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Symone Salib’s specialty is centering her artwork on the subjects. Seven immigrant women are the subject of her latest piece. Akeil Robertson/Mural Arts Philadelphia
Symone Salib’s specialty is centering her artwork on the subjects. Seven immigrant women are the subject of her latest piece. Akeil Robertson/Mural Arts Philadelphia

Immigrant Women as Community Cornerstones

 Artist Symone Salib’s newest mural centers seven immigrant women offering experiences often unheard outside their realities.

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A  brand-new temporary mural has been put up at 512 S. Broad St, paying homage to seven different immigrant women community leaders in Philadelphia. 

The mural depicts each woman’s face accompanied by a personal quote, ranging from something they would want to say to their future daughter, to statements on legal status and immigration.

The artist, Symone Salib, who’s personality could fill a room, was commissioned by Mural Arts Philadelphia to construct the piece in honor of World Refugee Day, which took place on Sunday, June 20. 

Based in Philadelphia, Salib also has portraits commissioned at 13th and Arch St. of several prominent Philadelphia-based activists like Rasheed Ajamu, better known as ‘PhreedomJawn,’ along with other installations around the city. 

In a conversation with AL DÍA, Salib shed light on her thoughts on the mural and what it stands for, not only within the Philadelphia community, but also for undocumented and immigrant women across the nation. 

Salib’s mural in honor of World Refugee Day unveiled on July 12, 2021.   Akeil Robertson
Relating to Philly and Beyond

As the daughter of Cuban and Egyptian immigrants, the artist noted the importance of using the mural as a medium to give agency to other immigrant women in the country. Beyond agency, the work is a celebration of the womens’ contributions in all facets of society, and relates to more than just the seven that were selected.

“That is something that is very important to me, just because this portrait might not be of you specifically, that doesn’t mean that this doesn’t stand for people like you,” said Salib.   

She was also intentional about using the mural as a way to shed light on what it is to be an immigrant woman in the United States. Particularly, Salib tried to showcase how oftentimes, immigrants are “othered” in society — something she noted that native born people in the United States might not understand. 

As an artist, Salib said the most rewarding part of designing the piece was her ability to step back and have the public recognize the women she featured in their communities, whose voices might otherwise be drowned out.  

“None of this art is about me,” said Salib. “This art is about other women and being able to visually make something that looks beautiful and like them and looks like other people in the city that don’t really have the opportunity to do something like this.”

For the artist, to provide such a service is a dream come true.

“If I could tell baby Symone that this is what I would be doing at 28, I would be literally crying,” said Salib. “That’s all I could ask for.”  

Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym was on hand to unveil the mural on July 12, 2021.   Akeil Robertson/Mural Arts Philadelphia
Voices to elevate

Speaking of those women featured, AL DÍA was able to talk to one, Ivonne, who asked only to be identified by her first name.

Despite being involved in several local nonprofits for Latinx-Americans, Ivonne said she was surprised to be chosen as one of the featured women. 

When a friend of hers reached out saying that Mural Arts wanted her to be one of the seven women featured on the mural, she said she initially thought she was joking, and didn’t see herself as someone with much influence, rather just a mother. 

Mural Arts thought otherwise and were quick to reach out for an interview, which changed Ivonne’s perspective on the process. 

She commented on how accommodating they were to her, and how Melissa Fogg, the Porch Light Program Manager at Mural Arts, went to great lengths to ensure her voice was heard and understood, despite the language barrier. 

“I loved it because she was someone who cared about me, to understand me in my own language,” said Ivonne. 

“I loved it because she was someone who cared about me, to understand me in my own language,” said Ivonne. 

A majority of the quotes included in the mural were inspirational messages directed towards younger generations of women, and general messages of positivity and acceptance. 

Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden was also at the unveiling to pay tribute to the seven immigrant women subjects. Akeil Robertson/Mural Arts Philadelphia
A message of community unity

However, Ivonne’s deviated from the others, and honed in on a more specific facet of her life: her legal status. 

When asked what motivated her to speak about it along with immigration as her quote, she recounted just a little of her experience as an undocumented woman in the U.S., and the struggles that come along with it.

“I’m one woman out of the 11 million people in the United States who works without papers, who can’t travel, who can see her parents, I can’t,” she said through tears. “There comes a moment where you feel like you’ve had it, and feel like your wings have been cut off, not being able to go home again, just because of some papers... and it’s just not fair.” 

When speaking to those going through similar experiences and with the same frustrations, she went back to her community for support, and emphasized the importance of relying on one another when traversing the day-to-day. What spawns is a lasting community, with long support beams.

“We build a community despite the fear,” said Ivonne.

“We build a community despite the fear,” said Ivonne. “The fear is valid, the fear is respectable, but with the guidance of your community and local organizations you’ll have what you need to be confident… that is what has helped me.” 

Recognizing the unsung heroes of 2020

On Mural Arts’ end, Fogg told AL DÍA that her motivation and inspiration as the organizer and spearhead of the project, came from her past career as a social worker. In that role, she often interacted with newly-arrived immigrant women, heard their stories and provided them with the support and guidance to get their footing in a new country.

She also said she was inspired by the many stories to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, where immigrant women were often the unsung heroes for a U.S. society that was on a steep decline regarding basic necessities.

“A lot of our conversations turned to focus on the impact of the pandemic on women’s work and the additional ‘invisible’ labor they were doing to keep their families and communities functioning,” said Fogg. 

She went on to comment that in the media, the focus was often on white, American-born women with more traditional careers, and not on those propping up society with essential work.

That was especially true for Fogg’s former immigrant women clients, who also faced the brunt of the pandemic’s exacerbated effect on the U.S. economy, its medical infrastructure and already prevalent social issues. On that end, the mural by Salib also gives an opportunity to the featured women as community leaders, to continue advocating for relief around many of the effects that still linger in their communities.

“There was no recognition of all the extra work they were doing to keep their communities afloat in addition to their increased domestic duties — organizing vaccine clinics, interpreting and translating critical health information, advocating for educational equity issues, and so much more. These women were a lifeline for so many people.” said Fogg. “They are, more than ever, real heroes coming out of the pandemic and deserve to have their faces and stories up for people to see.”

  As the project came together, Fogg said she sought to commission Salib as the artist, citing her artistic process of centering the people she works with in the end product. It was a crucial part of picking her as the “right” artist for this project, she said.

The seven immigrant women subjects of the mural represent the impact of immigrant women across Philly and the country amid COVID-19   Akeil Robertson/Mural Arts Philadelphia.
A two-year life, but eternal impact

The mural had a formal dedication on site, at 512 S. Broad St, on July 12.

The ceremony honored the seven women for their impact on the local community, and Salib for her artistic contribution. 

Unfortunately, according to Salib, the mural only has about a two-year shelf life. The space granted to the Mural Arts Foundation sits upon a building slated to be demolished in the near future. 

Despite its demolition, Salib said she thinks there is something special about temporary art. 

“What’s really beautiful about street art is that if you’re in the space to see it, you’re kind of lucky to see it because you don’t know how long it’s gonna stay up for, I think what’s beautiful about public art is that it’s accessible to people all the time,” she said. 

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