It would probably take all of your fingers and toes and several of those of your friends and neighbors to count all the negative effects and events that are the direct result of HB56. The strictest anti-illegal immigration law in the United States, the Hammon-Beason Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act has inspired rancor, engendered resentment, codified racism, overwhelmed law enforcement, hindered provision of public health services, obstructed equitable public education, retarded economic development and generally proved suck-o for a variety of citizens, legal and otherwise, interested in working, worshipping, eating or sleeping under a roof in Alabama. And yet some good has come of it, too. The positive repercussions are fewer in number, but maybe equally meaningful. One of them is the emergent sense of solidarity among opponents of the law, forming alliances that transcend race, religion and economic class. Another is original artwork — thoughtful verbal and visual expressions borne out reaction to HB56.
“I was looking around for something I could do, as a creative person, as a response to this terrible law,” says Todd Duren, professor of graphic design at Spring Hill in Mobile, Ala. “It carried so many negatives — there were families being broken apart, people losing jobs, losing businesses, even losing their homes. I knew I wouldn’t be able to change the law. All I knew for sure that I could do was put a human face on this immigration issue.”
The way he decided to do that was to create Becoming Visible, a blog that features original watercolor portraits of people whose lives have been affected by the law. Each portrait is paired with a brief first-person narrative from its subject. The effect is that you hear the voices of the people depicted. A Hispanic bakery owner in Russellville, whose business has fallen by 60 percent. A wife and mother who has lived for 16 years in Oneonta, whose friends are fleeing the state out of fear. A 13-year-old boy in Foley, Ala., despairing at his father’s despair as business tanks at their family-run market and butcher shop.
“Becoming Visible is a response from Alabama citizens to a law we believe is bringing back Jim Crow,” it says on the front page of the website. “Here we put a human face on the issue by telling real immigrant stories.”
An Alabama native who had spent most of his adult life in Tennessee, Duren moved back to his home state about 18 months ago, to take a tenure-track job at Spring Hill.
“I moved to Mobile looking forward to beaches, Mardi Gras and warm weather,” Duren says. “Then when HB56 law was passed, all I could think was that Alabama had taken a big step backwards. I have two young children. When you have a family and relocate, it’s not a decision that affects just one person.
“When this law passed, I talked to my children about it and they were concerned,” Duren says. “They had Hispanic friends. [At their previous school in Tennessee] they had a Spanish teacher — they didn’t know it, but this was a woman who had escaped from El Salvador because of terrorism. Her daily life involved murder and death squads, but she came to this country in order to get away from that and start a new life.
“We have friends and acquaintances who this affects profoundly,” Duren says. “I think of Mobile as an international city. It’s a port city, which naturally leads to a diverse population. We have foreign countries like Thyssenkrupp and others, which have made serious investments in the state economy. This law jeopardizes that.
“I think the state is beginning to have a real sense of buyer’s remorse about this law,” Duren says. But more than a political crisis, it’s a human crisis. That’s what I’ve wanted to show.”
Since starting the project in November 2011, Duren has created more than 30 paintings. He works with simple media — pencils, watercolors, cardboard.
“I use salt-of-the-earth materials that anybody would have access to,” he says.
But it was web technology that led him to use the minimalist art supplies. Before he began building the website, he was exploring the Internet to find the look that he wanted and discovered a WordPress theme called Revolt Basic created by the artist Nenad Katic. The template showed a human figure wearing a sandwich-board sign. Because the design was fully customizable, the head of the person holding the sign could be changed as well as the message on the signboard.
“It was about as human as a website could get,” Duren says. He contacted the designer to discuss the project, and Katic said Becoming Visible was exactly the kind of thing he had in mind when he created the theme. (On his website, Katic describes it as “a theme for the revolted community.”)
Looking at the website, it’d be easy to get a romanticized idea about Duren as a roving artist-cum-documentarian, as if he were wandering the streets of South Alabama, interviewing Hispanic immigrants while sketching their faces.
“It looks so homemade that it’s easy to get that impression,” he says. “In fact, I’m spending a lot of time on the Internet.”
Duren seeks out and reads dozens of stories about HB56 from a variety of news outlets. Whenever he finds an individual whose story moves him, he begins to render a portrait of that person — sometimes writing first, sometimes drawing first but always concluding with painting, then posting the finished product to the blog. He has taken poetic license a few times, but only to translate anecdotes into first-person singular monologues. Overall he sticks to the facts.
“I’m creating a point of view the way a fiction writer would,” he says. “The difference is that I find quotes that are already out there, and I link to the original articles so that people can fact-check me.”
He creates most of these portraits while sitting at his kitchen table. By using and appropriating existing images and stories, Duren is working within accepted ethical standards for bloggers, but he worried about whether he might have endangered these people further by putting their stories out there.
“However, I have been careful to choose people who had already been in the media, who had put themselves out there and in many cases used their first and last names and had their pictures taken.”
The uber-modern methodology notwithstanding, it’s the simplicity of the finished product that gives the site its primitive power. Simply put, stories plus pictures equal emotional impact. The equation has worked ever since painters in the Paleolithic period were using cave walls as canvases.
“Thousands of people have left Alabama because of this law,” Duren says. “That’s thousands of people no longer working, no longer contributing to our economy, no longer a part of our communities. But there are thousands still here, and whatever happens with this law, each one has a story.”
Duren says it’s impossible for him to select a particular portrait as a favorite, but he mentions a few that are particularly meaningful to him. First, there was Robert, the owner of Margarita’s restaurant in Foley, Ala.
“His restaurant was named for his wife,” Duren says. “He closed his business not long after the law passed and not because of his legal status but because his customers and employees were disappearing. That’s jobs lost, taxes lost.”
Then there was Angelita, an undocumented immigrant working as an oyster shucker in Foley. “She has a child who is on the honor roll at school, but she reached the point where she was nervous, terrified even, about driving her kids to school because of the risk of getting pulled over. It’s a right that has been addressed by the Supreme Court of the United States that the children of immigrants — regardless of the parents’ immigration status — are entitled to education.” In Duren’s personification-portrait of Angelita, she says, “I could be pulled over by the police and detained. But I went anyway because my children need a good education and their teachers care about them… All I want is for my children to study here and to get a good career. I want them to do something easier than shucking oysters.”
Finally, there was a child in Montgomery called Ana Paulina. She had few memories of her native Mexico, except for one day when she was playing outside and there was shooting all around her and bullet casings all over the ground in the area where she and her friends played. Her family left behind that violent landscape to start a new life in Alabama’s state capital. She offered a recent memory: “Last year in school we had a cultural festival where all the students from different countries were showing everyone about their culture. It was a happy day and nobody asked if you were illegal or not. Now with this new law I’m afraid that will change.”
Another subject who Duren found particularly inspiring was Cineo Gonzales, a Birmingham cab driver whose young daughter had suffered racial profiling at her school.
“He was so fearless to speak out,” Duren says. “And right in front of his cab, no less. There was the real possibility that what he said could directly impact his livelihood but he did it anyway. And his face just jumped off the computer screen for me.”
Duren explains that he launched Becoming Visible in order to document the stories of illegal immigrants — people who were isolated not only because of language and culture but also because of their legal status. After the law went into effect, more and more stories began to emerge from immigrants who were legal citizens whose lives were being affected by HB56.
“Finally, I started including non-immigrants — one of the extraordinary things about this law is the advocates who have emerged — because their stories were such an important part of the larger story,” he says. His portrait subjects in this last category — non-immigrants, many of whom were already working to shrink or obliterate the isolation experienced in immigrant communities — include an immigration attorney, a U.S. Congressman (Luis Gutierrez), a federal judge (U.W. Clemon) and a Birmingham-based social justice advocate (Scott Douglas).
“I don’t consider myself a portrait painter at all, but this process — the practice of it — has been so satisfying,” Duren says. “When I’m working, I’m thinking about the shadows on their faces, and the colors and shadings I should use, but mostly I’m thinking about their stories.”
“Becoming Visible: Watercolor portraits in response to HB56” will be on display in the Rotunda Gallery at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., from Feb. 23-March 23.
You can view all of the portraits online and learn more about the project by visiting www.becomingvisible.org.