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Dialogue in Transit: Evolution of a Line

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Vendor from Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana.

There are inherent connections and separations made when drawing a line across a plane. A line is after all a link between two isolated points. But, if the distance between the two points is large enough, the line drawn causes a separation in the plane, bifurcating it, separating it into two parts: causing a "this side" and "the other."

Connection and separation occur simultaneously: the line connects and divides, unites and separates, concurrently.

On Saturday March 15, Cognate Collective organized a mobile conference to reflect on one such line, the one that connects two countries and separates a territorial plane into two nations: the U.S./Mexico border.

"Dialogue in Transit: Evolution of a Line" brought together researchers and artists from San Diego and Tijuana, to reflect on the evolution of the border's ideological and physical manifestations 20 years since the implementation of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and 3 years after redevelopment began at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Unlike other conferences held to "celebrate" the anniversary of NAFTA, this conversation sought to critically reflect on its ramifications of its implementation at both the national and local level.

The conference took place in a caravan of vehicles as they waited to cross the border from Tijuana to San Diego, and was live-broadcast on 87.9 FM at the Port of Entry from inside of the "Cognate Cruiser"-- a station wagon painted as part of a previous intervention at the border by Peru Dyer of En Masse (Montreal), Eric Wixon (San Diego) and HEM Crew (Tijuana).

Cognate Cruiser. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana. | Photo by Mael Vizcarra
The Cognate Cruiser at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana. | Photo: Mael Vizcarra.   

The purpose of the conversation was to trace intersections across the different scales represented by these milestones, to analyze how the border has changed not only on a national or regional scale, but on the micro-scale of the San Ysidro Port of Entry -- the busiest land entry in the world, with over 50 thousand cars, 54 thousand pedestrians and $1 billion dollars in commerce crossing every day.

The conference was divided in three parts, scaling down from Macro to Micro, as we moved north toward the borderline.

Below are abridged transcripts from portions of each conversation. Full transcripts and the complete audio will be available on March 23rd here.

Part I: Intersection

Cognate Cruiser

"Dialogue in Transit" speakers Inside of Cognate Cruiser. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana.

For those unfamiliar with NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement implemented on January 1st 1994 established a free trade zone between Mexico, the United States and Canada, so that a majority of commodities could be imported and exported between the countries without tariffs. As a result, Mexico has become the US' 3rd largest trading partner behind Canada and China, and the second largest export market for U.S. business, to yield a trade market worth $397 billion.

This has caused some to classify NAFTA as an astounding success for all parties involved.

These are a few highlights from the conversation:

Norma Iglesias Prieto:

NAFTA as we know is a treaty, but unlike other treaties, like those in Europe that seek to connect communities and individuals, what NAFTA truly seeks is more commercial exchange and that is what it focuses on. We have seen that as the border opens up to commercial exchange, to money, to investment, there hasn't been a corresponding opening for people, and that is what is most terrible.

What NAFTA has done is border-ize the rest of the country. That is to say, what was exceptional or unique to the free trade zone in Tijuana and along the border with the U.S., is now, the standard of sorts across the country: the free movement of goods, but not of people. And experts say that since NAFTA what has happened is the systematic impoverishing of certain sectors of the population on both sides of the border, and a process of accumulation of riches that is truly embarrassing because it is so brutal.

The historical relationship between Mexico and the United States is condensed at the border and this space in which we are crossing it, is marked historically by inequality, by asymmetry. All expression of which we could speak is marked by the fact that there is a relationship in which the U.S. has power and Mexico doesn't and this explains everything that is happening here. So we are, according to NAFTA, "partners," we collaborate, but we are not collaborating under equal circumstances, that is to say, some of us are running with professional tennis shoes in a complete training outfit and uniform, while the others are barefoot and unable to run barefoot.

" Dialogue in Transit" speakers Inside of Cognate Cruiser. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana.
"Dialogue in Transit" speakers Inside of Cognate Cruiser. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana.   

Victor Clark Alfaro:

I think that with NAFTA there have been losers and winners. On the one hand the winners have been multi-nationals, transnational corporations, and the big losers have been small and middle businesses, and above all the producers of grains in the country that have has cause the displacement of agricultural workers, that according to some accounts is more than 2 million unemployed since the implementation of NAFTA.

We, along the border, have been witnesses to the victims of free trade. That is to say, there has been a significant arrival of migrants from different parts of the country. You have the example not just of Mixtec migrants, but really a diaspora of indigenous people arriving at the border from practically every ethno-linguistic group in the country, they all arrive at the border fleeing from the conditions of misery and poverty that free trade was unable to improve.

With free trade, in the past 20 years there hasn't been an improvement in jobs. On the contrary, in 1994 the unemployment rate in the country was 3 percent, today it is at 5 percent. There hasn't been significant growth for this country. In 2012, the poverty rate in the country was at 52 percent. Today, we are almost in the same exact conditions as we were in 1994.

[And] 1994 is a fundamental year to understand the migratory process because it is precisely the moment, with President Clinton, that fences appear at the border. Fences that those of us who were born in Tijuana had not been accustomed to. It was a border, at least as I remember it as a child, that was very easy to cross [up until that point].

Omar Pimienta:

To situate [Colonia Libertad], those joining us in the other cars can look towards the hill on the right hand, you can see houses and the delineation of the wall. It's interesting because a large part of its original population was a repercussion of the Great Depression, of the repatriated and deported [returning to Mexico and settling here].

The Colonia Libertad grew but the problems came [when] they installed the wall. The neighborhood continued to grow [but] in relation to trafficking, both of drugs and people. Coyotes and traffickers became professionalized in that space.

Obviously [this happened] in other parts of the city, but [Colonia Libertad] is a space of accumulation and concentration that is substantially large. My work functions there. At this point in time I am trying to create a space of free transit (travel), and documentation of free transit in order to offer and create a citizenship that is mobile. I created a passport, I give a passport to people who, one, do no have documents, and they receive the passport as a document that is your documentation of valorization or identity, or you give me your passport and in some metaphorical or conceptual form renounce your nationality and accept this free nationality. Part of the iconography of la Colonia Libertad is that of a space of free transit historically and settlement; to some extent a settlement conceptualized in a new way, because in reality the people [who reside there] are in constant flux.

Part II: Way Station

Caravan passing the Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana.
Cognate Cruiser 2

Caravan passing the Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana.

The second part of the conversation was with Juan Torres Medina a leader of the CTM union of shop owners at the Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea who spoke about the past, present and uncertain future of the market in light of the redevelopment of the Port of Entry -- redevelopment being fueled by a desire to facilitate the NAFTA-increased flow of commerce across the border.

Juan Torres Medina:

There has truly been a change for us in recent years because, for better or worse, we always depend on U.S. policies relating to the border crossing redevelopment; all of it ends up affecting us.

Previously, many tourists would come down and spend time here, but currently, due to restrictions for crossing into the United States, tourists no longer come to this plaza or to Tijuana in general. This has been diminishing progressively. As you can see, many shops inside the market are closed. This gives you an idea of how things have changed.

Presently, the reality you will find among the lanes is there begins to develop a "dollar" culture, because everything costs a dollar at these carts -burritos, sodas, etc. Hence true tourism has disappeared; tourists who bought handmade, hand painted products are a thing of the past... Families' economies solely depend on that -selling a burrito, a torta, chips or a soda-no longer the genuine vocation of tourism, which is the selling of artisan crafts.

Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea vendor listens to the conversation on his cell phone radio. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana.
Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea vendor listens to the conversation on his cell phone radio. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana.

At this moment the Market faces uncertainty...this area and others also within proximity to the border crossing face uncertainty as to whether we will be removed or even relocated to other parts of Tijuana, raising the possibility of the Market disappearing. This large group of people who depend on, or who have for many years depended on tourism, and lately on people who merely walk by-we are in the limbo of possibly disappearing.

Part III: Outlook

Dardin Coria of Sondiero Travesura playing on the Roof of the Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana.
Cognate Cruiser 3

Dardin Coria of Sondiero Travesura playing on the roof of the Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana.

The third part of the conversation looked towards the future, and featured a performance by Sonidero Travesura on the roof of the market -- blasting their unique brand of "Tigre Digital" at the border. You can listen to the full audio from the performance here:

During their set, guests were asked what they imagined the border would be like in 20 years. Below are a couple responses we received:

"The border area is going to change greatly, but as a location it will continue to face many of the same problems unless something is done about the situation. From what I can see, it's hard to have good expectations about the border area in the next twenty years. Many of the problems are deeply rooted and the change that will bring about improvement is not visible right now. It is simply going to be difficult."

"To me the border -- whether twenty years ago, or today, or twenty years in the future -- I believe, and it is also my hope that we can always see it as an opportunity for encounter. Whether there's a line, no line, a wall, no wall, I think that the opportunity for encounter continues and as things become more difficult on the border, or maybe easier for some people, the point stands that we will continue to get more opportunities for that and those opportunities are going to grow and become more multidimensional, ever more complex. Hopefully we can infiltrate those spaces of opportunity as individual subjects. I would like to see the border go more in that direction with regards to how it's lived and practiced."

The final phase of the "Dialogue in Transit" project, made possible thanks to a grant from the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, will be a text featuring bilingual transcripts of the conversation. The document will be published online and distributed as a "zine" at the San Ysidro Port of Entry later this summer.

Interview with conference participant. Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana. | Photo: Mael Vizcarra.
Interview with conference participant. Mercado de Artesanias de La Linea. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana. | Photo: Mael Vizcarra.
Cognate Cruiser. San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana.
The Cognate Cruiser at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, Tijuana.

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