Tell us about the earrings you're wearing.
"I made these very recently. They feature the Immigrant Crossing sign that I've used throughout my work. The image of the family fleeing is something that's really powerful to me and I decided to put the image on the ears because it's right by your mouth and you can't avoid looking at them. You can politely avoid looking at a pendant - especially if it's a charged subject. But you can't overlook a pair of earrings because they are right by your face. I made them so they'd frame the face surrounded by a ring of barbed wire."
Talk a little bit about the Immigrant Sign.
"It's found in Southern California, Arizona, right where Mexico meets the US. If you're a family trying to get out of Mexico and into the US you also have to cross the highway, and these signs are posted on the sides of highways. It says 'Caution' and then there's the picture of the family running with the little girl's braids flying in the wind. It's just a terrible sign. Who's issuing the caution? And who is the 'caution' for - The family? The driver? What's the sentiment behind the sign? It's offensive and it's always kind of hurt my feelings."
"When I was in grad school in New England I had to explain the sign a lot. So I guess my work has always been somewhat educational. In New England there was only one channel. I came in there and thought - 'wow, I don't look like everybody else here but I'm going to talk about what I know, and this is what I know.' So much of it came from working in restaurants in Southern California and being bilingual working at a nice hotel. I'd be translating for the dishwasher one minute and defending him to the chef, helping explain that he was 20 minutes late because he'd been on the bus for an hour and a half to try to get to work on time. Then I'd have to go to out front and speak with super models who bathe in Evian. So I'd switch between the world where everyone had black American Express cards and people who owned islands and helicopters, and then turn around to the back of the house where guys were just trying to keep the lights on. So my brain would spin in one direction and then another. When I went to grad school it all just kind of settled in and I realized that's what I wanted to make my work about. I wanted to talk about immigrant rights and these issues that are happening.
"There's a writer - Sandra Cisneros - she wrote House on Mango Street. She's said one of my all-time favorite quotes. Someone asked her if House on Mango Street was autobiographical. She answered 'all the things that happened in the book didn't necessarily happen to me, but they all came through my heart.' That's exactly how I feel about my work. I didn't run across the border, but all of those issues - they came through my heart."
What does fleeing mean to you and how has it affected you personally?
"Fleeing is living in fear. I just can't imagine living with that over your head. You're illegal. You don't have any rights here. Your boss can push you around. You're fleeing from something that you know -- your country -- where you're comfortable. You'd stay there if you could find work and feed your family. I just empathize with that position because even living in fear just a little bit - just fearing about getting a good grade - that's even too much on the heart. Imagine every day worrying, going into work thinking 'what if they find out my Social Security number isn't right?' In a restaurant I worked in I saw someone's overtime cut because the chef didn't want to pay labor costs. 14 - 16 hours coming to them and it was simply clipped. What are they going to say? I'd try to go to bat for them saying "come on, you can't do that." But they're illegal and have got no ground to stand on. It's a terrible way to live."
How would you describe your art?
"I am a performance artist and metalsmith - and a maker. I make things. While these earrings are something you might wear everyday, I've made crowns and you don't wear that everyday. You don't go to the market in a crown - and I made it out of dirt. I'm a maker that's trying to make a difference. My medium isn't important. My message is cohesive. It's all about communication of human issues. I try to make my work shiny or beautiful - some element of beauty so that the observer walks in and stays with it for one extra second. It's about that extra beat that they're with it and all of a sudden I've snagged you. I'm infiltrating a little bit. So they might look a little bit longer and realize: 'oh that's a crown, but it's made of dirt and there's a ring of shovels around it and she called it the Crown Jewels of Mexico.' And now it's stuck in their head and they think about it."
Do you see discomfort set in?
"Yes. And that's fine with me. Discomfort means you're shifting. Discomfort means you're growing. It's supposed to put you on edge a little bit. Why do I wear barbed wire around my ears? That's not comfortable. But it's ok."
Does all of your work make a political statement?
"I don't like to talk about my work as a political statement. I think I'm making human statements. Speaking about human issues. I think politicians utilize human situations for their own benefit. 'My side gets to stick up for these people and your side doesn't and now we've divided it just right.' Everyone across the board should be concerned for people's safety. Everyone across the board should be concerned that others are risking their lives left and right - and let's figure out why. So I make work about human issues. I know that it can be construed as political. That side of my work always has some sort of statement. I like to say that my work is direct statements. In art jewelry specifically, a lot of the work is a little abstract, and I - because of the political climate we're in at this moment - I don't think I can waste time with abstraction. I need to make a direct statement immediately. It needs to be instead of 'oh, do you think you could please, possibly sit down and look' no -- I NEED YOU TO SIT DOWN NOW! So all of my work is direct, straight - that's why they're earrings. You have to look at them, they're in your face. That's why they're big, gold and shiny - and that's how all my work is. It's big and it's right in your face because I don't have time to mess around with nuance and abstraction and ethereal and all these super heady art school words. Let's talk about what's happening NOW. My conscience doesn't let me go wander around and do other things. We've got to talk about this right now."
Describe the core message at the center of your work.
"Well I think that everything is about love. So it's awareness. Open your eyes and love everyone. Not just your own little group that you're a part of. Open your eyes and see what else is happening. And when you open your eyes you won't have a choice but to love. You won't have a choice but to say 'they're going through some serious peril. These are some people who need help. And they're not all that different than my family maybe two generations ago.' Everybody at one point was the new person on the block in this country."
Monica M. Guerra is a performance artist, metalsmith and jeweler. Monica's fine jewelry combines natural gems and high karat gold into one-of-a-kind pieces.
Find Monica on Instagram @monica_marcella28
See Monica's handmade fine jewelry here.