Queer, undocumented visual artist Julio Salgado speaks out

Julio Salgado's work illustrates the intersections of being queer and undocumented, or better yet makes those intersections bright, vivid and inescapable. In one of his pieces a man in pink with butterfly wings and nipple piercings states "I exist." The man's wings have text in both Spanish and English stating he is immigrant and queer in green, blue, red and orange.

Recently performer Azalea Banks talked about his work online and he has become a frequent speaker at colleges around the country.

Although he says he was surprised at the requests he is happy to go." I figured why not tell my own story and the background of my work in my own words. We love to pay homage to dead queer artists, and we should because they paved the way for people like me. But damn it, I am a queer artist and I am still alive," he said.

Salgado's subjects are undocumented people, queer and straight. " The reason why I do this work is to take back the narrative about what it means to be undocumented. We're not criminals but we're also not perfect. We need three dimensional stories that show our beauty and imperfections. But only we can do that," he said. 

Salgado's work comes at a time of continued tension around the issue of immigration. The president's executive order expanded the ability of some undocumented people to work, left out a lot of people and even that order is under threat from some lawmakers. In the meantime, despite guidance to prioritize violent offenders, undocumented people continue to be detained and transgender women are being detained at a disproportionate rate. In detention, detainees face abuse, harassment and sexual assault.

Salgado creates out of his own experience, having migrated to the United States in 1995 from Ensenada Mexico. As a self-described gay man "on the heavy side," he's interested in tackling body issues as well as misogyny and racism within the community.

GLAAD had an opportunity to interview him and here's what we learned.

Can you tell me a little about yourself, your background, where you grew up and how you got into visual art?

Well, were to begin? I've basically spent most of my life in this country. I went to middle school here. I went to high school here. I went to college here. Despite doing all of this, I always felt like I didn't belong. But I tried my damn best to try and fit in. Whether learning English or obsessing with pop culture, I wanted to be part of a system that didn't really want me. But through it all, I always found art to be a place where I could escape from whatever situation I found myself in. Both good and bad. This may sound like a cliche, but art truly became a form of escape. It was something I was in control of in the midst of things I couldn't control. I tried studying art in community college, but that didn't work out so well. Then I discovered journalism and editorial cartoons, and I found my calling. 

Why do you do work on the intersection of being LGBT and undocumented?

Because those are two things that inform my political identities. I am not just a queer individual. I am not just an undocumented individual. I am not just a brown man. I am many things. But being undocumented and queer are two things that for many years made me fear life. I had to hide my undocumented self for fear of deportation. I had to hide my queerness for fear of what my family or others would think. I approach my visual work when dealing with those issues thinking about young kids who have yet to come out of any closet and let them know that they're not alone. I'm not going to bulls**t and say that it gets better, because sometimes it doesn't. But I can be honest and take back a narrative that puts our stories at the forefront by us and for us. 

What do people who are not undocumented need to know and understand about being undocumented and LGBT that you don't feel is understood yet?

At this point in my life, I am not sure if I care to be understood. I want human beings to be respected that's for sure. One thing that I will always push for is [people should not be ] speaking for others. If you got papers or if you're white or if you got some type of class or economic privilege, you need to step back and listen. We all come from some type of privilege and nobody likes to be called out on that privilege. But we need to check ourselves when we try to speak for others. I can only speak on my own story and experience. Nobody knows that story better than me. So to go back and answer your question, I would tell people to not speak for others.

How does your family and community respond to your work?

I have a very supportive family. They were the first ones to tell me to follow my gut and if art was something that I wanted to do, they told me to do it. Sure, they're always scared that someone might get offended by something I draw and try to hurt me, but they know I do this because it's literally the only thing I feel like I'm really good at. I am also part of a beautiful community that is supportive and critical of the work I make. It's important to receive criticism. Just because I am an artist doesn't mean I'm a special snowflake. I f**k up. I f**k up a lot. But it is through mistakes that we become a little better versions of ourselves. Until we f**k up again.

What are you currently working on?

Well, I am currently visiting a couple of cities in the month of April and May to talk about my art. It's weird to me that folks want to invite me to college campuses to talk about my art. When I started getting these invites, I was a little hesitant. Nobody really does this type of work in the hopes to get into the speaking circles. I didn't even know speaking circles were a thing! But when folks were reaching out to me to write their papers on my art work, I figured why not tell my own story and the background of my work in my own words. We love to pay homage to dead queer artists, and we should because they paved the way for people like me. But damn it, I am a queer artist and I am still alive so I am going to tell my own story. That's not to say that the work that academics do is not necessary, but folks who come see me talk get to hear from the resource itself. People can visit my website for updates on the cities I will be visiting.