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U.S.-Mexico Border Inspires Artists to Tell Immigrants’ Stories

This is produced in partnership with Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.

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Watch "Borderlands," an Artbound episode exploring art along the U.S.-Mexico border

When artist and activist Teresita de la Torre volunteered with the nonprofit Water Station, she left gallons of water in the scorching Southern California desert for undocumented Mexican immigrants. While at work at Ocotillo in Imperial County, she found a tattered plaid shirt on a bush and decided to wear it every day for a year in remembrance of the unidentified person who wore it.

De la Torre, who immigrated from Mexico to the border town of Laredo, Texas, as a child, documented the experience on Instagram and in drawings for “365 Days in an Immigrant’s Shirt.” The project is included in “unDocumenta,” an exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art in San Diego on view through January 28. The show is among several exhibitions in the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative inspired by the perilous border between the United States and Mexico and the immigrants who try to cross it.

“I’ve reached 200 consecutive days of wearing a shirt that a brave soul left behind in search of a new beginning,” de la Torre wrote on Instagram on June 8, 2015. “I don’t know what this person went through, or why he or she left it behind. I don’t know if I can change anyone or anything, but I know that I am capable of changing my world..”

When strangers in Orange County, where she lives, joked about her ripped shirt, de la Torre told them why she wore it and “their faces sunk,” she said.

“I told them where I found the shirt and that many people lose their lives trying to cross the border,” she said. “(The project) is definitely motivated by compassion and empathy in the sense that you want to put yourself in someone else’s perspective, and also dignified rage because of the current migration and border issues that are completely unjust.”

The concept of border art concerned with issues such as biculturalism, migration, labor and human rights has thrived in U.S.-Mexico border areas like San Diego and Tijuana, according to “unDocumenta” organizers, who began planning the show before President Donald Trump took office and pushed for the construction of a border wall.

“Someone said, ‘Isn’t it opportunistic to have this show?’” said “unDocumenta” curator Alessandra Moctezuma, a professor of fine art and gallery director at San Diego Mesa College. “I said, ‘Well, this has been my life. Many of my students are immigrants. I know a lot of artists that deal with the border, so it’s not a new issue for me. It’s something that I’m passionate about.’”

Marcos Ramirez ERRE "Toy An Horse," 2014 | Iturralde Gallery Collection, Los Angeles PST LALA Border
Marcos Ramirez ERRE "Toy An Horse," 2014 | Iturralde Gallery Collection, Los Angeles

The debate prompted Marcos Ramirez, also known as ERRE, who was born in Tijuana, to recreate the border on the façade of the Oceanside Museum, on display from Nov. 11. Erre also made a billboard of the back of a man standing at the border overlooking Tijuana, a reference to the Minuteman activist group dedicated to preventing illegal border crossings.

Ana Teresa Fernandez, who was born in Tampico, Mexico and lives in San Francisco, went to the black fence between Playas de Tijuana in Mexico and Border Field State Park in San Diego and painted it sky blue. Her installation, titled “Borrando la Frontera,” or “erasing the border,” will include a video and paintings of the experience.

Ana Teresa Fernandez, "Erasing the Border," 2012
Ana Teresa Fernandez, "Erasing the Border," 2012 | Courtesy of the artist

“UnDocumenta” spotlights the plight of immigrants, Moctezuma said. Claudia Cano photographed herself wearing a maid’s uniform and cleaned outdoor public places to call attention to “invisible” labor.

“I was always raised with the idea that artists should be active participants in society, and that their work can in many ways impact and change the way we view things,” Moctezuma said. “I can never forget Trump saying that Mexicans are rapists and criminals. One of the things I want to accomplish is to put a human face to immigrants, so they’re not just numbers, and to counter the prejudices and stereotypes.”

Coastal/Border

In “Give Us Home Spider,” Edgar Frias addressed environmental racism in predominately Latino, low-income communities like his own. A documentary of his project is part of the “Coastal/Border” exhibition, at the Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro until Dec. 17.

Frias’ parents were undocumented immigrants when they came to the U.S. in their early teens and later settled in Bloomington, San Bernardino County, Calif., where they and their children were exposed to high levels of toxic hexavalent chromium emitted from a cement plant near their home. Frias and his younger brother both suffer from respiratory problems.

Frias is a descendant of the indigenous Mexican Wixarika people, who perform ancient rituals at sacred sites during their annual pilgrimage to Wirikuta in the central Mexican desert, areas they have fought to protect from mining and agriculture. Frias performed their rituals in five places impacted by industry, including Bloomington.

Edgar Fabian Frais "Spider Give Us Home (Ritual 1: Cabrillo Beach)" | Josh Vasquez
Edgar Fabian Frais "Spider Give Us Home (Ritual 1: Cabrillo Beach)" | Josh Vasquez

He started at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, which was once inhabited by Native Americans and later by a large Japanese community sent to internment camps during World War II. He also went to Coachella Valley High School, where pesticides from a nearby agricultural field sickened students last year.

 “The main goal of the rituals is to honor the land and the beings on the land,” said Frias, who will discuss environmental racism with activist Demi Espinoza at the center Dec. 10. “And to also honor the pain and suffering and also advancements that these industrial organizations have brought upon the land. We’re asking for more transparency, more honesty, and in a sense some reparations and healing for communities that are still being affected.”

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“Coastal/Border” also includes Jimena Sarno’s sculpture, video and sound installation, “from sea to shining sea.” Sarno worked with classical composer Diana Woolner to reconstruct the song “America the Beautiful.” The new rendition was performed by the C3LA Choir inside a decommissioned Naval gun casemate at the White Point Military Reservation in San Pedro at sunset in early September.

The piece borrows tones and partial words from the original song and numbers from declassified plans for the military base. There are no lyrics or instruments, only counting and sounds meant to mimic the blare of weapons.

“To me, it’s almost like the song falls apart in its true or intended meaning, in the hopeful, patriotic meaning,” said Sarno, who immigrated from Argentina to the U.S. 25 years ago.  

“I went through all the difficulties and long roads that immigrants go through to attain things that people here take for granted, like education,” she said. “Everything is an uphill battle when you’re not from here. There’s this expectation that immigrants have to be exceptional to be justified. All those things are in my mind when I do work.”

The US-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility

The US-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility,” at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles until Jan. 7, 2018, features the work of artists from disciplines including design, architecture, sculpture, painting and photography.

During two years of preparation for the show, curator Lowery Sims, curator emerita of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, visited Mexican cities near the U.S. border. In Ensenada, she met architect Alejandro D’Acosta, whose designs include a winery made from salvaged boats. He lent the show his notebooks filled with his drawings and plans.

“This is one of the most exciting installations. You really get a sense of his process,” Sims said.

Three floors of objects and images on display at the museum capture life on both sides of the border.

Tanya Aguiñiga, who was raised in Tijuana and now lives in L.A., created “Tierra,” a rug made of white nylon and vinyl tubes stuffed with soil from the Tijuana-San Ysidro border. Attached to the tubes are leather strips stamped with phrases referencing the places where soil was collected, such as beneath the bridge where her mentor committed suicide, the beach where she had her first kiss, and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Simple strands of canvas and polyester thread by Raquel Bessudo represent La Bestia, also known as The Death Train. Central American immigrants pile on top of the cargo train, which does not have passenger cars, for dangerous journeys to the U.S.

Julio Cesar Morales’ watercolor series, “Undocumented Interventions,” depict people hidden in places like piñatas and washing machines, a reference to illegal border crossings and human trafficking.

Guillermo Galindo shows items discarded by migrants on the border, which he uses to create musical instruments, which “inspire musical scores that can evoke the sounds of the landscapes from which the objects were retrieved, thus seeking to humanize and give voice to migrants through the personal belongings they have left behind,” according to a description of his work.

Guillermo Galindo "Llantatambores," 2015 | Courtesy of the artist PST LALA Border
Guillermo Galindo "Llantatambores," 2015 | Courtesy of the artist 

In his musical composition titled “Voces del Desierto,” or “Voices of the Desert,” he uses the new and wind instruments-flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon-to create an eerie soundscape. Silence is punctuated by taps on drums and plastic bottles, the sound of blowing air and discordant screeches from the instruments.  

“There’ve been many exhibitions showing heaps of clothing and shoes left by migrants,” Sims said. “But I like this one because it really takes their lives and makes music out of them, so that we remember them in a different way than just as a pile of rejected clothing.”

Teresa Margolles created “Rosario de Ajuste de Cuentas” and “Ajuste de Cuentas 15,” a rosary and necklace with an image of Jesus Malverde, the patron saint of Mexican drug cartels. She used gold alloy, transparent stones, crystals and glass fragments from crime scenes. The pieces respond to the violence and death caused by drug trafficking at the border.

Teresa Margolles "Ajuste de cuentas 15," 2007 | Collection of Museo de Arte Moderno – INBA, Mexico D.F PST LALA Border
Teresa Margolles "Ajuste de cuentas 15," 2007 | Collection of Museo de Arte Moderno – INBA, Mexico D.F PST LALA Border

Sims stopped in Ciudad Juarez, once a deadly battleground for drug cartels.

“I was in Juarez when they were out of the thick of the drug wars,” she said. “The artists are rising out like phoenixes out of the muck and the mire and really engaging the community, doing murals, making their work.”

The border-themed works fill Southern California galleries amid the construction of prototypes of a concrete border wall in San Diego, which will be funded by the Department of Homeland Security.

Moctezuma said that with her show, “We’re trying to reach out.”

“I hope it can highlight the problem of building a wall or having a huge obstacle that separates us,” she said, “as opposed to finding ways to work together, to communicate with each other, and develop policy that would help both countries.”

Top Image: Ronald Rael & Virgina San Fratello "Border Game," 2013 | Collection of Rael San Fratello 

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