Noches en el Pueblo de Dios or Nights in the town of God by Raelis Vasquez

“It’s okay.”

-B, Sanctuary City

One short sentence. Two small words. Often used when we are simply trying to get by. However, for the characters in Sanctuary City, these two words took over their lives. Through this new drama staged earlier in the season, Arena Stage continued an ongoing conversation regarding immigration status. Sanctuary City is a journey filled with endurance, passion, and struggle that truly makes you think. Two friends, identified as only B and G, show how immigration can affect anyone—physically, emotionally, and mentally.

In 2019, more than 44.9 million immigrants lived in the United States. That’s about 13.7% of the total U.S. population. Immigrants from all over the world have to check the same items off their list in order to become a citizen or receive a visa. The process of trying to receive their citizenship, green card, or even a visa, is brutal. It can take up to 2 years to be finalized and cost up to $725 in total. Not only do you have to prove to the U.S. that you belong, but you also have to face the cruelty that lies outside your door. Oftentimes a label like “Immigrant” or “Alien” sticks to you; the judgment, the inequality, the assumptions. That was not the case for Raelis Vasquez. Rather than let that one word define him, he used it to drive him. What better day to tell his story than World Art Day?

Dominican-American artist Raelis Vasquez has beautifully brought attention to the Afro-Latinx community through his art. Born in the Dominican Republic, Vasquez is from Mao Valverde in the countryside, or “el campo” as the locals call it. Mao Valverde is a small town with barely any electricity or running water, but an immense amount of love, as his art shows. In 2002, when he was only 7 years old, he immigrated to the United States—a new country with a totally different culture. Vasquez thought the immigration process was a normal thing that everyone had to go through; the paperwork, the tests, even the cost. Little did he know that this was one of the most strenuous processes that one could go through, especially at such a young age.

Abuelo en Casa or Grandfather at home by Raelis Vasquez, 2017

Although he was away from home, he never forgot where he came from. Using old family photos from both D.R. and the U.S., Vasquez began bringing them to life through drawing and paintings. What started as a simple hobby would soon be a hit! As he grew, so did his paintings, and he quickly realized this was his calling. He told Voyage Chicago, “Growing up here in the United States, I would rarely ever see images of myself or the community that weren’t depicted stereotypically in the media,” Vasquez made it clear that he wanted to depict Afro-Latinos as people. People who live a simple life and find joy with their family and friends. Not people that are only showcased for their skin tones and race. 

According to a Pew Research Center study, in 2020 there were about 6 million Afro-Latinos in the United States, making up 2% of the U.S. adult population and 12% of the adult Latino population. Vasquez felt that “artists point their finger in the direction that not everyone wants to look.” He knew that he needed to bring more attention toward the Afro-Latino community and that the best way to do so would be through his art.

Vasquez continued toward a higher education and graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a BFA in Painting and Drawing. Shortly after, he was featured in Apple’s live art gallery in 2018. Throughout his career, his paintings have been featured in galleries all throughout Chicago, California, New York, and  beyond. Now a recent graduate from Columbia University, Vasquez is based in New York and New Jersey where his art continues to grow. Vasquez had two pieces showcased at New York City’s El Museo del Barrio as part of its Estamos Bien – La Trienal 20/21 exhibit, and his work has also gone international, being shown in galleries in Germany and France.

Noches en el Pueblo de Dios or Nights in the town of God by Raelis Vasquez, 2020

Like the character B in Sanctuary City, Vasquez came to this country as a young child. He went through struggles, but didn’t let it define him. Was he an immigrant? Yes. Did he work hard and accomplish great things? Yes! Unfortunately, not every immigrant’s story ends this way. 

What you just read was the best possible outcome. But I also want to shed light on the opposite end. The reality is not all immigrants receive citizenship right away and sometimes never do…due to finances, family, or even fear. I thought to myself, how has immigration affected me personally? My mom came to the United States when she was just a little girl. Soon after, she received a green card, and only recently became a U.S. citizen. This just shows how long this process can take. Whether it’s because of delays, or verification, it’s a journey to get to the finish line. 

You can follow Vasquez’s journey on Instagram @raelis.

Resources that can help

Legal Immigration 

Asylum Status 

Undocumented Immigration