This article originally appeared on Creators.
Rogelio Gutierrez never thought Arizona was his ideal home as a Mexican-American. When the 36-year-old artist took a full-time job as a print-making professor at Arizona State University, he wasn't keen on living in the majority-Republican state that was dealing with the controversial SB 1070 bill, infamous for giving Arizona authorities the power to profile minority citizens and ask for immigration papers if the police have "reasonable suspicion."
"I never wanted to live in Arizona in my mind," says Gutierrez, who got inspired to get more vocal with his artwork after the SB 1070 bill.
But the California-born artist, who focuses his work on capturing life as a first-generation Mexican-American, began to see the move as an opportunity after he realized his potential to be a role-model for younger Mexican-American students. He began noticing them speaking Spanish in class, and he began to feel that his work had a bigger purpose.
"I want to be a voice for these kids," Gutierrez tells Creators. "To me, it's important to make art that I feel can benefit people. Initially it's about benefitting 'my people,' but that can also translate into the larger, broader community."
It's the same approach he takes to his art, which he focuses on profiling his experience as a first-generation Mexican-American and also on bridging the gap between the two North American cultures. In his 2011 project, Bienvenidos a Indianapolis, Gutierrez—then working towards his MFA in Visual Art and Public Life—worked with the Indianapolis mayor's office to create billboards that were placed around the city bearing the Spanish words "Bienvenidos a Indianapolis" ("Welcome to Indianapolis").
"I was hoping that people would reflect on communities and neighborhoods around them," Gutierrez says. "Oftentimes, we get so focused on where we live and we forget that we have neighbors and that these neighbors contribute to the larger mass of our cities and counties. I wanted people to acknowledge that there's life outside of our little bubble and these communities—that aren't so boastful and loud or recognized in the media, in the cities and culture in general—actually contribute a lot to the betterment of a multi-cultural society."
Gutierrez's attempt to create an understanding among neighbors and cultures is a constant theme in his portfolio. Currently, the artist is in Columbia hosting an exhibit which gathers prints from a network of 22 Mexican artists from across the United States, Mexico, and Columbia. The works focus on Mexicans' view each other from across different borders—such as a native Mexican's perception of a Mexican-American—in the context of issues like assimilation, culture, and identity. Understanding, he says, is the ultimate goal of his work.
"If you look at the political climate right now, how can I back down now?" Gutierrez says. "If I was making art for art's sake, who am I really helping? If I wasn't making art, I would just be a social worker like my brother in LA County. I want to just continue to be a voice for Latinos and minorities, and just for people who want to be inclusive for other people as well."