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Arts and Culture

The Disasters of Border Crossing

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Posted on Sep 20, 2007

By Rosa-Linda Fregoso

Piedad’s father was a border crosser who died the year she turned 15.  She was watching television on the morning her uncles appeared with news of his death, and much later she would be tormented by the day of his return.  “My father’s corpse arrived in a cardboard package tied with plastic bands, like a large addressed mail package.”  He was one of those pilgrims Eduardo Galeano writes about, “shipwrecked by globalization,” who left because he couldn’t make a living in Mexico.  After years of crisscrossing the U.S.-Mexico border the “dangerous way,” led by human smugglers in the hike across the perilous Sonora desert, he slipped and drowned in four feet of water, near Escondido, Calif.

Ten years after her father died in 1996, I traveled to the colonial city of Queretaro (in central Mexico) to see the Colectivo Malaleche’s latest project, “Muerte X Agua” (literally “Death by Water”), an installation on display at the Museo de la Ciudad, the city’s museum.  Piedad is a member of Malaleche, a collective of women artists who design memorials to denounce the explosion of violence and human rights violations against women, migrants and other vulnerable groups in Mexico.  Based in Querétaro, members of Malaleche met while students at the School of Fine Arts, formed the collective in 2003 and began collaborating on public installations that often combine conceptual, plastic and performance arts. 

The Colectivo Malaleche members join a cadre of artists in Mexico who have transformed a sense of urgency and immediacy into a potent aesthetic for denouncing the social impact of the government’s embrace of market-led development strategies that so far have failed to “trickle down.”  Socially committed artists like those of Malaleche are using art to rouse critical reflection about the state of affairs in Mexico: cutbacks in public welfare; a new wave of poverty, violence and crime; increased spending for militarization (aka “Colombianization”) of the country under the guise of the “war on drugs/terror”; and the alarming trend of human rights violations perpetrated by state and private actors against journalists, women, immigrants and the urban poor.

Since it was formed in 2003, Colectivo Malaleche’s work has dealt exclusively with the theme of death.  Using “malaleche” as a model for social critique (in Spanish, a person with “malaleche” is one with a deliberately provocative and annoying attitude, aimed at upsetting others), one of its more recent public projects infuriated the conservative political elite of Querétaro. 

In 2005, the city’s mayor ordered municipal garbage workers to dismantle Malaleche’s “Pasos en la Oscuridad” (“Steps in the Darkness”)—a five-part exhibition installed in public plazas in the historic center of the city and which dealt with the murder and disappearance of hundreds of women in the border city of Ciudad Juérez.  Although Malaleche became the cause célèbre of local journalists and intellectuals, and even managed to collect a modest compensation for damages, the group can no longer obtain city permits for exhibiting its work in public plazas and spaces.

In making public art, Malaleche moved away from personal experiences and toward more socially relevant concerns.  “The principal theme of our current work transcends personal references,” Piedad explains.  “Death is implicit, but our concern is no longer with ‘natural’ or ‘accidental’ death.  We now conceptualize death from another vantage point, from the system which provokes death by generating unemployment, migration, violence.”

*  *  *

Crossing the border without permission has long been a deadly venture.  Today, migrants crossing the border are dying at an atrocious rate.  More than 4,000 migrants—men, women and children—have perished crossing the border since the start of the most recent stage of border militarization in 1994.  The U.S. military has not only joined traditional Border Patrol forces in policing the border, the Bush administration has used the pretext of the “war on terrorism” to boost resources for border fortification and security.  There are plans for a border wall almost 2,000 miles long, and with the use of biometric technology, webcams, Black Hawk helicopters and Predator B unmanned aerial vehicles, the Border Patrol now resembles the military.

Border fortification seals off popular border crossings and redirects migrant traffic out of urban areas, where it had been easier to cross, into treacherous and remote areas where migrants are subject to exposure and other geographical dangers.  Often, unauthorized migrants die in the Arizona desert, where temperatures top 120 degrees in the summer and fall below freezing in the winter; some drown in border rivers and canals. Immigrants are hunted by vigilante ranchers in Texas and Arizona, so-called “citizen patrols” and white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Aryan Resistance.  More recently, immigrants crossing in desolate areas have been kidnapped and held for ransom by drug cartels.


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By maddy, May 14, 2008 at 8:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

yo wat up home doggies im just chilaxing on my couch watch mtv

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By Paracelsus, September 27, 2007 at 6:26 pm Link to this comment

Why is it Subcommando Marcos has never networked with Latino affinity groups to fund his operations? At least the Irish cultivated a network in the states to send money back to the homeland to support the cause. I have never heard of La Raza, LULAC, of MALDEF ever throwing parties to fund resistance movements in Mexico or any other oppressed Latin American nation. Look at how Michael Collins was able to organize a resistance movement.

I know that the oppressors in Latin America aren’t from a colonizing country, but the people are being oppressed by a selfish elite with colonial attitudes.
I disdain the lack of manhood among these open border foreign nationals, who want to make it worse for the struggling working classes of my country. Guns for Subcommando Marcos? Si! Section 8 and welfare for jackpot baby illegal aliens? Nunca!

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By Suzanne, September 26, 2007 at 1:36 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why is there no criticism of Mexico’s wealthy ruling class as to border crossing deaths?  Do they not care about their own countrymen?

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By MAR, September 26, 2007 at 11:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

About 50,000 US draft dodgers “sneaked” across the northern border during the Viet Nam war.  (They like to call themselves “war resisters” now; many have used the amnesty but many remain as pretty good Canadian citizens, just as many of the Mexicans are now pretty good US citizens.) But they were equally despised by many Canadians,  whose culture makes them voluntarily serve their country; they have only had a draft during the latter part of the two World Wars.

Draft dodgers were similarily often a burden to the Canadian provincial welfare systems. Draft dodger often meant “hippy”.  Many grew (and still grow, they say, BC Bud,) said to be the best grown by those who know.

  The draft dodgers were not turned away but it is worth noting also that about 50,000 Canadians served voluntarily in the US forces during the same war, many in the Marines. There is also a proportionate share of those Canadians whose names are on the Wall in Washington.

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By Pico, September 21, 2007 at 8:24 pm Link to this comment

It’s relatively easy to choose up sides and start slinging insults and accusations. It’s a hell of a lot harder to deal with all the complexities this issue involves, and still retain some semblance of humanity. I can say that. I live in Phoenix and I’ve been struggling with this for quite a while.

Please, come read my pieces on this at if you’re interested in knowing what that “struggle” means, at least in my experience. One post is “On the New Sanctuary Movement,” posted today. The other, a 2-part piece, is called “The Border, The People, The Questions.” It’s found in the archives of the week of Sept. 12. (The site is searchable.)

I think this article is excellent and should be required reading. True, it doesn’t present the point of view of the folks who live just this side of the border. That’s fine; it didn’t promise that it would, and it doesn’t have to. There are, God knows, plenty of other places to find that and other points of view. There’s no need to try to stomp this exhibition or this article into the ground because it doesn’t do what it never set out to do.

I guess I’m appealing for a right of free speech, and for recognizing that the same economic decisions that are outsourcing OUR jobs here have killed off theirs. True, that’s not all the story, but it’s a very important part of the story that needs to be taken into account. If we keep going as we are now, it won’t be long before WE find out what it feels like to be on the bottom tier. Facts: Our middle class is disappearing. Our homes are losing value by the hour; our jobs are being outsourced; our purchasing power hasn’t increased since the early 70s, but you can bet our prices have and our “employee benefits” have disappeared at the same time.

It may be that these are the reasons we feel so threatened by a bunch of Mexican peasants.

I’ll say this: If I were in their shoes, I’d be doing exactly what they’re doing. And its not true that these immigrants know exactly what they’re getting into. From interviews that Humane Borders people have done with these “illegals,” we know for a fact that coyotes tell them anything to make a buck. Many expect an easy 1-day trip, and some bring baby strollers. That’s how little they know. These are people from the interior of Mexico, Salvador, Guatemala. They know from shit about anything except semi-tropical jungles. They know ZIP about the Sonoran. Most Americans know ZIP about it. A gal who moved here recently set out on an 8-mile hike in 108 degree temps, for God’s sake. In her 30s. She died.

It’s also true that many of these people come TO border towns for the maquiladoras == the thriving factories we were all promised would bloom because of NAFTA and CAFTA. When they get to Nogales, Mexico, they find 50 percent of the maquiladoras have closed, their jobs ALSO outsourced to Asia. So then they have little choice but to push further north for another “promised land.” They can’t go home. There are no jobs at home.

Every single great religion in the world stresses that its believers are to give generous hospitality to the outcast and the stranger. It f’ng isn’t easy, is it? But that’s where the rubber meets the road for people who call themselves, say, Christians. If you do it unto the least of these. . . .  So: for me, the struggle involves my fears, the contradiction between our legal system and actual justice, and what it means, in the end, to be a human being. My journey may not be yours, but it’s sure been instructive for me. As has actually living IN the Sonoran and talking with the people involved on both sides.

Me, I think the immigration crisis pales by contrast to the things Naomi Klein has documented in The Shock Doctrine. I hope we do not let ourselves be distracted from far greater threats.

Your mileage, of course, may vary. Probably does.

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By riya, September 21, 2007 at 2:52 pm Link to this comment

Comment for Rusty:
You are correct, these people are entering our country illegally.  And sorry, in the middle of the night I get poetic, and I do rememember the women that brought their kids (now one my brother’s wife, a teacher, totally legal)over from Tampico long ago, and in their religion they would be considered ‘saintly’ for their travails.

The slaughtering would be done by Blackwater West.  You Betcha!

But the migration is illegal, the trash in the USFS wilderness is phenomenal, it is a mess, the fire that cost millions just last week was started from an illegal campfire down in a wash by these guys, because the forest was CLOSED in that area to all legal citizens, due to fire danger.

I think the corporate folk want them here, because it is cheap labor.  I think plenty of Americans would do those jobs for minimum wage.  The ‘coyotes’
that bring these people over are the ones the BP goes after, and rightly so.

I get all fired up, because I really don’t want to see Blackwater here protecting our borders.  And I feel that their country is such a mess, but so is ours.  I once looked into immigrating to other places and the ONLY place I qualified to go was guess, Mexico.  While their people are streaming in.
Hang out for hours on the TJ border and look at the people there, begging, sticking their kids in polluted traffic to beg.  Makes me glad I’m not that bad off.

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By luna, September 21, 2007 at 1:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As much as I feel for these people they are not “Immigrants”.
They are ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS. I am sick to death of them being call immigrants. real immigrants do it the legal, right way.
and NO they are not “hunted” by “vigilante ranchers”
these ranchers and farmers have every right to protect thier homes and thier property which is destroyed by these illegal immigrants on a constant basis, I know this for a FACT because I have several friends in Tx and AZ who own such ranches!
so you people need to get your facts straight.
since when has it become a crime to defend and protect your home?????
vigilante ranchers, give me a fng break.
And just for thought, these people who are crossing our borders illegaly know very well what they are getting into when they take that first step.
I am tired of hearing about the “poor immigrants” WHO ARE HERE ILLEGALLY! what about the poor farmers and ranchers who are having thier property destroyed?????!!!!!! thier homes!
how come we dont hear about them? and as soon as they stand up for thier rights, they are labeled vigilante???
give me a break!

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By Rusty, September 21, 2007 at 7:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’d like to sneak my family into France. I want a better life for them…. this article is garbage. Scheer, who is this author? I read my news here everyday, but if I keep seeing crap like this you can expect me to head on over to Slate…  And who exactly is “slaughtering saints” ? Give me a break… If dying while breaking the law and burdening another country makes you a saint, then I guess there is no end to the madness… Regardless, Mexican’s who sneak across the border illegally are not martyrs, they are criminals.

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By riya, September 21, 2007 at 5:10 am Link to this comment

I wish I could sneak into New Zealand with my daughters, my cats and my dog Clara. I really do.  So I understand the immigrants plight. They wish for a better, more just and sane world.  So do I. 

I do too.

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By riya, September 21, 2007 at 5:06 am Link to this comment

Here is a truth.

We put gallon water jugs out in the wilderness of Pine Creek.  The citizns get angry.  If we don’t put them out, they sneak into their yards….

What’s a human to do?

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By riya, September 21, 2007 at 4:19 am Link to this comment

Correction on the ” Read”” it’s Victor Villasenor, the Rain of Gold.

I wish every southern CA kid would read that book.  I’m just a gringa Catholic white girl, my brother, who is 59 now, married a girl way back when…
she actually was a “wetback” and laughs about it now, how she and her mom and her aunt (no men involved, interestingly)and her little brothers crossed the Rio Grande into Texas.  This book gave me an understanding of how and why those brave women did this.  They both died, the mom and the Tia, within the last couple years.  But now I maybe have a grasp on what they did.  We certainly don’t need the likes of Blackwater patrolling our borders slaughtering saints in the wilderness like these brave women were.

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By riya, September 20, 2007 at 10:19 pm Link to this comment

Victor Villanueva…. Read.

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By riya, September 20, 2007 at 9:45 pm Link to this comment

The immigrants come across, and into the Cleveland National Forest, near San Diego, through the Hauser/Pine Creek Wilderness where Blackwater has it’s base set up.

The Rangers clean up the campfires and the trash.  We understand your plight.  But don’t set the country on fire, please, we just spent millions last week on the Pine Fire.

We dont want Blackwater to patrol the Border.
Everyone, be careful….

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