Iowa Arts Council
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Iowa Arts Council

Iowa City photographer Miriam Alarcon Avila is recruiting Latino immigrants of all ages to create and model Mexican wrestling masks for a new series of portraits. (Photo: Miriam Alarcon Avila)

Portrait Project Aims Lens at New Iowans

Miriam Alarcon Avila stood with a clipboard at the edge of the boisterous Latino Heritage Festival a few weeks ago in downtown Des Moines. She wore a green T-shirt studded with rhinestones that spelled El Santo, or the Saint, the name of her favorite character from the rock ’em, sock ’em world of Mexican wrestling.

Her mission: To recruit people for a portrait project about Iowa’s Latino immigrants, including those without visas. She plans to photograph them in wrestling masks not only to conceal their identities but also to portray them as superheroes struggling against forces beyond their control.

“They have to get out of violence, out of poverty. Sometimes they have to leave behind their kids — their babies — to get to a safe place here in Iowa,” she said. “They’re up against everything.”

She wants to share their stories with a wider audience, so she borrowed inspiration from Mexican wrestlers, or luchadores, and called the project “Luchadores Immigrants of Iowa.” She won a grant from the Iowa Arts Council to display the portraits next year at Hancher Auditorium and, with luck, at galleries across the state.

Miriam Alarcon Avila, as herself and disguised as her wrestling hero, El Santo.

An immigrant herself, Alarcon Avila grew up in Mexico City and was 14 years old in 1985 when a magnitude-8.1 earthquake toppled countless buildings and killed more than 10,000 people, including many of her friends. It struck on Sept. 19 — exactly 32 years before the magnitude-7.1 earthquake that shook the same area last month.

The latest rumble crushed her mother’s home but spared her life.

“You’re never the same” after something like that, Alarcon Avila said. “Life means more. You really want to help people.”

She wanted to help by telling people’s stories. She remembers walking through the wreckage in 1985 and seeing a glass building that somehow had remained standing even though its windows reflected rubble all around.

“I wanted a camera in my hands,” she recalled. “I wanted to document that.”

She took up photography and hoped to pursue a career in art, but her family disagreed. She studied science instead and married a marine biologist, who landed a job at the University of Iowa to study fossilized corals — the “coral” in Coralville.

The young couple arrived in Iowa on a cold Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2002 and settled into life in Iowa City. Their math-whiz daughter was a valedictorian this May at Clear Creek Amana High School and is now at UI, and their son plays trumpet in the high school band. Alarcon Avila works at the New Pioneer Food Co-op in Coralville and shoots photos for Hancher Auditorium.

In 2014, Avila Alarcon produced a video portrait series of U.S. military veterans and posed each one standing still in a public spot while the rest of the world walked on by.

It was “striking and beautiful, resulting in increased focus on the recorded story and asking the viewer to really see the person,” according to a letter former Hancher staffer Jacob Yarrow wrote to the Iowa Arts Council in support of the new project.

Avila Alarcon and her husband divorced a while back. He moved back to Mexico, but she decided to stay — for the kids but also for own dream to become a full-fledged artist.

“To be an artist in the U.S. is hard, but in Mexico? No way,” she said.

The new project has given her a boost of confidence.

“It could sound crazy, but sometimes inside, I tell myself that my desire to give voice to others, to this vision I have, is perhaps the reason why I’m here,” she said.

Three young Latinos made their own wrestling masks for the portrait series “Luchadores Immigrants in Iowa.” (Photo: Miriam Alarcon Avila)

More than 180,000 Latinos live in Iowa, marking a six-fold increase since 1990. The group is expected to grow to almost 450,000 in the next 30 years, widening the Latino slice of the state’s total population from 5.7 percent to 13 percent, according to Woods and Poole Economics, a data firm in Washington, D.C.

But many Latinos still face discrimination, Alarcon Avila said. Headlines about the president’s plans to build a border wall and crack down on so-called “Dreamers” (those who benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) don’t make matters easier.

After awhile, “you create a shield,” she said. “You tell yourself, ‘I don’t care.’ But that shield creates a wall, a mental wall, that makes it hard when organizations and cities are trying to work at inclusion.”

A lot of Latinos “don’t want to speak out,” she added. “They just work and go back to their houses. They don’t enjoy all the beautiful art and culture that is here in Iowa.”

Andrea Wilson met the artist earlier this year at an Iowa Arts Council grant-writing workshop and has lent her support to the project. Wilson runs the Iowa Writers’ House, an Iowa City nonprofit, and is developing a worksheet to prompt the photo subjects to tell their stories in their own words, in poetry or prose. Volunteers will translate the results into English or Spanish for display in the exhibit and a short book.

“When they’re paired up, words and visuals can tell a really powerful story,” she said. “We don’t want any lack of confidence in language or the written word to stop those stories from getting told.”

Wilson grew up in Columbus Junction, where nearly half of the population is Latino, and is inspired by Alarcon Avila’s vision.

“In a way, she is living the story of every good American,” Wilson said. “She looked around and said, ‘This country has helped create opportunities for me, and now I want to use my talents and abilities to help others.’ ”

A young artist creates a mask for the new portrait project. (Photo: Miriam Alarcon Avila)

Back at the festival in Des Moines, dancers in white blouses and ruffled skirts kicked up their heels for a mid-day crowd. Taco vendors filled the air with smoke and the smell of grilled peppers. The whole atmosphere was bright and lively.

But Alarcon Avila, clipboard in hand, worried about the folks who didn’t show up to the party. She has friends who flew back to Mexico to visit family but couldn’t return for weeks or months to the United States.

“Anything can collapse at any moment,” she said.

If she had started her project five years ago, it wouldn’t have been the same, she said, “but the pieces were moving in the right direction. If there was ever a time to hear these stories, the time is now.”

— Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources. iowaculture.gov