Heldáy de la cruz, illustrator
“This country is becoming more and more brown, and you can feel the resistance.”
I had heard about Heldáy several times before I had the opportunity to meet him in person through the Artist in Residence program at WeWork. He is an illustrator whose work explores themes of identity, culture, and heritage, which tie back to his experience living undocumented in the US. In this interview, he shares his shifting relationship to being undocumented, the challenges of the DACA program, and how his work strives to bring to life unheard stories.
Carly: Tell me about you. Where were you born?
Heldáy: I was born in Ciudad Guzmán, Mexico, which is about two hours southwest of Guadalajara. When I was two, my parents made the decision to move to the US and I've lived in Oregon ever since. So, 26 years in Oregon. I am undocumented, and that plays a huge part into my identity and my upbringing. I haven't been able to go back to Mexico. I'm hoping one day I will. I'd actually love to live there, sort of explore where my parents lived and grew up. Until that day comes, I'm working within the Latino community here and contributing to it as much as I can.
Carly: What brought your parents to Oregon?
Heldáy: Opportunity. The story you hear a lot from Mexican immigrant parents. The possibilities of better lives, better work, better education for their kids.
Carly: And Oregon specifically - did they know people here?
Heldáy: My dad had three of his sisters living in Oregon. Over time, those connections kind of just created a space for them. I grew up in a farm town, Hermiston, very agriculture-centered, and that creates a lot of work space for immigrants. That became our home. We moved together, my dad, my mom, my older sister and I. And two brothers were born here.
Carly: So, your sister and you are both undocumented?
Heldáy: We are. We both are currently in the DACA program. We are two of the 800,000 people that applied for it, and got in. The thing is the program doesn't give you any sort of status, it just defers deportation while you're in the program. But if the program's taken away, or if you don't renew it for whatever reason - finances maybe, it costs a lot, every two years to be a part of the program - you become vulnerable again to deportation.
Carly: How much does it cost?
Heldáy: It is $495 every two years.
Carly: There are probably people who can't afford that.
Heldáy: Definitely. It's a huge expense that you have to factor into your savings and your finances and prioritize, because not only do you have to pay that, but you have to pay it, I believe, six months in advance now.
Carly: When did you first learn that you were undocumented?
Heldáy: I knew since I was a little kid. I believe I was in first or second grade when I became really conscious of it. My parents weren't hiding it, they would tell us, but they would tell us not to openly talk about it to other people. We talked about it at home, but not in public or in school.
Carly: What did it mean to you as a child to know you were undocumented?
Heldáy: It definitely makes you feel other, makes you wonder what that means, and why. For the longest time as a child, I always felt like I was a criminal, that I had broken the law. That's confusing to think of as a child. Eventually over time, once I had the language for it, it totally changed.
Over time, as I became an adult, I had the language for being undocumented. I completely changed my thought process around it, and tried to understand historically why this group exists. I think about it sometimes, but I don't feel that guilt anymore.
I definitely did for a long time, though. It's nonexistent now, I'm super unapologetic about it. It's kind of the center of my message now, it's at the heart of what I do, trying to tell stories of undocumented Latinx.
Carly: Tell me about your work as an illustrator.
Heldáy: A lot of my work now focuses on being undocumented, but on top of that is my own intersectional identities around being queer, being brown, and being undocumented. Those three things are centered in my work. Currently I'm working on a series of undocumented mothers, and then working on a show with AIGA on Portland's LGBT pioneers, which a little bit addresses ageism, and the isolation that happens as you get older, especially in the queer community. That project is cool, because they're pairing up local artists and people that they've identified as queer pioneers in Portland that have all this history, and we're a part of this movement, letting them sort of meet and get to know each other, and then have the artists do a piece with the person. That's pretty cool. Then, generally, a lot of the work that I do is my daily illustrations centered around Latinidad, the indigenous part of myself, Mexican identity, that kind of thing.
Carly: How did you start drawing? How did you discover yourself as an artist?
Heldáy: I've been drawing since I was a kid. I used to draw flowers a lot, I still do. My dad actually is a really talented illustrator. He did a lot in school, but moving to the US didn't allow for him to sort of explore that creative realm. He's worked in agriculture basically since he immigrated, but he has these really beautiful illustrations from when he was 18 that are really good. For me, seeing that as a kid really inspired me.
If I look at my earlier stuff when I was a teenager, it's kind of trash, but it was me trying, you know? I'm trying to get to a better place for myself and a way to hone in on the skills, trying to clean up, just be a better artist, and a little more organized and intentional.
Carly: Tell me more about growing up in the large Mexican community of Hermiston.
Heldáy: It's actually grown more. I think it might have been half and half when I was there, but since I've gone back, the Mexican community has grown larger. I had a lot of classmates that looked like me. It wasn't super white, necessarily. White families were also farmers, and that connects the two communities. Language was always kind of a barrier, but I've had some interesting conversations with some old classmates about bicultural upbringing, and being the next generation of your family that knows the language and has the access to the education. It pushes things further along.
Carly: Do you mean because you are carrying the culture with you still, because you have a direct, intimate knowledge of the Mexican culture, but then also a strong foothold in American culture?
Heldáy: Yeah, both. It depends, but there's a quote, and I've used it a lot, "Too white for the Mexicans, too Mexican for the white folks." That feeling is real, never fully feeling like you're part of one or the other. Even in Mexican culture, they're like, you're American, you don't really know, or vice versa. It's a special, unique position I think that sets us in both worlds, but also is pretty isolating.
Carly: I experienced similar feelings growing up. And, hearing your story, my reaction is to say, “Oh, but I'm even so much "less Mexican" than you”, but I don't know why there are these qualifiers.
Heldáy: Yeah, what are those, and who's making them up? I feel that.
Carly: But you spoke Spanish at home, you had Mexican culture around you, so you're pretty connected with the traditions, right?
Heldáy: Definitely. I learned to cook with my mom and my abuelas, and when I first started going to school, my sisters and I were both in ESL classes because English wasn't our first language. That was a point of differentiation between our classmates and us. My sister and I being told that our proficiency was not that good, that we need to work on it. Then being told not even a year later, "Oh, actually we were wrong, we just made that assumption. You shouldn't be in these classes, your English is fine." It's just funny. Where did that come from?
Carly: It makes you pause.
Heldáy: So I grew up in Mexican culture pretty heavily, and then I think tried to find a way to get away from it to be more American.
Carly: I'm not sure if you can speak to this much, but you have to deal with a sense of otherness on two layers. What's that feel like?
Heldáy: That's a question I'm always trying to tackle in my work. The feeling of identity, the feeling of empowerment, and the feeling of being unapologetic. Because that stuff felt like guilt for so long, and wishing I was different or normal.
I think it's taken adulthood and lived experiences to really learn that the otherness that I feel and my intersectionality is really beautiful and unique, rather than feeling weird about it. Owning it, and that comes in so many ways.
The first one I can think of is physically. As a kid, wishing my skin wasn't as dark, or wishing that my nose was a different shape, or that I had blue eyes. When I think about that, it makes me cringe now. Why would I want that? Because of the dominant culture is white, and you wish you look like what beautiful is. I feel like that now with my little brother, who's 12 ... he has conversations with me about how he doesn't like how dark he is, and I have to bring him back and reconnect with him on why that's not okay to say, or why it's okay to feel happy with your skin color and not feel like it's anything you need to change. It is who you are, and that's totally fine to be different. The otherness is an exploratory thing, for sure.
Carly: When I was young, I didn't realize that I was different until other people told me I was. Then I started to realize all the physical differences that there were. That was the main level of otherness. I lived in such a white world, but I didn't think of myself as different. It's something I'm thankful for now though. I'm so glad I have color, and I have a story written on my body, and I'm very happy with that.
Heldáy: I think a big part of it too is you see things shifting, maybe not globally, but at least nationally or regionally.
There's a big shift in the way people are seeing things and in the way people are talking about things. I think that's due to the fact that this country is becoming more and more brown, and you can feel the resistance to that in our current state with our president.
There's a resistance of the dominant culture not wanting to give up the power, but in turn there's so much empowerment happening in black and brown communities that are so unapologetic. It's just cool to watch the power shift happen. I think it's really special to be in the time we're in. That change is happening. That is not what it felt like when I was growing up, you know?
Carly: Absolutely. Being in Oregon and having conversations like these, and meeting people with my same heritage is a new experience for me. I feel like there are so many brown people in my life now, whether they're from Mexico or wherever. It wasn't like that 20 years ago, and I'm really thankful to be at this moment in time where not only are we here and present, but we have a voice that we're not afraid to use.
Heldáy: I completely agree. It's social pride, and that's such a shift from what it was as a kid. Not that it wasn't pride, but that it was confusing.
Carly: So, you haven't been back to Mexico since you left when you were 2?
Heldáy: Yeah, I really wish that I could, and I'm hoping to one day. I don't know exactly how that will work, but it's certainly a goal.
Carly: What does Mexico represent for you?
Heldáy: I think growing up it was painted really beautifully in my mind, the way that my parents described it as the most beautiful place. The hillsides, the way that people live, and the community. I could see that that's a clear reaction to their move to a place like the US that was so stark and different, and kind of cold in a lot of ways. I think they were very lucky to have family here already, so they could join that community and make new friends. Without that, it would have been incredibly difficult.
I guess for me, Mexico in my mind has always been this really gorgeous place, but also a place of struggle, not like it is here. My parents would always say: "There's no wifi there, are you gonna survive? Cell service? Good luck." I think that's changed drastically in the last 10, 20 years, now technology's everywhere. I can talk to my tía on the phone and FaceTime her, it's not a big deal, but I think that's my parents’s idea because that's the way they left it.
Before my mom died, my parents went to Mexico, they got their green cards three or four years ago after 23 years of waiting. They were able to go back to Mexico for the first time.
I so wish I could have been there to see their experience. It was all about them, how they were taking it in, and then coming back from their trip. They were really excited about it, but also things were very different. So many people they knew had died, so many people they knew had children they didn't know. It was a shock. I think it was a bit of a realization in their minds, that it wasn't what it was 23 years ago.
Carly: What did that represent for them, when they were anticipating going to Mexico for the first time?
Heldáy: It was huge. They had put in an application for green cards in 23 years previously, but my brother turned 21 and sponsored them and that's why they got their green cards. That process took about six months, then they were residents. Their first goal was going to Mexico. They went around the holidays for 2-3 weeks. I don't think they feel like they got to do enough, obviously, but they were stoked, they were incredibly happy. I remember going out with them for drinks and celebrating it like this huge milestone. It's very cool.
Carly: You're in the DACA program, but that can be taken away at any point. Is there a trajectory for you to be able to obtain documentation?
Heldáy: Not currently. The program can be taken away because it was signed into law as an executive order, and executive orders can be overturned by the next president. Trump has been threatening to take away the program over the last two years. I don't have any plans if it were to be taken away. I think one of the biggest things that people end up doing is to get married, it would be an easy, quick solution. If you're in a partnership with someone and you love each other, and you know that you don't want to be separated, then you make the decision. That also just comes down even to the idea of marriage. I have a hard time with what that even means, I don't know if I even really believe in it. But it's been a discussion, for sure, but I don't think that that's exactly where we're at.
I also think about being deported and self-deportation, for sure, and even that's kind of an impossible thing. Voluntary deportation is an application process, and would require a judge to say, okay, you can go, or no, you're stuck here.
Carly: Isn't that weird?
Heldáy: It's so fucking weird. I mean, I've thought about it a couple of times, but even that's just another barrier. My hope is that because things are so on one side of the extreme right now in politics, that it'll swing back over soon, and there will be legislative stuff that happens that will support the communities that I'm a part of. That'll be the day. I would love to live in Mexico for six months a year, and be there in the land where I'm from, and be with all the people I've never met, like my family. I just want that experience. One day.
This interview has been edited and condensed. First published 19 May 2019.