Queer Latinx artist sheds light on colonialism, immigration, and xenophobia using the human body

By Samantha Deras and Alison Sincebaugh

The smell of white sage and the sound of jingling keys filled the Media Art Gallery on Avery Street on Oct. 14 as a Mexico-City-born artist displayed a new performance piece. 

“Go Back to Where You Came From!” is a performance-lecture piece by Emilio Rojas that investigates the history of colonialism and border trauma while highlighting xenophobia, queerness, and the contamination of interpersonal spaces.

As a queer, Latinx, immigrant, and indigenous multidisciplinary artist, Rojas uses performance, photo, video, and  his body in political and critical ways to reexamine a variety of topics. Rojas said his goal with “Go Back to Where You Came From!” was to inspire audiences to view the history of colonialism and immigration through a different lens. 

This installation was one of the many works in part of Rojas’ newest exhibition titled “tracing a wound through my body.The exhibition, which debuted on Sept. 22 in collaboration with Emerson Contemporary, focuses on immigration, identity, history, xenophobia and trauma. 

Dr. Leonie Bradbury, a leading curator of contemporary art for ArtsEmerson, explained why ArtsEmerson chose to collaborate with Rojas. 

“I was interested in having works brought to campus that were exploring immigration and issues around immigration because it was a topic that was in the news quite a bit,” Bradbury said in an interview with The Beacon. “This exhibition, when it was pitched to me, I thought it hit on so many different notes.” 

Bradbury explains that although Rojas’ exhibition highlights immigration and xenophobia, it also comments on contamination in intimate spaces. 

“It’s not just about the U.S. Mexico border,” Bradbury said. “It’s also about all these different kinds of boundaries, like personal boundaries and societal boundaries. I thought that it could really connect to a whole wide range of classes that are being taught at Emerson and different communities that are at Emerson.” 

As audience members trickled into the gallery, Rojas circled the space, wearing only a blue jumpsuit with the Santa Maria boat replica and the words “go back to where you came from” embroidered in white on the back. The gallery smelled of an earthy aroma, coming from a bundle of sage Rojas was burning while holding a banana in his mouth and shaking a carabiner of keys. 

Rojas sat on the floor, covering his face with a large book. He shouted a variety of xenophobic remarks as he ripped the book page by page. He then went into a lecture on colonialism, the effects of xenophobic behavior, and a retelling of his own experiences with xenophobia. Rojas ended the show by displaying himself in the nude and pouring a jar of maple syrup on himself.

“The whole [performance] was eye-opening to say the least,” said Skylar Hutcheon, a freshman communications major. “When he was talking, he went from very serious topics [to] personal anecdotes that made it a little bit lighter. He balanced out the way he wanted to perform and reenact his experience of going through all of this and it was very new and different.”

Members outside of the Emerson community also enjoyed the performance. Audience member Amy Coronado said she was eager to watch the performance after hearing about it through a Latinx work group chat on Slack. 

“I’ve never had somebody tell me to go back where I came from, but have been asked, ‘Where are you really from? What’s your background?’” Coronado said. “I answered [with] what I studied in college, and they [would say] ‘No, I meant, where are your parents from?’ Having had that experience, I wanted to see what the artist had to say about it.”

Coronado said the performance was an important reminder of colonialism. 

“I teared up when [Rojas] said ‘I would call this Turtle Island’ because that is really deep into the truth of it,” she said. “Bringing the [Santa Maria] boat back was a beautiful gesture and showed that [almost nobody] came from here.”

tracing a wound through my body” will be on display until Nov. 6, and Rojas’ artwork will be showcased at a variety of locations on Emerson’s campus, including Little Building, Iwasaki Library, Bill Bordy Theater, and the Media Arts Gallery. 

ArtsEmerson hopes to have more exhibitions in the coming months that will resonate with the Emerson community and encourage vital conversations about urgent matters.

“As a curator, I’m much more interested in how artists can expand how we think about certain things that are happening in society,” Bradbury said, “or how—through the lens of their artwork—[artists] could allow us to think about an issue differently.”