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Border & Immigration

‘Deported Artist’ finds his voice through art in Tijuana

Javier Salazar Rojas was 11 years old when he found out he was undocumented. He was on a family vacation in Tijuana, getting ready to hop in his family’s minivan for the long car ride back home to Oakland.

“My mom stopped me, and was like, ‘where are you going?’” Salazar recalled. “She was like, ‘you can’t come with us, you don’t have any papers.’”

The rest of the family was going to drive through the Port of Entry. But Salazar would have to sneak back across the border illegally.


Until that point in his life, Salazar assumed he’d been born in Oakland. He never thought of himself as anything other than American.

Salazar watched the van drive away. Then followed a human smuggler, known as a coyote, into a remote part of San Diego County and crossed the border illegally on foot.

Many years later, Salazar made a painting of that journey. He’s now known in Tijuana as the “Deported Artist” and uses art to shine a light on the plight of deportees.

The painting is one of Salazar’s favorite pieces. It shows a little boy crouching behind a bush. He’s hiding from a Border Patrol van a few yards away and a Border Patrol helicopter hovering overhead. The boy is wearing an oversized baby blue backpack. He didn’t stay hidden very long.

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Carlos Castillo
Javier Salazar Rojas, also known as the Deported Artist, talks about a painting he drew of himself as an 11-year-old crossing the border illegally after finding out he was undocumented.

“I got separated from my group,” he said. “I remember hiding in the bushes and that’s when Border Patrol found me. I got taken to an immigration center and I got deported.”

Salazar eventually made it back to Oakland and lived there until his late 20s. Then he stole $300 from a gas station, got caught and was sent to prison. That's where he became a self-taught artist and fought wildfires under the Fire Camp program.

“I risked my life for three years working for $1 an hour for the state of California,” he said. “And the last 30 days, they told me I was getting deported.”

Despite rhetoric linking deportations to violent criminals, half of the more than 5 million people deported in the last 20 years do not have a prior criminal conviction, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearing House. The deportees with prior convictions have mostly committed non-violent offenses, according to the data.

Salazar was deported in 2014 right after finishing his prison sentence. He’s lived in Tijuana ever since.

Initially, Salazar was ashamed of being deported. It’s something he hid from the world. Deportees are stigmatized in Tijuana. Discrimination manifests itself in subtle ways. Some deportees struggle to speak Spanish, or speak it with a thick American accent. Others, like Salazar, have visible tattoos.

“Sometimes when I’m on the bus and the only available seat is next to me, people will come and stand up rather than sit next to me,” he said. “They judge me based on my appearance.”

Salazar used art as a way to deal with the anxiety and isolation that comes with being deported. One of the big themes of his art is the idea of, “Ni de aqui, ni de alla,” which translates to, “Not from here or there.”

He began sharing his art on social media, where deportees and undocumented immigrants noticed it. And Salazar started using his art as a platform to talk about immigration issues. That’s when he adopted the title, “Deported Artist.” Now he sells his art online.

“If nobody speaks up, nobody is going to hear our story,” he said. “Or somebody else might tell our narrative, but they are going to tell it through their eyes, their agendas.”

Salazar’s work is also political commentary.

His latest project installed on Sunday was commissioned by activists trying to prevent the Biden Administration from building a border wall through Friendship Park.

They wanted something to make their case that President Joe Biden has failed to live up to campaign promises of halting construction of the border wall and restoring a safe and humane asylum system. The activists are also critical of the Biden Administration for using the same border enforcement strategies that President Donald Trump used.

So Salazar’s piece shows President Biden locked in a passionate kiss with President Trump, a reference to the 1980 graffiti mural on the Berlin Wall depicting two Soviet leaders in a fraternal kiss.

“Really, the message behind it is Biden breaking all of his immigration policies and also adopting Trump-era laws that are anti-immigrant,” he said.

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Chris Cuauhtli finishes installing a canvas next to the entrance on the Mexican side of Friendship Park on March 26, 2023.