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Undocumented artist draws portraits of detainees at Miami immigrant detention center

Venezuelan artist José Álvarez (D.O.P.A.) spent two months at Krome, in South Miami.
23 Sep 2016 – 03:19 PM EDT
José Álvarez (D.O.P.A.) in front of his painting 'The Promised Land.' Crédito: David Maris/Univision

BOCA RATON, Florida.- When José Álvarez (D.O.P.A.) arrived at Krome in 2012, he fell into a depression. The artist, who’s originally from Venezuela, had been sent to the South Miami immigration detention center for identity theft.

"When I arrived at Krome, I slept for four days straight,” Álvarez says.

That’s when he met Julio, from Brazil.

"Julio started to bother me,” Alvarez remembers. “He said: ‘Get up. Don’t let the depression beat you. Who are you? What do you do?’”

Alvarez told Julio he was an artist. So Julio brought him a pen and paper and asked for a portrait. Then, another Brazilian detainee, Philip, asked for the same. And then came others: ‘El Pájaro,’ Adrián, Ricardo, Roberto.

And thus began a series that would turn into ' Krome,' a collection of 30 immigrant faces Alvarez drew with a ballpoint pen during his detention. An exhibit of the works opened Thursday at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, where the artist spoke to Univision News before presenting the works to a packed house.

Alvarez says the portraits help to eliminate an element of anonymity that many immigrants face in the United States, and to shine a light on their stories. Each portrait is accompanied by the immigrant’s name and country of origin, followed by a short paragraph describing a part of his life.

Patrik, a Gypsy, escaped from Hungary with his father after facing discrimination. Ronni had come from the Dominican Republic and missed his four children. Brahima, an African from the Ivory Coast, left a deep impression on Alvarez.

"Brahima slept for two months straight, so I asked him if I could draw him,” Alvarez says. “When I started, he began to cry and he said ‘You are seeing me. You see I’m a person, not just a number.’”

Only four of the ‘Krome’ drawings are displayed without accompanying descriptions. "They are what I call my ghosts. I don't know who they are. They were deported at the time I was drawing," says Alvarez. "And so they stayed that way."

One immigrant told Álvarez about riding 'La Bestia' (The Beast), the train used by Central American migrants traveling north. He saw someone fall off the train and lose his legs. "I said, 'It's incredible the things people have to go through simply because they have no choice,'" he says.

The artist, whose real name is Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga (which spells out his stage name), became José Álvarez when he came to the United States three decades ago. He says his exhibition serves to encourage others to hear immigrant stories and show empathy to new arrivals.

"We should listen to their stories," said Álvarez. "I'm not saying that everyone who comes here has no faults. But all I ask is that people put themselves in someone else's shoes. If your family is suffering and you can't provide for them, you're going to do whatever it takes to help them. What I ask for is compassion."

Irvin Lippman, executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art, says the new exhibition is powerful and authentic.

"The first time I saw these portraits, I understood that this was a very important collection that needed to be seen and discussed," he says. "The exhibition of these 30 portraits does a lot to humanize a group of men with stories to tell, and more importantly, explains how art as an experience saved José's life."

Standing outside the exhibition, Álvarez points out a huge, colorful painting that adorns the wall of the long corridor on the second floor of the museum. It's another one of his pieces, though very different from the black-and-white faces in the 'Krome' show.

"This is the first painting I did after leaving Krome," says Álvarez. "It's like a parallel universe where all these friendly creatures are. I called it 'The Promised Land.' That's what America means to me, and for all of them."

José Álvarez's 'Krome' exhibition will be on display at the Boca Raton Museum of Art from September 22, 2016, through January 8, 2017.

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