The following commentary is one in a series from KCET and Link TV writers and contributors reflecting on how the incoming president will shape, change, and redefine the future of California.
“Comrades of the entire world: the future is in the hands of the disinherited. It requires only the practice of a great virtue: solidarity.”
— Ricardo Flores Magón, "Manifesto to the Workers of the World," April 8, 1911, Los Angeles, California
“The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country —”
— Gloria Anzaldúa, “Borderlands/La Frontera”
I have been writing about the Wall since I started writing. I have known it since I started speaking. It became my companion as I was born into language. On my first day at Hilltop Nursery School in the Bellevue neighborhood of Los Angeles, I arrived balbuceando, as we say in Spanish, gurgling a mixed tongue, the patois that I learned at home between my Salvadoran immigrant mom and my Mexican-American dad, the rancheras my grandparents sang, Vin Scully’s spoken word performances painting Dodger games in the air above the transistor radio in the kitchen. The school catered to mostly white and middle class families. My difference was noted immediately by my little towheaded classmates. They pointed fingers, they laughed.
For many years after that I swerved between trying to enunciate exactly like them — desiring to be one of the them, that is to say, to not be them to them — and, conversely, doing everything I could to amplify the difference they found so funny, flinging my shame back at them through ethnic and linguistic pride, eventually speaking and singing and slinging spoken word in Spanish and Spanglish through ever-more outlandish iterations of “performance art.” I came of age in the 1980s, the Reagan-Bush years, a time that my students today know little about because they weren’t born yet, and those definitive histories have yet to be written, and they only catch glimpses of that time through TV reruns and parental reminiscences set to a soundtrack of INXS.
I am unearthing that relatively recent moment because there is an obvious resonance with today. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was the definitive electoral reaction to a decade and a half of progressive and radical ferment, from civil rights to the free speech movement to second wave feminism to environmentalism. The term “culture wars” came into vogue during this era, describing the tension between liberation movements and conservative reaction, one that played out both politically and aesthetically — policy debate feeding off of pop culture and vice-versa. During the ‘80s, this process included U.S. intervention in Central America and the rise of the politicized “nueva canción” movement, which even had an impact on mainstream American pop music; the war on drugs, police abuse and the rise of gansta’ rap; enduring misogyny and the rise of girl (and later, grrrl) bands; widespread homophobia and transphobia and the effervescent queer and trans performance scenes, a la “Paris is Burning.”
The Reagan-Bush reaction was not merely a rhetorical performance. Many of its ideas became policy that had a direct impact on peoples’ lives, to the point of death. Just as the incoming Trump administration is stocked with climate change denialists that aim to deregulate fossil fuel industries, which would lead to catastrophic consequences that will begin by taking a toll on socially marked and economically marginal communities, conservatives in the 1980s denied the science surrounding AIDS, condemning a generation of people living and dying with the disease to vicious social stigma. AIDS activism emerged and matured across the decade, giving rise to organizations like ACT UP and Queer Nation and a concurrent queer art uprising. (See Ron Athey, Cherrie Moraga, Phranc, Vaginal Davis.)
This is certainly not to imply that repressive regimes are good for art or artists, or even necessarily make for good art. But art is part of the historical process, a text that reflects, critiques, engages, denounces, proposes like any other text on the streets or in academe. In a society as commodified as ours, there is the eternal contradiction of the cultural production that embodies a progressive or radical political agenda and achieves commercial success. (Beyoncé’s “Formation” placing Black Lives Matter on the Super Bowl mega-stage or, in the 1980s, a dozen songs by Prince with his fluid sexual persona striking at the heart of the murderous rigidity of the Christian right). The question of co-optation lingers, but if we are optimistic and allow ourselves to suspect that the moral arc of history does indeed bend towards justice, art is there to mark its progress and on occasion maybe even nudge it along.
It is 1989 and we are at the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana/San Diego. I am writing in the first-person plural not so much to claim membership of note in the collective art-making of the Border Art scene as to underscore the collectivity from which it emerged. American individualism demands that proper names ultimately anchor (sell) movements, but individual artists would be nothing without their contexts, without the constellation of relationships within which they work. Here at the border, often referred to as the busiest crossing in the world, no one is talking about Trumpian walls. (As a matter of fact, the Berlin Wall is about to fall.) But immigration is very much a political soccer ball kicked back and forth across the pitch for quick and dirty electoral gains.
The border is, in 1989, just as it is now (note my insistence on the present tense for both past and present — there is a continuum here), a place constructed by the global economy, by surplus value and the bodies of laborers, by the interlacing of race and class that was born of colonialism and that the United States — stirring egalitarian founding, documents and all — has never been the exception to. We — artists, academics, activists (sometimes all three simultaneously) — have come to the border because of its politics and because of the powerful valence the very word border has for us, who are Latino and outsider-white, queer and straight and bi, rootless bohemians, dreamers, anarchists. (We could be among the crew hanging at the Ghost Ship in Oakland the night the flames erupt.)
The border for us is like the event horizon of a black hole, that point beyond which everything is different, or, better put, in which difference is everything. And we spend every waking moment, and our dream state, performing. Do we make fools of ourselves, become self-parodies, spawn radical chic clichés? Absolutely. Are we being pulled forward by the hopeful future imagined by Ernst Bloch (“thinking means venturing beyond”)? Of this we are utterly convinced.
We are not the first artists on the scene. We are here precisely because others had already been tracing the geography of the borderlands, drawing us in with the over-determined nature of the border metaphor. There are local artists who know the place in a way we never will. And there are those who represent the border in the pop realm, like Los Tigres del Norte, who since the 1970s have been singing about migration and the drug war and every other aspect of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. None of us will ever produce an oeuvre as sweeping and popular as theirs, epic from the point of view of the migrantes themselves, the ones who bring down the border every day and night with their bodies and imaginations, scaling walls, fording rivers, crossing deserts.
There is a headquarters, a commune of sorts called El Nopal Centenario, founded by the painter and architect Felipe Almada. It is a creative cradle, a place of thinking and drinking and smoking, a 24/7 performance within a couple of miles of the international line. Practically every artist here produces work that reflects the energy of the border itself — its shocking militarization, the desire of the migrants, the hatred of the migra, the “Under the Volcano” decadence of American tourists on Avenida Revolución (the tourists abandoned the place in wake of the drug war’s hyper-violence and today, in spite of all, a new thoroughly Mexican gallery scene flourishes), the way commerce and language and culture effusively and dangerously collide.
I am drawn to one among the many. His name is José Hugo Sánchez. He is in his early 20s, from Sonora, has a manic energy that I imagine like Neal Cassady’s. He paints, he performs, he is broke, he survives on ginseng and Felipe’s generosity. His artistic font is fire. He builds effigies out of discarded materials. Night falls, a crowd gathers, he shouts about the bastard child of Columbus lost in the colonial dark looking for a home. He douses the effigy, which he calls a mono (monkey), with gasoline and it burns, Hugo burns, the border burns, an obvious metaphor, the end of metaphor, annihilation, the birth of a new nation, an identity beyond the Wall.
In those years, I also journey further south, to my mother’s Centroamérica, which is also in conflagration, to witness another fiery death-birth. And I write about Los Angeles, where the Crips and the Bloods and the Mexican Mafia are locked in a grisly battle that even the CIA has a hand in. The crisis, it seems, is everywhere. And everywhere, I see people facing down the Walls, because to accept them would be to die without being reborn.
It sounds romantic, and it is-was, and it was-is in its apocalyptic way, and also very messy and embarrassing and volatile. At Highways Performance Space and Gallery in Santa Monica, a corollary to El Nopal Centenario in Tijuana, there are awkward discussions among the intersectional tribes, then heated ones, then breakups, then make-up sex. We break down the border in our bodies! (Inspired by all trans-ing around me, I come out as bisexual on stage at Highways. This makes for a lot of fun — and much relational chaos.)
The walls erected by the reaction — we make them ours. We turn them into productive forces, dream them and tear them down, reconfigure them, make them three-dimensional, transform them into dark matter, pass through them like apparitions, make them vibrate, levitate them.
I have been a university professor for over two decades, but it is only recently that the eternal 20-something in me accepted the natural generational succession and embraced the role of elder, the role I am playing in this essay.
As we arrive into this new crisis and face the new Walls, I turn to my students for guidance as they proclaim their “non-binary” personas and “non-conforming” bodies. I hear echoes, of course, of the journeys we undertook a generation ago. But they speak a new language, their aesthetic choices are fresh, the soundtrack of their lives necessarily different. (Maybe Hillary would’ve done better with millennials had she used Kendrick Lamar tracks instead of Bruce Springsteen to close out her rallies.) In taking “non-binary” thinking as their starting point, they have moved past us (even if it is hardly a new trope; see Gloria Anzaldúa). Non-binary denies the Wall even exists.
Artist Ana Teresa Fernández, born in Tampico, educated in Europe and the U.S., erased the wall for us in 2014.
There she is, at Playas de Tijuana, high up on a ladder leaning on the rusty steel bollards that plunge into the sand and thrust up to tear the sky. Paint roller in hand, in black cocktail dress and heels for that added intersectional twist. She has studied the color of her border sky well — the misty blue that results from the humidity of the Pacific and the exhaust of the free-trade trucks forever idling at the line and the gauziness of sunlight reflecting off San Diego suburban-beige stucco and the transparency of our desire. Her border-blue takes out the wall, bollard by bollard.
Erases the Wall-as-border fence, Wall-as-gender’s-embodied violence, Wall-as-linguistic-social-cultural-ideological line, Wall-as-divide-between-self-and-other, Wall-as-desire-denied, Wall-as-debt, Wall-as-colonial-nightmare-we-can’t-wake-up-from, Wall-as-idea, Wall-as-thing: martial Wall, death Wall.
What is left is space.
What is left is photons and molecules and movement.
What is left is hope.
We are on the eve of the inauguration of a scoundrel who has promised to build a “big, beautiful wall.” But it does not matter what he imagines or even what he builds. We have already erased it, from the past and from the future.
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