How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Before Banksy, the running family was immigration icon and art

Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

One of the original signs as seen on I-5 just north of the U.S.-Mexico border in 2006

Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

One of the original signs as seen on I-5 just north of the U.S.-Mexico border in 2006

Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

One of the original signs as seen on I-5 just north of the U.S.-Mexico border in 2006

Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

One of the original signs as seen on I-5 just north of the U.S.-Mexico border in 2006


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.

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Video: Running migrant family guerilla art in L.A., pre-Banksy

A post yesterday on a pre-Banksy artistic rendering of the running migrant family freeway sign - one of innumerable pre-Banksy versions, actually - is now in turn inspiring art submissions.

I received this YouTube video of an early-morning guerilla art sprint involving the running family last May 1, shot by a USC film student. Multiple prints of the running characters were installed around the city, dangled over freeway overpasses in the hazy, subdued golden light that dawn brings to a smoggy town. Shaky camera, great footage.

As mentioned in previous posts, the familiar image started life as a caution sign along San Diego-area freeways in the early 1990s, a warning for motorists to watch for pedestrians at a time when smugglers were leading their charges across lanes to evade immigration authorities. Many migrants were hit and killed. Long before British street artist Banksy's much-covered "Caution" stencil went up (and went down) in Los Angeles recently, a number of mostly Latino artists in the U.S. had been claiming the image as protest art. The characters have been reinterpreted as everything from Pilgrims to college graduates, even as the Holy Family.

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American snapshot: 'Educación'

Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Another interpretation of the freeway sign, this one by artist Luis Genaro Garcia, photographed January 2011

Street artist Banksy was only the latest to take on the iconic running migrant family freeway sign. Here is the sign as reinterpreted by Southern California artist Luis Genaro Garcia, who has made a few versions of the image. In this one, the parents carry the tools of manual labor - a wrench and pliers, a feather duster - while the child wears a cap and gown.

I photographed the piece on a wall at the offices of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles while reporting on an event there last January.

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Will 'Blank-sy' contest inspire more immigration-themed art?

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A memorial where Banksy's "Caution," a parody of the migrant family freeway sign - flying a kite - was cut out of the wall at First and Soto Streets, February 28, 2011

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A memorial where Banksy's "Caution," a parody of the migrant family freeway sign - flying a kite - was cut out of the wall at First and Soto Streets, February 28, 2011


Will an online contest to "fill in" the space left on a Boyle Heights wall after street artist Banksy's version of the running-family migrant freeway sign draw more immigration-themed political art?

The culture blog Remezcla has launched a "Fill in the Blank-sy" art contest asking readers, "What would you put in this spot’s space now that Banksy’s work has been stolen?"

A Multi-American post yesterday explored the brief life of a stencil by the elusive British artist, in town for the Oscars as a best-documentary nominee, which depicted the familiar freeway sign showing a running family of three. Only in this case, the characters against the yellow background were depicted flying a kite.

The stencil at First and Soto Streets in Boyle Heights was defaced and later removed on Friday; at least two nearly identical stencils were documented around town, including one on a Boyle Heights bridge (also gone), although those weren't claimed officially on Banksy's website.

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