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  • Writer's pictureLa Voz Latina

Rafael Rodriguez chips away at what it means to be undocumented in the United States

Written by: Cinthya Roque Blanco 🇸🇻


As the sun beamed onto saline-sprayed, gauze-wrapped, blistered hands, the accompanying rusted chains dragged on the cement ground. 


Rodriguez refusing to accept defeat, holding on tight to his constraints at the UMD Sculpture Yard on April 10, 2024. (Cinthya Roque Blanco)


By sunset, it had been over 12 hours since his last meal. Rafael Rodriguez had spent the day chained to a 4,000-pound block of concrete, attempting to free himself from his constraints. 


“While I was hitting this block, I would think of all the things… the things that I went through, the people that have gone through similar things,” said Rodriguez. 


Rodriguez is a 28-year-old junior majoring in studio art at the University of Maryland. 


Rodriguez’s artistic journey began nearly a decade ago when he arrived in the U.S. from El Salvador at 17. A lack of academic and economic opportunities and dangerous living conditions ignited his physical journey north. 


His art performance was meant to directly address the systemic criminalization of people, specifically undocumented individuals living in the U.S. 


This frustration hits close to home for Rodriguez, having experienced extreme financial and academic restrictions, specifically due to his immigration status. 


He was released from an immigration detention center after spending over a month there. He was enrolled at Northwestern High School, where he encountered language barriers and discrimination from his peers. 


With minimal knowledge of a task the average college student may take for granted, such as knowing how to write an essay, Rodriguez sought out the resources to make joining a visual and performing art program possible. 


After hours of grueling work, Rodriguez continues to destroy his constraints at the UMD Sculpture Yard on April 10, 2024. (Cinthya Roque Blanco)


The college application process proved to be more difficult than he imagined, unable to even pass the first few pages of the application. There was no social security number to write in. There was an option for international students and for students with DACA. 


None for undocumented students. 

 

Rodriguez even turned down a $64,000 scholarship, because he could not provide a social security number to accept it. 


Even though the dream of attending college had died out after various defeats, he was finally introduced to someone at Montgomery College after one of his art exhibitions. He was enrolled on a Monday and started classes the next day. 


College classes cost money. Money that Rodriguez did not have. 


Miraculously, one of Rodriguez’s mentor’s friends heard his story and offered to pay his first semester's tuition. When he arrived at the University of Maryland, he experienced similar unfamiliarity. 


“As long as I get in. I’ll just jump in, whatever, whatever it is, I will have to find a way to get through it,” said Rodriguez. 


That same resilience was present on the day of his art performance at the University of Maryland Department of Art Sculpture Yard. 


Joined and supported by his mentors, professors, brother, girlfriend, and onlookers, Rafael broke his chains with nothing more than sledgehammers, a hammer and pick, and eventually electrical tools. 


The day started with his dedication to not ingesting water or food during his solo performance. 


That plan quickly changed. As the day grew hotter, his frustration grew larger, and the block wouldn't seem to give completely. 


Ada Gonzalez tends to her partner (Rodriguez) wounds at the  UMD Sculpture Yard on April 10, 2024. (Cinthya Roque Blanco)


His energy shifted once his girlfriend, Ada Gonzalez, arrived. She immediately took charge and encouraged him to drink water, eat, and tended to his scarlet hands. 


“A powerful thing about his art is that it’s his story. It’s his lived experience, but it’s also that of a lot of people,” said Gonzalez. 


Dr. Robert Keith Chester witnessed the performance for five hours, expressing admiration and concern for his former student's performance. 


“He’s sort of earned himself the privilege of doing this, through his brilliance, through the things he’s been through,” said Dr. Chester. 


Rodriguez has experience with this type of manual labor, as do many members of the Latino community. 


His performance reflected his daily life, as two days after the performance, he was expected back at his construction job despite the trauma he put his body through. 


The day and performance ended simultaneously. 


The sun set as Rodriguez managed to break his chains. As the audience cheered for this small victory, their applause was cut short by his dragging chains.




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