San Diego Union-Tribune
November 30, 2009
by Leslie Berestein
In Cold War-era Berlin, artists and others who decried the wall dividing the city into east and west used its concrete expanse as a broad canvas for political and personal expression, over the years turning its gray surface into multihued graffiti art.
And in Tijuana today, those who protest U.S. immigration policies have the border fence.
In the nearly two decades since fencing began to appear on the U.S.-Mexico border between San Diego and Tijuana, the fence has become its own political canvas of sorts, with stretches of it serving as a backdrop for installations that have included thousands of wooden crosses, painted coffins, paintings of skulls and of doors that go nowhere, save for the desert.
The paintings and installations, the most recent a collection of 5,100 wooden crosses hung from the fence at Playas de Tijuana last month, are memorials to those who have died in attempts to traverse the border illegally, most of them through rough terrain to the east.
The fence also has acted as a billboard for political candidates, as a structure on which to affix screened images for a city art exhibit a few years ago, as a place for taggers’ graffiti and for the quieter musings of would-be migrants who have scratched their names and where they came from onto the rusty metal.
Unlike on the Berlin Wall, where much of the art was spontaneous and anonymous, most of the protest art on the border fence has been planned and orchestrated by border activists and local artists. To the east in Nogales, Ariz., an artists’ collective has been responsible for many of the pieces there, including metal sculptures and murals affixed to the fence. Still, those who have studied the phenomenon of political boundaries and art say there are universal similarities in what prompts the expression.
“Borders tend not to be joyous places,” said Justinian Jampol, a historian and museum director in Los Angeles who has studied the Berlin Wall and the art it inspired. “Borders tend to be where people are separated. They tend to be points of contention. Artists are naturally drawn to spaces that have an aura around them, a tension, that is already endowed with meaning.”
For an event this month celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jampol’s Wende Museum, which is dedicated to Cold War history and culture, set up an 80-foot “wall” across a major Los Angeles boulevard and invited artists and taggers to paint it. He said he was struck by how often the U.S.-Mexico border came up as a theme.
Other border barriers have prompted similar expression, said Guillermo Alonso Meneses, a cultural anthropologist with the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Baja California. This includes the new West Bank barrier in Israel, which has been marked in protest. Even the fences separating the Spanish outposts of Melilla and Ceuta from the rest of Morocco have been used by African migrants as a place to leave messages, Meneses said.
With access restricted to much of the north side, the art on the border fence between Tijuana and San Diego is unique to the south side. Many of the installations along the aging metal barrier that abuts Tijuana — referred to by U.S. authorities as the primary fence — have been temporary, and some of the displays that remain are weathered. Driving west along the fence from the border crossing at Otay Mesa past the city’s airport, one sees what appears to be an interminable stretch of white crosses with the names of the dead written in black. On occasion, a cross will have dried flowers tucked around it.
The crosses were attached to the fence in the late 1990s, said Claudia Smith of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, a longtime migrant-rights activist who began collaborating with local artists to protest Operation Gatekeeper, a mid-1990s federal initiative to beef up border security.
At the time, additional fencing and other measures pushed human smuggling traffic toward East County mountains and the Imperial Valley desert, and border-crossing fatalities rose. The idea, Smith said, was to draw attention to the deaths.
“At the beginning, we were issuing news releases, but we realized there was no other way of conveying the magnitude of this tragedy,” said Smith, who continues to be involved in planning the installations with artists. “By doing something visual, and also something that was very prominently displayed, people would have to go by them as they went about their daily lives.”
Installations have included roughly 1,000 pairs of shoes with toe tags attached hung from the fence and a series of painted coffins, the latter the work of Tijuana artist Alberto Caro that has since been removed. A series of paintings by San Diego artist Michael Schnorr and members of the Border Art Workshop depicted a large fleshy wound with the words “La frontera es Una llaga abierta” — Spanish for the “the border is an open wound.” Some of the paintings still survive across from the airport.
Artist Susan Yamagata painted a skull motif on giant papier mâche boots and shoes that were displayed along the airport stretch, one shoe emblazoned with the words “¿Cuantos mas?” — Spanish for “How many more?”
“I wanted to be able to do something,” said Yamagata, who has worked on fence art projects with Smith. “I am not a wealthy person, but I can give time and labor. I felt it was a worthy cause.”
Just west of the airport, before the main road turns south and the pavement along the fence ends, a red obelisk with crosses stands in a small traffic circle, the city-sanctioned work of Tijuana artist Roberto Rosique. A closer look at the fence reveals words scratched in the metal, including a man’s name next to the word “Morelos,” a state in central-southern Mexico.
Along the fence, a close observer will find musings that Alonso said range from insults against U.S. border authorities to “quasi-poetic, saying, ‘I dream of the United States,’ or ‘My love awaits me in Los Angeles.’ You have to go walking the fence to find them.”
By the time the main road rejoins the fence toward Playas de Tijuana, the work of taggers can be seen on the fence. The protest art becomes visible again in Playas, where the fence extends into the ocean.
Over the years, there have been a series of installations on the south side of the fence, including a large painting of a skeleton drinking the last drop of water from a water jug and a traditional Mexican altar for the dead. Three paintings of “doors” — the only open one leading into a depiction of the desert — from a few years ago are still in place, the work of Yamagata and San Diego artist Todd Stands.
Most prominent is another cross-themed work, this one a massive cluster. Yamagata and Schnorr collaborated on it with Smith and with the Coalición Pro Defensa del Migrante, a Tijuana-based migrant aid organization. Hung from the fence near the beach are 5,100 white crosses, symbolizing the estimated number of border-crossing deaths in the past 15 years, strung together and draped from the top.
The display took six months to put together, said Esmeralda Siu, director of the migrant coalition. Volunteers, including the residents of a Tijuana migrant shelter, did much of the work of constructing and stringing the crosses together. They were installed Oct. 30, in time for Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead holiday Nov. 2.
Swaying gently in the breeze, the crosses had a powerful effect on Silvia Urieta, 41, in Tijuana visiting relatives for the week.
“Imagine, how many people,” said Urieta, who lives in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, on the coast of Guerrero state. “I took photos so that my paisanos could see it.”
The installation was a sobering sight for the family as they posed for photos, otherwise merrily, by the 1851 marble monument marking the border.
“Those who come from the south, they get the wrong idea,” said Urieta’s brother-in-law Adrian Pineda, 35, a native of Tijuana. “They think it’s easy. But here is how easy it is. For many, the dream they have ends in a cross.”