Friday, November 14, 2008

Artists on both sides of fence turn monthly poetry readings into cultural celebrations

San Diego Union-Tribune
November 13, 2008

Poets Brandon Cesmat, Chris Vannoy, Francisco Bustos and Delfino Rodriguez Rodriguez stood in the concrete circle just yards from the ocean, waiting their turns to read poetry to each other as music swelled from a party to the south.

For a moment, the rusting steel mesh fence that slashes through the middle – dividing the United States and Mexico – looked like a failing curtain.

“If you stand close enough, it seems to disappear,” said Cesmat, who teaches at California State University San Marcos.

The monument circle at Border Field State Park has long been a place where families and friends come to visit through the aging fence where only air and sunlight move freely. It has been the scene of protests and candlelight vigils, of weddings and yoga classes. Once a month, friends and artists spend a Saturday at the site to celebrate the bonds between nations, people and cultures.
Dan Watman has been organizing the events for the past four years, relying on a Web site and e-mail to get the word out.

“It's a collaboration with artists on both sides of the border, with Grupo Ecologista de Tijuana, Proyecto Fronterizo and many, many artists,” Watman said. “We've had music and dancing, yoga and meditation, and always the poetry readings.”

The area near the fence is marked with the celebrations of life and remembrances of death. It is covered with tattered blue, yellow and white crosses cut from plastic and hung in remembrance of those who have died trying to cross illegally.

Much of the land in the shadow of the fence is barren, plants destroyed by human and vehicle traffic. But the park also shows the signs of repeated plantings of agave, cactus and festive flowers.

People have spread out yoga mats and donned salsa shoes for classes that were divided by the fence. And they've shared unusual culture – like the Mixtec meetup held in August.

“We had three languages – English, Spanish and Mixteca – and most people could speak two of them, so we were all translating for each other and learning about the Mixteca culture,” Watman said.

On Saturday, about 50 people came to the fence on both sides of the border to read poetry and to expand the friendship garden that sneaks under and through the fence. Early in the day, they planted manzanita, California poppies and other native plants.

Starting at noon, poets on both sides of the fence took turns reading poems about love and loss, hunger and seeking, about separation and home.

While they read, the lines blurred. Two poets who recited from the Tijuana side are U.S. citizens – one a professor at Southwestern College, the other calling himself “The Tijuana Gringo” – a 10-year resident of Tijuana. Many have lived and worked on both sides.

“I've lived on both sides of the border, depending on finances and where I was in my life,” Watman said. “We have friends on both sides, we share art and culture that has blurred the lines.”

Cesmat remembers that the rusting fence wasn't always an obstacle in the friendship circle.
“You can see that the circle was created in a single pour of concrete, that the fence came later,” he said. “I used to bring my son here to meet these 'foreign' people.”

About 25 yards north of the fence, portable sections of chain-link mark where the Department of Homeland Security plans to build a 15-foot-high concrete wall that will make getting to the friendship circle far more difficult. Grading for construction already has begun.

“This might be the last time we can see each other and share our poems across the border,” said Chris Vannoy, of the San Diego-based Drunken Poets Society. “That will be sad, that we must fight so hard to be connected to our neighbors.”

At sunset, when the last poem was read, people on both sides of the border watered the newly planted areas together.

“The idea is to get to know each other across the border in a positive environment,” said Watman, a language instructor at Mesa College. “With Tijuana so close to San Diego, we have the opportunity to know our neighbors in Mexico that few people have.”

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