How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Before Banksy, the running family was immigration icon and art

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If you don't live in California, you might not be familiar with the road sign that has become synonymous with illegal immigration and immigration in general, and that has spawned countless interpretations over the years. But you may have seen the image itself, or a version of it.

It's the black silhouette of a family of three set against a bright yellow background, the characters leaning forward as they run. There's a man, a woman and a little girl, her pigtails flying. Even without faces, the characters convey a sense of desperation.

The running family was a familiar sight to motorists driving between Los Angeles and San Diego for close to 20 years, emblazoned on signs along Interstate 5. Several of the signs went up in the San Diego area in the early 1990s as a warning to motorists at a time when smugglers were forcing their charges to run across the freeway to evade immigration authorities, often with tragic results.

The week before the Oscars, the elusive British street artist Banksy catapulted the running migrant family back into the spotlight. While visiting Los Angeles after being nominated for his documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop," the artist went about town putting up his signature stencils, among them at least one of the road sign characters, who were depicted flying a kite.

But while Banksy is perhaps the best known artist to reinterpret the running family lately, he's hardly the first.

The iconic image has been claimed and parodied by a long string of artists and activists, and has come to serve as a Rorschach test of sorts for how people feel about illegal immigration and about immigrants generally.

Predominantly Latino artists have long used the image as protest art, redrawing the characters as everything from Pilgrims and working-class heroes to the Holy Family. Opponents of illegal immigration have portrayed the running family as a menace. One T-shirt parody shows the characters joined by a man clutching an assault rifle.

Most recently, supporters of the Dream Act wore T-shirts on which the characters sport caps and gowns.

How it started

The original image is the work of John Hood, a staff artist with the California Department of Transportation who was tasked with designing the road sign in the late 1980s. Before he began drawing, Hood met with state Highway Patrol officers, who showed him photos of accident scenes. The accidents involving migrant families really got to him. I interviewed him when I first wrote about the road sign in 2005:

"Graphically, I wanted to show a family," said Hood, who lives in San Diego. He chose to include a pigtailed girl, rather than a boy, because "there is something about a little girl running across with her parents that we are more affected by."

Hood tried to empathize with the characters as he experimented with sketches, imagining what might drive such a family across the border. At the time, those attempting to cross were a combination of economic migrants, mostly from Mexico, and people fleeing civil war in Central America. From the story:
He drew from his own experience fighting in Vietnam, where he had seen families run for their lives as villages were attacked. He remembered stories his Navajo parents had told him about ancestors who died trying to escape as U.S. soldiers marched them onto reservations.

The drawing was finished in a week. Even without faces, the characters conveyed a sense of urgency in their flight.

"It doesn't just mean they are running across the freeway," Hood said. "It means they are running from something else as well. I think it's a struggle for a lot of things, for opportunities, for freedom."

Guerilla art and a sacred heart

In the intervening years, interpretations of Hood's image have ranged from souvenir T-shirt prints of the characters toting surfboards (which are still seen in some California souvenir shops) to hipster tees. The characters have been included in murals and in sculptures. They have decorated the cover of a punk rock CD. They have been hung from freeway overpasses by guerilla street artists. And naturally, they've made the occasional political cartoon.

Among the many artists who interpreted the image before Banksy are Los Angeles artist Luis Genaro Garcia, who depicted the parents carrying tools and a feather duster and the child wearing a cap and gown, an image he titled "Educación." In 1994, painter Rosa M. portrayed the characters as Mary, Joseph and Jesus in her painting "La Sagrada Familia en Aztlan." In it, the family is shown running beneath a flaming sacred heart and cross.

Here's what Rosa M. told me in 2005:

"What I was trying to do was indicate that this could be the sacred family and we wouldn't recognize them," said Huerta-Williamson, who sold the painting to a Mexican-American professor and his wife. "As long as these people don't have faces, white Americans don't have to think about the fact that they have feelings."

Only a few of the original signs were standing the last time I checked, close to the U.S.-Mexico border. The most familiar ones along Interstate 5 at Camp Pendleton, a military base between L.A. and San Diego, are gone. But the road sign's legacy as an icon continues to grow.

Have you seen a version of the running family, and what does the image represent for you? Feel free to post a link below or send in a photo to

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