Wednesday, July 23, 2008

the art of jumping fences

"Jump" by Vic De La Rosa

Imagine that you are working on a small farm. You went to school only up to the sixth grade, like most people in your home town. That was the only education offered nearby - you would have had to pay to go to high school, and where? Besides, you had to help your father with the farming.

You marry a sweet girl, go to church, have several beautiful children. You manage to support your family on the income you make growing corn. But then the market for corn falls out from under you - suddenly everyone is importing corn more cheaply from up north, as NAFTA allows. Money gets tight, then stops altogether. There's no work for you here, so you do what most of the local young men are doing. Your last pesos go to bus fare the hours and hours north to Juarez. You get a job in the General Motors factory (another aspect of NAFTA), assembling car steering wheels. You make 34 pesos per 8 hour day (about $3.53), which doesn't go far. The prices here are high, and a day's work barely buys you beans and tortillas. You eat as little as you can, sending what you save back to your wife and kids. After only a few weeks your family also makes the trip to Juarez, so your wife can work too.

Even with the two of you working, you can't save enough money. You work every extra shift. No extra for overtime. Your oldest child, who is eight years old, cares for the younger two while you both work. There is no school nearby. Your wife works so hard she makes herself ill, or the adhesive she has to handle all day at work is affecting her health. No money for a doctor. You and your once beautiful wife are squatting on the outskirts of Juarez , with no water or electricity, just a roof made of scavenged materials. Your children are hungry. You are tired, desperate, and ashamed.

photo by Antonio Zazueta Olmos
Someone says they have a friend who can get you a job in Nebraska, where you can make $5.75 an hour - maybe more, they say. They even know a guy who can get you across the border, but it will cost two month's wages. What else can you do? You pay a stranger all your money, and he takes you, and ten other men, to the Sonoran desert, and you start walking....

Over 3,000 people are estimated to have died in the last decade crossing the Sonoran desert into the United States.

Several artists have created art works addressing border crossing. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Casa Segura

Casa Segura (Safe House) is an artwork that combines a small public access structure on private land in the Sonoran desert in Southern Arizona with a dynamic bilingual web space that facilitates creative exchange, dialogue, and understanding. Located north of the Mexican border, Casa Segura engages three distinct groups: Mexican migrants crossing the border through this dangerous landscape, the property owners whose land they cross, and members of the general public interested in learning more about border issues and the intricate dynamics at play in this heavily trafficked region.

The small solar-powered structure acts as a temporary transitional space in which migrants can meet basic needs for water and nutrition and share stories via an embedded touch screen interface. Drawing upon the vernacular of traveler graffiti, pictograms, and the Mexican tradition of ex-voto painting, migrants are invited to creatively share something about themselves and their journey with the homeowner and the larger populus.”

2. Las Madres Project

Las Madres by Valarie James

“The sculptural installation “The Mothers; Las Madres” standing vigil is an artist’s response to the human suffering and ongoing death of migrants coming across the Mexican/American border in search of work in El Norte. Each Mother figure represents over 1000 men, women and children who have lost their lives crossing the desert. The sculptures are made from discarded migrant clothing reclaimed from the desert and then blended with Sonoran plant material."

Valarie James continued the series with "Wall of Bordado", a collection of traditional embroidered fabrics found in the desert:

“Over time, we have found over 35 hand embroidered 'bordado' cloths with inscriptions such as 'Yo e Tu Rec. Felicida de Ma Ma' You and I remember the happiness of our Mother, 'Pienso En ti' I think of you and 'Somos Dos Enamorados' We are two people in love. Some of the cloths are of heirloom quality with relleno crewel work, others are everyday tortilla wraps. All are edged with lacy 'tejido de gancho' crochet. We wash the cloths and display them with care to honor the nameless women who made them."

James also created "The Migrant Shrine," a beautiful commission for the Southside Church in Tucson Arizona. This piece strikes a chord for me, because this church was at the heart of the Sanctuary Movement, of which my mother was part when I was a young child.

Border issues have been a part of my life since then - because of my mother's activism, because of our home being so near the border, because I felt there was an inherent injustice to the poverty just on the other side of the fence.

Photo by M Paulda

Many years ago I spent a year as a volunteer at Annunciation House in Juarez, Mexico, where border issues, poverty, and violence against women are at their most severe. It was possibly the best year of my life.

I am far from the border these days. So I was thrilled recently when I happened upon a talk given by a group of local teenagers who had participated in a Border Witness Delegation. They had been to Juarez, seen the maquiladoras, tried to live for a week off of Mexican wages. They had seen the families living in shacks made of factory palettes, drinking polluted water from the Rio Grande. They were inspired to do something about it, to educated others, and to appreciate their own lives in a much more profound way. Read their book:

I'd like to take all the depressed teenagers I work with at the psych hospital on such a border witness trip, let them see how relatively lucky they are. Let them take part in trying to make a difference for their peers on the other side of the fence. Volunteerism therapy.

Image by Josh MacPhee


  1. This is pretty awesome, just sayin.

  2. I've been reading a portion of a book by Richard Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, in which he talks about the creation and function of the Nation State and the function of borders. Robbins cites a work by Micheal Kearny who points out that the border immigration laws are essentially a way of separating the (desirable) labor from the (undesirable) laborer. The laws are not really designed to keep people out, but to discipline them to work harder/more/faster for less before they get sent back, leaving more of the desirable part with the least amount of the undesirable.

    I also like the song by Tigres Del Norte "Somos Mas Americanos" from their 2001 album Uniendo Fronteras,

  3. Thank you for this compassionate account, and for the information on the art works. I've been looking for blogs that are sympathetic to the issue of border crossers, and don't know why I'm surprised to run across more who are antipathetic, since I am surrounded by people hostile to the plight of those who are impelled to cross our borders.