San Rafael

Larry and Kelly Sultan

Public Art Works

“I would like to be a lawyer. I would like to have a dog. I would like to see my sister again. She is still in El Salvador.” So ends the story of an anonymous fourth grader who immigrated illegally to the U.S. several years ago to see his mother. Printed on a brown grocery bag in a blue New Century Schoolbook typeface, the story is superimposed across a low-resolution photograph of a boy’s face, itself half covered with his own hand to protect his identity. Modeled after the milk cartons on which the faces of lost children are reproduced, four images to be printed on grocery bags were designed by Larry and Kelly Sultan in collaboration with high-school and elementary students in San Rafael, a rather upscale city in fashionable Marin County in which immigration has recently become a divisive issue. Sponsored by Public Art Works, a Marin County–based organization that has facilitated inventive projects over the years, Have You Seen Me?, 1994, was conceived by the artists as an attempt to provide a public forum for children to speak about “daily survival, aspirations, memories, and the real circumstances of their lives.”

Consequently, the stories and photographs of four local school kids were printed on a total of 250,000 grocery bags (roughly 60,000 per kid) that were slated for distribution through United Markets, a local food chain. Besides the Salvadoran child, a boy from Eritrea spoke about war, drought, his father’s death and the kidnapping of children by the army; a Vietnamese girl wrote about teaching her uneducated grandmother what she’d learned in school each day in her homeland, before coming to the U.S. without her; and a girl from Berkeley described life with her crack-addicted mother, once jailed but now off drugs.

Clearly, the emphasis of these stories was on the dignity and resilience of children in a world turned upside-down by adults. The bags, themselves recycled, would become vehicles for the mass distribution of four “found” American stories. And in one of the most effective delivery systems yet conceived in public art, those stories—and symbolically, the children who told them—would be taken home in the arms of local customers.

Despite their metaphors of welcome and homecoming, the bags became flash-points in the already overheated rhetoric surrounding the issue of illegal immigration in California. Of the four grocery bags, the one telling the story of the boy from El Salvador sparked an outraged protest from a small but vocal minority—perhaps 20 people, including a local resident who is the statewide leader of the “Save Our State” initiative—who objected to what they considered propaganda condoning illegal immigration. Stunned by the controversy, caught in the glare of the press (including the New York Times), and threatened with a boycott, United Markets decided to shred the bags in question. Within days, however, hundreds of customers, some of whom resented the racist tenor of the controversy, deluged the stores with requests that the bags not be shredded. As a result they were distributed among individuals, schools, and various local charities. Buoyed by this support, United Markets decided not to shred the bags, but to give them away upon request. Meanwhile, the other three bags were distributed as intended—filled with food and taken home. Still, in the case of the boy from El Salvador, the political pressure from several dozen outraged citizens flattened the bags from vessels filled with public meaning to perhaps their most trivial dimension: it flattened them, ironically, into art.

Jeff Kelley