Black-and-white portraits cover the ground in an area in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. Among those photos are faces of hope, faces of people demanding change, faces of those who no longer want to live in the shadows.
The images are the creation of the Inside Out Dreamers Project, a nationwide touring initiative that gives immigrants and allies a platform to tell their stories and aims to build pressure on Congress to pass the DREAM Act of 2017.
In the middle of the square, there is a van decorated with wallpaper simulating a giant camera. Inside is a photo booth in which people can snap a picture that will later be added to this art installation.
One of those portraits belongs to Elizeth, who was born in Mexico but moved to the U.S. before she turned 1 year old. She sits on a bucket right next to her photo as workers keep adding more and more portraits to the exhibit. In her photo, Elizeth raises her right fist up high, a symbol often recognized as the black power salute. She says it is a sign that applies to her cause. "It means revolution, it means we are educating ourselves, we are fighting for change," says Elizeth, who declined to give her last name.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was introduced by the Obama administration in 2012. The program allowed people like Elizeth who emigrated to the U.S. as children to be temporarily protected from deportation and receive permits to work and study.
According to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, there were more than 680,000 active DACA recipients as of Sept. 4. The Trump administration rescinded the program, leaving thousands of so-called Dreamers in a position of uncertainty. Congress has until March 5 to propose legislation to replace DACA.
Paola Ramos, an organizer of the Inside Out Dreamers Project, says there is a sense of urgency to pass the DREAM Act and restore protections for DACA recipients before the year ends. "And that's key. We cannot wait any longer. It's been years already. There's people that are at risk of being deported — they're already being deported," she says.
Elizeth, 21, is studying communication and Chicano studies at Cal State Los Angeles. Like many immigrants, she faces the ni de aqui, ni de alla (not from here, not from there) dilemma in regard to her identity. Elizeth also says that she and her family have been victims of racial slurs.
"I grew up here, and it sucks to know that people value a piece of paper and that they don't value your existence, so they misjudge you," she says.
Once the photos taken in the van are printed, workers paste them on the floor with the help of a broom in a closed-off area at Pershing Square. Music plays in the background while more and more people line up for their photos. The thousands of individual images captured during the Inside Out Dreamers Project tour will be compiled to create a diverse portrait that represents the U.S.
Emerson Collective, a nonprofit founded and led by Laurene Powell Jobs, and Inside Out joined forces to support thousands of immigrants whose DACA protections will soon expire. Inside Out is a global initiative created by French artist JR, who has called for the creation of "a global participatory art project with the potential to change the world."
Another face in this community art project is Luis Vargas, a DACA recipient. He says that getting his photo taken was a gratifying moment, and that he acknowledges being surprised for the gestures of the participants. "I didn't see a lot serious faces. Everybody was smiling," Vargas says. "It was a good feeling. All the positivity that people [were] just radiating even through a picture."
Since Oct. 25, two vans have been crisscrossing the country. Ramos says the 34 locations were carefully selected to "target members of Congress."
"The idea behind that is that we want everyone to understand the stories and the faces behind Dreamers, right?" Ramos says. "They are not just talking points. It's not just politics. It's real human beings. It's people with stories."
Vargas says he is tired of political parties' responses to calls for immigration reforms. In his opinion, Republicans use the issue to cause fear, whereas "Democrats use this for votes."
"I hope that this kind of launches us to be taken more seriously," he says of the Inside Out Dreamers Project. "Like we are no longer going to keep asking — we are demanding to live a life of dignity because as human beings everybody deserves that."
Gonzalo Rios also found the courage to embrace his story as an undocumented immigrant himself.
"Seeing that there's other folks that are going through this, and they are not afraid to show their face anymore," he says. "It's like no, we're not going anywhere, we are staying here. And it's just empowering."
Rios was born in Mexico and came to the U.S. when he was 9 years-old. He remembers how for him it was an adventure in which the end goal was reaching the rest of his family.
"I felt like Dora the Explorer just walking through a journey," Rios says.
Rios admits that he did not apply for DACA because he feared that sharing his information and location to government officials could make him an easy target.
"I always felt like: What if the next president removes DACA and checks everybody? That was my worst fear" he says.
Like Rios, DACA recipients fear for the worst and hope for the best. "Are they going to be tracked? Are they going to be removed from this country?" Rios wonders.
Elizeth's college graduation is coming up, but her dreams about pursuing a Master's or a Ph.D. are on hold because her DACA expires in 2019.
"I have the will, power and the drive to go to school. I know I am capable of getting a Ph.D., but they are not allowing me to do so because I won't be able to have a job in 2 years," she says.
Another reason why she joined Inside Out is because of the project's goal to "Fight and demand for a clean Dream Act."
She remains hopeful in these dark times, but she doesn’t let that faith distort her reality. For now, she says: “La gente unida jamas sera vencida. (People who come together, will never be defeated)”
The West Coast has one more stop in California before heading over to cities in Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Tennessee and Texas. The Dreamers Project will wrap up in Washington D.C. on December 18th.
Below is a map of the stops that the West Coast photo booth van will make in the U.S. between Nov 7. and Dec 18.