Paola de la Calle (b.1992), a Columbian-American artist, grew up with her family in the Mission District of San Francisco. Her artistic talent was recognized early, and she entered the New York Foundation of the Arts Immigrant Artist Program: “We connect artists with services and resources to foster their creative careers, gain support and exposure for their work, and integrate into the cultural world of New York and beyond while upholding their distinct identities.” (IAP on-line) She graduated from IAP in 2019. In her multi disciplined work she explores themes of family, migration, childhood memories, borders, nostalgia, food, politics, and justice. She is now an artist in residence at the Galeria de la Raza, a non-profit organization in San Francisco that promotes Latinx art and culture.
Paola da le Calle is one of the promising new artists who is creating significant Latinx art. Through her residency at Galeria de la Raza, she became the lead artist in the 2021 Caravan for the Children Campaign. She contributed five quilts to bring recognition of former President Trump’s separation of children from their parents at the border. “How Many More” (2021) (9’x14’) depicts a mound of turquoise backpacks with bright pink straps, colors that children would pick. Popping out of the backpacks are teddy bears, stuffed elephants, monarch butterflies, and worry dolls. The presence of teddy bears and stuffed elephants represents the few precious things children can manage to bring with them from their homelands.
The monarch butterflies and worry dolls appear in several of de la Calle’s quilts and other works of art. Monarch butterflies are the most recognizable and most tracked butterflies in the world. Millions of monarchs migrate 3,000 miles from northeast America, their fall breeding ground, to central Mexico where they hibernate for the winter. Their journey reflects in reverse the journey of Latin people across the southern border for refuge in the United States. Monarch butterflies represent strength, endurance, and freedom, all attributes required for their journey north.
Worry dolls (trouble dolls) originated in the legend of a Mayan princess who received the gift from the sun god to solve any problem a human can worry about. Worry dolls are hand-made and originate in Guatemala. Children place them under their pillows at night, and by morning they have received the knowledge necessary for dealing with their worries. Paola de la Calle also incorporates worry dolls into her works. Text in Spanish is embroidered on the quilt: “Justice and freedom run intertwined like roots, older than the borders, and more resistant than the weapon of the suppresser.”
“Uncage/Libera” (2021) (9’x14’) places the image against a blue sky. Clasped hands support a cluster of white flowers; the centers are six small gold picture frames with children’s portraits inside. Olive branches extend from some of the frames. Above the flowers is a larger gold picture frame with a mother holding up her baby. Large butterfly wings complete this image. A Spanish saying is woven around the bottom of this image: “That our branches of olive repair the cage of oppression and delay.”
The lower half of the quilt is covered with the image of a barbed wire fence. Two silhouetted hands grab the wire, while two monarch butterflies fly above the hands. A second Spanish statement is included: “I know that here are people walking with children in their arms with their feet broken with degeneration and hope.”
“Reunify/Reunificar” (2021) (9’x14’) features an old blue suitcase with a plastic toy house on top. Beneath the suitcase are dozens of green poblano peppers, the most popular mild pepper that comes from Puebla, Mexico. Below the peppers are the clasped hands perhaps of a mother and her child who wears a blue sweater. A monarch butterfly sits upon the child’s arm. Between the clasped hands is a child’s drawing. Above the house a Luna moth spreads its wings. Rarely seen by humans because they fly at night, Luna moths symbolize new beginnings and heightened awareness as they see the light of a new day. On either side of the moth’s wings are embroidered words. Unfortunately, they are too small to translate.
Above the barbed wire at the bottom of the quilt is embroidered writing: “Remember that our beginnings are infinite, laughter, dark soft baby cheeks, sunrise over the horizon, and uncle’s smile as he shucks corn, to remember that beauty is a seed as well, and decomposing flesh fertilizes flowers after half-a-dozen days in the hot sun.” (punctuation added)
Healing was a subject de la Calle believed was missing from the mission of Uncage and Reunify: “I think art sometimes does what words can’t. And the call here is to take these children out of cages and reunite them with their families. I think there is a missing step here, and that is the step of healing. These children are facing a lot of trauma.” The “Heal/Senar” (2021) (9’x14’) quilt contains some of her usual symbolic messages: a cactus, a worry doll, and monarch butterflies. In addition, she has added soil, water, and a map of North and South America. The child’s hands reaching to the sky are presumably those of a little girl, this time identified by the open pink ballerina music box containing a few mementos. The cactus is balanced by a dark gray image of the raised hand of the Statue of Liberty, holding her torch to light the way to liberty.
Three kites soar high into the sky, their tails containing additional embroidered messages too small to read in the picture. The statement at the right side of the quilt can be read: ‘If the arch of history bends towards justice, entonces, quero volar como una aquila, stitch a quilt full of colorful faces, affix it round my neck, wear it like a cape and swoop around batallando la injusticia, so I can fly like an aquila battling injustice.” An Aquila is a golden eagle.
“Victorius/Vencenermos” (2021) (9’x14’) depicts a hoped-for reunification of mothers and their children. At the center of the composition are two sets of clasped hands, a mother and child reach from the top and bottom, the north and south, and are reunited. Their hands are placed on top of a child’s drawing of the fence they were kept behind. Two very green, tall cacti call attention to the border of photographs of families walking together and hugging. Hopefully, they are being reunited. The large banner across the top announces the purpose of the Caravan for the Children Campaign. At the bottom of the quilt is a pyramid of brightly colored children’s shoes.
The embroidered inscription is in both English and Spanish: “We will be the new covenant of this earth, wind harvest of tears and seeds, rain washing shame with mercy, fire inviting the promise of death, new life some and become victorious.”
The Caravan for the Children Campaign began on January 1, 2021, with a caravan of cars through San Francisco. De la Calle organized several events that highlighted immigrant poets, storytellers, and advocates of the campaign. The quilts include the poems of ten Central American poets, who according to de la Calle “offer different perspectives on resistance, liberation, and home. Some of them imagine different futures, some of them imagine different gifts. It was important to me that these voices shined and informed the images that were created for the quilts because this isn’t something a single person can have a full perspective on. It’s about community, it’s about uniting people to work together to request the reunification and the healing of these children.”
The making of quilts was inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt that was placed in 1987 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Caravan went to San Diego where de la Calle and Caravan members hosted music and poetry events at the border. On May 1, 2021, the 100th day of the Biden Administration, the quilts were unveiled on the National Mall in Washington, DC, for the May Day Immigration Justice March.
October is Hispanic Heritage Month. Paolo de la Calle, a young Hispanic artist, is a strong voice for the Latinx community.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.