Of the Rio Grande: Artist humanizes students, Dreamers with materials from river

ROMA — The small dirt road leads to the banks of the Rio Grande, a picturesque destination that often provides more to Luis Alberto Corpus than just a scenic getaway, but materials necessary for the artist’s artwork.

Corpus often waves to a U.S. Border Patrol agent as he makes his way to the river, located in Roma about 20 minutes east of the Rio Grande City South Texas College campus where he teaches.

It’s here — underneath the bridge at the Roma Port of Entry, which also happens to be located between the international border — that the 37-year-old art appreciation instructor reaches down to fill a 5-gallon container with river water. He then takes branches from the area and later breaks, burns and converts them into charcoal.

These are his proverbial paintbrushes, used to create portraits that on many of his canvasses fittingly captures the faces of Dreamers, and others who may have also come from across the Rio Grande.

The process of using materials from the river, Corpus recalls, began over the summer when he embarked on a journey in search of his own cultural identity.

What he discovered is a message he wanted to convey about the plight, and more importantly the humanity of his former students, many of whom are Dreamers, as well as those from across the nation.

Using the water and tree branches from the Rio Grande as his tools — Corpus began drawing portraits of his former students — specifically of DACA recipients he’s known throughout his time in public education.

Speaking about recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Corpus acknowledges what he believes are common misconceptions about youth who were brought into the country illegally.

He hopes that people can see the portraits and be drawn to the aesthetics of the work — devoid of any context.

“ … That’s a way to kind of lure in the people who might have these pre-concepts of what these type of people should be — these illegals, these Mexicans,” Corpus said. “They say we’re Mexicans; we feel we’re American. We want to be part of this country; we want to be a positive part of this country. I don’t feel it’s a us versus them type of thing, really what “I’m trying to promote is an idea of unity across.”

The idea of portraits was a conscious choice to avoid cliche depictions of immigrants either toiling in the fields or crossing the river.

“When you see that person, you see the grimace, you see their plight, you see their presence,” Corpus said. “Instantly we’re drawn to them, because by nature that’s how we are, by nature we are all born kind. I think hate is something that is taught, so I think in showing these people, these portraits, I’m really just wanting the viewer to see these are just people. Set aside any notion you have of them, and allow them to be drawn in simply by its aesthetic sense.”