From Artist to Immigration Activist
One Student’s Journey to Making a Difference for Migrant Workers
Every year, Freshman Studies chooses a book that all incoming students read the summer before they start at St Edward’s. These books cover topics related to the university’s mission and focus on social justice. Last fall, two students approached me and asked if we would use this platform to highlight immigrant voices. They convinced us that the St. Edward’s community needed to hear these stories to understand the issues immigrants face. So our freshmen read Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire by Margaret Regan.
Jerry Silguero was born in the United States, but he comes from a family of migrant farmworkers and attended St. Edward’s with help from the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP). Jerry grew up mostly in the border city of Brownsville, Texas, which informed his childhood. In this piece, he shares his journey from artist to activist.
Alexandra Barron, Associate Professor of University Studies and Director of Freshman Studies Program
Gerardo Silguero ’16 — Jerry — is a small child the first time he picks up a pencil to draw. It starts with Dragon Ball Z. His brothers print out screenshots of this cartoon at the library and give the best pictures to the winner of their pick-up soccer games. Silguero, the youngest, always gets the leftovers. For a kid obsessed with the cartoon’s larger-than-life figures who save the world in epic battles, this isn’t enough. He wants good pictures.
So the next time the cartoon comes on television, he puts a piece of paper over the screen and starts tracing the images. He doesn’t realize this is similar to using a light box, a common artist's tool. Even in elementary school, his artistic eye stands out. He gets frustrated when other kids color apples with red crayons. “You need all these other colors,” he says. “You need orange. Pink. Purple.”
In middle school, he has an art teacher, Ms. Gaona, who recognizes his talent and teaches him the fundamentals. As a freshman in high school, his art teacher, Mr. Martinez, gives him a set of Prismacolor Scholar colored pencils. They’re a huge step up from the crayons and Crayola pencils he’s been using. Mr. Martinez tells Silguero to draw whatever he wants, as long as he takes good care of the pencils. Silguero does. He shows Mr. Martinez what he’s worked on, and Mr. Martinez gives him something even better — a set of real Prismacolors, not the Scholar pencils for students, but the more expensive ones designed for professional artists. Silguero knows it’s a remarkable gift and falls in love with how easy they are to control. He can bring to life the finest details.
Mr. Martinez finds art contests for Silguero to enter, which keeps him busy. Illustrating exactly what he sees bores him; he prefers surrealism. Painting his own vision of the world is more satisfying and seems more important somehow. He isn’t quite sure what he wants to say with it, but he will figure that out, when he’s older.
For as long as he can remember, Silguero has shared a bedroom with his brothers in a small home in Brownsville. But every summer his family leaves Brownsville to pick fruits or vegetables in different locations around the country, most often Indiana. They work alongside people from Mexico, the Philippines and Honduras, as well as other parts of the United States. Some of the farmworkers have college degrees from back home. All of them work long hours in the hot sun to make a better future for their families. His parents bring the children with them, three sons and a daughter.
Silguero hates it. Everyone else at school celebrates summer because it means vacation, but for him, it means traveling to someplace he doesn’t know, far away from his friends. But worst of all, the harvest often stretches from late summer into the fall semester, meaning that he starts each new school year someplace different.
His family stays on the outskirts when they travel for migrant work, far from everyone else. Kids at each new school always ask him why he lives so far away — “all the way out in Australia,” they tease. He’s never sure how to answer because he doesn’t want to seem different. The reason is that his family’s summer housing is close to the fields.
But he always returns to Brownsville, and that is where his favorite art teachers live. All told, he probably attends nine schools over the years, maybe more. He’s not really counting.
Often Silguero has to complete summer school to make up what he missed or stay late every day to finish two semesters of work at once. For him, it’s all right — he loves school, he loves learning, he loves to read. It’s harder on some of the others in his family.
His older siblings graduate from high school one by one. His brothers both start families. One joins the Army, and his sister works at the local HEB.
Silguero is a junior in high school when he hears about the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) at St. Edward’s. His best friend’s older sister’s best friend works as the CAMP admission counselor at St. Edward’s. Her name is Rosie Rangel ’06, and she was part of CAMP herself.
One of his first reactions when he hears about CAMP is sadness — that his brothers and sister didn’t know about it and couldn’t take advantage of it themselves. He resolves to do what he can to seize the opportunities presented to him.
His family surprises him with a big box as a graduation present, to celebrate that he’s going to college. Oh, holy crap, they got me a TV, he thinks. He takes the box from them and is surprised by how light it is. Inside is something even better than a television: his very own laptop.
He decides not to study art at school. He wants to do something practical, something that will lead to a successful career. If he’s learned anything from his parents, it’s that you need to be prepared to work hard and make sacrifices to reach your dreams. Animation is off the table. He hears it’s cutthroat. So he settles on graphic design to pay the bills, and he plans to continue art as a passion project.
All CAMP students attend a day-long literal summer camp to get to know others in the program before school starts. Silguero stays in a cabin and swims in the lake and goes through team-building exercises. More significantly, though, he is among kids who are just like him.
All his life he has tried to be quiet about his experiences because he doesn’t want to be treated differently. He doesn’t want to be “that migrant kid.” But here, his classmates understand his struggles because they’ve been there themselves. And it creates a bond he never realized how much he wanted.
CAMP comes with a few other perks: For the first time, Silguero has a room to decorate as he pleases. He’s given a stipend to cover expenses. He mowed lawns for spending money as a kid, but he’s never had an allowance before.
One of his classmates, upon hearing about CAMP, scoffs. “If I knew I could have gotten a scholarship like that, I would have worked on a farm myself.”
Silguero tries to explain to him what it’s like to have your whole life upended every few months, to try to make up missed work while still keeping up with your day-to-day assignments, to spend every summer in school in an effort not to fall behind. He explains that CAMP is trying to make things right for kids who are put in a tough situation through no fault of their own. That it doesn’t give them an advantage; it just tries to eliminate a disadvantage.
He doesn’t know if his classmate really hears him. He doesn’t know if his words make a difference, but it feels good to try.
Silguero has worked hard for years to develop skills on his own, but unlike many of his classmates, he didn’t grow up with his own computer and dedicated graphics software. Adobe InDesign and Illustrator and Photoshop make his head spin. After a lifetime of excelling at art, he finds that starting over is frustrating.
He tries another way. He draws the initial designs with a pencil, just like those early cartoon sketches, and then scans them in and finishes the projects digitally.
Though he has chosen Graphic Design as his major, Silguero still has room in his schedule to enroll in a few art classes. He picks up shortcuts on drawing human figures and learns a new technique
for painting. He also reads every art book he can get his hands on. He loves shopping on Amazon for old art books and classic animation texts.
Not all of his classes have to do with art or design, and some of these have the biggest impact on him — like American Dilemmas: Civic Engagement, taught by Jennifer Jefferson, visiting assistant professor of University Studies. Her boundless energy and enthusiasm for service fire him up. The energy you give off is the energy that bounces back to you, he thinks. He resolves to be more engaged himself.
Inspired by Jefferson, he signs up to volunteer at Casa Marianella, an Austin-area shelter for recent immigrants and asylum seekers. Being bilingual is a plus, and one semester quickly turns into
Serving people motivates him. He loves seeing how, in some small way, he can make a difference for people who need it. But in his heart he feels that it’s not enough. If he can translate the energy that Jefferson has given him into artwork that really speaks to his audience, can he create change? And, if so, what change should he seek?
The answer comes the summer after his junior year.
Through CAMP, he connects with Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), an organization that supports farmworkers and promotes justice in the agricultural world. Students from all across the country spend their summer helping in many different capacities. Silguero gets involved with the farmworker division of Legal Aid of North Carolina.
Along with a group of students and a supervisor, Silguero rides out into very rural parts of the state, so secluded that there’s hardly any light to see by at night.
Silguero’s group is responsible for helping farmworkers make sure they are being paid fairly. Too often their paychecks show that someone is holding money back, and when that happens, Silguero and the others gather information so that a legal case can be made.Sometimes they also teach ESL classes. Often, they check on the condition of the farmworkers’ housing to make sure it meets the legal requirements for habitation.
At one camp, they find that the overseer is withholding the migrant workers’ Social Security cards and selling them on the black market. Silguero’s group does some undercover investigating and visits the camp under the guise of giving an ordinary presentation. As they talk to the workers about the situation, the workers start to get rowdy and angry, and they want justice.
But when Silguero's group returns the next time, the overseer is there. Everything is dramatically different. The workers keep their heads down and say very little. The change in their behavior is uncomfortable to see, but what makes Silguero even more uncomfortable is that the overseer is just like the rest of them — an easygoing man who also comes from the migrant community. When he talks to Silguero, he lights up at the thought of Silguero’s generation making a difference for migrant workers. But why, Silguero wonders, is he hurting that same community?
Then the man pulls out photos of his kids, who are in college, and explains that he needs extra money to send them to school. That’s why, Silguero thinks. This man owes more to his children than to his community, and he’s willing to hurt other people to help his own family. It is an emotionally draining discovery.
Silguero won’t ever know how the situation turns out, because its resolution — or lack thereof, as the case may be — is confidential. He can only hope. Silguero’s supervisor tells him to focus on the people they do help, not on the setbacks.
As a kid playing on his Game Boy, drawing pictures from Dragon Ball Z, arguing with his brothers and playing soccer, he never got angry. Now he is angry. If he knew then what he knows now about workers’ rights, things could have been so much different for his parents. They retired from farmwork while Silguero was in high school, and now they work for the city of Brownsville, but many other people are still in the fields. Silguero wants to fight for them to be paid better, treated better, not discriminated against.
For his senior graphic design show, over the six months following his return from SAF and North Carolina, he produces a series of paintings and mixed-media illustrations.
One painting is of Santo Toribio Romo González, the patron saint of migrant workers and immigrants. His eyes and the shape of his face are implied, but inside of him is a horizon and a figure walking. Clouds fill his eye sockets, and his tears are the rain. The journey of an immigrant, as told by the farmworkers in North Carolina.
The exhibit opens in January 2016, and Silguero listens to what people say as they appreciate his artwork. First they talk about the art from a technical perspective — the color choices, the design or the details. But then they read the description of each piece and something changes.
Afterward, his friends talk to him about his art. So many of them don’t realize what life is like for farmworkers, for migrants, for immigrants. Some of them don’t realize that the struggle continues today. Now they know.
Any shame he felt as a kid is gone. He is proud — proud because his parents have helped feed an entire nation. “If you’ve ever eaten an apple or a strawberry, that’s my parents,” he tells people.
And yet farmworkers like his parents are still paid low wages, still working in sometimes inhumane conditions. He wonders what could bring change. If every farmworker sat down in protest, would the country listen?
Make noise, Silguero thinks. Make noise somehow, and they will hear you.
On September 11, 2016, during his final semester at St. Edward’s, he joins a 50th anniversary commemorative march for farmworkers’ rights, following in the footsteps of César Chávez and 10,000 others who walked to the Texas Capitol from St. Edward’s to raise awareness and demand better treatment. He starts off in the front, where older marchers have formed a line setting the pace for the rest of the group. But in the back, he can hear drums.
He gravitates toward the music — toward the younger participants who sing, who cheer and chant, who play guitars and drums with an electrifying energy.
He shouts with them, with others who understand, who care.
Let this not just be a remembrance. This message resounds throughout the crowd. They are marching not just to honor those who came before — but to carry on their living tradition for justice.
Later, as he walks back from the Capitol, strangers stop him when they see his red shirt from the march. The people he speaks to listen, and they hear him. He can see the change in their faces.
His December graduation looms on the horizon. Ever practical, Silguero has his sights set on a graphic design position at a major advertising firm in Austin. Something that will pay the bills.
But that’s only half of his dream for his future. Art remains foremost in his mind and in his heart. He is working up the courage to submit work to the Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin. The thought of rejection stings because he has poured so much of himself into his paintings — but that is precisely why he needs to do it. These paintings are his stories and the stories of so many other people. They must be shared, and they must be heard.
Update: Since graduating from St. Edward's in December 2016, Silguero completed internships at the Baker Agency and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. He is currently a full-time graphic designer at Boundless in Austin. In his free time, he is pursuing his art.
By Lauren Liebowitz
Photography by Whitney Devin ’10