Atlantic Cities

An L.A. Artist Makes Immigrant Workers Impossible to Ignore

An L.A. Artist Makes Immigrant Workers Impossible to Ignore
Ramiro Gomez

The affluent neighborhoods of West Los Angeles are always ready for their close-ups — lush hedges carefully groomed, dead leaves blown away, lawns mowed, cascades of bougainvillea watered, roses pruned. Inside the glittering multimillion-dollar houses, every surface is dusted, every floor polished. Beautiful.

This doesn’t happen by magic. Maintaining this beauty is the work of thousands of people who move around places like Beverly Hills and Laurel Canyon every day. These workers, mostly Hispanic, also take care of the neighborhoods’ children, scrub toilets, prepare food. They are a vast and, too often, under-acknowledged support system.

Artist Ramiro Gomez wants to change that. He paints life-size images of service workers on cardboard and places the cutout figures in locations where real workers labor every day: a gardener in front of a row of bushes, a nanny in a playground sandbox. "There’s an invisibility of not knowing them, these people who are taking care of something that does not belong to them," says Gomez. "I want to take them from behind the scenes and make them a central figure. To place something in somebody’s path."

Gomez, 26, is the son of Mexican immigrants who grew up in San Bernardino, about 60 miles inland from L.A. Many members of his family have worked in service jobs, and he himself had a full-time live-in job as a nanny to a pair of young twins in L.A. when he developed the idea for his cardboard laborers. It was a hard time for him. He had dropped out of art school and his grandmother, who was his primary caretaker when he was a child and his parents were working, had just died. The culture shock of being away from family, alone with the babies all day, was profound. He found some comfort talking with the Hispanic workers who came to the house to maintain the grounds and keep it clean.

His employers would give him back issues of magazines like Dwell and Architectural Digest, and Gomez started by painting figures of domestic workers into the glossy pages, disrupting the pristine images of showcase homes with visual evidence of the people who create the illusion of effortless perfection. "It was a response to my invisibility in these places," he says.

Soon the work evolved into a larger format. Gomez says that as an American-born child of immigrants, he can cross lines that are rarely approached in the highly stratified world of well-to-do Los Angeles. "I feel like I am witness to something not everyone can see," he says. While he emphasizes that his former employers treated him well, he questions the priorities of some of the households he has observed. "There are people who have a $10 million dollar home, but can’t afford to pay $10 an hour?" he says. "The people who take care of our children aren’t as important as our fancy dinners and our iPods."

Gomez wants people to be jolted into awareness by the paintings, to be forced to stop and think about the role that immigrant laborers play in the American economy and American life. But he is a soft-spoken man, and he emphasizes the non-violent nature of his work. He is always careful not to damage property, he says. His paintings, created on cardboard that he salvages from the trash, can be removed without causing any damage. He says he is a pacifist who wants to move beyond the hateful rhetoric that often accompanies the discussion of immigration.

"I feel so sad, because these people have thoughts and ideas and voices, but they don’t get heard," he says. "They are working. They don’t have time to go out and protest. I want to bridge the gap between those that are being talked about and those who are doing the talking. It’s a different way of protesting."

He places the works where he hopes they will attract attention, knowing that they will not remain for very long. If one lasts a full day, that is a victory for him.

Slowly and steadily, his work has started to become more widely known and noticed. He’s been featured on a local Spanish-language television news show. CNN did a story, and so did the Los Angeles Times.

Gomez is still working part-time as a nanny, but he gave up the security of his full-time job to devote more time to his art. "The decision to leave was jumping into the deep end," he says. "I had to create, I had to speak out. I was leaving a steady paycheck and a home, but those comforts were meaningless to me. As an artist, when we’re comfortable, that’s when we stop creating."

The video below, from the website Colorlines, shows Gomez at work.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

Join the Discussion