Finding Sanctuary in Art

In this series commissioned by Catherine S. Ramírez and A. Naomi Paik, contributors examine the legacy of the Immigration Act of 1924 and the simultaneous launching of the Border Patrol, which, together, inaugurated the most restrictive era of US immigration history until our own.
A single mural in San Francisco’s Mission District honors Latinx victims of police violence both at the US border and in US cities.

What do refugees and migrants seek? I ask this question amid the ongoing crackdown at the US border, a crackdown that appears to be unceasing and indefinite. Migrants and refugees share commonalities in their pursuit of new lives. Their journeys are often fraught with risk and uncertainty, encompassing dangers along migration routes, potential encounters with law enforcement, and uncertain futures. Ultimately, their common thread is a desire for safety, whether seeking better opportunities or refuge from specific threats or persecution in their home countries. What they seek is a space for refuge, a place for safety: sanctuary.

In this article, I contemplate how a single mural honors Latinx victims of police violence both at the US border and in US cities. In so doing, this mural invites viewers to learn about the past, while contextualizing their narratives. Taken together, this mural—Alto al Fuego en La Misión, which translates to “Ceasefire in the Mission” (figure 1)—demonstrates the pivotal role that art activism plays in healing and in fostering future potentialities.

The mural is situated in San Francisco’s Mission District.1An area with a longstanding Latinx presence since the 1960s, the Mission District was the destination of many Central American migrants arriving in the 1970s who were fleeing civil wars fueled by US involvement. This influx led to the emergence of the sanctuary movement, which offered religious and political refuge to Central American refugees amid legal hurdles. The movement expanded into a network across major US cities, with San Francisco, after years of providing sanctuary to migrants, declaring itself a “sanctuary city” in 1989. A sanctuary city in the United States refers to a municipality that has adopted policies that limit cooperation with the national government’s effort to enforce immigration law. These policies can include not detaining individuals solely based on their immigration status and not allowing municipal funds or resources to be used to enforce federal immigration laws. The aim is often to increase trust between the immigrant community and local law enforcement.

Four decades later, Central American migration into the United States persists. Current migration is predominantly driven by economic factors, gang violence, limited opportunities, and a lack of employment prospects, much of which can be attributed to the destabilization resulting from the past civil wars in Central America. Between 2012 and 2014, waves of unaccompanied Central American minors entered the United States via Mexico; in 2017, another surge of Central American caravans arrived at the border and continues to persist to the present day.

Above the intersection of Capp Street and 24th Street—dubbed the heart of the Mission District—Alto al Fuego en La Misión rises prominently along the second and third stories of a three-story building. Visible from the street below, the mural combines diverse elements visually depicting an altar, or ofrenda, dedicated to the residents of the Mission District.

An “ofrenda” altar in Mexico is a tribute created during Día de los Muertos to honor deceased loved ones. Adorned with symbolic items like photographs, favorite foods, and marigold flowers, such altars serve as a space for families to remember and pay respects to the departed.

Similarly, Alto al Fuego en La Misión visually represents an altar filled with elements such as candles, portraits of the deceased, and flowers: marigolds, calla lilies, and roses. All this makes the mural into an altar, into an offering to honor Latinx victims of police and state violence. Simultaneously, Alto al Fuego en La Misión offers a fresh perspective on the changing dynamics and challenges within a sanctuary city.

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“Sanctuary” has consistently represented a radical potential, according to sanctuary scholars, even though political agendas and government systems often hinder this potential.2 As a form of “visual sanctuary” for the Latinx community, Alto al Fuego en La Misión serves as the concept of sanctuary, but, crucially, as the function as well. Aesthetic contemplation and intellectual engagement focus on this mural, inviting observers to delve into complex dialogues surrounding identity, diaspora, and historical memory.

The mural, then, becomes a dynamic platform for dialogue and communal reflection. It beckons individuals to witness art and actively engage in a transformative narrative that transcends the visual, inviting them to contemplate the intricacies of identity, history, and social justice within the urban landscape.

Figure 1. Alto al Fuego en La Misión, initiated by the Justice4Amilcar Coalition and Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth (HOMEY) with Carla Wojczuk, Lucia Ippolito, Cristian Munoz, Adrianna Adams, Pancho Peskador, Anna Lisa Escobedo, and Flavia Mora (2019).

Even though San Francisco is a sanctuary city, many Central American and Latinx migrants who seek refuge there are victimized by local law enforcement upon arrival. The mural highlights the tension between sanctuary and police violence by centering on the tragic killing of Amilcar Perez-Lopez, a 20-year-old immigrant of Ch’orti’ Mayan descent from Guatemala, who was fatally shot by plainclothes police in the Mission District in 2015.

At the age of 17, Perez-Lopez immigrated to the United States alone. Across San Francisco, he undertook a series of jobs in construction sites and restaurants. Since he was the sole individual from his family to make this journey, Perez-Lopez played a crucial role as the primary breadwinner for his family, diligently sending back remittances earned through his labor in the United States to his loved ones in Guatemala. This narrative resonates with numerous migrants, irrespective of their cultural background, who also send remittance payments to support their families back home.

Just a few years after his arrival, Perez-Lopez was shot 15 feet from his home by plainclothes San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) officers. Initially, the police reported that Perez-Lopez had attempted to steal a bicycle and then had threatened officers with a knife, prompting them to open fire. Six weeks later, however, the autopsy report undermined the police version; it revealed that Perez-Lopez was shot six times in the back, arm, and head, suggesting that he was fleeing from police when shot.

The right-hand panel of the mural prominently displays the Perez-Lopez family holding a sign in Spanish that reads, “The Perez Lopez Family demands an explanation for the murder of our son, killed on 02/26/2015 by the San Francisco police.” Despite living in Guatemala, the seven-member Perez-Lopez family took a photograph with this poster, which was then posted on the justice4amilcar.org website and disseminated through news outlets. The muralists opted to honor this photograph by embedding it within the mural. This depiction deepens the cross-border conversation surrounding the Perez-Lopez family’s pursuit of justice, with the image clearly portrayed on the mural for all to witness.

Figure 2. Section of Alto al fuego en La Misión with a portrait of Amilcar Lopez-Perez’s family.

This mural embodies both a transnational and local issues, continuing the tradition of globally conscious murals in the Mission District. The title of Alto al Fuego en La Misión draws inspiration from Juana Alicia’s 1988 mural Alto al Fuego, which was painted at the intersection of Mission Street and 22nd Street, which called for a “ceasefire” in the Central American civil wars to protect the youth and children from violence (figure 3).

At the center of Alto al Fuego en La Misión, Lopez-Perez is depicted against a retablo backdrop (figure 4), echoing the thematic and visual motifs of Alicia’s 1988 mural. Here in the contemporary mural, however, instead of the military firearms first depicted by Alicia, now the handguns resemble those carried by police officers and bear the insignias of the SFPD. This visual shift connects historical torment—faced by Central Americans due to violence from civil wars and death squads armed with military assault rifles—with the present challenges experienced by Central American and Latinx migrant communities in the Mission District. In calling for a “ceasefire in the Mission,” the mural calls for an end to the violence occurring in the Mission District but also acknowledges the previous murals that sought to end violence in Central American, Alicia’s Alto al Fuego.

Figure 3. Juana Alicia’s Alto al Fuego mural (1998), renovated in 2002. Located on Mission and 21st Streets, no longer extant.

 

Figure 4. Section of Alto al Fuego en La Misión with portrait of Amilcar-Lopez that references Juana Alicia’s Alto al Fuego mural (1988).

Alto al Fuego en La Misión also functions as a tribute to victims of violence along the US-Mexico border; the lower section of the mural showcases sepia-toned candles embellished with portraits of Latinxs. This homage mirrors the tradition of candles adorned with saints, commonly associated with Catholic devotional practices, where lighting a candle signifies reverence for a specific saint or serves as a form of intercessory prayer. These portraits represent individuals who lost their lives while attempting to cross the US-Mexico border, as well as local individuals who were victims to lethal incidents involving the SFPD (figure 5).

Among these, one candle surrounded by calla lilies depicts a portrait of Roxana Hernández, a transgender woman who was part of a caravan of Central American migrants who died in ICE custody in 2018. Next to her in the upper-left corner, another candle pays tribute to Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a Guatemalan woman whom a US Border Patrol agent fatally shot after crossing the border near Rio Bravo, Texas. Another candle honors Óscar and Valeria Martínez Ramírez, a father and his nearly two-year-old daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande attempting to migrate from El Salvador. The mural also honors other victims killed by the SFPD: Mario Woods, Alex Nieto, Luis Gongora Pat, and Jesus Adolfo Delgado.

Figure 5. Section of Alto al fuego en La Misión with portraits of the deceased at the US Mexico Border.

The San Francisco Bay Area sanctuary movement has a rich heritage critical to considering the Mission District’s artists, who have fostered a lively tradition of mural art protesting US intervention in Central America. In many respects, Alto al Fuego en La Misión continues the radical tradition of mural activism, echoing the commitment to support Central American immigrants and their struggles in the Mission District.

In this sense, murals offer visual sanctuary amid the city’s failure to protect migrants who sought refuge in the city’s changing dynamics and gentrification. Alto al Fuego en La Misión goes beyond the confines of San Francisco’s Mission District, emerging as a proclamation supporting justice for Latinx and migrant rights advocates. 

When migrant members of the community are denied justice within the legal system, they seek solace and recognition through memorials, art, and culture, transforming these spaces into sanctuaries. Here, the marginalized can find refuge, their narratives remembered and revered for all to see––embodying the essence of sanctuary. icon

This article is part of a series commissioned by Catherine S. Ramírez and A. Naomi Paik on the border crisis 100 years after the Immigration Act of 1924.

  1. This mural project was initiated by the Justice4Amilcar Coalition and Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth (HOMEY), a youth organization, with Carla Wojczuk facilitating the project and with muralists Lucia Ippolito, Cristian Munoz, Adrianna Adams, Pancho Peskador, Anna Lisa Escobedo, and Flavia Mora.
  2. Karma R Chávez, “Sanctuary, Fugitivity, and Insurgent Models of Migrant Justice,” Departures in critical qualitative research 9.1 (2020): 89–94.
Featured-image photograph: Alto al Fuego en La Misión, initiated by the Justice4Amilcar Coalition and Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth (HOMEY) with Carla Wojczuk, Lucia Ippolito, Cristian Munoz, Adrianna Adams, Pancho Peskador, Anna Lisa Escobedo, and Flavia Mora (2019).