For decades, thousands of South and Central Americans have lost their lives chasing the American Dream by illegally boarding a freight train dubbed La Bestia — or “the beast” in English, according to the USC Fisher Museum of Art website.
Featuring the works of 41 visual artists accompanied by 52 poets, the MONTARlaBestia exhibit at the USC Fisher Museum of Art encapsulates the profound hope and hardship that characterizes the journey from Mexico to the U.S. border.
The display was conceptualized by curator Marco Barrera Bassols, artist Demian Flores and social activist Mardonio Carballo to facilitate discourse about the obstacles of migration, from the difficulty of the journey itself to the depth of discrimination that awaits in a new land.
The Fisher Museum is the exhibit’s first stop in the United States after its appearance in Mexico at the San Agustin Arts Center in Etla, Oaxaca and the Mexican Railroad Museum in Puebla. Fisher served as a fitting host for the exhibit’s first American showing because of the museum’s long-standing support of Mexican and Latin American artists as well as Fisher Museum Director Selma Holo’s engagement with Mexican art and prior relationship with the curators and artists involved.
Each of the artists, all members of the Collective of Artists Against Discrimination, was provided with a 90 by 20-centimeter frame on which to capture the experience of La Bestia.
The finished products are mounted side-by-side in a manner reminiscent to linked train cars. Rather than attributing works to artists, each piece is accompanied by a plaque inscribed with lines from poems dealing with migration in Spanish and Nahuatl, an Aztec language.
Some works capture themes of death and decay, such as artist Jorge Wolff’s multimedia piece with bloodied skulls rising off the canvas paired with writer Dominique Legrand’s words, which are translated into: “The Beast is dead already / No one can ride it anymore / It is a ghost / With a hundred skulls above.” Others express more hopeful sentiments, such as artist Saul Kaminer’s vividly colored, abstract painting complemented by multidisciplinary artist Patricio Hidalgo’s words, translated as: “The moon migrates / and so does the sun. / Life migrates / and so does love.”
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a diorama by artist Gabriel Macotela of a model train chugging in circles around a small, steel city — a metaphor for the determination of migrants in spite of the unattainability of the industrial utopia that is America.
“The metaphor of the train is meant to underline the deep humanity of the immigrants who come to the United States,” Holo said. “The risks they take to help their families and to have a better life are enormous. They take the train and risk mutilation, rape and robbery by those who have no respect for human life. The train is both a means to achieve the American Dream and a metaphor of the courage it sometimes takes to achieve that dream.”
Also emblazoned across the walls of the exhibit are statistics about the Latin American diaspora.
The exhibit opened on March 19 with a reception where representatives from the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California hosted a discussion and Consul General of Mexico in Los Angeles Carlos García de Alba and USC Provost Michael Quick gave remarks. It will remain at the museum until April 8.
Given the nature of modern-day political discourse, Holo believes that the humanizing message delivered through art and poetry about the migrant experience is more significant than ever.
“I hope, given the current political landscape that people leave the exhibition feeling the humanity of those who struggle to get here,” Holo said. “I hope that the exhibition creates empathy.”