In the shadow of the American flag there are many immigrants too scared to share their personal stories of struggle and success. There are many reasons immigrants are afraid to speak up, but there are people who are passionate about telling their stories in unique and safe ways. One of those storytellers is Iowa City artist Miriam Alarcón Avila, who found a special way to share immigrant stories from her community.
Although art always fascinated her, she did not pursue a career as an artist. With a degree in biology, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2000s when she moved to Iowa City that she decided it was time to pursue her lifelong dream of being an artist. “I was born with it,” she says of her fascination with art. She especially loves photography. “I’ve wanted to do this since I was a little girl.”
Alarcón Avila added that growing up in Mexico City, Mexico her mother did not have the means to buy her photo equipment. It wasn’t until her husband’s job moved them to Iowa City that she studied photography after getting a scholarship and a position in a photo lab.
After gaining some knowledge and armed with a camera in her hands, she began taking pictures of local musicians and was asked to participate in some projects around the city. After a while, she realized that among all the pictures she was taking, there was no representation of the Latino community in Iowa.
Being a Latina and an immigrant, she knew that her community had a wealth of stories to tell.
“I wanted to do a project that was mine. Our people are invisible. The Latino community of immigrants have no way to become visible. I wanted to use my art to document their stories.” That was the inspiration for her exhibit currently on display at the Des Moines Art Center.
Her vision was to photograph Latinos to share their stories. Unfortunately, she encountered a big problem. Many Latino immigrants were happy to share their stories, but they did not want to show their faces. They did not want to be recognized, for fear of consequences that could impact their safety in the United States.
It might seem an impossible task to take pictures of people who don’t want to be photographed but Alarcón Avila was determined. First, she tried blurring the faces but felt it robbed the photos of personality and relatability. They were less visually pleasing and not as interesting. One day the solution came to her. She remembered the famous wrestler El Santo, a Mexican luchador and actor. Even though he has been dead for nearly four decades, his films are still enjoyed by many people across Latin America and around the globe. She thought the people in her photos could be like El Santo, and wear luchador masks similar to the ones that Mexican professional wrestlers wear when they fight.
“Using wrestling masks was not only to cover their faces, but to also show their strength because they have an incredible desire to get ahead,” Alarcón Avila explained. The artist used her culture to create a distinctive method for documenting immigrant stories in a safe and empowering way. She believes that the luchador masks turn people into superheroes like El Santo, which is fitting because immigrant stories are those of overcoming incredible hardships and obstacles, just like superheroes. It helped people be more open and willing to share their stories freely when they wore the mask.
In 2017 she received a grant from the Iowa Arts Council, and she launched her own project called “Luchadores Immigrants of Iowa”. It has been five years in the making. Laura Burkhalter, curatorial manager of the Des Moines Art Center, was impressed by the project and chose Alarcón Avila as the Iowa Artist 2022 and the exhibit opened to the public on October 28. It will be on display at the Des Moines Art Center until January 15, 2023.
Alarcón Avila may have been educated as a biologist, but art feeds her soul. “I love biology. It gave me the capability to observe, investigate and analyze. At the end of the day, we are all humans. We have feelings and complexities that are hard to analyze, but art helps to touch souls. I am proud to represent people who look and talk like me, and show kids that look like mine, so they can see themselves in my work.”
Alarcón Avila invites everyone to check out her exhibit at the Des Moines Art Center at the Krause Atrium Lower Meier Galleries and Bookey Gallery. The Des Moines Art Center is located at 4700 Grand Avenue in Des Moines, Iowa. If you visit before November 14, you can also see the Day of the Dead ofrenda designed by Alarcón Avila and brought to life by her and a committee of volunteers who honor heroes like the luchadores captured by Alarcón Avila’s camera. The artist herself will be back Sunday November 13 for an “Artist Lecture + Exhibition Reception” from 1:30 PM to 4 PM. Miriam Alarcón Avila and curatorial manager Laura Burkhalter will talk about the artistic process, the significance of community making, the gifts of heritage, and leading creative acts in our time. Don’t miss this great opportunity to meet the artist and check out her exhibit and the Day of the Dead ofrenda designed by her. For more information about Alarcón Avila, please visit her website www.miriamalarconavila.com.