In 2015, the Tenement Museum in New York began its “Your Story, Our Story” project, asking people to connect an object in their life to their immigration or migration story, and share that story online. It made sense for the museum, which is on the Lower East Side of New York and explains the immigrant experience there, particularly in the last century. But since then the project has gone national, and last year the museum invited Mia to find such stories in the Twin Cities area.
Mia has now worked with several schools to uncover these stories, and this month it opened a “Your Story, Our Story” exhibition in its Community Corridor. The exhibition displays the art of students from LEAP High School in St. Paul, which serves some 250 young newcomers to the United States from several dozen countries. They learn English, learn life skills in addition to the usual academics, and can stay on until they’re 20.
They were introduced to “Your Story, Our Story” by two educators at Mia, Sheila McGuire and Amanda Lesnikowski, who sensed an immediate connection to the project. After all, these students had just emigrated; their stories were fresh, the things they carried close at hand. But their art teacher, Jill Michell, quickly realized a problem: these students hadn’t carried much.
“When they came here, a lot of our students had only their clothes and their memories of what they left,” says Michell. As a specialist in landscape painting, she saw an alternative: painting their memories of home. “The landscape,” she says, “is the artifact.”
The exhibition is indeed full of village scenes, often bucolic, and generally accompanied by the students’ written memories of home. Si Blu Soe’s Landscape of Burma in Honor of My Dear Father and Artist, shown above, is a re-creation of a lost home—recreated from her father’s memories, not hers. “My father doubts his place still exists,” she wrote in her label. “He hasn’t gone to visit it since the Burmese came and destroyed it over 20 years ago.” Soe came to the United States with her father in 2016 after growing up in Thailand—her father’s story is as much hers now as his.
A painting by Cesar Osvaldo Mendez Portillo, who came from El Salvador in 2017, stands out as a colorful, abstracted composition in the style of handicrafts made in his hometown. In fact, he comes from a family of artisans and his painting symbolizes the hardworking, close-knit family life in the region despite a period of civil war. “I brought my art to the United States to show peace, work, love for nature, and respect,” he says in the label. “The sun in my painting represents how happy we Latinos are even when many people in the U.S. hate us and persecute us just because we want a better future.”
The artwork has been digitized and added to the “Your Story, Our Story” site, which now features thousands of reflections on immigration. Mia still has a couple more years in its commitment to the Tenement Museum. It will continue to collect stories from a region that has been driven by immigration for decades now, from Africa and Asia and Latin America—a major reason the Tenement Museum looked this way. Stories that will put a face and a place on today’s debates over immigration.
Top image: Landscape of Burma in Honor of My Dear Father and Artist, Than Lwin by Si Blu Soe, of Myanmar (Burma).