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Students express hardships and triumphs of immigration at ‘Art Without Walls’

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Thirteen North Carolina high school students celebrated their culture, as well as shared challenges and triumphs pertaining to immigration, through the “Art Without Walls” event last week.

Through this event, community and higher education organizations developed a scholarship opportunity for students to use art as an outlet to portray their emotions and journey in a lasting, creative way.

In 2019, brothers of the Gamma Iota chapter of Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity, Inc. hosted their first “Art Without Walls” event. Aligned with the brotherhood’s service ideal, alum Nick Rios is credited with the idea for a program celebrating art and culture, while bringing awareness of the experience and hardships of immigration to a larger audience.

What began with the Lambdas supporting three high school students with showcasing their art in the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) library has since transitioned to be a community event. 

“This event is centered around art and art being a new medium to express one’s feelings… We combined that with just giving students a platform to talk,” said Ramon Sanchez, chapter president of Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity. “Immigration isn’t an easy topic and some people may find it easier to, instead of talking, to just kind of, portray how they’re feeling.”

Brothers of the Gamma Iota chapter of Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity. Derick Lee/EducationNC

Expanding the initiative

In conjunction with the fraternity and several student groups from UNCC, the third annual “Art Without Walls” was held on Oct. 14, hosted by the Latin American Chamber of Commerce Charlotte (LACCC). While the LACCC’s economic impact centers on the Latin American businesses in the Charlotte area, the organization accepted the invitation to expand the initiative. 

“One of the things that we do at the chamber is change the narrative,” Gris Bailey, president of Latin American Chamber of Commerce Charlotte, said. “So ‘Somos’: we are trying to show Charlotte that we are unique, that we are different, that we are special, that we are talented, that we are doctors, and we are lawyers, that we are students and we are a lot of things, right, not just immigrants.”

Debbie Ortega, Latin American Chamber of Commerce Charlotte Events & Programs Manager. Derick Lee/EducationNC

As LACCC’s events & programs manager, Debbie Ortega said they chose to participate with the hope of helping students feel empowered like they wished they were when they in school. Overall, the Chamber wanted to make students feel like they have a place in the community and that they belong.

On the day of the event, artwork from 13 N.C. high school students was displayed around the Collective Cafe. There was also a silent auction for the works.

Profits from the bids were distributed directly to the artists, along with a certificate and additional scholarships offered by the event organizers. 

Art worth more than money 

For organizers and participants, the experience meant more than just selling art. The audience heard from Brenda Sandavol, external vice president for the Latinx Student Union at UNCC. 

Latinx Student Union as UNCC. Derick Lee/EducationNC

Born to Salvadorian parents who immigrated to the United States, Brenda shared the challenges of being a first-generation student trying to transition to college. 

Tears formed as she shared about her sister, who she considers a second mom. Despite having immigrated as a child, October made nine months since her sister was forced to return to El Salvador as an adult. 

Art Without Walls
Brenda Sandavol, External Vice President for the Latinx Student Union at UNCC. 

In spite of the distance, Brenda said, “she’s still encouraging me to keep up with my dreams, to do what she couldn’t do, and that honestly is what’s pushing me to continue.” 

The heartfelt message resonated deeply with many. Among them was Melany Garcia Mercado, a student at Vernon Malone College and Career Academy and one of the contributing artists to the event.

Her artwork, titled “OUR Trail of Tears,” depicted hands reaching out through a wire fence; a representation of “immigrants being held in a detention center… where they separate children from their families when the majority of immigrants just want to live that ‘American Dream.’”

What the future holds

As a senior, chapter president Ramon Sanchez’s time at UNCC is nearing an end. However, he is optimistic “Art Without Walls” will continue to expand in the years to come. While the event initially targeted high school students in the Charlotte region, there are hopes to include students from throughout the state. 

Additionally, while the tradition has become a staple during Latinx Heritage Month, the impact of immigration extends beyond the Latinx community. The organizers envision “Art Without Walls” in the future to be a platform that elevates the creativity and narratives from an even more diverse set of artists. 

Look below to view the student artwork.

Derick Lee

Derick Lee is a regional storyteller for EdNC.