It's a recent Monday evening, and Steven Gagnon has brought traffic to a halt a stone's throw from the Shrine of Saint Philomena Catholic Church in Little Havana.
His Border Cruiser "mobile video sculpture" is parked on the corner of SW Sixth Street and 17th Avenue, where a crowd of curious locals has gathered to swap opinions about the vehicle's purpose.
"I thought the cops were here to arrest somebody," says Arnold, an 18-year-old student who eyes the car suspiciously, his knuckles white as he grips the handlebars of his bicycle, ready to make a speedy getaway.
Gagnon turned a former Miami Beach Police squad car into a rolling piece of art featuring a video projection on the rear windows. In the movie, a Brazilian man relates his ordeal of entering the United States illegally and the problems he encounters while adjusting to life in this country. Twin speakers jutting from the car's roof blare the man's story to the neighborhood. In the darkness, they are easily mistaken for sirens.
As the artist begins talking about his project, a television news crew unexpectedly pulls over and the scene takes a surreal turn.
The crew is from the Al Jazeera English network, on its way to Versailles restaurant to film chin-wagging exilio pronouncements about the next day's Super Tuesday primaries.
Colombian TV reporter Monica Villamizar sticks her head into the car's window and asks Gagnon if his Border Cruiser has something to do with the elections. "I'm doing a story on the Cuban vote. I think this is fantastic, but what does it mean?" the woman asks as she flags her cameraman over. People begin appearing on apartment balconies, and the rubbernecking on the street picks up pace.
As a perplexed Gagnon recoils from the intrusion, cameraman Tony Zumbado leans over and lays into the U.S. Border Patrol and the INS. "I was working for NBC at Elián's house when they stormed in to snatch the kid," he snarls. "Border patrol agents tear-gassed and stomped all over me while I was shooting live feed," fumes Zumbado, who adds he was strapped onto a stretcher and taken to a hospital after the raid. His testimony is a reminder that most of the crowd in earshot would love nothing more than to take Gagnon's souped-up jalopy for a joy ride and mow down the Clintons.
The artist wisely decides to move the car to Calle Ocho, where he parks it in front of El Pub restaurant to continue his interview with New Times. But the Al Jazeera crew is hot on his tail.
Gagnon, who debuted the project during Art Basel and has exhibited it during recent Wynwood gallery crawls, is surprised by the reactions he gets.
"People usually respond differently in an arts setting," the 37-year-old Miami-based artist says. "Come on, I never expected to run into Al Jazeera here," he laughs.
While he gives the pesky Middle Eastern network an interview in the heart of Little Havana, an elderly woman eating a guava pastry whose filling matches her hair tells others at El Pub's counter that the car is a government propaganda tool.
Rosalina Aguiar begins boasting she's a Republican who voted for John McCain in the primary. Informed that Gagnon's vehicle is an artwork, she rolls her eyes incredulously and winks. "I don't care if it's art or if the politicians are using it to bring attention to illegal immigration," she barks. "Trust me, I have a heart, but this is a problem ruining the local economy," the 75-year-old Cuban exile adds. "It's a problem we have to end fast."
As passersby stop to ogle Gagnon's piece, the loudspeakers and nine-minute DVD loop relate the undocumented Brazilian's distressing tale.
In projections on the passenger windows, the man is shown riding in the back of a car, while border town desert scenes flicker on the rear window.
Roberto, a farmer, left Brazil to earn enough money to put his three children through college. He had never been separated from his wife and kids before. He took a plane to Mexico and was transported by buses and ambulances from safe house to safe house while making his way to the States.
He was hidden in barracklike hovels with up to 40 people at a time. At one point, he says, the coyotes moving him across the border all carried guns, snorted cocaine regularly, and often took women away into locked rooms. "I knew they were taking advantage of them," he recalls.
He crossed into the United States near McAllen, Texas, where the coyotes gave him bogus identification papers and advised him to tear up his Brazilian passport. Roberto later traveled to Houston, boarded a plane to Boston, and eventually made his way to New York City, where he has lived the past two years.
"That's where I met and interviewed him for my project," explains Gagnon, who finished the piece last fall. "He can't speak the language" — Roberto's interview has been dubbed in English for the installation — "and he's basically been working at odd manual labor jobs since he got here," the artist informs. "He says it's been much more difficult than he imagined, but he does send money for his kids to go to school, and they have even been able to open a small storefront business back home."
A man wearing a shirt and tie stops for a shot of cafecito at El Pub on his way home from work. Then he walks over to the Border Cruiser and lights a cigar.
Darryl Clodfelter, a Miami native who works for Miami-Dade Transit, says he's seen Gagnon's work during Art Basel but that for a moment he was juked out of his brogans.
"I thought it was a cop car at first. This is a great project. I believe we should control immigration more stringently. A census of our prisons, which are full of Mexicans and South and Central Americans, bears that out," Clodfelter continues before pausing. "My wife is Cuban and didn't become a citizen until after we were married. But I can also tell you that many of my Latin employees joke that this isn't America, it's Miami, and that if you drive an hour north, you need a passport."
Gagnon, who has been invited to show his provocative opus at the ArtCar Museum in Houston next month, says he's not a "complete gringo" and grew up in a home where English was a second language.
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"My mother is French Canadian from Quebec. I went to school with the children of immigrant laborers in Fort Pierce, and although I knew some lived in poverty, there was never a realization of what many of them went through."
Gagnon expresses sympathy for the plight of undocumented workers, but also recognizes America's hypocrisy when dealing with the issue.
"The current situation is convenient until the economy goes sour and our government decides to deport illegal immigrants back home," he says. "But as soon as the economy improves, they have no problems letting them back in, because they have a flexible illegal work force right at our door. The big problem of course is most of that work force doesn't pay taxes, has no health insurance, and when they go to the hospital, someone else ends up footing the bills. It's definitely a burden on our society."
As Gagnon gets ready to leave, a half-crocked homeless Cuban man walks over, asks for a dollar, and then points to the car and cackles, "Hey, can you play Celia Cruz videos on that thing?" Gagnon turns away quietly and drives off into the night.