This past August, I got a call from Karla Almendarez-Ramos who manages the City of Richmond’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. She said, “Joe, I need a writer to help me and an artist write profiles of immigrants as a celebration of National immigrants’ Day this coming October 28. Would you be interested?”

Immediately, I responded, “Yes, I’d love to work on this.” I have written about and reflected on the subject of immigrants’ journeys previously, both interviewing recent immigrants and reflecting on my own family’s migrating from Eastern Europe to come to the United States. My wife, who is from Mexico, and I have lived in Richmond, VA since 2013. 

I’m excited to partner with the artist, teacher and muralist Alfonso Pérez Acosta who has painted 24 portraits of immigrants from around the world who call Richmond, Virginia home. I have had the great opportunity to interview them and write their life stories, usually in one page or less. 

Themes of Language and Gratitude

National Immigrants’ Day has been celebrated since 1986 but mostly in places like New York City. We want to bring this celebration to Richmond, VA to highlight the diversity of our community and the variety of languages spoken (in addition to English). In writing their stories, I wanted to shed light on the challenges of migration and displacement as well as explore the commonalities of learning to speak English and acculturating to America.

In speaking with them, I have learned that Richmond is a much more international and diverse city than I ever realized. More importantly, every person I have interviewed is grateful to call the peaceful city of Richmond, Virginia home. Our subjects truly appreciate America’s freedom, democracy and the way their neighbors have accepted them. They have changed how I see my own city and country. And so, the theme of gratitude has superseded the original theme of language. 

Virtual Exhibit

We will unveil three portraits on October 28th, National Immigrants Day, and then one every weekday on through Thanksgiving, to honor their message of gratitude. In addition, you will find the portraits and stories on Alfonso Pérez’s Instagram page, A Drawing Table, the Office of Multicultural Affairs Facebook page and on my website here. 

In-Person Exhibit

We encourage you to see the exhibit at Studio Two Three in Scott’s Addition (3300 W. Clay Street Richmond, VA 23230), which will show the portraits in their large picture windows from November 23 through December 7. You can walk or drive by during this time of social distancing.

Exhibit Projections Outside

Studio Two Three will also project Alfonso’s Portraits of Immigrant Voices after dark on its own building for the opening of the exhibit on November 23, and hopefully every evening while the exhibit is up. Stay tuned for further details about when and where else the portraits will be projected after dark. We hope to keep the exhibit going through International Migrants Day on December 18.

In Gratitude to Our Sponsors

Many thanks to the City of Richmond’s Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) and Virginia Humanities for funding this project. The mission of the OMA is “To create equitable opportunities for all residents across the City of Richmond by overcoming cultural and language barriers.”

Do you know immigrants to Virginia and America who want to share their stories? Please invite them to share their story by contacting me. Also, we want to turn this artistic project into an educational endeavor. Do you work at a school that would be interested in creating educational, historical and/or storytelling activities out of these portraits and stories? Please contact me to share your thoughts. 

Portraits of Immigrant Voices Poster
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