Politics & Government

Is latest Wichita public mural too political? Some city officials wonder

A planned mural advocating justice for immigrant women on public property prompted Wichita City Council members to question the artist’s intentions before approving its placement on a railroad overpass.

Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell said the mural “probably comes closer than any other piece” to being too political for a public art project.

The artist, Peruvian-born Connie Fiorella Fitzpatrick, has a nationally prominent immigration story that shares themes with her mural.

The street-facing mural depicts a person standing on a street corner holding a poster with a nurse on it. The nurse is reaching out of the poster and comforting a young girl, who is clutching at the poster-holder’s leg. An inscription on the poster reads “Justicia Para Las Mujeres Immigrantes,” which translates to “Justice For Immigrant Women” in English.

Fitzpatrick’s mother, Margarita Del Pilar Fitzpatrick, was deported from the United States last year for voting illegally in two elections in Illinois. She came to the United States from Peru in the early 2000s.

A U.S. court of appeals judge upheld an immigration court decision to deport her while noting that she “led a productive and otherwise-unblemished life” in the U.S. for 16 years, was married to a U.S. citizen and had three U.S.-citizen daughters.

Fitzpatrick said it’s important to distinguish her own personal connection to the project from what she hopes viewers will take away from it.

“This mural is inspired by a personal family story about immigration,” Fitzpatrick said, “but the design itself and figures within it are meant to represent stories of immigrant families and their struggles more generally.”

Council member Cindy Claycomb, whose district includes the space where the mural will be painted, doesn’t think the artwork is political though she noted “all art is open to interpretation.”

It’s one of five permanent murals planned for the railroad overpass at East 13th Street and North Santa Fe Street.

Thirteen other murals have been completed on private property as part of the Horizontes Mural Project.

Artist Armando Minjarez received a $125,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to design, create and install murals with the goal of connecting “two underrepresented neighborhoods in north Wichita,” the predominantly Hispanic north end and historically black northeast, “which are both physically and psychologically separated by large grain elevators along the industrial corridor,” according to the project’s website.

“This really brings a small bit of cultural and racial equity to this city by sharing stories and depicting people that have immigrated,” Claycomb said.

“It doesn’t name a politician or a party,” Claycomb said. “It just talks the general need for supporting marginalized groups.”

For Vice Mayor Bryan Frye, that explanation was unsatisfactory. He was the lone vote Tuesday against allowing the project to go up on public property.

“I understand artist intent, and all art is subject to interpretation, but it just feels like we’re stepping out in an area that as a public government we don’t need to be doing,” Frye said.

Immigration is a hot-button political issue nationally. In July, respondents to a Gallup poll placed it at the top of a list of most important problems for the country.

It’s an especially politically charged issue in Kansas, where Republican governor candidate and Secretary of State Kris Kobach has built a political career by crusading against illegal immigration. At the start of President Donald Trump’s term, he tapped Kobach to lead a now-disbanded voter fraud commission.

There is not much evidence of widespread U.S. voter fraud, but it has been a rallying cry for Trump, Kobach and their supporters. The Fitzpatricks’ story is one of the rare cases of illegal votes cast by non-citizens that conservative media outlets cite.

Frye said he didn’t think it was proper for city government to endorse a political message of any kind.

“Obviously, I believe that we should have justice for all citizens,” Frye said. “But what I’m worried about is what’s next and where do we draw the line. And what might be coming to us in the future that might be crossing social acceptance or areas that we don’t want to touch on.”

The City Council, after approving the murals, agreed to revisit policies regarding political messaging on artwork allowed on city property.

“I’m going to support this today because I’ve been reassured of the intent,” Longwell said. “But I still think that we need to come back and address the issue of inscriptions that could be political in nature.”

“The design does not spell out the exact relationship between the three figures, nor does it identify any particular issue,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s meant to draw in viewers to examine their own feelings about immigration and the challenges families face when moving to the U.S.”

Fitzpatrick did not attend the council meeting, and it was not clear if council members knew about her mother’s history.

A platform ‘to marginalized groups’

Fitzpatrick’s mother came to the United States in 2001. She studied English and earned a certificate as a medical translator. She worked as a nurse with a green card.

In 2005, while applying for a driver’s license in Illinois, she checked a box claiming to be a U.S. citizen. She voted in two U.S. elections in 2006.

In her court testimony, Fitzpatrick’s mother said she made a mistake and that a DMV employee was vague in his instructions when she applied for a driver’s license. Her illegal voting was brought to the attention of authorities when she admitted to voting on her application for citizenship the following year.

After 10 years of legal limbo, an appellate judge in Illinois ruled that she must leave the country for illegally voting. The U.S. Supreme Court tossed out an appeal last summer and Fitzpatrick’s mother returned to Peru after 16 years.

“For all intents and purposes, she’s not coming back,” Chicago immigration attorney Richard Hanus said.

Fitzpatrick said even though the mural has personal meaning to her, she thinks its themes are common to immigrants and shouldn’t be interpreted as the story of her mother.

Claycomb said she views the mural as more of a historical piece than a political piece.

“It talks about immigration, and so I think all of us had ancestors that immigrated here — so it’s past, present and future,” Claycomb said.

Fitzpatrick said the artwork provides a public platform to marginalized groups that are otherwise “afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal.“

Council member Brandon Johnson said, “it’s just an artistic piece. It’s not a political statement.”

“I look at it more as we have pieces around the city like the Dockum Memorial,” Johnson said. “It’s just recognizing history. We are, actually, a city of immigrants. People immigrated here as well. So to me it’s just a historical piece and something the community can appreciate.”

“After multiple conversations with some staff people and council member (Cindy) Claycomb, they have assured me through dialogue with the artists that this is not the intention of the artist to make a political statement of any kind,” Longwell said.

“I shared with council member (Cindy) Claycomb that I would have preferred that if we’re going to put some kind of inscription, it should have been, ‘Nosotros amor nuestros ciudad’ ... We love our city.”

Chance Swaim: 316-269-6752, @byChanceSwaim
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