June 21, 2011
by Jonathan Clark
A community mural painted on the border wall separating the U.S. and Mexico was saved from the scrap heap last week through a binational effort, and an artist who was integral to its creation and salvation says he hopes the artwork, which represents popular resistance, will one day rise again at its original location.
The 60-foot-long mural, titled “Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla,” or “Life and Dreams of the Perla Ravine,” was painted by people from both sides of the border in 2005 on the Sonoran face of the landing-mat fence running through Ambos Nogales, a few hundred yards west of the DeConcini port.
It’s a replica of a mural painted in 1998 by Tzetzal Indians on the façade of the community center of Taniperla, Chiapas to represent their lives and dreams after declaring themselves part of an autonomous Zapatista revolutionary municipality. However, on April 11, 1998, a day after the mural and the autonomous municipality were inaugurated, the Mexican Army retook control of the town, destroyed the mural and jailed the man who had directed its creation, university professor Sergio Valdez.
Nogales, Sonora-based artist Guadalupe Serrano, who along with his creative partner Alberto Morackis brought Valdez to the border city for the re-creation project in 2005, said that after U.S. crews replacing the 2.8-mile-long landing-mat fence with a taller, stronger barrier reached the downtown area last month, city officials warned him that the “Vida y Sueños” replica might also be destroyed.
At the same time, he said, he learned that wheels had also begun to turn in Arizona in an effort to save the mural.
“What happened was that in Tucson, there’s an organization called the Sierra Club, and a guy from that organization named Dan Millis got in touch with Congressman Raul Grijalva,” Serrano said.
In a letter dated June 8, Millis, along with Kim Roseman of the K. Newby Gallery in Tubac, Susannah Castro of the Tubac Center of the Arts and Bob Phillips of the Santa Cruz Community Foundation, urged Grijalva to investigate the status of “Vida y Sueños” and other nearby fence art and iconic graffiti, “and act to ensure that these cultural resources are protected for future generations.”
Grijalva responded by dispatching staffer Ruben Reyes to coordinate with the Border Patrol (a Grijalva spokesman said the agency was “very cooperative”), who then worked with contractor Granite Construction to arrange a safe takedown and handover of the mural panels to Serrano.
Early last Thursday, Serrano and members of his art collective Taller Yonke (Junk Studio) showed up at the border fence with a trailer and some tools to dismantle and haul off the mural panels after a Granite Construction crane lifted them off their footing in the United States and laid them on the ground in Mexico.
“We saved the whole mural,” Serrano said. “There were just two pieces at the end that were already gone.”
The other nearby iconography – a mural depicting a loteria card version of the floating eye pyramid, an array of white crosses representing migrant deaths and painted slogans including “Fronteras: Cicatrices en la tierra” (“Borders: Scars on the Earth”) – were not so lucky.
“Those things were in another area, and by the time we realized what was happening, ‘La Migra’ had taken them away,” Serrano said.
There was another important object, not attached to the fence but mounted directly in front of it, that Serrano was able to save: a bust of his collaborator and fellow Taller Yonke founder Morackis, who died in December 2008 from pneumonia, two days short of his 50th birthday.
Serrano and Morackis began using the Nogales landing-mat fence as a forum for socially and politically conscious art in 2003 when they unveiled “Border Dynamics,” a steel-and-resin piece depicting four, 14-foot human figures pushing against the wall. The artists initially hoped to place the figures on both sides of the fence, but the Border Patrol nixed the plan on the U.S. side, citing security concerns.
The University of Arizona later purchased “Border Dynamics” and displayed it on the campus mall in Tucson before moving it to an area next to the school’s Harvill building.
In March 2004, the artists mounted another provocative piece on the south side of the fence: a series of aluminum human figures and symbols called “Paseo de Humanidad,” or “Parade of Humanity.” Created in collaboration with Tucson-based artist Alfred J. Quiroz, the work represented the suffering of Mexican migrants as they traveled to and from the United States.
But as Serrano noted, “Border Dymanics” and “Paseo de Humanidad” were temporary exhibits at the Nogales fence. The “Vida y Sueños” mural was permanently affixed to it.
The idea for the mural project, he said, came when he met Valdez during a trip to Mexico City. Serrano knew the history of the original mural, and how communities from South America to Europe had re-created it in public spaces as a show of solidarity and resistance. So he asked Valdez to help with a re-creation on the border wall in Nogales, “for what the mural means and what the wall represents,” he said.
Aided by a patron in Hermosillo and an art collective called La Linea, Serrano and Morackis invited people from across Sonora and Southern Arizona to paint the mural in the spring of 2005.
“The only thing we did was coordinate the project,” Serrano said. “We didn’t participate in the painting – all we really did was get the paint ready and coordinate.”
The centerpiece of the colorful painting is a depiction of two doves holding banners reading “Chiapas,” “Peace” and “Mexico,” as a campesino man and woman walk toward them. Above, Emiliano Zapata, the land-reform hero of the Mexican Revolution, rides a horse and sports a bandana reading, “La tierra es de quien la trabaja,” or “The land belongs to the person who works it.”
Other images show an idyllic riverside village where people work the land and hold community meetings as ski mask-clad Zapatista guerrillas stand at the ready on nearby hillsides.
The mural’s political imagery perhaps didn’t have an immediate connection to Nogales and its border wall, Serrano said, but the history of its creation and the efforts to re-create it did.
“More than anything, it was that it was a form of resistance and a representation of what the community could accomplish,” he said. “The social issues don’t have a lot of direct relevance here, but as a representation of civil resistance, that makes it significant.”
Grijalva said the cross-border community effort that created it in Nogales, Sonora also made the local version of the mural significant, and worth saving.
“This mural tells the story of our border community just as strongly as any words,” the congressman said. “One day we’ll look back on this work of art and thank ourselves for preserving it when we had the chance.”
As for the future, Serrano said, once the fence construction project finishes, he plans to return the bust of Morackis to its original spot in the border-side strip at the intersection of Internacional and Fenochio streets that’s informally known as the Espacio Cultural Binacional Alberto Morackis.
He’d like to mount “Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla” there as well, against the newer, bigger border barrier that replaced its original canvas.
“We’re going to wait for them to conclude the work, and then we’re going to have to talk with the Border Patrol to see if we'll be able to install it there again,” Serrano said, though he noted there may be resistance to the idea, since one of the reasons for the new, interconnected-pole fence was to allow Border Patrol agents to see clearly into Sonora.
“We’re going to talk with them to see if there’s any way that we can install it. If not,” he said, “we'll look for some other space to display it here in the city.”