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"We Did What Had to Be Done"

A Milwaukee student responds to critics of a mural about ICE that she and a group of teenagers legally painted on a county bus
"We Did What Had to Be Done"

I worked with ArtXpress — a program for teens through the Milwaukee Art Museum — as an intern for three weeks over the summer. Our mission was to choose a social justice issue in Milwaukee that we wanted to bring awareness to. We were given the freedom to express our opinions and beliefs by creating a mural that everyone in our community could see. We chose to bring awareness to the ongoing issue of immigration.

The harsh response to immigration has been a rising problem in the world, especially in our communities. We wanted to show those who have no idea of what is going on that this is happening right where we live. In addition, we wanted to let people be aware of what their rights are. Everyone deserves to know what their rights are and everyone deserves to be treated as humans.

My role in this project was designing the mural, and there are three sides to the public county bus we decided to paint: Families being ripped apart, a blown-up image of hands being separated with their rights being displayed and butterflies representing freedom, and hands in cuffs representing Dreamers and Milwaukee being immigrant strong.

Initially, we didn’t realize how much attention our bus would get. The day after our unveiling it was brought to our attention that there were negative comments coming forth. It started with Supervisor Dan Sebring saying that our mural is “racist” and “an abomination.” He also said that it is “a slap in the face to law enforcement.”

I’m here and I stand for what I believe in — what my peers and myself believe in. We did what was right and brought awareness to an issue that is destroying the lives and families of many. We did what had to be done. In no way is this mural racist. In no way is this mural anti-law enforcement. We displayed the rights that we, as humans, have under U.S. law. We are educating those who have no idea what’s going on. This is a new reality that many families have to face. It has been escalating drastically to the point where these lives are being held in the most inhumane circumstances and it isn’t right. 

We displayed what is being done right in front of us in a way that isn’t so terrifying, but still speaks the truth that is being held in a quiet place. 

In the midst of these negative comments we have received so much support and so many thank you messages from people who have gone through these situations or have had family members taken away from them. A woman shared with me that she herself is a Dreamer. She thanked us because this mural we created described how they feel. She shared her fears and her hopes as an immigrant here in the United States and that is exactly what this is about. We want to be able to share a reality that many are living with and to somehow bring awareness to it to ultimately bring a change.

This is our art. Our art sparked a conversation, encouraged many to speak, and brought so much awareness to something many have yet to understand. We have freedom of speech. This is our form of speech.

Yazmillie Reyes is a senior at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee.