“Undesirables” Exhibit in San Pedro Recalls the Bisbee Deportation of 1917

McKenna’s sketch drawing of the deportation.

When Laurie McKenna’s mixed-media installation The Undesirables arrives in San Pedro from Bisbee, Arizona, it promises to be a much smoother ride than its historical inspiration. McKenna first debuted her exhibit in commemoration of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917’s centennial last July. Cornelius Projects, a gallery in San Pedro, welcomes the conceptual artist’s work in reviving history when The Undesirables opens for viewing tomorrow. 

“When I was making this project,” McKenna tells the Weekly, “I imagined it going to places that endured a lot of oppression.”

But before its sojourn to San Pedro, the exhibit reckoned with its past where it happened. Back in the day, Arizona boomed with copper mining profits at the turn of the 20th century. But capitalism being capitalism, those who toiled at the mines and mills did so in miserable conditions. Past efforts to organize miners under hostile threats failed when the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), popularly known as the “Wobblies,” began having better luck.

The radical union attracted Mexican workers outside the mines and southern Europeans inside them. By June 1917, the Wobblies presented copper bosses with a list of demands for better safety and working conditions. When they shrugged them all off, Bisbee workers went out on strike that same month. That’s when vigilantes under the command of the local sheriff decided to break the strike on July 12 by rounding up more than 1,000 workers into railroad boxcars and dumping them across the New Mexico border.

McKenna played homage to that history during last year’s centennial events. She met legendary local IWW historian Art Almeida, who wrote Wobblies in San Pedro, at the commemoration.“It was an honor to have him in Bisbee just reminiscing about his book and San Pedro,” McKenna says. “He came to my show and we talked afterwards.” The two discussed bringing the exhibit to San Pedro, a city with its own history of Ku Klux Klan marches past the local IWW hall, Wobblies arrested at Liberty Hill, and the movement’s revered poet-singer Joe Hill writing tunes while working at the port. 

Now in town, the centerpiece of The Undesirables remains the 1,196 hand rubbings of a 1917 penny with the names of all known deported workers assigned to each. McKenna also created a penny presser that stamped each coin with a design relevant to the history. “The pennies are coming!” she says. “What I really like is that the penny is the material that they were mining, it’s the smallest denomination of money and every penny matters to the working class.” The penny presser itself is staying behind, but the artist brought its yield with her. The designs bear the images of the Mexican anarchist Flores-Magon brothers, pro-union Arizona legislator Rosa McKay, the IWW preamble and her own sketch drawing of the boxcar deportation. 

Cornelius Projects is also celebrating The Undesirables arrival with a special event on Saturday. That’s when McKenna will be giving a multimedia presentation about the history while short experimental video vignettes are shown. Gallery owner Laurie Steelink’s quartet is set to perform Wobbly classics from The Little Red Songbook in adding to the evening’s festivities. 

McKenna created much of the art for her exhibit in 2016 during the tumultuous presidential election. With Trump in the Oval Office and the Bisbee Deportation’s centennial past, now is not the time for forgetting.

“What’s exactly the same is that whatever rights and freedoms we have can disappear in the snap of a finger,” McKenna says. “What’s also the same is the incredible fear-mongering of the ‘other,’ of whatever that ‘other’ might be. It was very much like that in 1917.”

The Undesirables at Cornelius Projects, 1417 South Pacific Avenue, San Pedro, (310) 266-9216; corneliusprojects.com. The exhibit runs Aug. 2-12, Thur. – Sun., noon – 5 p.m. Saturday’s event begins at 7 p.m.

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