Reimagining the Borderlands

Reimagining the Borderlands



“Because here, Spanish becomes English ipso facto and life becomes art with the same speed.”
— Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Border Brujo (1980)

Just before May Day 2018, a caravan of migrants arrived at the border of Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, United States. What had started as more than 1,200 Central American migrants seeking asylum had dwindled to three hundred, who filled San Diego’s port of entry to capacity. Many traveled more than 2,500 miles to the border only to turn themselves in to U.S. authorities and pray for asylum. Thousands of miles away in Washington D.C., Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the journey “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system.”1 But at the border, migrants were welcomed with a very different tone. Upon arrival, they joined allies in the U.S. for a cross-border rally in Friendship Park, the beach that divides/unites San Diego and Tijuana. “We are immigrants. We are not criminals,” some of the migrants chanted, as they climbed and straddled the border, “We are the hope of Latin America.” Protestors on the U.S. side answered: “We are all Latin American. Together, we are the dream of the future.”

Caravans of similar size and nature—or via crusis, as they are known—have periodically shepherded migrants to the border, but the 2018 pilgrimage gained particular traction due to the U.S. political climate. This year, the journey inspired unprecedented levels of vitriol from conservative news outlets and from those within the White House. It was not long into the caravan’s journey that President Donald Trump began tweeting on the matter. He wrote on April 23, 2018:

Despite the Democrat inspired laws on Sanctuary Cities and the Border being so bad and one sided, I have instructed the Secretary of Homeland Security not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country. It is a disgrace. We are the only Country in the World so naive! WALL.2

“Wall:” a one-word stand-in for a slew of more sinister terms; a central element of Trump’s plan to Make America Great Again; the first impression of the U.S. that the caravan of migrants will see as they approach the North American horizon. For many who continue to sleep outside, dreaming of entry, it will be the only impression.

The story of these particular migrants cannot be finished in these pages, because it continues to unfold. Hundreds still wait just beyond the port of entry, facing the possibility of separation from children and family members and months of detention as their cases are weighed. It is not just the future of these families, but the future of this region that is uncertain. It rests in a border zone of its own: between limitations and liminality, between the scathing speech-acts of politicians and the raucous crowds demanding sanctuary for all. These are precisely the times and conditions in which this paper was written, and the portraits of the borderlands that are heightened, challenged, and reimagined by the artists covered in this text.


The Border as a Microcosm for Global Conflict

As poet and theorist Gloria Anzaldùa put it, the U.S.-Mexico border is “a herrida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.”3 This hemorrhaging of one world against the next means that the border is host to its own unique problems and stigmas that stand out in the global context. Deaths along the border continue to rise despite a dramatic drop in illegal crossings.4 Moreover, immigration as a whole hit a forty-year low in 2015, while criminalization of undocumented immigration continues to rise; in that same year, it accounted for 49 percent of all federal prosecutions.5,6 It is in part for these reasons that the U.S.-Mexico border is known to many as simply ‘the border,’ sans qualifiers, and will be referred to as such throughout this paper.

Other reasons for such shorthand include the racial, social, and economic elements of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Tijuana/San Diego—where an informal settlement in Mexico quite literally crashes into the border wall, greeted by a wealthy downtown area on the other side—simply looks more delineated along socio-political and racial-lingual lines than Stanstead, Quebec and Derby Line, Vermont. The thirty-foot wall soaring in between the two nations assists in the further visualization of these lands as ‘the border.’ Subsequently, border art—though it has, in technicality, existed in variant forms everywhere from the Berlin Wall to Palestine—is almost exclusively referred to as an artistic category rooted in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

But if the border is a singular, unparalleled political phenomenon, it is also a microcosm for global conflict. At the border, global flows and stagnations of knowledges, goods, and peoples are visualized and dramatized. The border represents with double meaning. On one hand, the daily goings-on of the U.S.-Mexico border are representative of issues that manifest worldwide. To take up the question of the border is to take up the question of citizenship, nationhood, migration, capital, community. On the other hand, the border is an aesthetic representation, a spectacle in its own right. The very existence of the border wall is predicated on an arbitrary line drawn through the sand in 1848, and thus the region’s entire history is based upon visualizing what previously was not. Its entire history is, in one way or another, imagined. This history invites imagining and reimagining time and time again. A line drawn in the sand is always inviting one to erase it.


If We Can Save Art, Art Can Save Us

Today, the line in the sand is getting reinforced while the Borderlands are rapidly disappearing, their liminal possibilities replaced by an increasingly limiting vision of the Wall. Put simply, Anzaldùa’s herida abierta is scabbing over. The changing policy, visions, and landscape at the border reflect a new American moment, one that requires urgent action. As the political sphere imagines a fast-approaching dystopian future, artists are tasked with grappling with such a fate and/or imagining alternative futures.

Of course, artists have long posed themselves as political agents. The assumption is that the artist enacts change through conversations and contemplation, both of which are important to changing hearts and minds as well as policy. But there is a danger in claiming that all art works politically. It lets artists off the hook without asking key questions like: who really benefits from this practice? In what ways does this art impact a community? Grievances of this kind are popping up across the nation; artist-activists are pushing museums to decolonize themselves,7 and movements in the wake of Occupy Wall Street blur the differences between artists and organizers entirely. At the border, this manifests as artists moving away from spectacle-based works that interact with the border wall and towards a practice that roots itself in the borderlands. Thus, a central question of this paper is whether artists can rescue art from itself. It is clear that in this increasingly political moment, art must get out of its own way and make room for meaningful, durational community power and empowerment.


Another Bordered World is Possible

Since its conception as an artistic category in the 1980s, border art has focused on the act of border crossing. In the ’80s, this often involved artists involving illegal crossings in site-specific performance art, disrupting the formality of crossing the border. Later, in the early 2000s, the art world descended to the border through the self-proclaimed ‘anti-biennial’ inSITE. Though many of the works displayed at inSITE were socially-engaged, they were often eclipsed by sensational crossings best exemplified by Javier Tellez’s One Flew Over the Void/Bala Perdida (2005), in which stunt artist David Smith was catapulted over the border from a cannonball, with sanctions from the U.S. government. Over time, works simultaneously grew more sensationalist and less in touch with their political context, ultimately serving to re-center border wall and all that it represents rather than imagine alternatives.

None of the following case studies, which represent a new sort of border art, touch the border’s physical wall. In doing so, they reorient the focus of border art from relationships with the wall to relationships between border citizens. It is not the border wall but the borderlands that are loci for art and commentary. Most strikingly, these works de-center the moment of crossing, and therefore de-center the wall’s importance. In other words, these projects turn the focus of border art from the moment of crossing the border to the act of relating across the border.

This new sort of cross-border relations imbues each project with a sense of utopian practicality. These projects are not realist and by no means take the border for granted. Yet their utopian impulse is not to imagine a borderless world. In a national climate that proclaims “we will build the wall,” to pretend no wall exists at all would feel detached from political realities. Instead, the utopianism of new border art is to craft new ways of relating at the border. Each project insists through its praxis that another bordered world is possible. Such a claim cannot merely be performed, but practiced. This involves practical elements, the primary being creation and adaptation of physical spaces: in El Paso, Texas, Glasbox facilitates community between autonomous artists; in Naco, Sonora, Studio Mariposa creates collective memory in a forgotten town; in San Diego and Tijuana, Cross-border Community Stations facilitate gatherings and knowledge production between border citizens.


Case Study: The Border Theatre, El Paso, Texas

Undeniably, El Paso feels like a border town. Situated on the tip of Texas, cornering Mexico and New Mexico, the air is dry and dusty; the Rio Grande, which separates El Paso from its sister city, is all dried up. Signs in Spanish and English cover the town. Arriving to the airport from New York City at night, I could see the El Paso star lit up on a mountain above me. To the South, a network of lights twinkled: Juarez, twice the size of El Paso, looked from a distance like the antithesis of El Paso’s sleepy, small border town.
Somehow, El Paso, a city of seven-hundred thousand, still strikes residents and outsiders alike as a ‘one-horse town.’ Downtown El Paso is historic, not bustling. There isn’t much culture in El Paso, and maybe that’s because the city stands between so many cultures. To an outsider, it feels Texan—men tip their hats and say “howdy,” and every other building looks like a part of the set from The Alamo. But natives will assure you that El Paso is nothing like the rest of Texas, that they feel no allegiance to it. Nor is it Mexico. Due to violence that plagued Juarez throughout the early 2000s, many people from El Paso don’t cross over to this day. Some cross over periodically for cheaper services, like dental works or automobile tune-ups.

This is not because border crossing is a hassle. It is shockingly simple to cross from El Paso to Juarez. From downtown El Paso, one walks about five to ten minutes until they arrive at the bridge. For American citizens, not even a passport is required. And suddenly one is in Juarez, the frigid North of Mexico, which feels strikingly alive in comparison to El Paso. Juarez boasts countless Mexican plazas, where citizens gather for social dancing, singing competitions, and sun bathing. In El Paso, there is nowhere to gather. The question of making art in El Paso is also a question of making space, physically and metaphorically, for art to manifest.


The Border Theatre with no border

At the Border Theatre in El Paso, Texas, one is constantly forgetting and remembering that they are at the border. Austin Savage, an El Paso native, co-founded The Border Theatre in 2010, and can’t remember a single theatre company existing before that. Like many from El Paso, Savage felt he needed to leave Texas in order to make an impact as an artist. He spent many years working in major theaters in Washington D.C. and Chicago, until news of violence in Juarez became a nation-wide story. In 2007, a drug war exploded between rival Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. The result was widespread violence, particularly towards women. By 2010, Juarez was the murder capital of the world with over three thousand murders per year.

The portrayal of Juarez Savage was seeing on the news from Chicago could not have been more distinct from his experiences growing up in El Paso. In the 1990s, American teens would sneak out of their houses and over the bridge to Mexico. “It was a ritual,” Savage said. “You’d gather your gang and walk over the bridge . . . You’d be sixteen years old, you’d have twenty dollars, get fifty-cent beers, party and dance with girls.”8 It was the one-sided portrayal of life in Juarez, coupled with Wild West depictions of El Paso, that prompted Savage to move back to El Paso and found the Border Theatre.

Considering its name, the Border Theatre’s work has very little to do with the border. In fact, when Savage co-founded the theatre with Juarez native Carlos Rubalcava, they made an explicit agreement not to do Chicano theater. “There doesn’t need to be a sage grandmother, or a magical chicken or any of those old tropes,” Savage says. “We even joke there can’t be a monologue where someone reflects about the old country, because that’s just not a dynamic that really exists…we just write good plays and they happen to have the last name ‘Sanchez.’ [in them].”9 The Theatre’s mission is simple: to provide a platform for new works. Recent productions have dealt with themes of mental health, broken relationships, and white male fragility. Savage returned to his hometown, frustrated by representations of border life, and proceeded to make pieces that do seemingly nothing to counter said representations.

This is the Border Theatre’s politics: to claim stories that have nothing to do with walls, crossings, or drug wars as border stories. At the border, the claim that these stories, too, represent El Paso and Juarez is a meaningful one. Like Baer, Savage rejects site-specific pieces that reaffirm harmful and trite border narratives. He calls those pieces “opportunistic art.”10 “When they do site specific art, it often has an agenda, and it’s not exploratory or inviting. It is designed to make a point or cause a reaction . . . in a post-Trump world, I see a lot of that. That’s easy. That’s low-hanging fruit.”11

The mission of the Border Theatre serves at a reminder that seemingly apolitical reactions can reemerge as tactics for imagining alternatives. Unlike the BAW/TAF, which harnessed border stereotypes by exaggerating and subverting them, the Border Theatre engages in a new type of play by refusing them entirely. Savage says this tendency, which one might even call a technique, is representative across El Paso’s burgeoning arts scene. “I think one thing we’re all trying to express is the casualness and the ease of our binational, multicultural existence. It’s not a big deal if you’ve been doing it your whole life.”12

This act of refusal, this rejection of “the big deal,” cannot be equated to an act of resignation. El Paso is more political than ever before. Local artists say “fuck Trump” is a regular greeting, and there has been an increase in political works since the election. Savage articulates what he feels is the distinction between these works and opportunistic art: “if someone [in the community] writes a piece about deportation, which is happening more and more, it’s not a forced agenda, it’s not trying to leech off of that media thing. It’s just the nature of the existence of they are trying to express.”13 “That media thing” is yet another reference to pieces that capture the momentary gaze of audiences who experience the border only peripherally. El Paso natives, Savage says, refuse to cater their work to such audiences. “There’s a consciousness to not let ourselves be pushed by the MAGA movement. If we have to defend our existence, we have to prove that we’re decent and that we have a right to exist the way we’ve always existed. We are not going to do that.”14

Even Savage’s us of “we” is notable. It is not only Mexicans who need to defend their existence and prove their decency, but a larger sum of people, a “we.” This “we” includes those in Juarez, but presumably also Anglo Texans, and Chicanos like Savage, who is reluctant to claim his Mexican heritage. This “we” is expansive, and indicative of how Savage envisions the people to whom he belongs. This sense of up-againstness with those who you have not chosen is articulated by Butler, who writes:

“. . . what it means for our ethical obligations when we are up against another person or group, find ourselves invariably joined to those we never chose, and must respond to solicitations in languages we may not understand or even wish to understand. This happens, for instance, at the border of several contested states, but also in various moments of geographical proximity—what we might call ‘up againstness’—the result of populations living in the conditions of unwilled adjacency due to forced emigration or the redrawing of boundaries of a nation state.”15

Savage, in his use of the expansive “we,” is opting into a union with his neighbors, even those on the other side of the border. In many contexts, an American claiming this collectivity may seem like a denial of the fact that some groups do indeed need to defend their decency more than others, get stopped at Border Patrol checkpoints more than others, and get deported more than others. In many contexts, “we” is an uneducated wish. Yet in El Paso and Juarez, “we” is an informed reality and a deliberately fostered goal.


Manufacturing Creativity

Savage returned to El Paso looking for a space for the Border Theatre, and found one at Glasbox, a community-oriented, collaborative space for artists to create and show work. Founded by El Paso firefighter Chris Bevins, the Glasbox mission is oriented around giving artists space to create, though that space has been transient, with the organization rotating through seven different buildings in the seventeen years of its operation. Currently, it occupies a twenty-five thousand square foot warehouse in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio district. It draws its name from the original location, which featured floor-to-ceiling windows, but also intentionally opposes the black box as a space that fosters overly esoteric and inaccessible art. Accessibility is key at Glasbox, not just between artist and audience but artist and artist. Few walls separate different working stations and studios for the nearly one hundred artists working in the space. Welders set up shop next to dancers, visual artists, musicians, and theatre practitioners.

In a city like El Paso, Glasbox is revolutionary. The space quite literally materialized an arts scene out of thin air, proving that artists in El Paso existed and were merely waiting for a place to create. Some artists, like Robert Rivera, actually left El Paso because there were no art spaces in town and returned when Glasbox opened.16 Now, creation certainly abounds at Glasbox—as Bevins says, Glasbox manufactures creativity—but artists mention other meaningful parts of the space. To some it is “therapeutic,” to others, a space of “evolution,” to others still a “community between autonomous artists.”17 In addition to developing works, artists are developing relational practices and communal ties. For Bevins, this constitutes art, and he calls his medium “the space between artists.”18 Phrased differently, Bevins works in the medium of the border, expressed here as a space of connection rather than separation.

El Paso citizens responded to Glasbox as positively as artists did. In the case of The Border Theatre, the company’s opening night in 2010 welcomed an audience of 150 guests. Within a week, Savage was named one of the top ten future leaders of El Paso.19 Since then, numbers have dropped, but the theatre has maintained a steady base of interested community members. In the past year, Savage has started a writers’ room project, holding workshops for emerging playwrights and eventually showcasing their work at Glasbox. Savage advertised the program in every newspaper and on every radio program he knew. Out of a collective community of nearly three million people, he received interest from five, including a retiree from Juarez, a military wife stationed from Fort Bliss, and a young poet from El Paso. “That’s only five writers,” Savage says, “but it’s five more than before.”20 In a blooming art scene, small victories are victories nonetheless.


Case Study: Studio Mariposa, Naco, Sonora

On February 1, 2017, the border wall between Naco, Sonora and Naco, Arizona came tumbling down. But for Naco residents, the removal of the wall wasn’t a celebration. The Naco border wall had become the self-proclaimed longest mural in North America, a mile-long stretch of colorful works featuring rainbows, Mexican flags, cartoons, and messages reading “WALLS ARE FOR ART,” “SOMOS UN MUNDO,” and “MEGA CHANGE.” It was this mile-long art piece that was torn down in February of last year, replaced with a new double-wall: two prison-like, barbed-wire fences with a border patrol road running in between.

Naco, Arizona and Naco, Sonora were united towns with no border wall in sight until the 1970s, but the sister towns have long shared a history of struggle between the U.S. and Mexico Known as “un pueblo chico, olvidado de Dios,21,22 Naco was the site of the longest sustained battle of the Mexican Revolution, the Siege of Naco, which lasted 119 days. Americans would watch the battle from afar as entertainment, while Mexican fighters made sure no bullets strayed across the border to a void U.S. involvement. During the prohibition era, the town functioned as a safe haven for American drinkers and gamblers, providing income for residents while simultaneously developing the town’s reputation for underground industry. Residents say the four-meter high border fence, installed in the early ’70s, ruined the town’s small economy, disrupting the flow of traffic that led border crossers to a small stretch of businesses that kept many families afloat.23

Naco’s economy still revolves around migration, but since the border wall was introduced, smuggling of both people and drugs has become a primary industry. The Arizona-Mexico border is notoriously dangerous to cross, and accounts for a majority of deaths due to border-crossing.24 As recently as 2008, four-hundred migrants per day were deported between Naco and nearby Aguas Prietas.25 Naco has emerged as a primary point of entry for both legal and illegal immigration. “Coyotes,” who assist undocumented migrants in their crossings, advertise their services in broad daylight. The tunnel that crosses underneath the border port is the longest and most sophisticated in Arizona.26 When Naco makes headlines, it is usually for these reasons.

Enter the Border Bedazzlers, a group that made Naco famous for a very different reason: turning the Naco border wall into a mile-long mural while touting the mantra, “If we can’t tear down the wall, we might as well bedazzle it.” Gretchen Baer, a resident of Bisbee, a town just six miles from Naco, founded the group in 2010. The project grew out of an initiative called “Art Envoys,” in which Baer invited Mexican and American children to come to her Bisbee studio and learn to paint, with the ultimate goal of creating public art in the town. When dreaming up possible canvases, Baer realized the community’s largest wall was also its most politically charged: the then 15-foot high fence at the border.

The Bedazzlers operated informally for six years, with Baer heading down to the wall most weeks with a car full of art supplies that she bought herself. The numbers of children involved, most of whom were from the Mexican side of the border, would fluctuate each week. Occasionally, the Bedazzlers would be joined by local artists or international school groups, and eventually the mural was so long that it spanned the entirety of Naco. Though each panel was painted by different participants, the project is unified by Baer’s aesthetic: saturated with color, glitter, and joyful motifs. Indeed, there was a buoyancy that permeated the entirety of the project; Baer grapples with the gravity of the border in part by consistently undercutting its political consequences. More often than not, she refers to it as a jungle gym or a canvas, implicating it as a site of play.

Thus, the Border Bedazzlers subverted the wall by quite literally marking it as a site of exuberant, uncontainable, joyful connection. When it was torn down and replaced with an unpaintable double wall, Baer and the community were forced to discover new ways continue and amplify the project’s aims. Such are the dynamics of artistic resilience: As political and social situations grow more dire, artists are compelled to think more creatively and tactically to come up with solutions. For Baer, a new solution was clear: Studio Mariposa, a free children’s art center on the Mexican side of the border. “We don’t need the wall; we have a whole town,” Baer said. “We’re going to paint everything in Naco.”27

The Border Bedazzlers retains some elements of the border art of the ‘social turn.’ Still, there is a palpable difference between the art of inSITE and Baer’s projects: the former seeks out a community and engages it; the latter arises forth from community and fosters it. The Border Bedazzlers shared the ‘for binational border-dwellers, by binationa border dwellers’ ethos of the BAW/TAF, but demonstrated a marked detachment from the performativity of previous eras. Indeed, the project had less to do with performing the border and more to do with physically altering its structure. The lack of performativity can be attributed in part to the era—as border control tightened, it became riskier and grimmer to perform a border crossing. Yet there is also something to be said for the project’s duration—for the six years that the project existed, the border wall of Naco functioned as a representation of border-dwelling dreams, visions, and mantras.

Yet Baer is still quick to point out the shortcomings of the Border Bedazzlers and sees the creation of Studio Mariposa as a more meaningful project than painting the wall. She sees the Bedazzlers as slightly ‘gimmicky,’ akin to what she calls “big border art:” works like Javier Tallez’s One Flew Over the Void or Post-Commodity’s Repellent Fence / Valla Repente, in which 26 balloons with evil-eye iconography were erected along the border in Douglas, a neighboring town to Naco. Baer says that art is for “American audiences.” Implied in her definition of “American” are those who do not experience the border but rather who consume it as a distant political concept. The Border Bedazzlers, in Baer’s eyes, functioned similarly to “big border art” in its tendency to create a spectacle of the act of border painting for distant audiences. Though she worked on the project for six years, the participants would come and go, and it was rare that meaningful bonds were produced. “I didn’t know their names, they were always different, and they were always changing,” Baer says of the participants. “I was really just focused on the wall. Maybe in a way, it meant more for Americans than it ever meant for Mexican kids.”28 For children in both Nacos, it seems, the border wall is somewhat inconsequential. “One time we were doing a parade around town with the kids and I told them to march to the wall,” Baer notes. “They were like, ‘what wall?’ They don’t think of it in that way.”29

Who did think of it “in that way”? The Americans who solely conceptualize the wall as a source of conflict and are fascinated by its presentation as a source of joy? The distinction between those two conceptualizations of the border is not to be diminished; it is an express interest of border artists to shift narratives and perceptions about border life, and it is Baer herself who proclaims “the borderlands as blessing.”30 What can be gathered from the perceived shortcomings of the Border Bedazzlers is that interacting with the physical wall shifts narratives for certain audiences—namely those who are far away from it—while providing a less meaningful shift for others. If interacting with the physical border matters for those who are distant, it is art that interacts with the borderlands more broadly that shifts experiences for those close up. It is this reorientation that happened with the end of the Border Bedazzlers and the creation of Studio Mariposa.

Striking Art

Baer went from producing individual art works to inviting local children to her studio to painting the border wall to creating a fledgling community center on the Mexican side of the border. In doing so, she engaged in a process of striking art. “Strike art” is a term that comes out of Yates McKee’s book of the same title, subtitled Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition. McKee argues that while the art of Claire Bishop’s social turn had vowed to blur the lines between art and life, Occupy Wall Street rendered the line entirely futile. Suddenly, artists engaged not just in making art but in all facets of movement building. In Zucotti Park, the artist was a valid organizer, and all sorts of people were valid artists, in charge of banners, chants, posters, props and more.

Moreover, Occupy revealed the hypocrisy of the art-worlds obsession with social engagement, so long as it was contained in museums and biennials. While Rikrit Tiravanija, an artist well known for his relational aesthetics, was crafting well-funded pieces where he fed gallery goers Thai soup, Occupiers were just feeding each other, without the funding or validation of the gallery. McKee quotes Occupy organizer and artist Thomas Gokey in saying, “the artworld’s values, and the ways of making art within it, seem so out of step with the values of democracy that it’s simply wrong to go back to making art in that way. I feel like Occupy has ruined art for me, in a good way. Art isn’t worth doing any more, there is more important work to do. But, on the other hand, I feel that after Occupy, art has become possible again, really for the first time in my generation.”31

Gokey’s paradoxical claim speaks to the current shift of artists working at the border. In the MAGA era, there is more important work to be do, and yet it is only artists who can do that work. At the border, art and policy as we know it have been stretched to their limits, and with policy growing ever more deadly, art must shift to accommodate new shapes, roles, and responsibilities. Artists must strike art. As the artist collective MTL writes in #OccupyWallStreet: A Possible History, “We strike art to liberate art from itself.”32 The contemporary border artist is engaging in such a process of liberation.

“You can cross over!”

There is a liberatory feeling in the air at Studio Mariposa classes. Naco, Mexico, is just a few intersections assembled into a town. Somehow, it manages to feel drier, dustier, and hotter than El Paso does, and it manages to feel much smaller, too. But Naco’s dwarfish size and long history are forgotten at Studio Mariposa. The studio is a a tiny sliver of a building, the square

footage of some closets, and is the first thing one sees when crossing through the Naco Port. Like the Border Bedazzlers’ wall, the studio is unusually bright in the dusty desert setting. Most days, when Baer arrives for class, students are already waiting outside the building, playing instruments and riding bikes. In interviews, many of the students noted there was nowhere else in town to gather, and their favorite part of the studio was “having a place to hang out with their friends.”33

The nature of Studio Mariposa resists the institutionalization of community-oriented art. All of Baer’s work at the border has functioned informally and almost anarchically. She has received almost no funding for either project, though she is working to make Studio Mariposa a non-profit organization. During the Border Bedazzlers project, Baer began painting without consulting authorities, though she kept most of her work to the Mexican side of the wall to avoid confrontation with U.S. border patrol. Now, she works in Mexico intentionally: “to put this wall and say you are bad hombres or trash or criminals and giving them that message . . . it’s not true. It’s the opposite. So by going across, [it gives them] them some possible ways of creative thinking . . . once you think creatively, anything’s possible, right?”34 Still, Baer resists the narrative that Mexican children need artistic charity from American creatives. “I have zero interest in [the idea of] ‘oh, these poor kids.’ It is not true. They are fun, they are quick to laugh, and they are not all poor. This is not a we-feel-sorry-for-them situation. These are great kids; they should know it, and I think they do.”35

When the Border Bedazzlers’ mural was torn down, a resident of Naco dedicated to promoting wellness helped Baer secure an old health center that was out of use, which became Studio Mariposa. Because of the studio’s small space, the group closes down the street every time they have a class—this consists of putting a few traffic cones out in the road and hoping no one complains. So far, no one has. Classes at Studio Mariposa can be equally haphazard. Baer loosely plans activities, usually based around local or visiting artists who come to the studio. Some Bisbee musicians have begun to cross to Naco weekly to assist with class. None speak Spanish, including Baer, though some students speak fluent English and act as translators. The result is a constant mix of Spanglish from both teachers and students, and bonds that are based in something other than verbal communication.

The bridging of Naco and Naco, of Sonora and Arizona, is an intended consequence of Studio Mariposa, one that actively challenges aesthetics and realities of impasse. Bisbee and Naco residents rarely cross into Mexico despite proximity due to long-held presuppositions about Naco. Studio Mariposa intervenes in those presuppositions by inserting an image of a blindingly colorful building teeming with bilingual, bicultural, youthful creative pursuits. In February 2018, Baer held a concert of Bisbee artists at a Naco taco shop. She had briefly considered holding the concert at the border wall, with Americans on one side and Mexicans on the other, before immediately shutting the idea down. “We will not be doing any of that,” she says. “If you can cross over, just bring your stuff over. We’re not just gonna stand on the other side of the wall. Come into the community! Don’t stare at them through the fence. It’s like, you can cross over! You can cross over.”36

The concert provides an aesthetic antithesis to works like Jaar’s The Cloud or John Luther Adam’s Inuksuit. Here is a community refusing the border as a site of impasse and insisting upon its permeability. The event ended up drawing over 50 people, which Baer notes as a success for small towns like Bisbee and Naco. “Just by that one event,” she says, “a lot of people go over more often. Because they realize, ‘oh there’s a great little restaurant over there, and it’s really nice, and there’s no problem, and I did it.’”37 In the case of events like this concert, Studio Mariposa functions as an excuse for border crossing. In turn, conceptual realities of the border shift—“Mexico is nice,” “it is easy and harmless to cross the border”—as well as physical realities of the borderlands.

The students at Studio Mariposa create songs, choreographies, murals and works that are yet to be seen. All the while, Studio Mariposa itself creates new collective memory in this small town forgotten by God. “Naco is all over the news because Trump is sending The National Guard to ‘solve our border crisis,’” Baer says, “but we all know a different story about Naco. The real crisis in Naco is there is a rampant overuse of glitter!”38


Case Study: Cross Border Community Stations, San Diego, California and Tijuana, Baja California

Unlike El Paso and Naco, San Diego seems to forget its bordered nature. There are, of course, histories and realities of Chicano culture that show up across the city, most famously in the countless murals that decorate Chicano Park. And in neighborhoods like San Ysidro, the neighborhood that is also a port of entry, and is heavily populated by immigrants, the wall is a quotidian element of life that many can see out their window. Yet, even as San Diego grows more diverse than ever before, many San Diego citizens seem to conceptualize themselves as Southern Californians rather than border-dwellers or border citizens. Neighborhoods like Ocean Beach are famous for surfing, micro-breweries, and vegan Mexican eateries, and though the border is only 10 miles away, it might as well be thousands.

Both the origin point and informal capital of border art, the San Diego-Tijuana region is now saturated with works about the border. In just the past year, a coalition of artists projected images like ladders and keys onto Trump’s wall prototypes; the Oceanside Museum of Art opened the exhibition “unDocumenta,” that explored the “socioeconomic, historical, and cultural impact of the border;”39 students at San Diego State University created public performances under the title Otra Mundo Nos Espera,which included dressing like astronauts in Friendship Park and asking bystanders about their origins. Needless to say, making border art in San Diego comes with a different valence than in Naco, where community initiatives are novel, and El Paso, where art is just beginning to make space for itself.

Much of the history that has been traced in this paper is in fact the history of San Diego-Tijuana—it was there that border art was born with the formation of the BAW/TAF, and there that, according to Gomez-Peña, border art died with the creation of initiatives like inSITE. When looking at the transformations of the Tijuana-San Diego art scene, one can see that its radical nature was hijacked by the art world just as it was beginning to emerge. The BAW/TAF’s ’97 Maclovio Rojas project beckoned a border art that was concentrated on community centers, relational qualities, and popular sovereignty, but its impact was soon squashed by the fervor around well-funded installation pieces. Today, some San Diego-Tijuana artists are picking up where the BAW/TAF left off, reestablishing border art as a practice that links the communities of San Diego and Tijuana in tangible and meaningful ways.

Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman are a duo doing just that. Operating out of the University of California San Diego (UCSD), together they embody a melding of varied border art tropes:  Cruz is an immigrant architect, Forman an American political scientist, and together they operate out of  UCSD’s Department of Visual Arts and show their works in biennales and museums internationally. They are by no means grassroots artists, and some might say they fall into what Baer characterizes as ‘big border art.’ Cruz was a part of inSITE_05, for which he built infoSite, a nomadic public space, a transient down-town for gathering doubling as a “cultural reference” library. The site, which popped up in the parking lot in front of the San Diego Museum of Art, consisted of green astroturf with scattered bean bag chairs for participants to gather on; a structure made out of traffic cones that doubled as the library, and the wooden frame of a house.

Cruz had a theoretical framework for the piece, which he described as “a critique of the rigidity of current zoning practices in San Diego.” But what is more indicative of Cruz’s work as a whole is the fact that the wooden frame of the house, utilized as public space during inSITE, was shipped to Tijuana after the art festival, absorbed by residents in an informal settlement that often recycles San Diego’s waste to build housing. Thus, infoSite appealed to the aim of inSITE, which was to intervene in the urban landscape of the border region temporarily, while simultaneously extending the longevity and meaning of such a process. In doing so, Cruz played the role of the subversive artist—akin to Fred Moten’s notion of the ‘subversive intellectual,’ who is in but not of the university—as one who is in but not of the institution, to straddle its border.

Cruz and Forman never refer to themselves as subversive artists, but do consistently identify themselves as “mediators” and “facilitators” between knowledges and stakeholders. Most often, they are referring to their roles as both tenured university professors and community activists/artists. Yet this disparity—the focus on the informal, the public, and community and the integration into the art world, the private, and formal institutions—is not a contradiction for Cruz and Forman. Instead, it is the basis of their practice, which they articulate as “top down/bottom up.”

Forman and Cruz’s dialectic, “top down/bottom up” approach represents a bridge between the institutionalized works of inSite and the anarchic energy of Baer’s border projects. “There’s a tendency for those who study the informal,” Forman notes, “to conclude that communities that are this creative and resilient have the capacity to go it alone without top-down support, and we have been really critical of that narrative. For us, the top down and the bottom up need to figure out how to connect, and one of the most important curatorial projects for activists and artists today is to figure how to mediate that interface between knowledges, between the bottom up ingenuity and the top down institutions.”40 It was in this curatorial framework that Cruz called inSITE_05 “an excuse to engage the tactics” of recycling materials and object across the border.41


Cross-Border Citizenship

Infosite embodies Cruz and Forman’s commitment to redefining public space and mixing informal and formal forms of knowledge, but it leaves out what is now the central element of their practice: duration. Cruz and Forman’s longest-running and engaged piece is undeniably their Cross-Border Community Stations. The Community Stations, also affiliated with UCSD, are “field-based hubs in underserved neighborhoods on both sides of the San-Diego border,” where community non-profits and a research university come collaborate on projects of learning, researching, and teaching.42 Currently, three stations are in operation, located at strategic points in the region: the EarthLab Community Station in the Encanto neighborhood of San Diego; a station in San Ysidro, the first immigrant neighborhood on the San Diego side of the border; and a station in Laureles Canyon, based in an informal settlement home to nearly eighty-five thousand people that crashes into the border.

The Community Stations are sites to experiment with the framework that is central to Cruz and Fonna’s practice: cross-border citizenship. A cross-border citizen sees themselves not just as a citizen of the United States or of Mexico, but of the shared San Diego-Tijuana region. In Forman’s words: “Is there something like a cross-border citizen in this region that is defined not by jurisdiction, or location, or a piece of paper that you carry in your pocket, but through the bottom-up practices beliefs norms habits that people share across this region?”43 This question is predicated on foundational belief that citizens on both sides of the border have more in common than they do apart, despite policies that assume otherwise.

Moreover, the region itself shares resources—like water, waste management, and natural ecologies—that politicians continue to ignore. Cruz and Forman found that the mayors of San Diego and Tijuana rarely communicate with one another, despite the fact that they co-direct a binational community, economy, and ecosystem.44 The question of cross-border citizenship underline that it is not just national policies and discourse, but local municipalities that reinforce the division between border communities. Moreover, it is localized, bio-regionalized solutions that can craft new senses of cross-border belonging.

The Cross-Border Community Stations project began with a visit from Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia. Mockus was well-known for his performative actions, such as the “Night Without Men,” where men stayed home to take care of children and families while the city hosted open-air concerts and events for the city’s women, or the replacement of Bogota’s police force with a mime troupe. Bogota improved drastically under Mockus’ leadership: homicides fell by seventy percent, seventy thousand community security groups were formed, and sewerage was provided to ninety-five percent of citizens.  According to Forman, Mockus was instrumental in her and Cruz’s understanding that “before you change a city physically, you need to change social culture and public trust. Using art and culture can shake citizens out of their socially destructive habits.”45

After his time as mayor, Mockus founded Corpovisionarios, an organization that went on to to travel to 50 Latin American cities and conducted civic culture surveys that assessed issues like tolerance, security, civic participation and public trust. In 2015, Cruz and Forman invited Mockus and his team to come to the border and facilitate the first ever Bi-National Culture Survey. Some results ran counter to stereotypes about Americans and Mexicans; citizens from Tijuana, for instance, were much more legalistic than those from San Diego. They participated more in public action. But those in San Diego were more trusting overall, of civic institutions, their neighbors, and even of Tijuanenes. In the end, both cities had much to learn from one another, and more public trust than either side had imagined.


Cross-Border Community Stations

For Cruz and Forman, the Bi-National Culture Survey was a springboard for intervention.  Cruz notes that “what we are trying to do is diagnose, visualize, and then connect and mediate;” in this case, the Culture Survey was a diagnosis of the problem. The Cross-Border Stations are experimentations with solutions, though they are not yet fully realized in their final form. Cruz

Cruz realized that as immigrants flow north across the border, trash flows South, and residents of informal settlements utilize Californian waste to construct their homes. After talking to the CEO of a nearby maquiladora, Cruz designed a maquiladora ready-made frame that works as a “hinge mechanism” upon which to build with recycled materials. The frames also link together to create scaffolding, as shown above, which according to Cruz, “helps strengthen an otherwise precarious terrain, without compromising the improvisational dynamics of these self-made environments.”46 Still, this frame is currently just a prototype. Many of Cruz’s designs will take years of planning and thousands in funding to bring to scale.

Though the Community Stations are not physically complete, their pedagogical and political ethos has been holistically developed through the collaboration of local NGOs, UCSD, and citizen participation. The three sites are each developed distinctly from one another, physically and otherwise. The Laureles Canyon station, for instance, will double as a waste management system to mitigate the amount of the settlement’s sewage that flows into the San Diego estuary. Yet the sites are united by a shared commitment to urban pedagogy, bottom-up climate action, financial reciprocity, and university-community engagement, seen as a cross-border system rather than separate entities.

Currently, the most fully developed station is the San Diego Earthlab, curated in partnership with Groundwork San Diego, an NGO, and the San Diego Unified School District. The Earthlab is a four-acre outdoor classroom in the middle of the city’s urban sprawl that includes greenhouses, gardens, solar houses, and other infrastructure designed by UCSD students and researchers. Each year, thousands of children and families, most of whom come from low-income backgrounds, visit the site to engage in community-based environmental learning. Here, teaching artists, scientists, and elementary school educators collaborate to create hands-on, all-ages schooling about the shared watershed between San Diego and Tijuana. Simultaneously, UCSD faculty members bring in expertise on urban planning and design while offering practicum courses to undergraduate and graduate students, who work as tutors, coaches, grant-writers, researchers and more. On a good day, it can feel like everyone in San Diego is represented at the EarthLab.

The varied constituents represented at the EarthLab also point to another element of Cruz and Forman’s work: it is, as field director Kyle Haines put it, “much messier than top-down/bottom-up” might suggest.47 Haines speaks to his experience of bringing undergraduate interns to the Community Stations, particularly in Laureles Canyon where he spends most of his time: “The reality of how you make these places work is much messier than these radically minded students are prepared for.”48 Forman adds that many Americans, particularly students, are hesitant of crossing over and partaking in community initiatives “for fear of seeming like a colonizer.”49 But Forman insist that disconnected forms of knowledge must find a way to meet. Moreover, the team rejects the so-called sanctity of bottom-up practices that have permeated much of the left. In Laureles Canyon, for instance, much of the community burned trash regularly, with little thought given to environmental or health-related consequences. Forman, Cruz, and their team do not subscribe to the notion that community practices are always “right,” and worked with the Laurels Canyon community to develop alternatives for waste management. “Sometimes cycles of poverty create severe limitations on the possibility to aspire,” Forman notes. Both note that the balance of informal and formal knowledge practices is difficult to strike, but that the delicacy of the issue seems to dissipate as authentic, long-lasting trust is built between communities. This is the sort of trust the team envisions happening at the Cross-Border Community Stations.


“Return DuChamp’s Urinal to the Bathroom!”

Haines’ and Forman’s comments speak to the sorts of relational practices the Cross-Border Community Initiative team is striving to create. Notably, they are inspired by practices of informality, despite their willingness to engage with formal institutions. Here, informality is not just an aesthetic but a set of operations. Even the loaded issue of “feeling like a colonizer” is addressed by informal bonds and community ties instead of contracts and agreements. Certainly, this framework bleeds into the duo’s aesthetic, which tends to legitimatize informal practices, such as the recycling of materials, which is so often seen as a stain on the city due to its connection with informal settlements. Yet despite Cruz’s emphasis on design, aesthetics often feels like the last part of the team’s practice. What is central here is the issue of operations and relations. Cruz remarks that his friend and fellow artist Tania Brugera recently told him that the art world must “return DuChamp’s urinal to the bathroom,” calling for a move towards an art that functions.50 This does not always imply functions that are entirely practical; one use of art that Forman suggested is the “turning of the soul” in a way that punishment and policy will never be able to. However metaphysical the question of turning a soul is, it is still a question of what are does. More importantly, the Cross-Border Community Initiative suggests that the soul can be turned, and civic participation can be increased, and communities can better manage their waste all at once. Art, when defined expansively, can do all of these things without choosing.


The migrants from this year’s unprecedented caravan continue to wait at America’s doorstep, praying for entry. Instead of turning around or seeking shelter, they have set up one massive tent city next to the border port. Most Tijuanenses gawk and stare as they cross through border checkpoints. Some, along with their neighbors from San Diego, come to bring food, water, blankets. A small village has formed, one imbued with as much hope as despair. This is the border: a place where those who police try to halt those who cross; where those who cross cross anyway; where citizens look on; where communities form under the shadow of a wall.

If there is a worry that the open, fertile borderlands that Anzaldùa spoke of are in the process of closing, artists at the U.S.-Mexico border today are at once affirming our fears and laying them to rest. They each acknowledge what it means to cross while simultaneously diminishing the actual moment of crossing: at the Border Theatre, crossing goes unacknowledged in favor of less traditional border tales; at Studio Mariposa, Americans are encouraged to “just cross over,” at Cross-Border Community Station, informal sharing of knowledge and resources is prioritized over the border’s more institutionalized elements.

It is not that new border artists have rejected intervention into the normalization of the border. Each project redefines what a ‘problem’ at the border looks like, most clearly articulated by Baer, who remarked that an abundance of glitter was the most pressing issue Naco faces today. Yet these projects expand upon normative intervention and continue to disrupt the quotidian elements of life at the border. As a result, these artists do more than visualize another sort of bordered world, or a world without borders all together. They actively prefigure what it would mean to be a citizen of such a place, to walk around in it, to build community in it, even to cross through check-points in it. For this reason, these artists need never touch the border wall. It is dwarfed in the face of their insistence upon imagining a world without it.

As the artists in this paper’s case studies have shown, art is a main ingredient in the lifeblood that keeps la herida abierta bleeding. It should be made clear that art is not the sole ingredient. When divorced from the communities, experiences, and political realities of the borderlands, it does little to challenge the dystopian status-quo of bordered life, and does more to wet the appetites of those far from the border than empower those to whom it matters most. But when border art is viewed as a set of practically utopian, relational practices, there is resilience and resistance to be found. After all, it’s possible that it was never the politician who was tasked with creating cross-border vision anyway. It was always the artist, the dreamer, the citizen who was bound to keep the border open.

  1. Maya Averbuch, “After a Day at the Border, First Eight Members of Migrant Caravan Taken into U.S. Custody to Begin Processing Asylum Claims,” The Washington Post, April 30, 2018.
  2. Donald Trump, Twitter Post, April 23, 2018, 6:44 a.m.
  3. Gloria Anzaldùa. Borderlands = La Frontera the New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987, 25.
  4. Geneva, Agence France-Presse in, “US-Mexico Border Migrant Deaths Rose in 2017 Even as Crossings Fell, UN Says,” The Guardian, February 06, 2018.
  5. Gardener Selby, W, “Barack Obama, in Austin, Says Illegal Immigration at 40-Year Low,” Politifact Texas, March 17, 2017.
  6. Hernandez, Kelly Lytle, “How Crossing the US-Mexico Border Became a Crime,” Univision, May 01, 2017.
  7. This push is primarily led by activist-artist collective Decolonize This Place, whose members overlap with MTL Collective, quoted later in this paper.
  8. Austin Savage, co-founder of the Border Theatre, interviewed by Hannah Fullerton, El Paso, Texas, March 2018.
  9. Savage, interview.
  10. Savage, interview.
  11. Savage, interview.
  12. Savage, interview.
  13. Savage, interview.
  14. Savage, interview.
  15. Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2018), 77.
  16. Respectful Revolution, “Chris Bevins’ Glasbox Creative Community in El Paso, TX,” Interview with Glasbox artists, February 28, 2015, video, 6:38,”
  17. Respectful Revolution, “Chris Bevins’ Glasbox Creative Community in El Paso, TX.”
  18. Respectful Revolution, “Chris Bevins’ Glasbox Creative Community in El Paso, TX.”
  19. Savage, interview.
  20. Savage, interview.
  21. “A small town, forgotten by God.”
  22. Erik Kolsrud, “A Wall Being Built in Naco’s Backyard Stirs up Emotions,” Arizona Sonora News Service, February 10, 2017.
  23. Kolsrud, Erik. “A Wall Being Built in Naco’s Backyard Stirs up Emotions.” Arizona Sonora News Service. February 10, 2017.
  24. Erin Siegal McIntyre, “Death in the Desert: The Dangerous Trek between Mexico and Arizona,” Al Jazeera America, March 11, 2014.
  25. Nancy Flores, “Narcotráfico En Sonora.”
  26. Lupita Murillo, “Crime Trackers: Naco Drug Tunnel Considered Longest in Arizona,” Southern Arizona News, March 02, 2015.
  27. Charlene Santiago, “Children Say Goodbye to Mural They Painted on Border Fence,” Cronkite News, February 09, 2017.
  28. Gretchen Baer, founder of the Border Bedazzlers and Studio Mariposa, interviewed by Hannah Fullerton, Bisbee, Arizona, March 2018.
  29. Baer, Interview.
  30. Baer, Interview.
  31. Yates McKee, Strike Art (New York: Verso, 2017) 32.
  32. McKee, Strike Art, 1.
  33. Interviews with Studio Mariposa students, interviewed by Hannah Fullerton, Naco, Mexico, March 2018.
  34. Baer, Interview.
  35. Baer, Interview.
  36. Baer, Interview.
  37. Baer, Interview.
  38. Baer, Interview.
  39. “Undocumenta,” OMA Online.
  40. Lecture by Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman, San Diego, California, March 2018.
  41. Teddy Cruz, “The Informal as Inspiration for Rethinking Urban Spaces: Architect Teddy Cruz Shares 5 Projects,” TED Blog, August 18, 2015,
  42. UCSD Cross-Border Initiative website,
  43. Lecture by Cruz and Forman.
  44. Lecture by Cruz and Forman.
  45. Lecture by Cruz and Forman.
  46. Cruz, “The Informal as Inspiration for Rethinking Urban Spaces.”
  47. Lecture by Cruz and Forman.
  48. Lecture by Cruz and Forman.
  49. Lecture by Cruz and Forman.
  50. Teddy Cruz, “Mapping Non-Conformity: Post-Bubble Urban Strategies,” Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics,
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