A free exhibition opening at Overture Center this week illuminates the journeys of eight people who traveled thousands of miles to make Wisconsin home.
The exhibit, entitled “Immigrant Journeys from South of the Border: ¡Mi travesía hasta Wisconsin!” is a collaboration between the Wisconsin Humanities Council and Centro Hispano of Dane County. It features short first-person stories from eight Wisconsinites who came to the United States from Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay and Honduras. The stories come from interviews conducted by Wisconsin-based journalist Bill Berry and Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Gary Porter, whose photographs accompany the stories.
The exhibit made its first stop at the Verona Public Library in June. It will have free reception at 3 p.m. this Sunday at Overture Center’s Playhouse Gallery and feature a conversation with Berry and Porter. “Immigrant Journeys” leaves the Overture Center on Aug. 18 to head to the Sun Prairie Historical Library and Museum and later the Driftless Historium in Mount Horeb.
Participants’ last names were excluded to protect their privacy. In one story, Gilberto, who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child, said he attends UW-Madison full-time and works three jobs in order to pay out-of-state tuition.
In another story, Jennifer, a community health worker from Colombia, called her encounter with immigration officials after she received her legal papers “the worst day of my life.”
“The immigration officer told me, ‘What are you doing here? Why did you come here? ... Who’s going to pay for her food, insurance, everything?’” Jennifer said in the story. “She is waiting for me to say I don’t want to go to the United States.”
Dena Wortzel, executive director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council, hopes the exhibition will prompt viewers to reflect on their own life stories. This is how the humanities can “help people understand one another,” she said, and understand how “everyone in Wisconsin contributes to making Wisconsin this place that we all want to call home.”
Each story was excerpted from a longer interview. The committee overseeing the project chose to highlight the participants’ work lives, a place for common ground with viewers, as well as their journeys to the U.S., Wortzel said. Participants were recruited by Centro Hispano staff and remained involved after their interviews, as Berry shared the stories with participants for their review.
“They approved every word of them,” Wortzel said. “It was very important to us that we want to bring forward people's words, not our version of their words, to the extent that that was possible.”
Wortzel believes exhibits like this can provide new context for contentious political issues. Many Wisconsinites don’t personally know any immigrants from Mexico or Central or South America, Wortzel said.
“These are the people around whom there is so much national discussion that is so divisive,” Wortzel said. “A lot of these people are living and working here today, but if you're not one of those people, you may not have ever met someone from one of these places.”
Wisconsinites across the state can view the stories and images on the project’s website, which also includes audio of the stories and explanations of key terms and topics.
“When you participate in a public humanities program like this exhibit, we believe that it prompts you to reflect on your own life story, to learn about your own history and culture, and to think and learn about your neighbors' lives and learn about their history and culture,” Wortzel said.