CHAMPAIGN — Artist-activist Nancy Edith Guevara knows identity and immigration politics.
She was born in and grew up in the border town of Laredo, Texas, where she often felt not Mexican enough nor American enough.
As a child she would make art at home to distract herself.
"I would take simple things and through my imagination transform them into something else," she said.
She started to draw formally as she attended a public fine-arts magnet high school in Laredo. She eventually received scholarships that, combined with financial aid, paid her way through the University of Texas, where she majored in design.
After graduating, Guevara went to Mexico City on a Fulbright scholarship. There she worked for Razon Social, a small nonprofit interested in humanitarian design, and Cauce Ciudadano, a community center that worked toward preventing violence among youths.
She had become interested in activism earlier, while in high school, when she worked in Laredo with artist-activist Jorge Vasquez, who had been a bodyguard of Cesar Chavez, the American farm worker, labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association.
With Vasquez, Guevara worked on several public-art murals in her hometown. That's when she started appreciating the power of murals, which, along with other things (among them the writings of Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldua), have influenced her own art.
Vasquez's activism and his approach to students, how he encouraged them to have a voice, also inspired Guevara. She found she was good at working with youths in that way and realized it was something she could pursue — and enjoy.
And so she has. This past year, her first in Urbana, she worked as an instructor in the Urbana High School after-school 21st Century Learning Center. There she co-taught with her creative partner Justin Olmanson a course called Social Justice through Art, Media and Design; the two helped students work on projects that helped them better understand who they are and their cultures.
"I think identity is especially important for youths so they are not lost in this enormous world," she said. "Part of what we wanted to encourage was to have everyone tell their story and to talk about their experiences, families, where they came from."
This fall, Guevara will head to Harvard to work on a master's degree in arts in education. She wants to continue to help young people through art and design; she sees it as a way to give them more opportunities.
This summer, she is showing her art at the University YMCA; the exhibition features eight mural-style posters by Guevara that she had printed on wood. She wanted them on wood, rather than behind glass, so they would be accessible to viewers.
Guevara, who turns 25 next month, is modest and shy — but her art is bold. Her posters at the Y address immigration and border-town issues; she made them to humanize Latinos and to instill in them cultural pride.
She hopes they help non-Latinos as well become more aware of and empathetic to the growing Latino population in this area.
Perhaps the most touching poster is an enlargement of the artist's mother's resident alien (a term Guevara dislikes) card, with the words "human being" over it.
Francisco Baires, community programs director at the University Y, considers Guevara's work brilliant and distinct — and relevant even though we live in the interior, not along the border, of the country.
"We're not as far as people might think," he said. "We have people who are profiled here by the police, formally detained on minor violations and then sought after at their homes and work. It's very Arizona-ish.
"The young children in this community live in fear, just like the young children of border towns."
Like Guevara, he would like people to think more deeply about immigrantion issues as well as President Barack Obama's deportation in record numbers of undocumented workers. (Last fiscal year, the Obama administration removed nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants, a new record for the United States.)
Baires invites local folks who are interested in immigration reform to check out the Champaign-Urbana Immigration Forum or to call him at his office at 337-1514.
Like Baires, Guevara hopes her art motivates people, whether Latino or not, to become more socially and politically active.
One of her posters urges people to vote. The word "VOTE" in capital letters is below an image of the human heart (culture comes from the heart, Guevara believes) super-imposed on part of an American flag. Inside the heart are images of the flags of Latin American countries.
Another poster reads "Arriba Mi Gente" and depicts a group of people with raised fists; a few wave flags. The design was selected in the juried Austin Art Boards contest for placement on a billboard.
Guevara's billboard was up for two years, first on the outskirts of Austin and then in a more central location along a busier highway. It was then that right-wing bloggers noticed and wrote about the billboard's "revolutionary slogan." They also argued the image was designed to inspire Latinos to riot.
As a result, Austin Art Boards removed the billboard, leading Baires to say the reaction was silly as there are more important issues out there to address.
Guevara said "Arriba Mi Gente" is a cultural saying that doesn't translate directly into English. She sees it more as an exhortation to lift up a people or a community. She said the poster, rather than inciting a people to riot, depicts a demonstration or march, which historically has taken place to urge social change.
Guevara believes her kind of art is necessary, especially considering the current debate over immigration reform and the racist reactions to an 11-year-old Mexican-American boy's singing earlier this month of the national anthem at Game 3 of the NBA finals in San Antonio.
"I think he would feel surprised at the reactions because he's so young. For me, who has studied and read and experienced these things, it's not surprising," she said. "It's also proof that this kind of work is necessary, for everyone."
If you go
What: "Identity, Activism & Youth," featuring eight posters on wood by Nancy Edith Guevara.
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, through Aug. 18.
Where: Murphy Gallery, University YMCA, 1001 S. Wright St., C.