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Artist-attorney takes creative approach to informing immigrants of their rights

Artist-attorney takes creative approach to informing immigrants of their rights

Alumna Carolina Rubio-MacWright helps would-be Americans.

October 15, 2019 at 12:01pm

By Amanda McCorquodale l Artwork by Carolina Rubio-MacWright

The first thing one notices about the art studio is how open and sun-filled it is, with floor-to-ceiling windows allowing the light to fall over shelves of ceramic works in progress. In the central workspace, women of all ages bend over tables, focused but happily chatting as they fashion clay into pinch pots, figurines and religious crosses.

That openness has a downside, however, as Carolina Rubio-MacWright ’03 has concluded. “There have been eight ICE raids in the community in the last three weeks alone,” says the immigration lawyer and artist who organizes pottery workshops for undocumented immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. “It’s occurred to me that these classes could eventually be targeted.” 

An immigrant herself

Rubio-MacWright was 19 when she fled her native Colombia in 2001 for South Florida. At the time, the country was in the midst of a decades-long civil war that would end years later with more than 200,000 dead, some 25,000 disappeared and 5.7 million displaced. “I had to leave because my personal safety was at risk,” says the alumna, who felt her outspokenness put her in particular danger. “In Colombia, there was always a feeling of imminent threat. I didn’t feel free to be curious, make eye contact or take the same bus route too often. My actions were fueled by fear.”

A fine arts major at FIU, Rubio-MacWright created art informed by that conflict. Her piece “How Much is Enough?” won her a student award and attention from local media. For that work, she cut a section from her hair and attached 13 feet of paper printed with the images of Colombian kidnapping victims.

“I wanted to convey the feeling of weight, that I should be helping these people but I’ve let them down,” explains Rubio-MacWright, who says she was still processing the guilt of leaving her homeland while others remained in danger.

Her art would evolve to help her not only move forward from her personal experience but try to effect positive change in the world. She created 632 clay medallions imprinted with the faces of those kidnapped between 1999 and 2002. In a piece of performance art at a Miami gallery, Rubio-MacWright gave away the medallions to audience members and passersby in what she viewed as a counter-action to the political kidnappings, a way of setting free the memories and spirits of the oppressed and murdered.

The justice-seeking nature of her work, and the passion she brought to it, left a strong impression on the late Geoffrey Olsen, then a professor and director within FIU’s visual arts program. He urged Rubio-MacWright to go on to the study of law, something she had begun in Colombia before migrating to the United States. “He was a wonderful mentor and an amazing conceptual artist who really understood what I was trying to do,” Rubio- MacWright says.

With that encouragement, she completed a law degree from Oklahoma City University, after which she interned at the Texas Civil Rights Project and Oklahoma County public defender’s office. She returned briefly to practice in Miami before moving to Brooklyn, New York, with her husband in 2010.

Teaching rights through art

Then three years ago, Rubio-MacWright alighted on a project that would meld her two passions—art and law—while serving
 an important and growing need in her community. She approached the owner
of Bklyn Clay with the idea to offer free “Know Your Rights” workshops to the local immigrant population. “We were looking for a way to give back,” owner Jennifer Waverek says in acknowledging the ethnically diverse area her arts studio serves. “Then Carolina walked in the door with this idea, and it was just perfect,” continues Waverek, who provides Rubio-MacWright not only creative space and use of a kiln but all needed supplies and materials. “It’s been amazing to have this in the studio.”

The workshop brings together female immigrants to instruct them in ceramics making while educating them about their rights. “I wanted to focus on women,” says Rubio-MacWright, who has children ages 8 and 5, “because I quickly learned as a young mom that when mothers are doing okay, the children will be okay too.” 

For some, simply creating something by hand becomes therapeutic.

Maribel immigrated to the United States from Mexico 17 years ago and learned of 
the workshop from a flyer posted at her church. “To be honest, at first I just wanted to make art,” says the woman as she uses 
a potter’s wheel to form a vase, her little
 girl entertaining herself with a block of clay nearby. The activity might have served as nothing more than a small escape from everyday matters—mother and daughter engaged in individual creative pursuits—if the stakes were not so high. “But I also wanted to learn about immigration rights for myself,” Maribel continues, “and to help everyone around me.”

Whether speaking to the group as a whole or moving around the studio to address individual concerns, Rubio-MacWright tackles the tough questions. She dispels rumors and misconceptions about current immigration policy. She shows examples 
of legally enforceable and unenforceable warrants. She addresses what to do if detained. She distributes laminated cards with suggestions on how to proceed if approached by an immigration official and what to say. (It all starts with “Hello, Officer.”)

Rubio-MacWright says that discussions about asserting one’s rights have evolved to cover much more than just immigration. One regular workshop attendee grew emboldened enough to leave her abusive husband. When another said she wanted 
to ask her boss for a raise,
 Rubio-MacWright and the rest of
the group participated in a mock conversation to help the woman 
practice for the interaction.

“When she did ask for the raise, the boss got abusive and she ended up calling the police on him,” Rubio-MacWright says. “That’s how I know the workshops are making a difference. Typically, these women would be too scared to call authorities for help.”

So much to be done

“I’m guided by a fight for freedom,” says Rubio-MacWright, who knows firsthand
 what it’s like to have anxiety dictate your everyday actions, “and you can’t feel free when you’re living in constant fear.” Recent changes in immigration policy have made those concerns more pressing, including
 the Department of Homeland Security’s announcement in July that it would carry out an executive order to expand “expedited removal” of certain noncitizens. For those who attend the workshop, many of whom have lived in the United States for a decade or more, the likelihood that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent would knock on their door has become much more probable.

Rubio-MacWright conducts similar ceramics workshops for families that have experienced domestic abuse (offering opportunity for self-reflection while building self-worth and educating on immigrant, human and parental rights) and has plans for still another to help immigrant parents of children with special needs navigate available services.

She’s forming a nonprofit with hopes of replicating these workshops across the country. “Art has the power to really touch people,” says Rubio-MacWright. “Art can bring hard subject matters to light in a beautiful way.”

Rubio-MacWright also organizes trips several times a year to the Texas-Mexico border and brings along 10 other attorneys to provide legal help to dozens of families. As with many of Rubio-MacWright’s projects, the outreach has had a ripple effect. “Attorneys I’ve brought to work at the border who didn’t even have immigration backgrounds are now taking full-time jobs helping asylum seekers,” she says.

Helping to raise that kind of infrastructure in support of the needy is huge, she explains. “For me, if you don’t feel like you have a place at the table,” Rubio-MacWright says, “you don’t just build a new table—you build a new house.”

The heavy lifting includes the launch this fall of “In Conversation,” a series of gatherings that bring together people from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds—newcomers as well as lifelong American citizens—to engage and learn from one another. For example, she plans to hold a session during which indigenous people from Latin America teach Brooklynites a craft representative of their country, a recognition that “people’s shared humanity can shine through art, which has the power to equalize differences and heal.”

Rubio-MacWright plans to bring the same to cities in Oklahoma and Florida, states in which she has lived and where she knows of the great divisions that often exist within communities. She’d also like to organize cooking events 
in which food-delivery workers, who are typically immigrants, can interact with the city office workers who most often place food orders. The idea is to have them spend an evening creating and sharing a new dish together—another opportunity for people to find commonalities.

“I’m constantly looking for that perfect moment,” Rubio-MacWright says, “where someone can see themselves reflected in another and recognize that we’re not that different from each other.”