Faculty Spotlight: Sergio De La Torre

Sergio De La Torre, Associate Professor of Fine Arts in the Department of Art + Architecture at USF, was recently awarded the Art for Justice Fund grant for $100,000. The fund is focused on supporting and promoting art projects that take on the prison industrial complex in the United States. Awardees are nominated from a large pool of individual artists and artists’ collectives working in the United States. 

Prof. De La Torre was nominated for the remarkable work of his Sanctuary City Project, which investigates the actions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the implications of border arrests, and the emergence of private detention centers. Using art that includes print-making, banners, billboards, photography, and video, Prof. De La Torre’s goal is to reveal the hidden and not-so-hidden motivations behind the U.S. government’s punitive actions in the sphere of immigration and the space of the U.S – Mexico border. 

In our conversation, Prof. De La Torre talked about the award, his work, and future projects.  

Tell us how you received the award and your reaction on learning about it?

When I received the award, I got an email in March 2022 from a person saying that they were looking for Sergio De La Torre because he, that is I, had received an Art for Justice Fund award. At first, I thought this was a phishing email. Is this real? The email sender then said that if I don’t believe him, I should check my spam folder. I did, and there it was, in my USF email spam folder where it said I had received an award from the Art for Justice Fund in the amount of $100,000. I was absolutely elated! 

Going back, can you tell us how you got into art, or became an artist? 

That’s another funny story. I finished high school in Mexico when I was 17 years old. I was born in San Diego and so was an U.S. citizen living in Mexico. At 18, in Mexico, you have to decide which citizenship you are going to pick (back then, 1984, there was no dual citizenship) and so I picked the U.S. I never saw myself living in the United States and therefore was kind of surprised that I picked U.S. citizenship. I couldn’t continue studying in Mexico as a national but had to continue as a foreigner and with tuition very high, I didn’t go to school for three years. I had to then establish residency in the U.S., which is when I started working in San Diego. During this time, I took ESL classes, and got thoroughly bored. A friend of mine said, “study art because you don’t need to speak English.” And that’s how I got into photography, painting, design, drawing, and printmaking at the Southwestern College in Chula Vista. 

The art teachers there were part of a collective focused on “border art.” They organized art events – performances, dinner parties, conversations – and had branched out into these other forms in contrast to traditional drawing, painting, and sculpture. Back then, the border didn’t have a wall, it wasn’t militarized, and was far more fluid (that’s where most of the migration from other parts of South and Central America took place, through Tijuana). 

During the 1980s, I was not particularly drawn to “border art” or the kind of work my teachers were doing. I didn’t fully understand these forms of art practice and their implications. After coming to San Francisco in the early 90s—I came to study photography at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC)— acquiring some physical distance between myself and the border is what helped me understand my relationship to the border and the art practices around it. Later, I went and got an MFA in Fine Art at UC San Diego where I worked on my film MAQUILAPOLIS that examines the lives of factory workers at the U.S.-Mexico border. The film premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and was received very well. 

So, my becoming an artist, and my current practice, owes a lot to my early teachers who were practicing “border art’, in particular Liz Sisco.

What can you tell us about your art practice?

During my arts education, I came to the realization that museums and galleries were no longer at the center for the display and dissemination of art. There were other places that were far more vital for art. That realization changed my practice and made me focus more on process, research, interactions with audiences, talking to subjects, and so on. Subsequently, I turned these immersive and experiential practices into artwork. My work is indeed present in museums and galleries but understanding these processes and practices has informed my work. 

What projects are you working on and what are your plans for the future?

An immediate project is to finish a book for the Sanctuary City project. The book will include every phrase we have collected and every poster we have made – about 40 of them – that speak about immigration issues and sanctuary cities. The book will also include data about immigration policy and practice from 1989, when San Francisco became a sanctuary city, to the present. I also have new projects I am working on, in particular about “surveillance ankle monitors” and for that I am working with Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) and the Dreamer Fund. My plan is to interview people that wear these monitors and understand the stigma as well as the emotional and psychological states they go through. I am envisioning an audio installation that expresses these feelings. 

Installation of Sanctuary City posters at the Palo Alto Art Center.



USF for Freedom: A Symposium on Refugees, Forced Migrants, and Human Security

On May 23rd, over 100 people attended the USF for Freedom: A Symposium on Refugees, Forced Migrants, and Human Security where scholars, migrants, service providers, and activists discussed the current state of migration, refugee resettlement in the Bay Area, and local resources that are available. During the symposium and the reception, participants had an opportunity to connect with scholars and activists and learn about the latest developments.  This symposium was created and funded through the Interdisciplinary Action Grant sponsored by CRASE.

Missed the symposium? Check out the Storify from Annick T.R. Wibben and video of the symposium below.

Displacement and Human Security:

Relocation, Resettlement, and Human Security:

Faculty Spotlight: Bill Ong Hing

When Bill Ong Hing completed law school, he intended to work as a legal aid attorney focusing on housing issues in low-income communities. Instead, he landed a job in immigration law. Along with continuing his work with immigrants through the University of San Francisco Immigration Clinic, Professor Hing’s scholarship and teaching is devoted to uncovering the current unjust practices and policies used against refugees and immigrants. During our discussion, we talked about his working with community organizations and the Immigration Clinic.

Bill Ong Hing

How did you first become interested in research?

I was a legal aid attorney for a number of years, and when you are a lawyer, you really do wonder about why the law is the way that it is. You wonder why the people you’re representing are in front of you. If you’re interested in them, it requires research. Sometimes it’s relevant to understanding your client better and your ability to represent them. I’ve always been interested in people’s backgrounds and what motivated them to be where they are and how they ended up where they are.

When you work with individuals who have very interesting life stories, you want to be able to do a good job for them. But also, when you are working in a community, you often hear and see very similar stories, and you want to know why are you seeing recurring problems. It might be housing issues. It might be discrimination issues. It might be language difficulties. When you realize that there’s some phenomenon that’s producing a problem, then you step back and explore the bigger picture and whether or not there are other ways of addressing it.

How has your research transformed from working with individuals and clients to doing larger legal scholarship?

When you start thinking about individual cases and situations, you realize that there are social phenomenon or laws that have wide influence on people. If you want to write about that as a scholar, you understand what policies led to a particular law and if those policies make sense. Another reason is wanting to come up with ideas that help society and your students understand why things are as they are and what it would take to make changes and make people’s lives better. Scholarship is an excellent opportunity to actually put those ideas down in writing. It complements, in my opinion, what activists do in the community.

What are some of the social issues you focus on?

My main focus has been on immigration policy and refugee issues. I’ve written a lot about why people get deported, and whether or not deportation laws make sense when the people have already gone to jail and they were here lawfully as refugees or immigrants, but they made a mistake. If they were citizens, they would have gone to jail, and when they got out, then they go on to lead their lives. But if you’re an immigrant, you get deported after you go to jail. I’m also writing more about the government’s stepped up deportation efforts against unaccompanied children and mothers and children fleeing violence from Central America. This is an unnecessary tragedy that is being visited upon these individuals.

I’ve also written about, how big of a role family is in immigration. For a number of ethnic groups, family immigration is the big issue. They want to be reunited with family members and there ae backlogs for people immigrating from different countries, like the Philippines or Korea or India. Scholarship is a way for me to write critiques of the system and how it could be made better. Recently, I’ve also written about racial justice on issues related to police racism and racial profiling. Not just with respect what we read a lot about today in Ferguson and police officers and black victims, but also racial profiling of Latinos and Asians that take place, that lot of people are not aware of.

What led you down this line of inquiry from family dynamics to current issues of racial profiling?

My interests in different areas of scholarship come from many sources, so it can come from clients in the Immigration Clinic or students who are raising very difficult questions that are not in the class materials. As a teacher, you’re trying to make the students think about whether or not things make sense. But very good and sharp students make the professor do that as well; so great ideas can be generated from students.

Other times, and perhaps most often, it’s from what’s happening with certain institutions and areas that I follow. Because I am interested in immigration, I’m interested when Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Border Patrol arrest young people coming across the border that are fleeing persecution and instead of helping them apply for asylum, they end up in custody or in detention. Today in Europe, there’s a serious refugee situation with respect to Syrians and other Middle-Eastern refugees. And yet some countries of Europe are very open and warm in terms of their welcome for refugees, other countries are not. It’s an invitation to consider where the United States falls in that arena. Those are kinds of examples of common everyday things that are happening that give rise to my interest in scholarship and writing and researching about those issues.

As an academic, how does your work intersect different groups?

I think when you recognize that there are communities out there that we can work with and help, your experience as an academic is much more meaningful. I volunteer and I represent immigrants in partnership with other programs. Here at the law school, we represent immigrants in an immigration clinic that I helped to start. But there are also community-based organizations that need help in fundraising, so I’m on the board of several community-based organizations who have a range of fundraising needs.

Then there are politicians, both nationally and locally, that might be entertaining different legislative ideas and that’s an avenue where an academic can play a big role because academics can have credibility with policymakers. There also are community groups, and I don’t mean agencies but I mean PTAs and other organizations whose members want to stay informed and are very interested in what’s happening in society. When I get invitations to speak in front of groups, I’m happy to do that because I think that is part of our job as scholars and academics. One thing that I really like about the University of San Francisco is that it has a real commitment to the community and to social justice. My colleagues and the administration have always been very supportive of going out and doing community work and speaking with community groups.

Can you tell me more about the Immigration Clinic?

In the summer of 2014, there were large numbers of unaccompanied children that arrived at the border, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and some from Mexico. In fact, that year 2014, about 65,000 arrived. And then there was another equivalent number of women and children who arrived. When that occurred, a certain number of them were released from custody and many of them were transferred to the Bay Area or to other parts of the country where they had friends or relatives. Once they were transferred here, all of them were put in deportation proceedings. Friends of mine in other nonprofit organizations asked if I would help out with cases and I did. I realized that there were just not enough legal services available. I was fortunate enough to raise money to hire a full-time attorney and a full-time office manager/paralegal to help with the cases. At the end of 2015, we had around 80 cases; today we have close to 100 cases They are all youth or women and children that are facing deportation, almost all Spanish speakers. The workload involves going to court a couple of times a week. It involves counseling people who have had some pretty sad and violent experiences; a lot of post-traumatic stress is involved because there’s been abuse at the hand of gang members, sometimes it’s domestic violence, other times it’s drug cartel-related violence. It’s hard to say no to representing these clients. That’s the reason the Immigration Clinic started.

How has the individual experiences of these people impacted you?

I’m outraged, to be honest, that our government actually would detain women and children who are not flight risks. They’re charged very high bond amounts of several thousand dollars or have to wear very uncomfortable ankle bracelets. I’m very disappointed that the government has made their deportation a high priority under the auspices of sending a message to others back in those countries that they shouldn’t come here. It’s very short-sighted because those people really don’t have a choice. They’re fleeing violence and it’s a choice between fleeing or staying and risking their life day to day. The way it’s affected me primarily is that it’s made me even more committed to train students to help do this work, to work with more community agencies to try to come up with a political strategy to convince the government to stop this, to work with other attorneys to help bring legal actions against the government to try to stop the deportations and detentions. It’s motivated me more. That’s the main impact this experience has had on me.

What do you see as your role as an educator to bring these experiences into the classroom?

I think that the classroom becomes much more interesting when you can bring in real issues. Obviously, in every class you always have to do a little bit of history and straight legal analysis, but in the immigration class that I teach, the students are much more interested when you talk about real clients who are facing the law that you are learning about. You understand how the law works against particular people or how it works to help certain people, or how the law of asylum would work, or how the law of family reunification would work in certain circumstances. Real experiences bring the class to life.

Do you find that students need convincing to pursue immigration law?

There are definitely some students who enter law school with a passion for social justice and some of them focus on immigration. Those are the students that I don’t need to coach. But at graduation, I’ve also been scolded by parents who said, “My daughter came to law school because I wanted her to go work downtown. But because of your influence, she’s going to be an immigration lawyer now.” I usually take that as a compliment even though sometimes it’s not intended that way. When some students hear and experience what I’ve been describing, it’s life-changing for them.

What brought you to USF?

I’m interested in social justice and public interest, and that’s very consistent with the mission of the law school, and the mission of the whole university. I love the focus on helping the needy and addressing the social needs of people who are low-income and disadvantaged.

I think that the support for public interest at USF is stronger than other schools. There’s such a strong sense of social justice here. For many years, each summer, the university sent a group of faculty and staff to El Salvador to learn about the history of El Salvador and the role that Jesuits, in particular, played in social justice battles in Central America. I was fortunate enough to go on one of those trips and it’s a great example of the university wanting to remind people of an important history of unfortunate violence and upheaval. The university wants us to remember that history, and examples like that serve as continuing inspiration and impetus for doing good work.

Faculty Spotlight: Lois Ann Lorentzen

Lois Ann Lorentzen’s research and activist work has taken her to Mexico and El Salvador. During our conversation, we discussed how her experience as an activist and wilderness guide contributes to her work as an academic.

Lois Ann Lorentzen. Photo by Shawn Calhoun

How did you first get interested in research?

While studying for master’s degree in California, I was homesick for Minnesota. My master’s had been in Philosophy and Theology, which was very abstract, very intellectual. I loved it, but I really wanted to do something that was more activist and hands on. I saw a Time magazine, and the cover was a boat of refugees in the sea by Vietnam. I found out that Minnesota was a huge destination for migrants and refugees because we have really good social services. In Minnesota, I worked in refugee resettlement with Vietnamese refugees who were coming to the U.S. and with Cambodians who had survived the genocide. It was hands on work—getting people jobs and places to live. Later I realized I could study and research things that I was passionate about, and the last ten years of my career have focused on migration and refugee issues. I feel fortunate to have life passions and research and teaching all fit together.

How did that experience translate into your research?

I became involved in activism against the war in El Salvador. I got to know Salvadorans and activists, and some of the Salvadorans I met said, “You should just go to El Salvador.” I went to El Salvador and realized that this could be my research as well as where I work. For years, I went back and forth. I was studying Salvadoran migration to the U.S. because a fifth of the country left, but I also looked at environmental damage caused by the war. I had been a wilderness guide before my earlier degree, so I had been involved in environmentalism. I had two research focuses—one on the environment and another on immigration. They both came out of life experience.

Do you feel like the role of an activist and the role as an academic are separate roles or interrelated roles? What are those intersections?

They’re separate for me in terms of time. When I’m teaching, when I’m doing research, I don’t have much time to be engaged in communities. When I was working with refugees, it was so intense. There was no time to think, which is why I wanted to do research and become an academic. I thought a lot of the problems I was seeing was because people hadn’t been thoughtful and hadn’t done research to develop policy. In that sense, they’re separate because we’re limited in time and energy.

They’re interrelated in that I think good research can help us understand social problems, and the more you understand root causes, the better you can develop policy and interventions to help address them. They come together in teaching because students aren’t necessarily going to leave college and become a graduate student, but if my teaching is based on very solid research, when they go out and do whatever they’re going to do, hopefully they can do it more thoughtfully.

What are you focusing on in your research?

I have two main projects—one that has been ongoing and one that is relatively new. I’m part of a research network of Jesuit universities on migration, and I have a project with researchers from Guatemala, Mexico, and Chicago. We’ve been doing research on the Arizona-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona looking at human rights abuses and people who are trying to cross, who’ve been deported, who have been in detention centers. We’ve been looking at different agencies, many faith-based or religious, that are trying to meet some of these needs. If it weren’t for religious groups, there would be not many services for migrants.

In Mexico, there are shelters along a route where migrants from Central America cross Mexico on top of a train and it’s super dangerous.  Almost all of the shelters are run by religious groups—mainly Catholics in Mexico. I hadn’t thought about that going into this research. I was researching immigration and then it became obvious that religion was really important in the lives of many migrants. If you don’t have documents in the U.S., you might be afraid to go to a government service, but you wouldn’t be afraid to go to a Spanish-speaking Catholic church with undocumented migrants in the parish

Another research project is less mainstream. Ten years ago in San Francisco, our research team met a group of transgender sex workers from Mexico who would move back and forth between Guadalajara and San Francisco. They’d come here to make money to either get operations or to go back to Guadalajara. In their rooms—they all lived in the hotels in the Tenderloin—they would have altars with a statue of  Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico; usually a statue of St. Jude, who is for lost causes; and then this other figure of Santa Muerte, who’s also known as Holy Death. I never heard of her, so for ten years, I’ve been sort of obsessed with finding out about her.

When I went to Mexico, I tried to learn more about her. This was quite a while ago and no one wanted to talk about her. Since then, she’s become enormously popular. There are millions and millions of followers now throughout Mexico. They have masses to her, and she’s popular with migrants. Since she is seen as death, she’s popular with people with precarious lives because she represents that liminality of understanding death and understanding how dangerous their lives are.

I’m researching why governments are afraid of her. In 2009, the Mexican government ordered their military to bulldoze all the shrines to her along the U.S.-Mexico border. The first article written in English about her was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense because she was also associated with narco traffickers, but that’s sensationalized. Yes, you can find her there, but you can also find her in migrants’ homes. Most recently, I found FBI training manuals where they have workshops because supposedly agents freak out when they go to a crime scene and they see Santa Muerte. I’ve just started thinking about it. Why does a government get involved with a kind of alternative saint? Why does the Mexican government or the FBI care about her?

What are the intersections that you see between your projects?

Some of the people who cross wear Santa Muerte necklaces or charms or they’ll carry little statues of her. Some of the people on the border might be worshippers, so I might talk to them as well. Surprisingly, some of the police in Mexico who might harass migrants are also worshippers because they’re in a risky job as well. They’re separate projects, but at times they’ll intersect.

What are you hoping to contribute to the conversation?

Most people don’t want to migrate, but they’re forced. So what are the best ways to address that at the root level? Why are people leaving? What are the root causes? What are structural issues to look at? What are the violations? When I teach, I don’t necessarily tell students what I think policy should be, but no matter what policy you have, human rights violations should not happen.

How do you bring research into the classroom at the University of San Francisco?

I’m fortunate at USF because I’ve been able to teach what I want, and it’s valued here. I’ve taught classes on environmental ethics, on religion and the environment. I know the good scholars, I know the best things for students to read. Because of my research in San Francisco, I might take students on field trips or to different communities. I think if you’re engaged in your research then you know the questions to ask, you know what should be taught, you know who they should be reading.

How do you work with students to help them develop their own research skills?

Next fall, USF is starting a masters program in Migration Studies. I’ll be teaching research seminars, and students will be doing original research. Students spend the first semester here, the second semester in Mexico, and the summer in between in internships or fieldwork. We can place students all over the world in migration areas to do research because of the Jesuit network. Then they spend the last year back here. Obviously migration is a huge issue now, so our main goal is to train professionals to be able to better the lives of migrants by being grounded in good research and good knowledge. At USF, we have a lot of depth of experience in migration.

How did you end up at USF?

At the Jesuit University in San Salvador, six Jesuits were assassinated by the military as well as their housekeeper and their daughter during the war. I used to spend a lot of time at that university and think, “What is this like for students to know that their faculty were just murdered for speaking the truth?” The Jesuits made this big impact on me. When I was looking for jobs, there was this job at this Jesuit university in Philadelphia. I thought, “Jesuits, they’re cool,” so I took that job. I liked it. I was there for 3 years, but I was really, really homesick for the West because there’s wilderness and I had been a wilderness guide. I saw the job at a Jesuit university in San Francisco. It was like a dream come true. A lot of the Salvadoran activists I knew and friends from my mountain climbing days lived in San Francisco. I just packed everything in my little red pickup and drove across the country and I’ve been here for 24 years.

Do you have a favorite wilderness spot that you like to go to?

My old wilderness guide friends, several of us have this one spot in the Sierra Nevada that’s very remote. It’s like our dream spot in the world. It’s on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. You go out of Bridgeport, you go hike the mountains, you go off the trail, and that’s all I’ll tell you.