In her 20 years in Charlotte, Rosalia Torres-Weiner has raised two children, worked as a flight attendant, and run a successful mural painting business. As the political fight over immigration policy continues in Washington and in the courts, Torres-Weiner is using her work to give a voice to local Latino immigrants caught in the middle.
Clad in a black painter’s apron, Rosalia Torres-Weiner applies brushstrokes to a canvas that takes up most of a wall in her home. The morning sunlight sinks into bleak shades of cobalt, gray, and black.
Rosalia is painting a deportation scene. Shadowy figures crowd a man in a helmet who’s trying to take a child from the arms of his mother.
“The reason why I painted them blue is because I’m literally representing ICE,” she says.
As in Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The U.S. government is deporting the mother.
Rosalia used to run her own mural-painting business, but in the last three years she’s found what she believes is her true calling—a marriage of art and activism. She wants her art to tell the stories of her people, Charlotte’s community of Latino immigrants.
“I think I was an activist inside, and I didn’t know that for a long time. I think it’s in my blood,” Rosalia says. “It’s a statement. I have to make a statement with my paintings. I have to send a message, I have to educate my community … That’s how I use my art.”
Like many other communities, Charlotte’s Latinos are caught in the vise of U.S. immigration policy. Those who live here illegally but want to become citizens have to endure a long and complicated process.
In the meantime, they have trouble finding work and live in constant fear of deportation. It can tear families apart—separating mothers and fathers from their children and each other.
“I’m seeing, like, families being separated in my community, my Latino community,” Rosalia says. “It’s when I had to do something.”
Since 2006, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office has arrested more than 25,000 immigrants and processed more than 13,000 for removal from the country under a federal program called 287(g), which remains in effect.
Rosalia, a U.S. citizen, heard deportation stories from friends over lunch, from professional contacts, from the man she had hired to tend her lawn. She doesn’t like or follow politics; for years, she was too busy working and raising her two children to pay much attention to immigration issues. But the stories she was hearing awakened something in her.
“When I saw kids that lost a mom or dad, that’s when I stopped everything and said, ‘I need to give voice to these children. I need to amplify their stories with my art.'”
Rosalia’s paintings have captured the attention of people and institutions in Charlotte.
Two years ago, the Levine Museum of the New South organized an exhibit and children’s education program based on her series of paintings of a young boy whose father has been deported. The paintings caught the attention of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte Artistic Director Adam Burke. They’re now the basis of a play that Children’s Theatre is producing and hopes to unveil next spring.
“She’s so passionate about it, and it’s a story that’s important for our community to talk about, because it affects families and children in our community, and it’s not something that gets talked about that much,” Burke says. “We don’t have a lot of stories that deal with loss.”
Rosalia hopes to sell her “ICE” paintings. But since December, she’s labored over a work in full view of the public: a mural on one ground-floor wall of UNC Charlotte’s building uptown.
Crista Cammaroto, UNC Charlotte’s director of galleries, says the university wanted the mural to make a strong statement.
“We wanted Rosalia to do something for us here because she is really a nice hybrid of an activist and an artist, and we really like to show work that’s very meaningful and takes some risks as far as what it’s trying to communicate to the public.”
Rosalia paints a succession of scenes that represent the Latino experience in the United States. There’s a student, an activist, a construction worker, a blindfolded woman who symbolizes the justice system. But it begins with a young woman: Rosalia’s mother, now 86.
She lives in Mexico City. She’d like to join Rosalia in Charlotte, but she’s been denied a visa to live in the United States. Rosalia had to delay work on the mural for three months while she helped her mother recover from gallbladder surgery in Mexico.
As Rosalia finishes the mural, she chats with Cammaroto about what she wants to convey with it, and her fondest hope—that her mother will live long enough to come see it, to live with Rosalia and her husband as an American, under the law.
This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, with support from the Wells Fargo Foundation.