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'With Love and Compassion': Immigrant artists transcend language barriers

Artist Francisco Gonzalez poses with his artwork, a shadowbox dedicated to his husband, titled "With Loved and Compassion."
Kayla Young
WFAE/La Noticia
Artist Francisco Gonzalez poses with his artwork, a shadowbox dedicated to his husband, titled "With Love and Compassion."

This story was produced through a collaboration between WFAE and La Noticia. You can read it in Spanishat La Noticia. Puedes leer la nota en españolen La Noticia.

It was Valentine’s Day 1994 when artist Francisco Gonzalez inadvertently began his move to Charlotte. He had traveled from Mexico City to see a sick friend in San Francisco.

“He was very weak. And he said, ‘go out, it's Valentine’s. Maybe you will find love,’” Gonzalez said. “There was one little bar on Castro Street that was open. So, I went to that little bar. He was there and then we started dancing.”

That man was his now husband, Michael, who was visiting from Charlotte. The two appear in an embrace in Gonzalez’s work, “With Love and Compassion”.

His shadowbox tribute to their love story is one of two pieces of art about the immigrant experience that will be auctioned Friday evening, as part of a fundraiser for International House, a nonprofit that promotes immigrant culture and integration.

“The main image is a portrait of me and my husband. He's covered in the Mexican flag and I'm wearing the American flag,” Gonzalez said. “Below to the left hand is a phone because he used to call me from his office. Then I have the first letters we exchanged from 1994.”

Building a life together in Charlotte wasn’t easy, however. The two wouldn’t be able to marry for 20 years due to restrictions on same-sex marriage. During that time, Gonzalez was forced to live in hiding.

“I think everybody's carrying a trauma still. It's still there in the back of my head. But, yes, I certainly know that I did the right thing coming here,” he said. “Here I concentrate on my art. It was my husband who told me, ‘OK, I want you to do something creative because that’s what you did before.’ And that was the first time someone encouraged me.”

Aguinaldo Santos has dedicated his portrait, "Brothers", to a friend in Brazil who inspired him to keep creating.
Kayla Young
WFAE/La Noticia
Aguinaldo Santos has dedicated his portrait, "Brothers", to a friend in Brazil who inspired him to keep creating.

The second featured artist, Aguinaldo Santos from Brazil, pays tribute to a childhood friend, Lucas, with a black-and-white portrait titled “Brothers.” When Santos moved to Charlotte to study at Central Piedmont Community College in 2018, his friend encouraged him to continue creating art.

“He said, ‘Hey, it's looking good. Just do it for you. Don't do it for people.’ And it's a reminder in my mind all the time,” Santos said. “Two years ago, I started just doing [art] for me and I was so happy because I remembered when I was a child doing my art and it was like my freedom place.”

Living in Charlotte and creating art represents the culmination of a long-held dream for Santos.

“I've been dreaming of the U.S.A. for so long because I grew up without my parents. I've been working since I was 13,” Santos said. “Here, I didn't find money, like many people say, but I found myself. That dream that I had, I'm living now.”

International House Director Autumn Weil says the organization selected the pieces of art, originally for an exhibition titled "The Journey," to depict the complexity of the immigrant experience.

“The journeys that many of them go through can both be joyful, as well as heart-wrenching and sorrowful. And so, we wanted to give them a platform to show that,” she said. “To see a piece of art that somebody has poured themselves into because of an experience that they've had, I think transcends language barriers.”

The artwork will be two of the main auction items Friday evening during International House’s fundraiser “Tapas & Testimonials” at the Mint Museum Randolph.

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Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.