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Missouri Artist Explores Mexican Heritage, Immigration Through Paper And Paintings

Fidencio Fifield-Perez’s art details moments in time. He uses paintings and paper cuttings that reflect his early life in Oaxaca, Mexico, his childhood in North Carolina, and his struggle as a young adult who applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

The Obama administration program gave temporary relief to young adults who entered the United States without authorization as children and have grown up in this country.
Fifield-Perez works on art in Columbia, Missouri, but his affinity for using cuts of paper began as a child. Now, he uses those techniques to pay homage to Oaxacan traditions and as a commentary on the current state of immigration.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Chad Davis spoke with the artist, whose exhibit "Little Cuttings" will be on display at the Craft Alliance Center of Art and Design through Oct. 27.

Chad Davis: What was the switch that got you really interested and wanting to pursue arts?

Fidencio Fifield-Perez: It’s funny, I was never actually into art; it was other people seeing it. Some of the first times that I really saw what it could do was in second grade with my teachers Ms. Burtt and Ms. Ward. I came into the classroom not knowing any English, and one of them bought me my first coloring book, and because of that the third grade teacher knew that I was good at art, and then the fourth grade and the fifth grade [teachers]. I could see a physical line that leads to me sitting in this room, and it goes back to just a teacher believing in a student regardless of where they were coming from.

Davis: How do we get to where you are now? Were there any roadblocks?

Fifield-Perez: I had this paper that said that I graduated, that I had done this task that took four years, but yet I couldn’t actually work or use that diploma. And so by happenstance, that same summer that I was graduating, Obama enacted DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Luckily because my mom had saved every single postcard of me doing art, every newspaper clipping, every report card, etcetera, we had physical proof of me going back 20 years of being in this country. And so I qualified for DACA, and I took that and immediately just drove straight to Iowa City, where I did my master's.

Davis: You have a series of works called “Dacaments.” Could you talk a little bit about “Dacaments” and what that is in your own words?

Fifield-Perez: That’s a series that came out of the condition which was to apply for DACA every two years. Once you apply, it’s great, but you have to reapply less than two years afterwards, so it’s something that you have to do over and over, and I’ve done it four or five times at this point.

What they ask is that you again show all the proof of where you’ve been living, what you’ve been doing, how much money you’ve been making, etc., since the last time you applied. All of that was most representative in all these envelopes that I get, all this correspondence from the government, envelopes going back and forth. And so I took all those envelopes and started to paint plants that for me represent home, plants that I have been given by partners, by professors, by curators, by family — and for me, those plants say so much more than what any of the applications could get at or try to get at. There’s multiple layers of metaphors I think that goes back and forth to why I painted plants on those.

A collection of art pieces included in Fidencio Fifield-Perez's Dacament series. He said the Craft Alliance exhibit will include a Dacament piece. August 29,2019
Credit Fidencio Fifield-Perez
A collection of art pieces included in Fidencio Fifield-Perez's "Dacaments" series.

Davis: What are some of the other things that you’re going to have at your Craft Alliance exhibit?

Fifield-Perez: The things that I’m most excited to show at Craft Alliance are paper cuttings, really large paper cuttings that for me allude back to growing up and learning the skill that's traditionally Oaxacan or Mexican. And I’d like to give you just like snapshots of what I think are conditions that someone that is undocumented sort of knows or understands. I’ve always been aware of how we as a society talk about those people. Quote-unquote, a flood, a surge, a wave, an influx — all these ways of talking about them as if they’re not humans, instead a literal disaster coming in. And so as someone that embodied that condition, I would always look at those words and internalize them, and some of the pieces in the show I think sort of reflect those, what that disaster looks like, like taking some of those cues and saying if you’re going to describe someone as a surge, then I’m going to give you a wave that is suspended in a cut-up map.

Davis: How do you balance that political stance while also saying, 'Hey, this isn’t all that I want people to be focused on'?

Fifield-Perez: For me, I’m already making work that I think is not about immigration. But it’s hard to get away, I realize, because my body is so politicized. The fact that I have a studio depends on DACA, and DACA is always being debated. So the stuff that I’m making in there, even if I don’t want it to be associated with those topics by nature, is.

Davis: What are some of those family traditions that you put into your work?

Fifield-Perez: I think it’s so funny, but people sometimes don’t realize that I’m also very queer and I’m married, I have a husband. And I say that because growing up, I found nothing more exciting than making flowers out of paper with my girl cousins, and so we would do these things — we would fold paper, cut it up, make even bigger hearts or things that opened up. That’s where my affinity with paper really came. You could take something that was ephemeral, cheap almost, and by folding it and having your hands go over it, you could turn it into something that was valuable and “beautiful.” I like to think that a lot of these pieces are doing that, they’re taking envelopes that are thrown away, most likely maps that are discarded once they have fulfilled their jobs, or paper that someone is going to throw out or just like hold.

Davis: What’s next for you then?

Fifield-Perez: What I want to do is just have the ability to work in a studio and have a job or travel, have an ID without the fear of always thinking that that ability is going to be quickly removed because of some argument or whoever’s in power.

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.