Art Imitates Life: (Real) Games (Real) People Play

By John Glassie
(New York Times Magazine, January 1999)

Immigration wasn't much of an issue in last fall's election, possibly because the Government has been cracking down so heavily on illegal aliens. In the two years since Congress passed tough new enforcement legislation, the Feds have deported 300,000 immigrants, twice as many as in the two years before.

These days, coming to America illegally is a real crap shoot -- which is precisely the point of an interactive exhibition called ''Juegos Ilegales/​Illegal Games'' that opened Thursday at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo.

Created by Anaida Hernandez, the casinolike installation allows visitors to embark down the risky path of unlawful entry. ''Immigrants dream of a better life,'' she says. ''This exhibition is about the chances they take to achieve that dream.'' The artist herself arrived in New York (legally) two years ago from Puerto Rico. In her Brooklyn studio recently, she provided a preview of her rather idiosyncratic work.

Would-be immigrants enter the installation through a small doorway, pass flashing lights and then find themselves in side a completely dark tunnel, an effect Hernandez says she hopes will create "uncertainty."

They must then make their way through a mirrored labyrinth, more disorienting lights and a bizarre blockade: 150 multicolored yo-yos hanging in midair.

"In Spanish, 'Yo' is 'I'," Hernandez says, "so the yo-yos represent the double identity of all immigrants and the struggle to maintain your heritage while adopting American culture." Some are painted with national flags; others, with images like glossy lips, golf clubs and the Chase Manhattan Bank logo.

Those with identities still intact continue through the maze to a wheel of fortune, where they can spin for prosperity, power, sex, fame and the like. A corresponding table of symbols, however, reveals the reality. Those who get the symbol of a wedding bell, for example, find out that their hope for true love in America may be replaced by the less romantic goal of a completed N-400 green-card form. Lady Liberty's crown, Hernandez's symbol for freedom, turns out to be a crown of thorns.

Players head toward the final game. To determine the outcome of their journey, they roll symbol-laden dice on the deck of a handmade concrete boat. "It's very likely that this boat will sink," Hernandez says. This is a metaphor for the big chance you take coming here."

One die is painted with images that represent modes of transportation; the other, with those representing ultimate fates.

In Henandez's world, it's possible for players to travel by horse and reach New York or to cross the border on skateboard and achieve citizenship. But it's far more likely that they will roll something like a fishhook (you're caught), a skull (you're dead) or a nasty looking question mark (you're in general trouble).

"Its very dangerous, and the vast majority of illegal immigrants do not achieve their dreams," says Hernandez. "But they try anyway. People go to a casino to win. No one goes hoping they're going to lose everything they have."