What message does this bouquet of flowers convey? There are the yellow and purple bursts of daisies, a gentle puff of baby’s breath, a single red rose and a handful of lilies, some in full bloom, others still cocooned within their buds.
They could be saying, “I love you,” “Congratulations,” “I’m sorry I puked in your car.” Or they could be saying something else entirely.
These flowers have likely come a long way to be assembled into this vibrant collection. The United States imports the vast majority of its fresh-cut flowers every year from places like Colombia, Ecuador, the Netherlands and Canada. That bouquet you pick up at the grocery store or corner market is the product of international trade agreements and intercontinental flights, a beautiful traveler ferried overseas on planes packed with blooms.
“Flowers are immigrants as well,” says artist Lizania Cruz. And they can tell many stories.
Based in New York City, Cruz looked at the carnations and tulips for sale around her and started to wonder about the bodega workers who assembled the bouquets. When she spoke with them, she learned many were undocumented immigrants who had come from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, crossing into the United States by foot.
Every day New Yorkers used their flowers to send thoughts of love, appreciation and apology. Cruz saw an opportunity to use a symbol of empathy to give the flower workers a chance to speak for themselves.
So Cruz started Flowers for Immigration, a project in which she asked undocumented flower workers to make bouquets for Donald Trump. Viviana, who put together the arrangement of daisies and lilies, has lived in the U.S. for 21 years since leaving her home of Puebla, Mexico, and crossing the border on foot.
She imagined her bouquet being placed on Trump’s tomb. “Las lilas las usan en los funerales,” she told Cruz. “Lilies are used for funerals.”
Miguel used a chile pepper to show that he was Mexican, as well as marigolds, the traditional flower of Day of the Dead. He picked flowers already withering and wilting, because he didn’t want to send the President anything fresh.
Arturo used all white blossoms to let Trump know that “I’m here in peace and I’m just trying to support my family,” Cruz relayed.
“It was interesting to hear their commentaries,” Cruz says. “These people don’t get to go to a march and protest because they’re in jeopardy, so I was interested in how their voices could be expressed.”
The artist photographed the individual components of each bouquet and then the assembled piece, posting the images alongside short vignettes about each person’s journey to the United States and what they hoped to communicate to the President.
For Cruz, the project—and much of her other work—is focused on communicating less heard narratives around immigration, moving past the black and white debate over status and legality “to show creative ways to approach our stories and show what our identities are about.”
And for Cruz, it’s personal. The “socially engaged artist,” is originally from the Dominican Republic. “I’m an immigrant, and I’ve been trying to grapple with the sense of belonging,” she says. “I was just back in the DR and I felt so strange, because I felt like I didn’t belong there. Through my artist practice, I’ve been trying to understand what [immigrant identity] means to myself and also what it means to others.”
Her next project dives deeper into that question. Expected to debut in May, We the News is an immigrant-centered newsstand focused on telling the stories of black immigrants through handmade zines. Some explore personal journeys and individual thoughts on race, identity and culture; others are based on “story circles,” conversations between people on topics like staying in America to give children more opportunity.
“Right now we have a very singular narrative around immigration. How do you show all of the different perspectives around the issue?” Cruz asks.
Her answer is through art that challenges the audience to question their assumptions and see the world from a stranger’s perspective.
“That’s the only way to create change,” Cruz says. So that’s exactly what she’s doing.
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