This year, many people have thought twice about celebrating independence in the United States. Among those who wonder about the true extent of that freedom and the inequality in the country, there are many who decided to take advantage of the occasion to raise their voices of protest again.
On the morning of July 4, the sky above downtown Los Angeles — where the prison complex and the ICE field office are located — began to see the appearance of consecutive letters that read “Care Not Cages,” “Chinga tu Migra,” and “Abolition Now,” written by a fleet of planes.
According to The Intercept, the skywriting was part of a nationwide art intervention entitled “In Plain Sight,” designed to draw attention to the hundreds of immigrants being detained across the country.
Simultaneously, that day members of local immigrant rights groups met with artist Beatriz Cortez at the edge of MacArthur Park to chalk “Defund ICE” in color in the middle of a street while a marimba band played.
For Cortez, the effort has become collective at a time when the country is awakening to the deep inequalities experienced by people of color, something that Central American groups have been fighting for “for 40 years.”
“Rather than being an artwork about immigration, this is an artwork that seeks to serve and amplify the on-the-ground work that’s been done by our partner organizations,” said Cassils, who founded the project along with another Los Angeles based artist, Rafa Esparza. “In Plain Sight” was born out of a group text with artists who had been making work to protest the separation of families at the border and other abuses, but the idea to use skywriting came to Cassils when Cassils had just returned from Europe and saw a plane spell out “Happy 4th” last July, a sight that evoked for them a “militaristic display of patriotism.”
“What would it be like,” they said, “to usurp and reclaim this idea of what is it to be patriotic on the 4th of July, in this country, at this moment?”
The planes used for the “In Plain Sight” project use technology to structure their messages in formation, a technique used for advertising since 1920. For Cassils, the method, which often costs a great deal of money for advertising campaigns, could be used for a greater good.
“As performance artists, we’re dealing with very little means,” they said. “But after seeing the audacity of the money spent on shoes, and learning abut the insanity of the problem [of immigration detention] and the scope and scale, we thought, we need to make this big. We approached the skytyping corporation here in LA and we asked them, ‘what’s the biggest gig you’ve ever done?’, and they said, ‘well we’ve done a nationwide campaign of 80 messages nationwide, for Geico. So we decided we would go for that.”
Similarly, the phrases in the sky were followed by the hashtag #xmap, which directs people to a website that maps the hundreds of immigration detention centers across the country, and provides connections to local immigration rights and other groups advocating for an end to detention.
“To stand in solidarity with folks who were saying they want to abolish ICE meant that we also had to engage with the history of violence and incarceration in the U.S.,” said Esparza. That meant inviting messages from Black and indigenous artists and activists, as well as Japanese-American artists whose relatives had been in internment camps in World War II. After George Floyd’s murder, he said, “to stand in solidarity with the movement for black lives, I wouldn’t call it a pivot, we just always had it.”
But Los Angeles was not an isolated case.
The people of El Paso were also able to read the messages in the sky claiming what is going on inside the immigration detention centers in the country.
According to the El Paso Times, the “In Plain Sight” project also showed some of the work of its 80 artists “dedicated to the abolition of immigrant detention centers and the United States culture of incarceration.” The national public art show was also held in Juarez.
El Paso’s binational artist Margarita Cabrera was in charge of the message “Uplift: Ni Unx Mas” at the Bridge of the Americas.
“Uplift” refers to uplifting immigrant communities, as well as the border fence and other immigration detention facilities. “Ni unx más” was inspired by Mexican poet and activist Susana Chávez’s 1995 phrase “ni una muerta más,” or “not one more [woman] dead.” The phrase protests femicides in Mexico, particularly in Juárez. Cabrera used X to be gender-neutral.
“This is a call to abolish this systematic violence and the incarceration and detention of our immigrants,” Cabrera said. “We’re creating a sky activation, but we’re also grounding it with local events.”