The inside of every U.S. passport’s blue-toned page has a statement superimposed on faded images of patriotism. “The secretary of state of the United States of America hereby requests all to whom it may concern to permit this citizen or national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance or in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.”
This powerful statement exemplifies the pinnacle of “Americanness” for which people have left behind their homes from all over the world. It’s the mirage of new, better lives. In reality, their lives may come to serve the U.S. physical and institutional infrastructures that have depended on immigrant and impoverished workers ever since slavery was abolished. Multimedia artist Carina del Rosario finds the statement both moving and hypocritical. “Basically you need a piece of paper to tell people they have mercy on you. Without this piece of paper, you are kind of left to your own devices,” she said.
Del Rosario has spent years on a project that flips the idea of a passport — and the identities and status it ascribes to a person — on its head. “You shouldn’t have to have a piece of paper to see people as human beings,” she said.
With her Passport Office Project, del Rosario has worked with over 170 individuals to create a new kind of passport — one where the individual gets to proclaim their own identity markers, rather than being forced to check boxes for categories such as race, gender and nationality.
Del Rosario’s multimedia art is informed by a journalist’s thoughtfulness and penchant for asking questions. In the early ’90s she was a reporter and then managing editor for the International Examiner, where she covered a variety of community and civic issues. Del Rosario was interviewing elders, activists, community builders, but she felt that the grab-bag of topics she had to cover did not allow for a deep-dive. At the time, youth violence was on the rise, and del Rosario left journalism to pursue a career in the nonprofit world, working on youth quality programming at School’s Out Washington and then later at Asian Counseling and Referral Services.
At the same time, del Rosario was also starting to shift her narrative creativity from journalism to art. “The arts are a place where questions are posed, as opposed to journalism where it feels like you are supposed to provide answers or explanations,” she said.
The Passport Office project took shape when del Rosario began a digital storytelling project documenting transgender immigrants. At the same time, undocumented immigrants were beginning the process of organizing around the dream Act. As del Rosario interviewed transgender individuals, she started to note parallels between the experience of being trans and of being an immigrant, and how official documents hold the power to manipulate and determine a person’s identity and legitimacy. Both groups felt endangered when they had to fill out identity documents, whether it was a driver’s license application or a form at the doctor’s office where someone might be misgendered, or an undocumented person might be afraid of having their legal status found out.
“This piece of paper and these boxes that we are forced to check really govern how we can move in society, and what is it about this document that has so much power over our lives?” del Rosario said.
Del Rosario was also feeling this constriction herself. During the same time she was embarking on the digital storytelling project, del Rosario was navigating a divorce. She grew increasingly frustrated with how official forms forced her to neatly check categories from relationship status to race.
Born in the Philippines, del Rosario’s family immigrated to the U.S. when she was a child. She’d feel torn filling out the “race” section of a form. Before there was a breakdown of subcategories where she could choose Filipino from a dropdown menu, del Rosario felt like she had to mark herself as “Asian.” More often than not, being Asian was seen as being East Asian, and del Rosario felt she culturally shared more in common with Latinx communities who, like the Philippines, had the shared experience of being colonized by Spain.
Del Rosario says that years of conditioning on how we fill out forms ignores the fact that identity is a fluid, living part of our lives. “Depending on the place you are in your life — the circumstances, the administration, you know, wherever you show up — there is part of you that moves forward a little bit more and other parts of you reach to the background.”
This central question of how identity turns into a static box-ticking exercise is what del Rosario wanted to challenge with her passport project. She scoured official documents and forms to find the most commonly asked questions.
She took those questions and twisted them to be more open to interpretation, fluid and empowering. “Birth name” became “name.” “Race and Nationality” became “cultural identity,” allowing for people to account for the various influences in their lives. “Birth date” was refurbished to be “date(s) of importance” because “I feel like you don’t have anything to do with when you were born, but there are all the important life events which shape who you are,” del Rosario said. “Place of birth” became “place of importance.” “Sex” became “gender identity” to maximize inclusivity. Finally, del Rosario asked each participant to offer six words of reflection on their identity.
After she had formulated these questions, del Rosario invited a small pool of friends to contribute, taking portraits of each person to go alongside their passport details. From there, she branched out to the public, setting up temporary “Passport Offices,” the first one being a display at the Rainier Beach Art Walk. To date, del Rosario has collected 175 of these passports, which she has exhibited around the state, most recently at the ArtXchange Gallery in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.
(Un)defined by documents
Del Rosario’s work feels especially poignant in the midst of a presidential administration that uses identity politics to cement divisions. While a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling says that DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) will be renewed and recipients are safe, the Trump administration has put out a proclamation to suspend entry for H1-B, H-2B and L visa holders until the end of the year to bolster employment for Americans.
A June 22 White House Proclamation stated, “American workers compete against foreign nationals for jobs in every sector of our economy, including against millions of aliens who enter the United States to perform temporary work. Temporary workers are often accompanied by their spouses and children, many of whom also compete against American workers.” While the proclamation specifies that the suspension is to bolster COVID-19 recovery for an already wrecked American economy, its use of language, such as “against,” employs the kind of divisive rhetoric del Rosario is working to push past.
Due to her life experiences and having minored in ethnic studies in college, del Rosario is acutely aware that categories of race, gender and nationality have been used to keep white hegemony on top. “If you are taking it from a U.S. imperialistic, capitalistic framework, they [categories] were used by white supremacists to hold onto their power,” del Rosario said and further explained how the category of “white” was constantly reflexive, excluding each new group only to include them when another immigrant group arrived and posed a threat.
Del Rosario’s Passport Office collection does away with the rigid power structures that you see in a traditional identity document. What you see instead is a proclamation of self that blurs the lines of race, gender, age and origin and instead focuses on the experience of identity — in both its definitions. The word “identity” itself has two meanings according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual” and “the condition of being the same with something ascribed or asserted.”
Sometimes del Rosario pairs passports together wherein two people might look visibly different but have self-ascribed descriptors and stories that connect with one another.
One participant whose places of importance are Seattle and Nairobi claims “I am my experience.” Another participant, whose cultural identity is noted as “Punjabi,” says “not who you think I am.” These are just two examples, but they capture the complexity of what it means to inhabit a body and be someone whose experiences cannot be checked on a census form.
“Can we go there — can we both appreciate the fact that we might be different on an external level, but there is also our common humanity of the losses that we bear and also the dreams that we have?” asked del Rosario. She doesn’t have the answers, but her work is an invitation to try to envision some response.
Reconciliation and healing
Del Roasrio says she is currently processing the protests and racial reckoning that have transformed the United States over the past month. She is still grieving the political and social divides that have increasingly polarized the U.S. since the 2016 election.
It is overwhelming. “Because [of] this big, larger societal disease that we have that manifests as racism and discrimination, there are personal things that feed into that as well,” she said. “What is it in each of us that prevents us from moving forward and seeing ourselves as whole and seeing other people as whole? I started ruminating on that — our own personal hurts that either we feel guilty about or that we are still carrying with us. How can we start to reckon with that?”
Del Rosario’s most recent work is called Reconciliation, a series of “tunnel book” paper-cut pieces that were exhibited past Pioneer Square at King Street Station. This piece is simple and yet haunting as it deals with the link between generational trauma and broader societal injustice. She invited people to write letters to their “ghosts,” whether that be a haunting event, a past self or someone from whom they want to ask forgiveness. She took these letters and placed them in a 3-D, box-like display overlaid with opaque, hand-shaped cutouts that gesture at healing and forgiveness. The hand gestures cast shadows across the written letters, which peek through the spaces, creating an interplay of not only light but also emotion.
“The arts for me are very helpful because I can go in and out of these systemic problems [and] invite folks to connect them to their personal experiences as well,” she said. “Because if we don’t make that connection, any efforts on the systems level will fall short.”
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at email@example.com. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the July 8-14, 2020 issue.