A statue’s hidden story

A story that began over 30 years ago in Tucson comes back to life today through the personification of a statue.

Marge Pellegrino and Marianna Neil wrote “The Sculpture Speaks: A Story of Survival” after they discovered a statue in the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson.

Their story follows events in the 1980s involving the persecution of refugees in the United States. Only their story stemmed from a bronze statue. Artist John Howser created the statue and used refugee Juana as his model.

During this time, the government handed down indictments that went after sanctuaries. Because of this, Carmen Duarte of the Arizona Daily Star, shared Juana’s story of her journey from Mexico City to Tucson. This caught the eye of government officials, who began trying to track her down.

Juana, at this time, was posing for Howser’s sculpture. On the last day, when Howser went to pick up Juana, government men were there looking for her. This was the last time Howser ever saw her. The sculpture’s arm remained unfinished.

Pellegrino and Neil, who volunteered at Southside Presbyterian Church, adored the statue and dedicated themselves to help refugees.

“I was hooked,” said Pellegrino. “That story and the work they were doing was just so compelling and I just felt like it was a perfect fit. It felt like everything I had done up into my life prepared me to do this work.”

The two began writing the story in 2000 and finished 17 years later. They began the work inside the church.

“We spent the night in the west foyer of the church where the sculpture resides, and just by candlelight and sleeping bags… we both wrote, and we wrote down everything we knew at that time,” said Neil.

Their goal was to allow the sculpture to speak. They used the story of Juana to tell the story of thousands of refugee escaping to a better life.

Pellegrino and Neil felt this story was important for the Tucson community, especially now, in a time when refugees’ futures are unknown.

“This sculpture and the story behind it is relevant today as, the country is trying to decide where its heart is around refugees,” said Pellegrino. “It just felt like, we’ve been moving toward it.”

This story brought together two women and their connection to a sculpture in order to re-share an impactful story within the Tucson community. It even brought other Tucson artists like Aida Algosaibi-Stoklos, who contributed one-of-a-kind paintings for the book.

While writing the story, Pellegrino and Neil found Juana and spoke with her about her journey and the story they created. Today, the woman say that a moment changed their lives forever.


Kylie Warren is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at kyliewarren@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for a word version of the story

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