On a mild Friday evening in early January the U.S.-Mexico border stretched north to Portland’s Congress Street.

At the Union of Maine Visual Artists Gallery, visitors slowly moved through photographs of migrant children camped at the border; children’s drawings that a Catholic priest retrieved from a dumpster; confiscated makeshift water canteens wrapped in torn fragments of clothing tied to a thick rope; 20 black-and-white images of ghostly figures behind a wire fence; a small group of tiny paper houses placed on rocks above the Rio Grande.

Dover-Foxcroft artist and University of Maine professor Susan Smith created much of the art and curated this haunting exhibition, “Witness/ art at the border,” on display through Jan. 31.

People paused at each work, contemplating what they saw and felt. While the southern border is over 2,000 miles away, its presence was palpable. As a writer, I decided to record people’s responses in my pocket notebook.

“It’s heartbreaking. This crisis was intentionally created,” Jacqueline Moss of Portland told me.

“Being Jewish, these remind me of concentration camps,” she said, referring to the images and objects on exhibit. “Really, I’ve never been so scared as I am since 2016.”

Ruby, a Taiwanese immigrant who’s lived in the central Maine town of Ripley for 12 years, was pensive. She thinks Ripley is a good place; it has become home. But anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence naturally disturb her. Like Moss, she’s concerned for her future. She told me she became a citizen three years ago, “as soon as (President) Trump was elected.”

In one corner of the room, 2-quart bottles serving as canteens insulated with torn pieces of clothing were tied to a rope suspended from the ceiling and coiled on the floor. Biddeford artist Andy Chulyk articulated the thoughts of many native-born citizens: “They (Central Americans) are desperate to get their children into this country, to get away from violence and poverty. They hope for a better life and are met with wire fences and police enforcement. And confiscating canteens of water? It’s as if they are being denied access to life.”

Susan Smith, “The Passage: mourning cloth.” Smith made this piece hand-stitched fabric piece for performance at site of Paso del Norte International Bridge. Photo courtesy of Susan Smith

Meanwhile, outside on Congress Street, immigrants, perhaps from Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo or Burundi, headed toward Monument Square. They were dressed for winter. Borders can be cold, I thought.

Nivea Bona was looking in through the gallery window. Behind it lay crumbling blocks of molded border soil and debris, created by Smith. A sock was embedded in one block. Bona is Brazilian and now lives a half-hour north of Portland; in a lowered voice, she stated simply, “It’s against human rights.”

Back in the gallery, I met Asheesh Lanba. A mechanical engineering professor at the University of Southern Maine, he lives in Westbrook, and his father, from New Delhi, India, accompanied him. “This show is a light exposing a crisis in this country. As an immigrant myself, it provokes strong emotions.” Lanba’s father drifted away. “The crisis flashes in the news, but these works of art allow it to register longer and deeper,” his son continued.

Eighteen-year-old Koko, who lives in Portland, listened attentively to Smith speak of her border experience. I approached Koko and asked if she might comment. She demurred at first. Then she allowed, “I was in high school in California when the first news of the border situation hit. One of my classmates suddenly broke down crying, afraid that her parents would be deported.”

I couldn’t help thinking of Portland’s immigrant communities. Portland is home to over 10,000 foreign-born residents, representing 80 nationalities. A third of Maine’s adult immigrants have at least a college degree. They add $1.2 billion annually to the Portland-area economy. Without them, the city and state would suffer significant cultural and economic losses.

As I turned to leave, I recalled seeing the MAINER Project, a wheat-pasted series of portraits by the street artist Pigeon, in Portland’s West End, not far from a Congress Street bodega that sells tortillas, chicharron and other Mexican foods. Above the faces of people representing diverse ethnicities, religions and skin color, a question hovered: “What does a Mainer look like?”


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