LONG ISLAND CITY — Chef Eddie Rigo came to the United States from São Paulo, Brazil, 20 years ago in search of a better life. He was escaping the escalating crime in his country and violent attacks on his family’s business.
“After the last robbery, there were guns. We were so scared,” he said. “The very next day, I decided I didn’t want to stay here anymore.” Rigo moved to Long Island and began working at a pizzeria. He later worked at different restaurants in New York, and he became a U.S. citizen in 2015.
In 2018, when Rigo was approached by local artist Betsy Ashton to have a painting of himself for her series, “Portraits of Immigrants,” he couldn’t say no to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Upon seeing his full portrait, he said he was honored.
“I’m immortal now,” he joked. “It’s priceless. These portraits contrast how [the government] is painting immigrants today.”
For Ashton, the series is a way to visually tell the stories of the extraordinary lives of ordinary immigrants she encountered in daily life — from a nurse practitioner to her local grocer. The point was to remind Americans about “who today’s immigrants really are.”
“I got angry when I heard the hate speech coming out of the 2016 election — all of this denigration of today’s immigrants, and I live here. I live in Queens, which is that part of New York that has the longest concentration of foreign-born people on the planet. And I’m saying it’s not true,” Ashton, who calls herself a “traditional, brushy-realist” artist, said.
“My goal is to open the hearts and minds that have been tainted and closed by this nasty rhetoric — to promote empathy and understanding and love, brotherly love. That’s the kind of America that I grew up in,” she said.
“These are the people who are building America and who continue to build it.”
Ashton’s upcoming exhibition, “Portraits of Immigrants,” will showcase 18 of her portraits and her subjects’ stories, from refugees to undocumented migrants. It runs from Feb. 14 until March 8 at Divine Mercy Parish’s Green Door Gallery in Williamsburg.
Ashton said she starts by looking for people from certain places, religions and backgrounds, whom she said came to the U.S. for different reasons, but were all searching for a way out of their home countries.
“People don’t just leave their homes; they are running away from something,” Ashton said, citing crime, poverty, war and political upheaval as reasons people migrate. “They are the good people who don’t want their children to be butchered by some drug gang. I’m trying to tell the truth. Because somebody keeps trumpeting all over the media, shouting one thing. But that’s not the real story. It’s important for the American people to see who they are … These are people who are incredible risk-takers.”
Ashton was deeply moved by the story of one woman in particular. Her name is Maria, a Guatemalan migrant who crossed the Rio Grande River, seeking refuge and a better life for her family. For more than 20 years, she worked as a housekeeper to send money back to her impoverished children, until she could see them back in Guatemala as grown adults.
“She put herself at risk, leaving her family,” Ashton said. “I remember one week after finishing the portrait, Maria got her green card. The sacrifices some of these people have gone through are just incredible.”
Another of her subjects was Porez Luxama, a Catholic who emigrated from Haiti at the age of 18. After escaping the violence in his home country, he and his mother moved to Brooklyn for a safer and better life. He became a teacher, and in 2006, he started a community nonprofit called Life of Hope with his brother Father Juan Luxama, the parochial vicar at the Shrine Church of St. Bernadette in Dyker Heights.
Luxama said that the best way for immigrants to assimilate is by serving others. “We’re in a position to give back, so the people who come after us don’t have to struggle,” he said.
He thanked Ashton for her work, saying that her series “speaks first to our value … we need to keep building bridges from generation to generation.”
Portraits of Immigrants exhibit opens to the public on Friday, Feb. 14th at Divine Mercy Parish’s Green Door Gallery (206 Skillman Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11211), and runs for four weekends until Sunday, March 8.