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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

(Page 2)

The Museo de la Ciudad is a stately colonial building in the city’s historic center.  Built in the 18th century as the convent of the Capuchinas nuns, the Museo is notorious as the site where the Emperor Maximiliano was held prisoner prior to his execution at the Cerro de las Campanas.  Its colonial architecture incorporates a lovely array of broad archways, stone walls and tiled floors, wrap-around corridors connecting exhibition halls that open into a spacious interior courtyard with a huge decorous water fountain in the center. The ancient look and feel of the place contrast with the museum’s more modern holdings, spawning a postmodern fusion of colonial and contemporary aesthetics that in essence reflects the museum director’s intent. As director Gabriel Horner Garcia tells me, “Our priority is art that pushes aesthetic boundaries mainly because the city’s conservativism, and Mexico’s in general, make it difficult for experimental artists like Malaleche to find exhibition spaces.”

Three years ago Garcia decided to push a different kind of boundary, reordering the museum’s spatial design in ways that dismantle the divide between “administrative” and “artistic” spaces.  “In every museum there is a space for exhibition and another for administration,” Garcia explains, “which is very schizophrenic.”  Garcia came up with an imaginative scheme for integrating space, inviting select artists to publicly exhibit their work in his administrative office.  Museum visitors go in and out of Garcia’s office while he carries out his regular administrative duties.  “This literalizes the types of work I perform on a daily basis, making them coexist,” Garcia adds.  “Bureaucratic work and artwork become completely enmeshed in the space of my office.”  Garcia is selective about the artists he invites into his workspace.  “Muerte X Agua” is only the second exhibition to share tenancy with the museum director. 

It is nonetheless disconcerting to walk into Garcia’s office and view the exhibit while he works, smoking, talking on the phone and drinking coffee, with papers in orderly stacks on top of his desk.  Occupying the entire office space, Malaleche’s four-part installation consists of three-dimensional figures:  a “corpse” and “body parts,” furniture, and human and industrial debris, as well as objects that were left behind in the border-crossing trek.  The title “Muerte X Agua” refers to the intermingling of death and water on the border, for just as excess of water can cause death so too can its scarcity.

The duality of water is persistent, as personified by the ghastly corpse heads placed on opposite sides of the office.

As one enters, to the right of the spacious room, the visitor encounters a large water-bottle dispenser with a human skull suspended in water, and, just in case someone is thirsty, the artists placed paper cups besides the dispenser.  Symmetrically aligned across the room is the second corpse head, in this case mounted on a sandy base, its face ghoulishly contorted and blistered from heat exposure and dehydration. 

Facing Garcia’s desk is a vertical structure consisting of 71 water bottles connected in five rows by plastic tubing material.  The largest piece in the installation, this upright structure suggests the so-called U.S. “Iron Curtain” or “American Berlin Wall,” as agents of the Border Patrol refer to the border wall planned for the U.S.-Mexico boundary line.  For the viewer, Malaleche’s inventive use of water bottles conjures up a slew of contradictory associations about their ubiquity in the modern world, expressing, again, their dual nature as givers and takers of life: The water bottle is a means for better health yet also a culprit in polluting the environment. 

Plastic bottles simultaneously ruin the aesthetics of urban landscapes, parks and pristine forests, aggravate ecological meltdown with their toxic plastics and rescue humans from the very toxicity they help generate. 

Littering abandoned migrant campsites along the border, water bottles are one of the few items immigrants are instructed to bring on the border-crossing trek.
In some water bottles Malaleche inserted found objects left behind in migrant campsites and scattered across the desert:  a hand-scrawled note, wedding picture, rosary, lover’s photograph, an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  In other bottles the artists have items floating in brown-tinged water similar to the toxic waters of the American Canal, the sewer system on the Arizona border, where dozens of immigrants drown each year while hiding from the Border Patrol or trying to cool themselves in the summer heat.  In juxtaposing the personal with the industrial, personal objects and human debris with industrial waste, Malaleche created a heart-rending monument to human suffering on the border.

From the border wall structure, one turns 180 degrees to Garcia’s workspace, where Malaleche placed a piece that tells another story, in the most shocking way, of those who never return.  Inside a vitrine-style functional desk and visible through its glass top is a grotesque replica of a male corpse.  Using a friend of the artists as a model, Malaleche created the scene of a migrant’s death on the border, contorting his body in a pose of deadly exhaustion, the scaly, burned skin peeling from the unrelenting Sonoran sun, dehydration written on his face, clothes torn by the prickly mesquite bushes dotting the desert.  Around the desk, the artists placed office chairs with words relevant to the installation’s theme etched onto their cushioned seats: racism, migrant, tomb, hunger, wetback, Mexican. 

The replica of a dead migrant inside the museum’s administrative walls provokes entangled responses from viewers.  This grimly familiar figure of a migrant’s corpse assaults the senses and forces viewers to confront the encounter between migration and its traumatic, often invisible underside.  It induces those headed for the golden promised land to ponder what could be their impending destiny, the possibility of their own death as staged in “Muerte X Agua,” by dehydration or drowning.  Some viewers may experience bewilderment at the sight of a death out-of-place; others, outrage at artists who would oddly aestheticize death; perhaps repugnance at the morbidity of the death scene; or even anger over its exploitation. 


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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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Collins_(Irish_leader)

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 http://www.wildchihuahuas.blogspot.com 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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