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Molding a Dream : Sculptor Depicts Immigrant Struggle


Bullet-pierced bodies and other images of a war-torn El Salvador have long filled the sculptures of Jose Dagoberto Reyes.

But the Salvadoran native has begun depicting a new kind of repression, that of the poor Latin American emigrant who leaves his homeland and gambles on a better life in the North.

Reyes should know. He fled El Salvador, illegally crossed the border near Tijuana and settled in Huntington Park in 1981. He lives with his wife, Thelma, and five children in a guest house on Stafford Avenue in Huntington Park.

"It's progress to leave death behind and come to another place," Reyes, 45, said in Spanish. "But we run into another type of repression. We end up at another level of poverty."

Reyes's latest piece, "Why Immigration," is on display at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery through Jan. 26. The plaster relief and five other pieces of his work are part of an art show called "Natural Forces in Los Angeles Sculpture."

It is the largest show yet for the relatively unknown sculptor, who produces his art in a garage-turned-workshop.

Reyes, a stocky man with a salt-and-pepper beard, has not had much success selling his sculptures. He says many are too political--and upsetting--for most buyers. But he perseveres. He designs and builds furniture in his workshop to support his family.

"It's been a hard nine years," Reyes said. "I've worked as a laborer to do my (art) work."

Skulls and bodies, and symbols of war and incarceration cover one part of "Why Immigration." A man, his pregnant wife and children are moving away from the images, which represent El Salvador.

"I want people to understand why people leave their homeland and their families to come to another country," Reyes said. "The cause was a civil war. The effect was coming to a new country."

There is a border fence with a body on top. A jumbled collection of footprints surround the gateway to the United States. A family is making its way through.

"Lives have been lost trying to cross, but we always get in," Reyes said.

On another side there are symbols of car-clogged freeways and traffic signs that point in all directions. Immigrants work amid the gears of industry and in the fields. There is trash and pollution.

"There you have fear of the National Guard. Here you have fear of the (immigration agents), or (of going) out on the street because you don't know the language," Reyes said. "And we're not the ones who run the machinery, we're the ones who clean it."

Why did Reyes wait so long to portray the immigrant's experience in the United States? The sculptor hesitated a moment before answering. "I didn't consider myself as someone permanent here," Reyes said. "When one has the feeling that he will be here, then he makes judgments about the conditions in which he lives."

Reyes said he is becoming more settled in this country. He said he and his family qualify for legal residency under the amnesty program established under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. But the sculptor still views himself as an exile who will return to his homeland when political conditions permit: "My roots are Salvadoran."

This is Reyes' sixth exposition in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. He has enjoyed some success. In 1989, he won a Juror's Choice Award in the All City Art Open at the Municipal Art Gallery. His entry, "The Torture," depicted a blindfolded and bound man.

Reyes practiced his trade in El Salvador for about 15 years before coming to the United States, he said. His work was featured in art shows at the National University, among other places in El Salvador. Some of his sculptures graced the fronts of public buildings.

But Reyes said he eventually felt threatened after producing what some viewed as anti-government works. The sculptor said he fled his country shortly after a poet friend was killed. Reyes figures it was the work of the Salvadoran death squads that terrorized the country in the 1980s. The body carried marks of torture.

The Reyes' children had immigrated to the United States and were living with their grandmother when the sculptor and his wife crossed the border clandestinely, Reyes said.

Once in the United States, Reyes made a living as a construction worker, and as a worker in a furniture factory. He continued working on his art, trying to build a name for himself.

But it has been difficult to penetrate the U.S. art world, Reyes said. Many private, Los Angeles-area galleries reject art with strong Latin American influences, Reyes said. He has turned mostly to public shows. The sculptor lashes out at "art racists" who think that there is little tradition of sculpture in Latin America.

"We have a long history, the history of sculpture of the Mayas," said Reyes, referring to the well-studied, pre-Columbian artifacts of Latin America.

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