By Saul Lopez, graduate assistant in the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion
A junior in the Klingler College of Arts & Sciences and a recipient of Marquette University’s Center for Peacemaking Fellowship, Johnny Irias Puerto can be found talking to the students floating around the second floor of the AMU on a September afternoon.
Puerto’s photographic exhibit, “We are Bright,” paints a picture of the complex issue that is immigration in the United States. Hanging in the second-floor lobby, 16 black-and-white pictures tell different stories, all with the same message: diversity is beautiful.
The photographs are from all over the country – Chicago, El Paso and Nogales. They show people in their everyday lives – in their kitchens, at their jobs and their communities – all in the hopes of revealing that these individuals aren’t just immigrants, but people too.
The exhibit was made possible thanks to the Center for Peacemaking Fellowship, which provides funding to undergraduate and graduate students to research and understand a social issue at a deeper level.
Puerto wanted to use his art to give voice to those who are often silenced. “I wanted to know what it was like to be an undocumented person, besides my own narrative,” he said.
His photography pays homage to the iconic images of the Civil Rights movement. By portraying his subjects in black-and-white, Puerto hopes to have people stop and think. As he states, “We’re so surrounded by color and media,” but in his work, one can see a depth and range of emotions – from a child raising his hand in solidarity with his people to a mechanic arduously working on his craft.
These stories aren’t only visual but are also narrated through audio recordings of interviews that Puerto conducted with a broad set of people, including Honduran asylum seekers and current college students who are here on DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Puerto admits that some of the interviews were tough to capture. He shared that one interviewee broke down and couldn’t talk anymore. For a lot of subjects, the memories are painful – a reminder of all they sacrificed for a “fair shot” here in this country. But these stories also speak to the hope many immigrants have in their children, and their desire to see them succeed both in school and in life.
The stories that Puerto captured both through his microphone and lens say, “I am undocumented, but I still have the same hopes, aspirations (as anyone else).”
Some of the subjects from the exhibit are Puerto’s own family members. “Photographing my family was so hard, because I know them for who they are,” he acknowledged. This vulnerability shines through in his exhibit.
The truth of Puerto’s work can be seen and heard in the people he captured through his art — behind their eyes, through their tears and in their voices. Those singular images and voices tell a story so old, yet still so relevant: “Being different is not a problem; being treated differently is.”