‘No guacamole for immigrant haters’: Artist Jose Torres-Tama

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Photo by Ben Thompson
-- Jose Torres-Tama in costume for one of his performance art pieces dealing with anti-immigration sentiment.

Artist mixes laughter, rage in shadow boxes

José Torres-Tama is clamoring for attention. Not just for himself but for a group of people he calls “ubiquitous but invisible.” And, through his artistic talent, he’s getting it.

Torres-Tama, whose one-man exhibit, “Photos Retablos: Immigrants in Chocolate City,” opened earlier this month, has been documenting the plight of the thousands of Latin American immigrant laborers who came to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and have been a key factor in the city’s rebuilding efforts.

A multidisciplinary artist whose works have been exhibited locally, nationally and internationally and whose performance art shows have been widely acclaimed, Torres-Tama has captured emotionally gripping images ‑- both still and video -- of Hispanic day laborers and their families demonstrating for justice and fair treatment.

A naturalized American citizen born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1961, Torres-Tama came to the United States at age 7. The widespread xenophobia regarding Latino immigration hits home with him, especially as Latino immigrants are dying in federal custody. Armed only with his digital camera, he set about documenting the demonstrations of the Congress of Day Laborers on Poydras Street, adjacent to the office of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in July 2010.

A week earlier an immigrant laborer named Jose Nelson Reyes-Zelaya died in ICE custody. The agency reported that he committed suicide, attributing his death to asphyxiation, but that explanation was doubted by the demonstrators.

Other allegations of police brutality were recorded by Torres-Tama, including a beating that reportedly put a Honduran man in a coma for two months at a New Orleans area hospital.

Torres-Tama’s most poignant photographs, in black and white and color, capture the emotions of the demonstrators who are holding up protest signs demanding answers to Zelaya’s death and the deaths of other immigrants in federal custody.

Other protestors carry large crucifixes while children hold flowers.

The photographic images are framed within discarded dresser drawers (retablos or shadow boxes) that Torres-Tama found on the street and restored.

The drawer bottoms become the backing for the photos. In each retablo is a working seconds-hand from a clock, representing, as Torres-Tama describes it, “the beating heart of the immigrant laborer.”

A Renaissance man with exhibits of fine art to his credit, along with published books, critically acclaimed performance art and now an accomplished photographer and videographer, Torres-Tama is both outraged and saddened by the immigrant laborers’ dilemma.

“I am trying to bring attention to the plight and the challenges that many Latino immigrants have faced since the storm and remind people that our city has been rebuilt by thousands of Latino laborers,” he said. “The lack of reporting on the mysterious death of another immigrant worker in New Orleans is testament to how meaningless immigrant lives are to the general public here and across the country.”

In his live performance art shows, Torres-Tama makes the same points with humor in the form of satire.

Dressed as an “alien,” he gets into character for his show titled “Aliens, Immigrants and Other Evildoers.” Recently closing a weeklong run of his show at the Shadowbox Theatre in the Faubourg Marigny, he asks the question, “Since the Pilgrims arrived without papers, why were they not deported?

“I satirize the idea of the immigrant as an alien -- an extraterrestrial,” Torres-Tama said. “It can be very dramatic and very funny. I think humor can be used to emphasize the point I’m making: There’s no guacamole for immigrant haters.”

Jose Torres-Tama’s “Photos Retablos” collection is on exhibit at his home gallery, 1329 St. Roch Ave., through January 2013. An open house will be held Saturday, Dec. 22, from noon to 5 p.m. Call (504) 232-2968, email jose@torrestama.com or visit his website, www.torrestama.com.