Journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, chased by death threats in Mexico and deportation fears in the U.S., has found his emotional peace not through the familiarity of a writer’s keyboard, but at the tip of an artist’s brush.
Own your own story, therapists say, or the story will own you. As he awaits a decision on his asylum claim, Gutiérrez has found a way to own the telling of his story, too.
On Nov. 1, about 50 of Gutiérrez’ paintings will be on exhibit in his current home of Ann Arbor, Mich. Called “Memories and Migration,” the show is an accumulation of small Northeast Mexico and New Mexico desert panoramas as well as Ann Arbor scenes.
“I am not a painter. I am not an artist. I am a journalist,” he told me recently. “It’s a way to find a door through which I can detach myself from feelings that have caused me so much pain. As a journalist, I see it as just another form of communication.”
Together, the paintings represent a trajectory that began in 2008 after El Diario Noreste published Gutiérrez’ stories about corruption in the Mexican military. First, soldiers ransacked his home. Then came death threats.
With his 15-year-old son Oscar at his side, he fled his home in the state of Chihuahua to request asylum in the U.S. The backlog of cases was long, so long that Gutiérrez and his son settled into Las Cruces, New Mexico, to live and work while awaiting a hearing before an immigration judge.
Time passed, but in July of 2017, a judge denied his asylum request and ordered father and son deported. Things looked bleak. Gutiérrez and his son were placed in custody.
The National Press Club, along with 18 other journalism organizations, joined in an appeal of the asylum denial. Gutiérrez also was invited to join the 2018-2019 Knight-Wallace Fellowship class at the University of Michigan as a senior press freedom fellow. After nearly eight months in detention, father and son were released.
By then, the Board of Immigration Appeals had sent the case back to the immigration judge for a new hearing. In February of this year, the judge again concluded Gutiérrez’ had not proven his reporting prior to 2008 would make him a target for harm if he returned to Mexico.
Lynette Clemetson, director of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship, remembers the days around that ruling as incredibly tense. Two Michigan members of Congress – Democrat Debbie Dingell and Republican Fred Upton – weighed in on his behalf. And Gutiérrez’ lawyer filed an appeal, effectively staying a deportation. The appeal remains pending.
Meanwhile, Mexico this year became the deadliest country for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, in a report in August, identified 12 murdered journalists this year.
The accumulated stress caused by fleeing the military in Mexico, the long uncertainty of his asylum claim, the near deportations, the fear over the fate of his son, they have all taken a psychological toll on Gutiérrez. Last year, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, a condition his lawyer, Eduardo Beckett, said arises from his treatment in the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the indifference of an immigration judge.
For all that, Gutiérrez displays a certain equanimity.
“Rather than focusing on his trauma or his legal fight, he’s focusing on the places in his memory that give him peace,” Clemetson said. “I’ve been quite surprised at the sense of optimism that his work conveys because he doesn’t always express that verbally.”
When his fellowship ended in late spring, Gutiérrez’ first instinct was to head back to New Mexico. After all, it had been home for nearly eight years.
But the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration had created a perilous environment, even for immigrants legally in the country. “Private militias had taken it upon themselves to round up people they thought were undocumented immigrants at gun point. It was just crazy vigilantism,” Clemetson said. “So people advised him not to come back.”
He stayed in Ann Arbor, and so did Oscar. Now both are working – Oscar at a local restaurant; Gutiérrez as a ranch hand at a sustainable farm. But it’s his paints that define him.
“Sometimes I feel a need to paint but I sit with my paper and my paints at my side and I don’t paint anything. Because nothing reveals itself,” he said. “Then there are times when it suddenly grabs me to paint and I finish three pieces in one afternoon.”
The desert is a common theme. The brush strokes are bold, almost turbulent, and the colors vibrant. But they also communicate a certain serenity. And no matter how arid a scene they depict, there’s always a representation of water.
“I don’t know why,” he said, “perhaps because of a need to cleanse. Perhaps it’s something intuitive or unconscious, the search for water.”
Though untrained as an artist, Gutierrez has a good sense for communicating visually — he began his work in journalism as a photographer.