Meet Jose Alvarez. Or as he’ll tell you when you’re introduced:
“My name is Jose Alvarez, D.O.P.A.”
D.O.P.A. isn't a fancy degree. It stands for his real name: David Orangel Peña Arteaga. This is about Alvarez's art. But it’s mostly about how that art has humanized undocumented immigrants at the Krome Detention Center, at a time when immigrants are being politically demonized.
In 1984, Peña was a young gay man living in Caracas, Venezuela – facing constant homophobic harassment from police. One night they threatened to jail him. Or worse.
“They had the guns pointed at my forehead,” he recalls. “And the guy said, ‘You must be practicing homosexuality.’ I was just frantic, and I said, ‘I must leave. I really must leave.’”
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Peña left for Fort Lauderdale on a student visa and enrolled in art school. Then the visa expired.
“I was really terrified of going back,” he says.
Someone offered him false U.S. identity papers – with the name Jose Alvarez – so he could stay.
“Finally I decided to do it,” he says, “as what I thought was a temporary situation.”
It turned out to be permanent. The artist who was now Jose Alvarez made a name for himself in galleries from Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach – and a life for himself here with his partner Randi.
That is, until U.S. immigration agents finally discovered his true identity in 2011 – and showed up at his door in Plantation. Alvarez was locked up in the Krome Detention Center on Miami’s western outskirts. He curled up in a fetal position and hoped his lawyer would get him out pronto.
Something else more important happened.
“There was a Brazilian guy, Julio,” Alvarez remembers. “He said, ‘What do you do?’ And I said, ‘I am an artist.’ So he ran to his bunk and took a pen and said, ‘Why don’t you draw me?’ I did it quick, you know, to get rid of him.”
But the portrait of Julio so impressed other detainees that they asked Alvarez to sketch them. And as he drew, he listened to their stories.
“Amazing, heartbreaking stories of all the really harrowing situations they go through in order to come to this country, to escape persecution, poverty, you name it,” says Alvarez. “As I was listening I got more involved in being truthful to their likeness and to their journey.”
If his pen ran out of ink, the men smuggled him another from the law library. When Alvarez’s detention at Krome ended two months later, he had dozens of striking, often haunting portraits under his arm – mostly Latin American and African detainees. And their stories.
Alvarez eventually showed the sketches to the directors of the Boca Raton Museum of Art. They were already fans of his work and quickly recognized the importance of the portraits.
“Normally in portraiture the subject is a rich or famous person,” says Kathleen Goncharov, the museum’s contemporary art curator. “He has given equal opportunity to these people who are voiceless.”
On Thursday, the Boca Raton museum begins an exhibit of 30 of Alvarez’s portraits, titled: “Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A), Krome.”
You do find yourself looking at ways the faces of the undocumented immigrants match – or add meaning to – the stories behind them. There’s 34-year-old Ricardo from Cuernavaca, Mexico...
“…who told me about crossing the U.S.-Mexico desert and seeing dead people, blue and stiff bodies all over the desert…”
…or 49-year-old Roberto, an illiterate Maya Indian from Guatemala who crossed that same desert – and sent life-changing cash back to his family.
“Without knowing how to read or write,” says Alvarez, “he became a master crane operator – and he put his kids through medical school.”
As Alvarez and I scanned his sketches, I remarked on the care he took in drawing their eyes, which are striking.
“Yes. A lot of them have that gaze,” he said. “A quiet desperation, I guess. Waiting to see what was going to be their fate.”
Some of them were deported before Alvarez could finish their portraits. But above all, he wants us to meet undocumented immigrants. Because, face it, few of us have.
“Presently there is a lot of negative media toward immigrants,” says Vicki Rosenthal, a fellow at the Peace, Justice and Human Rights Initiative at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, which is promoting the exhibit.
“What Jose’s presenting is a way to change the conversation.”
Says Alvarez: “They’re not coming here to do harm. So I feel that I needed to erase this anonymity. You cannot think of them anymore as a number, but as Ricardo or Julio. They become people.”
Spending two months as one of those people helped Alvarez better understand that – and his purpose as an artist.
He is still getting his own immigration status normalized.
“Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.), Krome” runs until January 8 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, 561-392-2500. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and free for students with valid IDs.