Standing before a sea of grass and trees, the man has a rake in his right hand and wears the kind of knee pads that gardeners often wear. That’s what he is: A gardener. But he’s also an undocumented immigrant from Villahermosa, in the south of Mexico, and his Bay Area life and Mexican backstory come to life in Sofía Córdova’s Muni bus shelter series along Market Street.
The series depicts six people who live in the Bay Area, as part of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s “Sanctuary City” project, which commissioned four artists to delve into the idea of San Francisco as a sanctuary. Córdova, who lives and works in Oakland, decided to raise questions about religion and sanctuary while spotlighting the lives of people she met. Her work of the Mexican-American gardener is topped with a cross, and the depicted greenery is shaped like Villahermosa’s coat of arms, which derives from Spanish colonists. One of Córdova’s six profiled figures is Native American, who were once given sanctuary by the Catholic church if they converted to Catholicism.
“Often, their safety and the safety of their children was predicated on a forced sanctuary, where they had to abandon their traditional beliefs,” Córdova tells SF Weekly. “I wanted to talk about the term ‘sanctuary’ as being fundamentally slippery. I’m elevating their stories to a level of worship but also questioning the religious origin of the term.”
Córdova’s gardener art features a brief biography about him, mentioning that he has a daughter in Mexico whom he hasn’t seen for 15 years — and that he listens to reggaeton and bachata music on his phone. Córdova, who has a piece in the YBCA’s new “Bay Area Now” exhibit, titled her bus-shelter series A Body Reorganized.
The Mexican-American gardener has his face mostly obscured — as do many of the other people she worked with for the series because they risk deportation or other legal issues. Still, a Chinese immigrant in the series posed proudly, his hand over his chest as he looks straight into Córdova’s camera. The immigrant was a student leader of China’s 1989 pro-democracy movement that led to the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. He was jailed multiple times in China.
“He says he’s a proud dissident,” Córdova says. “He’s re-finding his life in the United States, and reconnecting with other dissidents. Something beautiful has come out of that: He’s told lots of members of that community about the experience of sitting for me, and they’ve all been reaching out to me. And I’ve been getting lots of emails from him and others about how the experience has felt empowering. And I’m following their plight as they become naturalized as much as possible.”