‘Separated Families’ paints immigrant family stories right on Philly streets [photos]


Is a mural still a mural if it’s not on a wall? Michelle Angela Ortiz thinks so. She likes the idea that people can literally step on her images as they walk through public squares.

For he past months, she has been painting stories of Mexican and Central American families around Philadelphia in the places were they live, work and interact with authorities.  It’s called “Separated Families,” and it’s part of the city’s Mural Arts project Open Source.

The cycle will be being completed Monday with a statement from one immigrant, painted right on the street in front of the ICE building at 16th and Callowhill. It’s here where Immigration and Customs Enforcement decides who will be deported.

“We are human beings risking our lives for our families and our future,” states the message.

“My intention as an artist,” said Ortiz, “most importantly is to present an image that sparks dialogue that gets people thinking, that creates awareness, consciousness about these issues that we begin to want to know more, to see the mother in Maria and not just a number and statistic.”

Ortiz starts her graphic narrative with an enormous compass painted on City Hall’s courtyard. Iin the center of it is a portrait of Maria and her daughter. It’s the first of a series of five murals that map the lives of families pulled apart by deportations.

Each mural centers on one particular story. Maria’s is adorned with the words from a letter from her deported husband.  “Eres mi todo,” he wrote. “You are my everything.”

The compass “serves as a metaphor of looking for a new direction, trying to find a new life … and what happens when a loved one has been deported,” said Ortiz.

Maria’s husband was captured twice crossing the border; he’s serving a three-year sentence for that crime.

In LOVE Park, a painting of an enormous gold necklace adorns the walkways. It was a present from Suyapa’s oldest daughter whom she left behind in Honduras. It was a painful decision crossing the border with only her two young daughters to remove them from the daily violence in her country. Some people back there try to tell her eldest daughter that her mother gave up on her.

“She talks about in her story not only what happens to love when you leave or are forced to leave, but she talks about her own journey,” said Ortiz, discussing Suyapa’s story. “Being caught at the border in Texas and what she saw in these detention centers.”

Ortiz is a visual narrator and each work in this project is also meant to be seen from a distance captured from above, as an aerial view.

Since she started painting in her characteristic realistic portraiture, most of her murals have illustrated the richness of immigrant cultures, as well as the fears and hopes of immigrant life. What worries her the most now are the journeys of families separated by deportation.

To understand the trauma of the journey, you just have to look at the recent rivers of migrants into  Europe escaping repression. Or, Ortiz says, you have to put yourself in the migrant’s place.

“Think about one day and having to leave everything you know, everything you love, leaving behind a child that’s four months old and not seeing her in maybe 10, 16 years, and the amount of sacrifice and risking your life to cross because there’s no other way,” Ortiz says.

Michelle Angela Ortiz’s five street murals “Separated Families” will remain in place until rain or the traffic of cars and people eventually erases them. She hopes the stories they illustrate will linger on.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal