Transportapueblos: Mexican Artist Libre Gutiérrez Creates Sculptures That Support Migrants
Libre Gutierrez is a visual artist originally from Tijuana, Mexico. His work draws upon a variety of mediums, including street art, painting, and sculpture, and has been displayed in countries across the world, including Mexico, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Greece, and South Africa.
One of Libre’s most recent projects, “Transportapueblos” (the “town” or “people” transporter), is a series of wooden coyotes that the artist constructed to be displayed at various points along train routes that are used frequented by migrants traveling through Mexico from Central America.
Libre was inspired to create the project after having spent time as a volunteer at the migrant shelter, Casa Tochan in Mexico City, and after in 2018 when he accompanied a migrant caravan, traveling for days on top of a freight train across Mexico. In conversation, he described himself as a migrant as well, leaving his home in Tijuana to pursue being an artist in Mexico City to work with and learning from migrants across the globe.
Libre describes how he conceived of the project “Transportapueblos:”
The idea arose from conversations with migrants when I was a volunteer at a migrant shelter in Mexico City, called “Casa Tochan.” We would paint there, and do artistic activities, such as drawing and watercolors. Later, we invited the shelter residents to visit museums; museums are free on Sundays in Mexico, so we went to the museums and to Parque Chapultepec to draw. I would invite them to eat or drink coffee, and in our conversations they would tell me about their odyssey, traveling by riding on top of a train, or by bus, and how they had been assaulted or mistreated, either by organized crime or by state authorities. Together, we made a map of the most important places where they stopped in their journey to Mexico City, such as Tapachula. And I asked them if it would helpful to create a sign with directions, or with a map of Mexico, listing the shelters.
Many people do not know that there are 84 migrant shelters or support centers for migrants in Mexico. So I asked them if placing large signs in important places would help. And they said that yes, that it would help lots of people. So I thought of the concept of Transportapueblos which I have used for many years in my murals; for many years I have painted this character, who carried their “pueblo” with them. The idea is that we all have been migrants at some time, and we all carry our culture, our music, our colors, and our tastes on our back. So I decided to create a sculpture, and then tattoo it with information that would help people in transit.
From growing up in Tijuana, Libre has been aware of the realities of migration throughout his entire life. He describes an experience that greatly impacted him when he was only ten years old:
I remember when I was younger, and I played with my ten or eleven year old neighbor. The boy’s father would disappear for two or three months, and then would return, and disappear again. And I asked the boy where his father was, and he told me that he crossed the border illegally. He had gone by the ocean with a group of people, and they would arrive on the beach. He would place all of his clothes and belongings in bags, and cross the water by night. This impacted me greatly, when I was only ten years old, and I wondered how this was possible.
The image of the coyote portrayed in “Transportapueblos” is not new to Libre; he has been developing this character for the past 12 years.
Libre describes the meaning of the coyote as a symbol of power and resilience for all people:
The coyote is very present in pre-hispanic cultures, as well as cultures native to the United States, and it’s a symbol of power. In addition, I am playing with the expectation of meaning that it has, as it is associated with the person who kidnaps and robs migrants. I want to change this idea, and this [coyote] is the friend to migrants, and supports people in transit, as well as vulnerable communities.
The Coyotes, along with being a symbol of migration due to their common association with the smugglers that go by the same name, also provide material resources for migrants – on their sides are drawn maps situating them within Mexico, along with a list of resources such as where to find food and shelter. In addition, some of them, like the one in Tapachula, have shelves that are frequently restocked with food, supplies, clothing, or donations.
These coyotes were built in collaboration with local organizations, such as Sin Fronteras in Tapachula, and with the migrant communities where they are located. In addition to the coyotes in Mexico, Libre also constructed one in Los Angeles in partnership with the Museum for Social Justice, outside of Union Station in downtown LA, that provides resources for newly-arrived migrants within the city, and was built in collaboration with immigrant communities.
Working collaboratively and communally is central to all of Libre’s projects. He explains:
I always try to construct my projects in conjunction with communities. I have always wanted what I paint to be something that was agreed upon by everyone – by children, by women – because ultimately I am a visitor. I come, I take part, and I leave. I am not going to live with the piece that I paint or construct, but the resident of that community will.
The collaborative spirit of the project Transportapueblos is common to many of Libre’s other projects, such as the murals he is currently working on in a poor neighborhood of Tijuana in partnership with La Fundacion de Hogares and Ayuntamiento de Tijuana, and collaborative projects he has created in other Mexican cities, such as Mexicali and Jojutla, Morelos. In this most recent mural in Tijuana, Libre wanted his work to serve a function, so he depicted birds, with their wings extending out physically to provide shade and shelter to residents waiting for public transportation.
Libre’s work and collaboration with local communities is admirable, as he uses art as both a form of activism and resistance, as well as a form of supporting and providing hope to migrants traveling through Mexico. His project the, Transportapueblos is still in the process of evolving, and he hopes to continue populating Mexico’s migrant routes with his welcoming statues of coyotes.
Dashiell Allen | Reed College
Dashiell is a senior at Reed College studying Latin American and Peninsular Spanish literature. He is currently writing a thesis on the literary and political production of the Frente de Liberación Homosexual in Argentina during the 1970s and is interested in studying feminist and LGBTQ+ movements in Latin America. At Latina Republic, Dashiell intends to elevate the voices of activists and organizers that work to promote human rights and immigrant rights throughout Mexico. He is excited to contribute to the organization’s mission of breaking stereotypes and bringing attention to underreported stories throughout Latin America.