Illustration by Kiri Rasmussen.
Illustration by Kiri Rasmussen.

For AB540 students, art is a fist harnessing a movement.

AB540, or Assembly Bill 540, is the designation given to non-resident students paying in-state tuition. The bill allows undocumented students to save thousands of dollars a year, making it possible to afford higher education.

The 2001 bill is controversial, standing against opponents of immigrant rights.

The topic of immigration has been debated with a fervor only a border state could whip up, and the students now collected under the AB540 banner have been funneling frustrations into the visual and performing arts in efforts to share personal stories about an issue affecting thousands.

Students Informing Now (SIN) is a UCSC-born group that uses, among other things, different art forms to support fellow immigrant students and children of immigrants.

“It’s not for the purpose of entertainment, but to empower people,” said Mariella Saba, UCSC alumnus and co-founder of SIN. “It’s difficult to say that you’re undocumented, especially in front of other people. We wanted to show people that we were human beings, because we have an identity that is very much dehumanized.”

Saba herself has focused on theater as an an outlet to protest the criminalization of immigrants. She also framed it as a battle for visibility, an effort to create the images that have been pushed under mainstream radar.

“When I think about art I think about art of the people,” Saba said. “Art can be very elitist, as if only a few people have talent. We need to take hold of our art, and appropriate the form for ourselves … we’re filling a void, we’re creating art that doesn’t exist.”

Xochiltquetzal*, a community studies major and AB540 student, teaches art at a charter school and believes that the importance of resistance art lies partly in the truth that it tells.

“The essence of art doesn’t have the rules and structure that other things do,” Xochiltquetzal said. “Real thoughts are convoluted, and art is especially effective because it’s what you’re actually thinking, not what you want other people to think you’re thinking.”

It has also been able to aid in meaningful political changes, and Saba referenced the influence of art upon legislation at an individual level.

“A lot of the art is local, reflecting whatever environment the artist is in,” Saba said. “And there are a lot more local battles to fight. … I’ve been able to see [the art] from the local perspective, impacting and transforming and creating dialogue.”

It effects change not only in the opposition camps, but the artists themselves as they come to terms with a status unrecognized by the country they call home.

“It’s a form of survival as well,” Saba said. “I have friends whose lives have been changed by theater. Like, they’ve been down, or in gangs, and being given a chance to tell their stories really awakens their spirit.”

A common theme in Saba’s work is a protestation against the labels immigrants are saddled with, including the term “illegal.”

“It’s an imposed identity,” Saba said. “It’s been made to be a part of me, but I’m human. I’m a whole person.”

Xochiltquetzal voiced the differences between protest art and what most people see as “high” art.

“Without a story you’re just left with the aesthetics,” Xochiltquetzal said. “Once you add a certain narrative to it, it changes.”

The creation of art is an intrinsic process with strength to resist the reigning power of opinion. For these students, it is also the way they convey their message.

“Because we’re representing current politics, our art is a form of documenting what is going on everywhere,” Saba said. “If you’re not voicing something, then it’s not existing.”