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In Women & Their Work exhibit, 'DREAM', photographer turns her lens to noncitizens who grew up in U.S.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
'Art, age 18 months' by Lupita Murillo Tinnen.

Every young person deserves to dream. What's youth, after all, without imagining the possibility of a big, bright future?

The college students at the center of Lupita Murillo Tinnen's large-format color photographic portraits, now on exhibit at Women & Their Work, have big dreams.

One, we learn by the title of the portrait, is a mechanical engineering major; another is marketing major, yet another political science.

Each is captured in his or her bedroom. And each room reveals the endearing emblems of young identity asserting itself. Magazine images of celebrities adorn bulletin boards, and school merit certificates and sports awards hang framed and prominent on walls.

Each room seems preternaturally tidy, ready for its photographic fame.

And yet, the face of each young person is obscured. We see them turned away from us, their identity hidden.

That's because the Dallas-based artist has chosen to document students who are undocumented aliens — non-citizens without legal resident status in the United States. Murillo Tinnen, a professor of photography at Collin College whose earlier work has focused on Mexican American cultural issues, chose to train her lens on students whose citizenship status is in a political netherworld.

Brought illegally to the U.S. by the parents when they were young, these college students clearly identify themselves culturally as American. And yet for all the Superman posters and homecoming ribbons, without legal citizenship, these are young people whose future is uncertain at best. They risk deportation to countries with which they have few solid cultural ties and from which their parents left years ago. They cannot legally work. In essence, they do not legally exist.

Murillo Tinnen titles her portraits with each student's major and the age they were when they came to the U.S. A few bear text from interviews. "I may not exist but I will leave my mark," notes one student.

The young woman in "Art, age 18 months" holds a self-portrait over her face. The young man in "Political Science, age 7" sits at his desk under a portrait of President Barack Obama, text books filling the surrounding shelves.

Murillo Tinnen works in the activist artist vein. And if her photographs lack a certain aesthetic polish and creative reach, their blunt message bears plenty of impact.

So does the title of her exhibit: "American DREAM."

First introduced in 2001, the Development, Relief & Education for Alien Minors Arts — not so ironically acronymed as the DREAM Act — has lately garnered headlines when House of Representatives passed a revised version of it last week. The DREAM Act would allow those brought into the U.S. illegally as youngsters a pathway to citizenship.

Consistent to her activist intention, Murillo Tinnen has put out information on the DREAM Act in the gallery. "I use my photography to give these undocumented students an identity," she writes in her artist statement.

"All I want is to be free, have a dream and accomplish my goals," notes one young woman identified as "Art Education, age 2" and whose face is obscured by a book on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Who doesn't, after all, have a dream?

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'American DREAM'