Boyle Heights artist Julio Salgado. Photo by Beto Soto.

Art is a language that all people understand. It’s a form of protest, a way of raising awareness and making a voice heard. In the current political climate, many artists find it vital to use their talents to engage the  community on the most important social issues. 

For many advocates, the fact that immigrant families are being torn apart at the hands of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE) is on top of the list. They claim that too many lives are being lost due to the inhumane conditions and abuse that these people experience in detention centers. 

They see that the squalid condition in these centers, as reported by watchdog groups like American Oversight–  including overcrowding, cold temperatures and inadequate medical attention/care – sometimes tragically result in deaths. To make things even worse, these facilities throughout the country have become COVID-19 hotspots.

Due to this prevalent issue, two nonprofit organizations have partnered with five artists in a “Free Them All” campaign, to raise awareness about the 37,000 detained migrants in detention centers across the nation.  They are The Center for Cultural Power, which encourages artists to incite change through culture and challenge anti-immigrant sentiment, and the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice (IC4IJ), which advocates and works to improve the lives of immigrant communities.

One of their goals is to shut down Adelanto Detention Center, a privately-operated facility in San Bernardino County that houses ICE detainees.

One of the participants is Boyle Heights artist Julio Salgado. Migrant Storytelling in Pop Culture Manager at The Center for Cultural Power, the Boyle Heights artist says his talents and visions as an artist are important in highlighting the message of both organizations. 

In an interview, Salgado explained how his status as an undocumented, queer “artivist” has inspired the content of his visual art. 

Julio Salgado. Photo by Beto Soto.

“Being able to be in touch with the folks of the community is key to the work that I do and have been doing for so many years,” says Salgado, 36. “When you’re highlighting an issue like immigration being queer, and you’re not in touch with your community, it becomes meaningless.” 

His work with The Center for Cultural Power is community based and allows him to collaborate with many other undocumented artists. 

“My job is to think of initiatives where we bring artists from our communities, those who are undocumented or formerly undocumented,” he explained. Through the collaborative art process, these artists bring awareness to ways in which communities can rise up to support migrants with immediate needs.” 

“One of the main goals for the Free Them All campaign is to illustrate the needs that folks will be having once they are freed,” Salgado says. 

Some of those needs include receiving appropriate and adequate healthcare, housing for when they are released, access to free communication (as detained migrants need to pay to make calls) and cash for bonds for those that qualify to be released. 

“They need to pay bonds to get out of detention centers, and these bonds are between $1,500 and $10,000,” he says. 

Photo by Beto Soto.

“When you’re highlighting an issue like immigration being queer, and you’re not in touch with your community, it becomes meaningless.” 

Salgado stresses that this work would not be possible solely by the artists showcasing their work, but that a strong collaboration with like-minded organizations like The Center for Cultural Power and IC4IJ is necessary. 

“You can’t have a project about undocumented people without undocumented people behind it, and that is my approach for all the art I create.” Salgado states. 

Always knew he’d be an artist

Photo by Beto Soto.

Salgado always knew he was going to be an artist. He recalls getting in trouble for always drawing as a little kid. Moving to the U.S. from Ensenada, Mexico, in 1995 – when he was only 11 years old – helped him recognize that art was something he could do for the rest of his life. 

“I remember learning about Andy Warhol and I said ‘I’m going to be the Mexican Andy Warhol!’”

Salgado’s own experiences as an undocumented student have shaped his aspirations as an artist. “This is the thing about being undocumented and growing up broke, shame goes out the window,” he shares. “I learned early on que si me quedo callado nobody is going to listen to me.”  

It was right after he graduated from high school that AB 540 was passed, a law which allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities if they graduated from a California high school. This allowed Salgado to start at a community college, then graduate from California State University, Long Beach, with a degree in Journalism.  

Salgado explains that journalism taught him how to tell a story through political art, and he took that and put it into the migrant rights movement. He learned that “you can’t ask for permission, you have to put your message out into the world.” 

Photo by Beto Soto.

Salgado is also co-founder of Dreamers Adrift – a media platform for undocumented immigrants– and current resident illustrator for Cumbiatón, a movement that stages cumbia dances and focuses on “womxn, trans, and queer people of color both on the dance floor and in the DJ booth.”

A 2018 article in the Los Angeles Blade regarded his art as “work that challenges the usual undocumented immigrant narrative and encourages activism.”

The publication went on to note that Salgado’s work has inspired many young activists, especially back in 2001 when the Dream Act legislation was proposed.

Mentorship is something Salgado considers to be very important in any field of work, whether it’s activism, organizing, or art. His continuous work with the Free Them All campaign and The Center for Cultural Power has allowed him to mentor a future generation of artists.

“I feel like I’m doing that, passing it forward,” he explains “It’s selfish to keep your skills, you have to share them.”

Salgado hopes that his work as an artist creates change, while respecting the community in the process.

“It’s my story and nobody can tell me otherwise, but if one person can see themselves in my art, then I’ve done it.” 

To donate to the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice’s bond fund go to:






This post was updated on June 24 to correct Salgado’s title at The Center for Cultural Power.


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Kate Valdez

Kate Valdez is a 2018 graduate of the Math, Science and Technology Magnet Academy at Roosevelt High School. She is currently attending LACC as a declared Film Production Major with a minor in Philosophy,...

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