IOWA CITY — When she was a little girl growing up in Mexico, Miriam Alarcon Avila loved watching Mexican professional wrestling, known as lucha libre, on TV and playing with her luchador action figures in their distinctive masks.
“I saw them as superheroes,” she said.
Now an artist living in Iowa City, she took that idea and translated it into a series of photographs depicting Latino immigrants in Iowa as luchadores. The project, “Luchadores Immigrants in Iowa,” will be on display at Hancher starting Tuesday to Dec. 6.
Avila moved to Iowa City 17 years ago with her then-husband so he could study at the University of Iowa. After they separated, she decided to stay to provide a good education for her two children. She said she’s seen how segregated life can be in Iowa, with immigrants not interacting much with other Iowans.
“I realized many of them are kind of in an different world. They live an invisible life. Many work two or three jobs, they work to make sure their kids have a great education. You don’t see Latinos except at Latino festivals,” she said. “The community needs to work to make sure they have a place to feel welcome.”
As an artist, she wanted to help bring those two worlds together, to share stories from Latino community members with their neighbors. But she soon realized many are hiding in place on purpose, some because they are undocumented, others because they are afraid of being targets in a fraught political climate.
The idea of turning her subjects into luchadores, their faces hidden behind masks, was born. After talking with each person she photographed, Avila designed and sewed individualized lucha libre masks for them to wear before being photographed.
“I want to share their stories but not put anyone at risk. I want to give them an opportunity, a place, where they can express themselves while covering their identities,” she said.
The masks serve not only to hide identities but to empower, Avila said — superheroes and luchadores both wear masks, which become symbols of their status as warriors.
“Lucha has a double meaning,” Avila said. “It refers to the lucha libre wrestling match but also means struggling and overcoming your struggle. When someone is a luchador, they’re in the fight, struggling to overcome their circumstances.”
To find her subjects, she set up craft tables at Latino Festivals, where kids could make paper lucha libre masks. As they colored, Avila had time to talk with their parents about the photography project. As she built connections and met more people in the local Latino community and heard their stories, she said her own identity felt strengthened.
“Only now do I understand what it means to be Latino. When you are Latino, you are connected not just with the people of your own country but with the Hondurans, and the Venezuelans, and the other cultures. It makes it feel like one,” she said.
She received a $10,000 grant from the Iowa Arts Council in 2017-18 to support the project. This is the first time she is exhibiting the series. Along with the photos, she worked with the subjects in the photographs — whom she refers to as the luchadores — to write poetry about their stories.
“They want to let other people know they aren’t criminals, that stereotypes do not reflect reality,” Avila said. “They ask other people to take a moment to know their people, to learn their stories.”
Along with her full-time job as a wellness specialist at New Pioneer Co-op, Avila has worked as a freelance photographer for Hancher since 2014. She said she wants her subjects to feel welcome in the auditorium that hosts performers from around the world, which is why she wanted her inaugural exhibit to be there.
“It was important for me to bring this project to this space. I photograph a lot of artists in this space, and every time when I see the crowd, I don’t see Latinos. Many of my luchadores had never heard of Hancher, never been here,” she said. “For me, it is very important Latinos know this space is here, this beautiful space is something they can access, that there’s something for them here.”
She said many of her subjects will attend the opening reception on Tuesday, and some will read their poetry. There also will be a performance by dance and music groups CONTRA-TIEMPO and Las Cafeteras, who will perform a full show at the auditorium on Thursday. Children will be able to make their own masks. “It’s very powerful knowing maybe one of the little kids who will come here for the exhibit will say, ‘Yes, someday I will perform on this stage,’” Avila said.
The work isn’t finished. Avila did video interviews with each of her luchadores. She hopes to turn that footage into a short documentary. She also is working with members of the Iowa City band Awful Purdies on a musical collaboration based on the poetry luchadores wrote. Another collaboration with Iowa Book Works in Iowa City will create 50 limited edition, handmade books of the photographs. She keeps finding more people to photograph, and she also has a “little luchadores” photo series from the children who decorated masks at her craft tables.
In the meantime, she would like to show the photo series in more locations, especially small towns with large Latino populations like West Liberty, where many of her subjects live.
“I’m the artist, but it is a collaborative work ... We’re equal. I could not do it without them,” she said. “We are all together in this.”
If You Go
• What: Luchadores Immigrants in Iowa
• When: On display Tuesday to Dec. 6. Opening reception 6 to 7 p.m. Tuesday.
• Where: Hancher, Stanley Cafe, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City
• Details: miriamalarconavila.com
Comments: (319) 398-8339; email@example.com
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