‘Lupita Murillo Tinnen: American DREAM’

These photos put a face on undocumented students without putting faces on them

Arts Review

'Lupita Murillo Tinnen: American DREAM'

Women & Their Work, 1710 Lavaca, 477-1064


Through Jan. 6

It's a real shame that the 41 United States senators who said "no" to the DREAM Act on Dec. 18 weren't forced to spend an hour with Lupita Murillo Tinnen's photographic portraits of college students before casting their votes. Perhaps seeing 16 young people whose lives could be truly transformed by the passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – looking at them up close in their bedrooms, absorbing their words that describe how hard they work, how much they've achieved, and what they aspire to be – would have persuaded these politicians to view the vote not just in the generalized terms of the immigration debate, where they can look tough to some protectionist base (I'm looking at you, Cornyn and Hutchison), but in terms of specific individuals who are hungry for and deserving of a shot at citizenship, who could be granted their own chance to succeed in what is supposed to be the Land of Opportunity.

The images show us that these young people are already Americans, as assimilated as can be. We see proof in the stuffed Eeyore on the shelf in Culinary Arts, age 10½; the Mickey Mouse pillowcase on the bed and Spider-Man posters above it in Culinary Arts/Sign Language, age 3; the elaborate homecoming mums adorning the wall in Undecided, age 2; the souvenir photo from Sea World in Business, age 14. (The photo titles refer to each subject's college major and the age at which each was brought to the U.S.) The rooms of these children of undocumented immigrants are not shrines to cultures beyond our borders; they are so rooted in American idols, rituals, and goods, they could belong to any kid in the land.

But Tinnen shows us much more than these students' absorption of our pop culture. She provides evidence of her subjects' efforts to become part of this country through their deeds, doing their best to better themselves and contribute to their new homeland. In Medals, an impressive clutch of awards hangs from one student's hand. In Mechanical Engineering, age 2, the subject's numerous certificates of merit are displayed. "I want to be able to help others," writes the subject of International Studies/Inter-American Studies, age 8 in text printed across the image. And the subject of Criminal Justice, age 15 writes, "I have been trying to make a difference." Aren't these the very citizens we want in this country, people of intelligence and drive, of social conscience and civic duty? Why would we not do everything we can to give these young women and men a secure place in our society, where they might be even more productive than they've been already?

I suppose if you consider the young people who could acquire legal status through the DREAM Act only in the abstract, as the faceless offspring of immigrants illegally taking advantage of our country's freedoms and opportunities, then you might be able to dismiss them all outright. But Tinnen doesn't allow us that luxury. She gives these anonymous figures individual histories, interests, accomplishments, hopes. She makes them personal. And she manages to put a face on them without putting faces on them. In each portrait, the subject's features are turned away from the camera or obscured by some object. Part of the purpose is protection, to safeguard the identities of these undocumented students, but the practice also conveys a sense of the insecurity of these students' lives, not being free to open themselves fully to the world, uncertain of their futures. We draw most of our sense of who they are from their surroundings, but as we see them more as individuals, we yearn to see all of them, to gaze upon their features and look into their eyes. But we can't.

Given her eye for telling detail, her sense of composition and color, and her ability to communicate mood, Tinnen's achingly pensive portraits would be well worth our attention even without the subject she's addressing. But the plight of her subjects, their legal status unresolved despite their best efforts, adds undeniably to their impact. These pictures hit hard. And given the political shifts in Congress and the recent failure of the Senate to pass the DREAM Act, they will likely retain their plaintive power, I'm sad to say, for some time to come.

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Lupita Murillo Tinnen: American DREAM, Women & Their Work, DREAM Act, immigration

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