Peruvian Woman, oil on canvas, 30 x 24″

In 2004 I was wrapped in a period of genealogical research on my family and came across a photograph of my maternal grandfather, a sugar cane industry worker (we are Puerto Rican). I was struck by how much his gaze resembled that of the undocumented workers I had come to meet through my years in northern California. Yet when I photographed the laborers

tearing down our garage, I realized the expression I remembered from those photographs could no longer be found in casual photography. A professional photographer later told me that subjects had to endure about 15 minutes of stillness in those early days of photography. These long poses, I reasoned, were responsible for the sitters’ very true expressions.

Two years later I invited an undocumented laborer to pose for a formal portrait. Here I have to explain that until then I had associated formal portraiture with bank lobbies, museums, and commissions from those in positions of power. I didn’t consider the oils of friends and family I had made until then formal portraits, because they had all been completed in a period of hours, without any studies. This first portrait helped me understand it was the purpose and not the process, what would define a portrait as formal. With the goal of capturing the expression the workers shared with my maternal relatives, I painted more portraits, seeking the most basic and essential elements of their expression. I came up with a method that responded to the models’ needs. The workers were paid and treated like professional models. They were asked to sign a model release. They posed an average of six hours in one or two sessions; and got breaks, snacks, and lunch. The sessions were long because most of the sitters could not return for a second session, so I usually started and finished in one day. I promised not to reveal their identities, even though several wanted to share their real names. Some of

Man in a Black T-Shirt, 2008
Oil on canvas, 30 x 24″

the workers came by word of mouth, and others were recruited around San Pablo. Finding women sitters was especially difficult because they are more likely to travel by public transportation and often take care of children around the clock.

During the Great Recession the media paid increased attention to raids by the INS and to how San Francisco implements its sanctuary law. While it would be tempting to use this exhibit as a forum, it actually became a space where viewers could examine their assumptions about undocumented immigrants. Its first show was held at CompassPoint, a non-profit space, so that the commission that a commercial gallery would have charged for any sales could be donated to the Centro Legal de la Raza of Oakland.

Some of the models believed that this exhibit could increase their visibility in the present political climate. They are people unlikely to commission a painting. In a formal portrait, they are transported into a completely different class context. This juxtaposition is what ultimately persuades the viewer to confront the undocumented worker’s humanity and individuality.

Rebeca García-González,
June 2008

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I want to share the work of Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez, who painted undocumented workers during the Great Recession. Take a look at her work at http://www.garcia-gonzalez.com Thanks for reading!