I made the long drive from New Jersey to Miami with college mortarboard tassels dancing from the rearview mirror, eagerly awaiting my adulthood. When I-95 ended, I pulled into a left turn lane and heard a hard slam on a car horn, demanding me to move on. It startled me, but as far as my welcome to Miami went, that’s as bad as it got.
Jose Alvarez moved to Fort Lauderdale from his native Venezuela by way of a student visa. As a gay man in Caracas, he’d been harassed by the police. They pointed a gun at his head and said they would arrest him. Living in fear for his safety, Alvarez fled to South Florida, where he attended art school in Fort Lauderdale, met his partner and became a successful artist.
A few years later, he was arrested anyway. See, he was not really Jose Alvarez. He was (and is) David Orangel Peña Arteaga, an immigrant with an expired visa who took on a false identity, so he was imprisoned for two months at Krome Detention Center.
Correction: He was detained. According to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Krome’s captives are not prisoners. They are administrative detainees. Nonetheless, their circumstances resemble those of high-security penitentiaries. They are held against their will under 24-hour surveillance, searched frequently and are denied the guarantee of legal counsel.
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And as far as their welcome to South Florida went, that’s really as bad as it got.
But while Jose Alvarez was detained, he stumbled upon a story. He was asked by fellow inmate to sketch his portrait, and then he has asked by another and another and another. He learned about men who risked their lives to reach the U.S. Many were smuggled by coyotes — cartels that charge high prices for border passage and leverage unspeakable violence for debts. Others were sons who searched in fields for deflated soccer balls to turn into shoes; men who stepped over dead bodies in the desert; husbands who left behind pregnant wives, harassed by political extortionists; fathers who labored to send money back to their families.
Today, 30 of Alvarez’s portraits are on exhibit at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. At first glance, the ballpoint pen drawings look like police composite sketches. But there’s more to them. Alvarez, who now goes by Jose Alvarez D.O.P.A., has shaded souls into his work.
These men, who are missing the identity of a country along with their basic rights, carry their stories in the slacks of their eyes and the shadows of their jawlines. Stare into their faces and you will see bottomless poverty, gang violence, guerrilla warfare, systemic suffering.
These portraits, in their museum frames, quietly present narratives that acknowledge sacrifice. Yet however honored they are on museum walls, they are nonetheless encased in glass. Some have disappeared, deported before Alvarez could finish the portrait. He calls these men the ghosts.
Meeting each man eye to eye, as you catch your reflection in the glass it’s not difficult to imagine how you could be him if you were brave enough or scared enough to risk everything to run some place new.
Before leaving the museum, you can also make a pit stop at the lobby, where one of Alvarez’s larger-than-life paintings takes up 30 feet of space. Splashy psychedelic colors and playful images of plants and flowers frolic frivolously on the mural.
Take a selfie and a moment to appreciate the contrast. Sometimes it takes a day at the museum to realize that things are never black and white; there is more than one side to every story. And that is as good as it gets.
Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.)
Sept. 22, 2016–Jan. 8, 2017
Boca Raton Museum of Art