, Emory Douglas, artist and former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, partnered with EDELO to create a woven tapestry of historical understanding, employing the artistry of Zapatista embroideries. The exchange invited complicated conversations recognizing the political and social realities of groups seeking autonomy within their respective national contexts.
Dado el estado actual del mundo, el arte como entretenimiento trivial y pasivo ya no es sólo entretenimiento—en realidad, puede ser destructivo para nuestro futuro. EDELO se ocupa de presentar un espacio de exploración como una obra de arte en sí misma, regresando a la esencia de la creación.
(Given the state of the world, art becomes a trivial and passive practice if it is only practice—in reality, it can be destructive for our future if left passive. EDELO occupies the present tense of space in an exploration about ourselves returning to the essence of all creation.)—EDELO Vision Statement
Duarte’s work seeks to engage a diverse and often unsuspecting audience in finding the space to create dialogue about the possibilities of collective reimagining within the greater human experience. The work questions assumptions of privilege and the political and social systems that influence our lives. Within the work, fleeting moments and revelations often provide a glimpse into the capacity of humanity and the power of creativity to connect us with one another in dignity as we search for truth. The work continues to percolate with questions that examine the role of art and artist in making experiences accessible to diverse audiences in spaces intended for the production of art, and in public and private spaces. With the intention to situate divergent positions beside one another in mobile conversations, the generation of a new type of understanding is central to the effectiveness of the creative action. These transient efforts for truth continue to emerge from the cracks, made by the same hope for survival and justice that follows us throughout time.
CURATED SPACES provides a focus on contemporary artists whose work addresses social, historical, or political subject matter.
Myrna Orozco, New Report: Sanctuary in the Age of Trump, https://www.sanctuarynotdeportation.org/sanctuary-report-2018.html (accessed November 11, 2018).