- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 10, 2014

DALLAS (AP) - Jonathan Molina-Garcia joined a family crew of ruferos in 2009 to earn money for college. In many ways, it became college.

It seeded curiosity and respect in him for the tile roofers, who sweated through their crafts with dancers’ balance atop Dallas’ mini-mansions.

Later, as he labored on a double degree in photography and art history, he also worked as a house painter. There, as with the roofers, he took intimate photographs of crew members who were immigrants like him.

The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/1jieSkk ) reports the experiences led to two portfolios of photographs, titled “Ruferos” and “Odessa,” and other work, and won him accolades from the University of North Texas and even the Dallas Museum of Art.

Now, he’s been awarded a $100,000 scholarship to the California Institute of the Arts, where he plans to get a master’s degree in fine arts. The award comes from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which supports those who “work hard, stay focused and defy the stereotype that poverty precludes high achievement.”

Exploring borders of rich and poor, immigrants and natives is the hallmark of his work.

While working as a painter, he noticed that workdays started on streets named after great artists of the Renaissance - Botticelli, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. The names struck him as a “kooky juxtaposition,” where homeowners were “trying to put themselves in this status position.” His parents fit into that real-life canvas, too.

“I liked the names next to my parents, painters who are proud of their work,” the wiry 24-year-old said.

His mother, Maria Alarcon, landed her first job as a baby sitter in Los Angeles at age 28. After moving to North Texas, she sent for the four sons she had left behind. She and her children are here legally under temporary protected status, which is given to immigrants from select countries hit by war or natural disasters.

She is posed proudly in a portrait of house painters in the “Odessa” portfolio. Her oldest son, Elmer, can be seen in “Ruferos.” Both portfolios were part of Molina-Garcia’s application for the graduate school scholarship.

His studio arts professor at UNT, Dornith Doherty, says she’s never had a student like Molina-Garcia.

“He’s a bottle rocket,” she said of his energy. “It’s so important to see immigrant workers through the perspective of an immigrant family member.”

Molina-Garcia often used a large-format camera with superior resolution on a tripod - gear that weighs about 15 pounds. He’d perch himself on the incline of a roof as he photographed his brother and his friends.

There was an added dimension to the work, Doherty said. Molina-Garcia writes graceful, punchy prose to go with his work. He’s heavily influenced by what he calls the “phenomenal” work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and Dominican immigrant Junot Diaz.

Doherty said that when Molina-Garcia would read his artist statements, the class would melt into mindful listening.

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