Making a Statement

maganda magazine gives voice to the undocumented through its fashion show invisible runway

by denise wong and jeffrey pu

Illuminated by runway lights, a model marches down a catwalk in Pauley Ballroom. More conspicuous than her custom-designed dress, however, is a sign she carries reading “Yesterday’s Struggle.” She is joined by two more models, this time wielding signs that read “Today’s Fight” and “For a Better Tomorrow.” At the segment’s conclusion, the three models reemerge ostensibly to show off the collection a final time, but instead position themselves at different points on the runway to raise their fists. The audience responds with thundering applause.

The “struggle” to which these signs refer is the quotidian struggle of undocumented immigrants, whose stories the event aimed to highlight. The Invisible Runway, a political fashion show hosted by {m}agandá Magazine, aimed to elucidate the often forgotten stories of undocumented immigrants through fashion, poetry, mixed media, and music. The event also aimed to fundraise for a multicultural community scholarship for undocumented students, who typically fall under the eligibility criteria for California Assembly Bill 540.

AB 540, or the Nonresident Tuition Exemption bill, exempts students who cannot provide documentation of their residency in California from paying out-of-state tuition, so long as they graduated from a California high school and was enrolled there for at least three years. Notably, UC statistics show that only about thirty percent of AB 540 students are actually undocumented, further obfuscating their stories and experiences from public consciousness.

Though the purpose of this fashion show was to highlight the complicated nuances of this issue, several aspects of the event were still left nebulous. This was particularly problematic considering the audience members’ varying previous knowledge about immigration issues. At times, it seemed difficult to comprehend how the clothing related to the expressed intended creative intention of the collections, and throughout the show, there were various discrepancies between the collections and the theme.

One particularly salient example was the first collection, designer Jaymie Ngov’s piece, inspired by Krnsa’s “Following DREAMs.” The collection was a visually stunning tribute to Joaquin Luna, an 18-year-old Mexican American undocumented student who committed suicide after realizing his status prohibited him from pursuing higher education, leading him to the false belief that he burdened his family. Beautiful as it was, however, the entire piece made no mention of the circumstances of Luna’s death. This trend was unfortunately continual; as individual vignettes the work was beautiful, but many often elaborated little on their context.

But the event’s misgivings, while noticeable, should not define what was ultimately a courageous project to reintroduce a pressing issue that has faded from public consciousness. Three particular outstanding collections expertly integrated coherent political messages into their aesthetic art and thus deserve particular commendation: Romeo Ferrer’s “Passage to a Strange Land,” whose piece created fashion out of the image of human beings caught in barbed wire, Xinaxtli’s “Sin Fronteras,” whose piece appropriated punk imagery to convey that the undocumented community will not stay silent in their struggle, and especially Christine Fukushima’s “Campaign for an American Dream.”

Fukushima’s collection, which utilized red, white, and blue striped patterns to indicate a disheveling or dismembering of the American flag motif, used fashion to almost sardonically comment at the farcical nature of the American Dream. The inclusion of one design, which evoked the image of an annoyed Lady Liberty, succinctly illustrated that the American Dream is not universal, and certainly comes at the price of the American Nightmare to those disfavored by history.

The event’s primary success was establishing a precedent for future endeavors to shed light on this issue without exhausting people’s compassion. Though the undocumented community has been at the forefront of political debates with the 2010 failure of the federal DREAM Act and 2011 victories of the California DREAM Act, the conversation is not over. There is still much work that needs to be done, and it needs to begin with highlighting the invisibility of these struggles so that these issues may be continuously addressed.

The fact that this event is even happening is an accomplishment, the fact that so many people worked so hard to shed light on this issue,” said Kiki Vo, an AB 540 student who was in attendance. “I hope to see more of these events happening in the future. I’m really proud to be a part of this inspiring community.”