Immigration debate not abstract topic for award-winning art student
Some students approaching graduation may be worried about their job prospects or concerned about their living arrangements post-commencement. Camila Pasquel was afraid she could be deported.
“It is a very scary thing,” Camila said. “It is always in the back of my head.”
Camila, a sculpture major in Illinois State’s School of Art, immigrated with her family to the United States from Ecuador when she was 9 years old. She hasn’t returned to her native country or seen her other relatives in 13 years.
After high school, she became covered under President Barack Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This policy allows children brought illegally to the country to stay in the U.S. and grants them permission to work for a renewable period of two years.
President Donald Trump’s administration attempted to eliminate DACA in 2017. However, the policy has remained in effect while opponents and supporters of the policy wage legal battles across the country. It was within this context that Camila sought to renew her DACA status, which was set to expire two weeks before commencement on May 11.
Earlier this semester, and at a cost of several hundred dollars, her application was approved.
Despite the shadow cast by the DACA process, Camila has persevered and thrived at Illinois State. Last month, she received the Marshall Dullaney Pitcher Award at the opening reception of the Student Annual exhibition. The award is given to an outstanding undergraduate and graduate student in the School of Art.
“It was such an honor,” Camila said. “It was validation for all the hard work I’ve put in.”
Even finding the time to work on her art during college has been a challenge. Due to her immigrant status, she could not qualify for financial aid. Therefore, she has relied on scholarships, assistance from her family, and working multiple jobs to get by.
“Literally, any penny went to school,” she said. “I couldn’t have made it without the support of these scholarships.”
Her mentors in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program, Professor Tyler Lotz and Associate Professor Andreas Fischer, have been critical to her success. Camila volunteered as a studio assistant for Lotz’s wife, ceramicist Erin Furimsky, last summer and thanked the couple for helping her grow as an artist and talking to her about life outside school.
“Camila has always demonstrated an uncommon ambition and a fearless attitude toward making (art),” Lotz said. “From working at University Galleries to volunteering a few days to help my wife in her studio, Camila seems to have made the most out of her group of supporters and mentors. She has a bright future, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.”
Camila has also worked closely with Kendra Paitz, director and chief curator at University Galleries. Illinois State’s premier arts venue was a major reason Camila came to the University in the first place. “Kendra is so invested in art and social justice, and these are so intertwined with my practice,” Camila said.
For the Student Annual, University Galleries donated a room to Camila’s clay sculpture series ‘Other’. She calls the works ceramic creatures: “They deal with a conversation of immigration and me feeling like other.”
University Galleries displayed Camila’s self-made pillows in a separate room. They are piled onto a platform, and visitors can put on gloves and handle the works. On the cases, she knitted messages related to her background, such as “Immigrants look like me.”
Camila’s art reflects a self-identity split between her immersion in English-speaking American culture and her background in Spanish-speaking Ecuador. “I have two sides of my brain,” she said. “I can be American Camila and I can be Hispanic Camila.”
Unlike her older sister and her parents, Camila speaks English with an American accent. She quickly adapted to the U.S., living in the Chicago area. For a long time, she was reluctant to speak Spanish at home or embrace her heritage. While she did not experience bigotry, she noticed that her parents were sometimes treated poorly when they went out in public.
Camila’s family shared their story at a public event, called “Our Immigration Story,” held April 27 at University Galleries. In between tears and laughter, the family of five told stories of their struggles as immigrants and the joys of living in America.
Her mother, Mariela Salazar, had wanted to live in the U.S. ever since she visited the country as a teenager. “I fell in love with the United States,” she said. “That’s where my dream started.”
She and her husband, Jorge Pasquel, spoke about the economic opportunities offered in the U.S. and the diversity and generosity of the American people. “Why come to America?” Jorge asked. “Because America is the most wonderful country in the world.”
Camila organized the event because she wanted people to see that this is what an immigrant family looks like. She plans to continue these discussions beyond her story and with many other immigrant families.
“I want to erase the stereotype that Trump so often skews in saying immigrants are drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. I would argue the vast majority of immigrants (including undocumented immigrants) are teachers, students, degree-earners, social workers, neighbors, and friends of many. So I advocate for immigrants and try my best to behave in a way that exemplifies an example citizen, in hopes of creating an accurate picture of the positive impact immigrants have in the U.S.”
Camila is active in the Christian ministry group Encounter, and says her faith has been key to everything in her life. After graduation, she plans to pursue her art career full time.
“My goal is to help the community, to help the people. I want to make a difference.”
She knows the United States has afforded her a career path that likely would not have been possible in Ecuador. But here’s the question: Will her new country allow her to pursue that opportunity here?
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.