How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Thanks for the kites and the love, Banksy

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This morning I went in search of what I'd hoped might be a remaining version of British guerilla street artist Banksy's stencil nicknamed "Caution," a parody of the famous migrant family freeway sign that for years was a fixture of the drive between Los Angeles and San Diego on Interstate 5. But no luck. Like the better-known stencil at First and Soto streets, the image that was briefly captured on the bridge at Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Pleasant Avenue - and which may or may not have been Banksy's - is also gone.

Banksy art began popping up throughout L.A. in the days leading up to yesterday's Academy Awards ceremony as the elusive artist, a best-documentary nominee for his film "Exit Through the Gift Shop," made the rounds of the town. The "Caution" stencil portrayed the familiar running migrant family, only flying a kite instead of making a harrowing sprint across the freeway.

The street art blog Melrose & Fairfax and several others reported the defacing and subsequent cutting-out-of-the-wall last Friday of the stencil at First and Soto, which Banksy claimed on his website. But there were a couple of unclaimed near-identical stencils of the kite-flying immigrant family spotted around the city, including one in South Los Angeles and the one on the bridge in Boyle Heights, featured in a video on the Eastside culture blog Mis Neighbors, below.

On Saturday, Melrose & Fairfax reported that the family on the bridge had been tagged with a dollar sign. No word on the South L.A. stencil, which like this one may have either been Banksy's or the work of a copycat. Meanwhile, there's a little memorial to the vanished "Caution" on the filled-in hole in the wall off First Street.

Banksy's whimsical take on the family was the latest interpretation of the running-family sign by a series of artists over the years, and gave a sweetly optimistic touch to an image with a dark past.

The sign was originally designed by Caltrans artist John Hood, who I interviewed a few years ago. Several of them went up in the San Diego area in the early 1990s, during a period when smugglers were instructing people to run across the freeway to avoid immigration authorities, often leading them to their death.

Now synonymous with illegal immigration, the sign has been claimed by artists, immigration restrictionists and immigrant advocates, most recently by supporters of the Dream Act, some of whom have sported t-shirts and put up posters portraying the family as cap-and-gown wearing college graduates.

The most familiar of the signs along I-5 in Camp Pendleton are gone, but last I checked, a couple of the signs closer to the border in the San Ysidro area were still standing.

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