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Drawing Lines and Planting Gardens at the Border

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Where the U.S./Mexico border fence runs into the Pacific Ocean. | Photo: Kinsee Morlan.

The border separating the United States from Mexico has slowly transformed from a somewhat arbitrary, imaginary line into one of the most intensely militarized barriers in the world. What began as a series of monuments eventually turned into a sporadic barbed wire fence, which then became a scrappy, rusty corrugated steel fence that stopped when rough terrain started. These days, the border has taken on an intimidating presence as a towering, double and even triple-layered fence in places, backed by roving Border Patrol agents, cameras and other high-tech devices monitoring movement.

The image of the fence disappearing into the waves where Playas de Tijuana meets Border Field State Park at the Pacific Ocean is one that's come to represent both the iron-fisted persistence of U.S. foreign policy to keep undocumented workers out and the ridiculousness and futility of those very policies in action. It's an extraordinarily poetic scene, too, often inspiring artists, photographers, poets and writers to either document the dramatic imagery, interpret it in creative ways or use it as a backdrop for a cultural event.

Live projections and graffiti art often make their mark, however fleeting, on the Tijuana side of the fence in this unique geopolitical region. As part of an art festival a few years ago, a man was literally shot over the fence as a human cannonball--a powerful piece of performance art as commentary on border politics. Human rights activists, historical preservationist, environmental conservationist, architects and archeologists also have opinions on the border fence and are often drawn to this significant plot of land; yet, the starkest and most noticeable difference between the San Diego versus Tijuana side of the border is the liveliness and activity pulsating to the south, and the mostly stale and abandoned feel to the north. What was once a fairly active area dubbed Friendship Park and used by families separated by immigration status to meet and talk through the fence has become so militarized and uninviting that, aside from a handful of horseback riders on any given day, is visited by few.

It takes organization of an event to activate the U.S. side of the border fence in the area, and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, a few groups will converge on this interesting plot of land with a myriad of intentions. Expect to see easels and sketch pads as Hillary Mushkin, founder of Incendiary Traces, leads one of her "draw-in" events, which have been gaining momentum since first launched in 2011. Incendiary Traces is an art project that's taken shape as a series in which the public is invited to various military hotspots throughout Southern California to experience and learn about the sites as they interpret the landscape through drawings or other creative, artistic means.

"The draw-ins provide an opportunity and a setting for contemplating these militarized sites and our embodied, physical occupations of them," Mushkin explains. "It's something that's going to counter or attempt to give us a different experience than that of looking at battlefields on television."

Ultimately, Mushkin says, she hopes those who attend the draw-ins become more engaged and connected to the real-world wars and international conflicts going on in seemingly remote regions of the world. The average citizen sees the conflicts the U.S. is involved in through the often distorted, disconnecting and filtered lens of the media, she says, but by taking these groups of artists to places like the San Clemente Island Weapons Testing Range, Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Headquarters or the U.S.-Mexico border, she hopes to bring the battles home and help people realize that aspects of the fighting are being fought right in our own backyard.

"And by drawing [these landscapes], which is a slow and meditative and physical activity," Mushkin says, "it's a counter to the mediated experience of these international conflicts."

Mushkin invites experts to the draw-ins to help provide background on the sites in order to give attendees something more to think about as they sketch and ponder the landscape surrounding them. On Saturday, Mesa College art professor Alessandra Moctezuma, representatives from the art /architecture/urbanism collective Periscope Project and art historian Suzanna Newbury will be on hand to help introduce people to the border site.

Daniel Watman at Border Field State Park. | Photo: Kinsee Morlan
Daniel Watman at Border Field State Park. | Photo: Kinsee Morlan

Daniel Watman, a Spanish teacher-turned-activist who runs Border Encuentro, an ongoing series of social and cultural meet-up events--kite flying, sign-language exchanges, salsa dances and more--where people from both sides of the border get together to make new friends through the fence, will also be hosting a public event at Border Field State Park on Saturday. In 2007, as part of one of his Border Encuentros, Watman started the "Binational Friendship Garden of Native Plants," which has amazingly survived through the steady militarization of the site thanks to his persistence and willingness to go to extremes, like standing in front of bulldozers to keep the garden intact. He'll be at the site leading volunteers in the annual planting and expansion of the garden, which, over the years, has become a hugely symbolic gesture that helps maintain beauty and a bit of humanity in an otherwise sterile and intimidating environment.

"It ended up being something that seems like a bigger thing than I thought it would be," Watman says. "It was just a cool idea for a Border Encuentro and I didn't think it would turn into something that seems to have become so significant now."

Joining Watman and providing the necessary equipment for the planting will be Palas Por Pistolas, a binational campaign that literally turns weapons into shovels. The group has led campaigns throughout Mexico, collecting guns, melting them down and turning them into functional shovels that are then used to plant trees. They say it's both an act of directly confronting the drug-war-fueled violence that has swept over the country in recent years and a way of mitigating climate change. Their events, a political act in themselves, are meant to bring attention to their lofty goals.

Shovels made of melted guns. | Photo: Courtesy of Palas por Pistolas.
Shovels made of melted guns. | Photo: Courtesy of Palas por Pistolas.
Shovel made of melted guns. | Photo: Courtesy of Palas por Pistolas.
Shovel made of melted guns. | Photo: Courtesy of Palas por Pistolas.

"We are looking at the border as a critical zone to bring awareness to the need to work together towards a solution," the group wrote about the upcoming event on Saturday. "Neighbor cities such as Tijuana-San Diego and El Paso-Cd Juarez are crucial."

Last Saturday, I made the trek out to Border Field State Park, hiking about a mile and a half in due to a road closed by flooding (be ready to walk in this Saturday, too, as the road often floods during the months of November through January). Aside from the typical equestrians who frequent the park, there was a small group of pro-Palestinian student activists who, similar to Mushkin's intentions for taking people to sites playing host to military activity, wanted to help contextualize their understanding of a different border thousands of miles away.

Watman was at the park, too, doing some preparatory work for the coming event. He nearly ruined his scooter by attempting to ford the flooded road to get out to his garden, but the act was just one small gesture in a series of bolder acts that have kept the garden going.

"This is all about making friends through the fence," says a sun-kissed Watman as he sat on his nearly dead scooter at Border Field State Park. "That's pretty much what I've dedicated my life to."

Artists and non-artist alike are welcome to join Incendiary Traces at the next draw-in on November 17 at Border Field State Park in San Diego. Art historian Susanna Newbury and other experts will be there to discuss drawing the U.S./Mexico border as we sketch and otherwise contemplate the boundary line. Further details are on the facebook event announcement here.

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