In the Mexican state of Michoacán in a third-grade art class, an 8-year-old Gustavo Garcia was told to cut an animal-shaped bottle in half and then pour plaster into the makeshift mold. This was Garcia’s first foray into the art world.
“That’s how I learned mold making, before I even knew what mold making was,” Garcia, a senior printmaking major, said.
Two years later, for another project, Garcia was instructed to pour plaster into a shoebox, then carve shapes into it and paint into the carving. Although the fifth-grade Garcia didn’t know it, he was doing a technique called “secco.”
Born in the town of Rincon del Chino, Garcia came to the U.S. when he was in seventh grade.
“It’s free, it’s freedom,” Garcia said of his rural hometown. “We lived far away from people. I grew up where I could do anything. If I wanted to start a fire, I did. If I wanted to break bottles, I did. If I wanted to run around, I did.”
Garcia described the town as having a population of 1,000 people, but being very spread out.
“My dad had been coming [to the U.S.] since 1978, illegally at first, and he started coming to California, and he’d go for six months at a time and then come back for six months,” Garcia said. “Then in the Reagan era, there was the amnesty [program] that passed in the 1980s. During that time he got a visa to come in and out of the country freely. After that he put in an application for his whole family, which included myself and [my] three brothers [and one] sister.”
Garcia’s father applied for his family to come to the U.S. in 1994, but it wasn’t until seven years later that the family was approved for an interview to get considered for entry, which still didn’t guarantee they’d get to join his father. During the waiting period, Garcia’s father would still go back and forth from the U.S. to Mexico.
In 2001 Garcia and his family arrived in New Oxford, Pa., where he was able to explore his artistic side.
It wasn’t until he entered the eighth grade, however, that Garcia made a conscious decision to pursue art, he said.
“When I came to the states and started school here that’s when I started art,” Garcia said. “I came into seventh grade, and I barely remember any of the projects. What really stood out to me was when the high school kids came to visit and showed us their art projects. Then I thought, ‘I want to take art classes next year.’”
Despite being new to the country and not knowing English, Garcia said he found the English as a Second Language program too easy for him.
“They phased me out because I was complaining too much,” Garcia said. “It helped me because it put me at the same level as the [English speaking students] and I actually ended up doing a lot better than some of them in English which was surprising.”
In his art class, language was no hindrance, and Garcia was able to explore different mediums with more ease. The first thing Garcia said he learned was drawing still life, and then moving onto other mediums like clay. Pencil drawings, he said, were his strong suit.
Toward the end of his high school career, Garcia had completed all of the art classes his high school had to offer and then began to put his portfolio together for art schools.
“My portfolio had ceramics, pencil drawings, charcoal drawings, pen drawings and paintings,” Garcia said. “[Tyler School of Art’s] five drawing rule requires you to have five drawings in your portfolio.”
Garcia said all Tyler students need to show five drawings in their portfolio despite their intended concentration because drawing shows an understanding of visual elements.
“When a [Tyler] counselor came to my high school I laid everything out for him and he said, ‘Very nice I’m just going to review your portfolio right now and get it out of the way,’” Garcia said.
His portfolio passed the impromptu review for consideration into Tyler and he eventually got accepted. Garcia entered in Fall 2008, which was the last semester the art school was located in Elkins Park, Pa., before the school moved to Main Campus.
He is the first of his six siblings – of which he is the second youngest – to go to college, and the first of his extended family as well. Garcia described his parents as supportive of his choice to go into the arts.
“It was my extended family that would say, ‘You should be a lawyer, you should be a doctor,’” Garcia added.
In his sophomore year Garcia was accepted to Temple Rome. Garcia chose to take classes for a full academic year as opposed to the standard one semester. Staying for the full year allowed him to gain a visa for a longer period of time and have the opportunity to come and go as he pleased, he said.
“I continued to take printmaking courses there, and I took a lot of art history and drawing,” Garcia said. “In the spring I took an independent study. It was kind of cool because you find yourself back in your freshman year when you almost don’t know anybody because you’re in a different place. You get a chance to look back, reflect a little bit and find your new self.”
While in Rome, Garcia was reminded a lot of his life growing up in Mexico.
“I lived there until I as about 12 [years old],” Garcia said. “A lot of the stuff, like the markets and even the landscapes outside the city reminded me of the country. You can reflect a lot on your family because you’re so far away from them. There’s hardly any [washing machines there], there’s no microwaves, you have to do everything by hand. I was kind of used to it.”
Upon returning to the U.S. Garcia was approached by Migrant Education Technological Center for Adults and their Families in Gettysburg, Pa., to teach a photography course to migrant parents. The center also offered courses in basic computers skills and ESL.
The students were supplied with Canon Powershot cameras and Garcia taught the adult students how to use the cameras’ manual settings, with instruction in both English and Spanish.
“It’s so easy to think about things in English, since I was used to learning photography in English,” Garcia said. “So I had to translate a lot of the technical terms, which would get confusing.”
Garcia added: “The migrant workers were a challenge because most of them were parents. It was like when you try to teach your mom or dad how to use the remote.”
Part of the program involved the students documenting their daily lives with disposable cameras, an effort that culminated into the publishing of a book featuring the work of the migrant workers, and a photo exhibit that took place in Gettysburg last October.
“I think I learned a lot,” Garcia said. “Not just from the classes, but [also] from the parents and the story they had. You learn you don’t know your country until you meet somebody else from a different region because they can tell what they do where they’re from and the customs they do that you don’t do. So you kind of have to leave Mexico to understand it.”
Currently, Garcia said, METCAF had to cut the program due to budget cuts and it is only offering English courses. The directors of METCAF are currently writing grants to reboot the program.
Garcia’s teaching career didn’t end with METCAF as he is also pursuing a teaching certificate. He currently student teaches at Philadelphia High School for Girls.
“They’re very eager to learn and receptive to [learning],” Garcia said of his current students. “You end up second-guessing yourself since you’re really not that far from them [in age] but you’d be surprised how far you are mentally.”
In his final semester, Garcia is working at Brandywine Workshop where some of his responsibilities include cataloguing work, organizing exhibits and reaching out to potential artists in residence. Upon graduating in May, Garcia plans to stay in Philadelphia and at Brandywine Workshop.
Garcia said he hopes to continue to explore different mediums and his own culture.
“My interest has moved to learning what assimilation does to your culture,” Garcia said. “What you choose to keep, what aspects go away. Seeing what new immigrants bring with them and what immigrants that have been here for more than one generation retain.”
Luis Fernando Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @theluisfernando.