Mar 13, 2014
The Disasters of Border Crossing
Posted on Sep 20, 2007
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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