(Uriel Sanchez / For RedEye )
After a significant part of an outside, on-campus exhibit celebrating undocumented students and alumni was found vandalized last week, the University of Illinois at Chicago community is in full-response mode --working to not only repair the damage, but also to show the vandals and others that discrimination against undocumented individuals will not be tolerated at UIC.
The "I Define Myself: Undocumented and Unafraid" portrait project first opened at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in July featuring large-scale portraits of eight individuals who have "come out" as undocumented.
After traveling from the Hull-House to the UIC Latino Cultural Center, the third iteration of the exhibit was installed outside of the Gender & Sexuality Center on the walls of the Behavioral Sciences Building.
Only a few days after the GSC-sponsored an event featuring exhibit participants who shared their stories about identifying as both undocumented and queer, a student patroller walking the campus at 2 a.m. last Friday noticed people sprinting from the building.
As they were running, they dropped something--two portraits from the exhibit that had been torn off from where they had been bolted to the concrete. An interpretive panel explaining the purpose of the exhibit also was stolen.
"It's really hard when something like this happens, because it really disrupts everything that you're trying to do," said GSC director Megan Carney, who said she first found out about the incident from UIC Campus Police and has been in discussions with students and the administration about how to respond to it.
The GSC released an email statement on Monday saying the vandalism would not deter the work of the center to "raise visibility around the complex issues for and the multiple identities of people who are undocumented."
Carney said many of the people she has spoken with have expressed shock that something like this would happen at UIC.
"None of us want to be naïve about the world we live in--but you get a sense of the community you are in and you start to make assumptions about where you are," Carney said. "When you're on a campus, especially, you think ‘Oh, this is an environment for the exchange of ideas, and free expression, and multiple identities,' so I think a lot of people are feeling really thrown off."
One undocumented UIC student, Uriel Sanchez, said that although he was angry and disappointed after finding out what had happened to the portraits, he wasn't surprised.
The 22-year-old biological sciences major said he thinks part of what contributed to the incident was the university's insufficient response to a similar incident two months ago, when an undocumented rally poster outside of the Latino Cultural Center was vandalized with the words "[Bleeping] illegals."
Although the university sent out an e-mail a month later acknowledging the vandalism and reminding the UIC community about its non-discrimination policy, Sanchez doesn't think the response went far enough.
"I don't think [the e-mail] directly targeted whoever wrote that on the poster," Sanchez said. "It was good, but it felt a little bit too late, so that's why I wasn't surprised when I heard about this second incident."
"The shocking part was that somebody, in the middle of the night, when it's cold and wet outside, would go out of the way to rip off the two portraits, which are heavy-duty laminated."
Although the campus police have been involved since the vandalism was first discovered--according to university spokesman Bill Burton, the police are investigating the incident as an act of criminal destruction of property--it is unlikely the police will be able to catch the perpetrators since there are no surveillance cameras in the area around the exhibit.
In the week since the vandalism was discovered, the GSC has been hard at work with university officials to repair and remount the torn portraits and organize an event Tuesday to reintroduce the exhibit.
UIC Chancellor Paula-Allen Meares released a statement Thursday inviting the UIC community to attend the event, where students, faculty and staff will have an opportunity to discuss the "senseless act of vandalism" that "left some in [the UIC community] feeling personally attacked and marginalized."
"The destruction of property--of art--was real," Allen-Meares wrote in the statement. "What we cannot know is whether it was also symbolic. It may have been random; the vandals left no message and have not yet been identified. But the pain inflicted on the artists, the portrait subjects, the sponsors and other supporters of the exhibit's message of hope and strength is real."
Carney hopes the event will serve as a thoughtful response that will show to both the vandals and others that the incident has not shaken UIC's mission to stand behind its immigrant.
"Since then, I've been thinking about all of the anti-immigration rhetoric that's been happening since the bombings in Boston," Carney said. "It really touched a deep nerve for me about how important it is for us to come in support of what we believe in, and stand up and advocate for what we think is right, because people can use things to turn ideas around really quickly.
"I think that's what I've been really focused on this week: How do we create a really thoughtful response that demonstrates, ‘No, we don't accept this at UIC.' "
Tuesday's reintroduction of the exhibit takes place 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. outside of UIC's Behavioral Sciences Building at the Vernon Park entrance.
Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.
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