Architecture student highlights immigrants’ experiences in senior art exhibition

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Selena Hernandez, graduate student in architecture, stands in her senior art installation project. (Rebecca Vrbas | Collegian Media Group)

If you’ve been on campus recently, you might notice a new addition to the landscape by Hale Library.

Selena Hernandez, graduate student in architecture, decided to design her senior art installation project to draw attention to the experience of those who risk everything to cross the border into the U.S.

“I knew I wanted to do a sensitive topic that isn’t really spoken about on campus, which is like immigration, and then specifically with the crossing of the Rio Grande,” she said.

Hernandez said the initial inspiration for the project came from her father’s experience immigrating when he was 15, carrying his brother over a mile across the river. However, she also expanded the project to include a broader experience.

“Instead of focusing on the specific crossing, it was more of me putting myself in the experience and trying to understand how to find balance in an environment that is inherently unbalanced,” she said.

(Rebecca Vrbas | Collegian Media Group)
"Aquí Estamos De Pie," the title of the project, translates to "Here We Stand." (Rebecca Vrbas | Collegian Media Group)

The 10 silhouettes are constructed of medium-density fibreboard with a message in either English or Spanish, and spray painted to give a metallic appearance. A rope suspended by stakes divides them, representing the boundary they struggle to navigate.

“Each kind of shows how like your body is fighting the current trying to get across to the other side,” Hernandez said. “Each silhouette has a different quote based on the personal testimony of immigrants who have crossed the Rio Grande. And it talks about their personal experiences, the people they’ve lost along the way and just how they’ve almost given up hope, but then they realize that they can’t go back.”

Each silhouette has a solar-powered light attached to the base to give the exhibition an extra dimension at night.

“They’re sensor lighting, so when people come up to them, the light is supposed to hit the silhouettes and that’s supposed to act as like a natural surveillance so that people won’t mess with them, or it also conveys the experience of immigrants crossing at night where they could be caught at any moment by border patrol,” Hernandez said.

While Hernandez said the project has been compared to a memorial, she’s trying to find the balance between memorializing the idea while also paying tribute to the thousands of people who have lost their lives while crossing.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand the severity of immigration issues in the United States, and I think it’s just because we aren’t confronted with it on a daily basis,” she said. “My goal for this project was just to first, put it in this location because I know there’s a lot of foot traffic around Hale … and give a space so people can come here and understand the subject on a more intimate level and just engage with it in their own way.”

The current display is a preview to see how the project works on the site, how people understand the project and how to strengthen it, she said. Before the project is due in November, Hernandez plans to continue to play with lights, introduce more color and add more information.

“Our goal was just to see how people I guess understand our projects and see how to strengthen those,” Hernandez said. “At first, I was kind of nervous because I didn’t think that a lot of people would get it at first, but I think I had portrayed it the way I wanted to and people have observed that, so that’s been pretty exciting.”

Hernandez said the project encouraged her to think intentionally about the details and message that goes into architecture.

“There’s a certain craft that goes into it,” she said. “Just making sure that structurally they can stand up on their own, how they meet the site, how it creates a dialogue with the landscape and with the people who engage in it.”

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My name is Rebecca Vrbas. I’m the culture editor at the Collegian and a junior in journalism and mass communications. My hobbies include obsessing over an ever-expanding pool of musicals and cats (not the musical). I love writing because of the infinite intricacy of language, as well as its power to cultivate a sense of community through sharing experiences.