Wednesday, March 21, 2012

One giant gesture: La Mano de la Paz

San Diego City Beat
March 21, 2012
by Kinsee Morlan

Standing at the western end of the United States / Mexico border fence is like being plopped into the middle of an awkward conversation between Frida Kahlo and Dick Cheney. Nowhere are the differences between the two cultures more apparent.

During the past few years, Playas de Tijuana has undergone a facelift. A nice, new wooden boardwalk runs alongside the beach, businesses are popping up and a handful of noisy vendors—hawking fresh coconuts, churros and frozen treats—pitch their goods. The bullring hovers in the distance as for-sale, fighting roosters run freely around a dusty lot nearby. Tourists and locals frequent the revamped park (recently renamed Parque del Mar, although locals don’t call it that), some to snap photos, others to take advantage of cell-phone signals that don’t always recognize the precise location of the international boundary. A large fiberglass sculpture of dolphins frolicking in the sea has been placed in the middle of a concrete slab in the park, just feet away from the fence.

On the U.S. side of the border, signs of new construction are visible, too. A huge crane casts a shadow across the fence. It’s parked a few feet in front of a temporary construction platform that stretches out into the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is in the middle of replacing the old border fence—a rusted, ragtag wall made of recycled helicopter landing pads from the Gulf War—with a much higher, sturdier barrier. A new tower structure, complete with what appear to be video cameras, adds to the militarized feeling—one of the reasons few folks visit the surrounding state park these days. But no matter how high the fence is or how many Border Patrol agents sit at the ready, it all seems futile—the fence still ends abruptly in the ocean, met by the vastness of the sea.

Artists have already responded to the new fence, covering its brown, oxidized steel columns with white messages and images commenting on, and questioning the need for, a higher fence. One artist has taken the iconic street sign that warns freeway drivers about immigrant families darting across the road, flipped the image on its side and armed the father, who’s pulling a woman and child forward, with a small bundle of balloons.

“This should be a very, very important place, but it’s like nothing is here to let you know,” Youn Woo Chaa says, squinting in the afternoon sun as he looks out over the border fence. “It’s a little strange. And the dolphin piece, why is that here? It doesn’t make sense for me as an artist.”

Chaa, a Korean artist with long black dreads dangling down his back, first set foot on the site more than 15 years ago. It was different then—not as developed on either side— and he remembers being astounded by the openness of the border. Born in Seoul, his idea of an international border came from the one separating South Korea from North Korea. “You cannot cross through that border,” he laughs. “Maybe if you’re a 007 secret agent or something.”

The closest Chaa ever got to his hometown border was the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Three years of military service is required in South Korea (up to 10 years is mandatory in the North), and Chaa was stationed in the DMZ for a short time before too many deaths, mostly caused by friendly fire, exploding mines and other accidents, forced a commander to relocate his unit, Chaa says.

Chaa eventually married a woman from the United States and moved to Los Angeles. He liked the idea of being able to cross an international border whenever he wanted with relative ease—no mines or gunfire—so he started making regular trips to Tijuana. He began feeling strong connections to the Mexican people. The poverty in the region reminded him of Korea in the ’60s, and though he didn’t speak Spanish, he felt as though Mexican people understood him and vice versa.

“It’s like I can open the curtains to their minds,” he says. “I know who they truly are, what they want and how to talk to them. I feel much closer to Korean people when I’m here in Mexico.”

The language barrier is partially responsible for giving Chaa his big idea. He noticed that when Mexicans said hello to him, they often nodded their heads and threw up a quick peace sign, as if trying to communicate friendliness without having to understand words. The image stuck with him, and while visiting the border fence in Playas about a year ago, he suddenly knew exactly what he needed to do.

“La Mano de la Paz", a giant hand making a peace sign—that’s what the park needed. Nothing too kitschy or corny. Something elegant and interactive with a water feature at the base of the sculpture that misted, creating a rainbow at certain angles, plus an interactive component that responded to noise by generating the image of a snowflake on a circular LCD screen below the sculpture’s elevated base. The hand would need to be at least 15 feet high and made of galvanized steel wires, welded and wound together in a way that made each finger end in its own unique fingerprint.

“After I got the idea, I got stuck on it, and I started hating those stupid dolphins even more,” Chaa says. “That sculpture is falling apart, anyway. It’s fine for some hotel or resort front, but not here. The border is right there, you know?”

When Angel Hernández Huerta got the call from the elderly lady at a basket shop in Rosarito, he was skeptical. Probably just another gringo looking for a weaver to make a bunch of cheap goods, he thought. He arranged a meeting in a parking lot, and when he saw that Chaa was Asian, not American, his wariness grew. What was this guy really up to? Hernández pretended not to speak or understand any English. He listened as Chaa explained to the translator that he was an artist looking for a professional weaver who could collaborate on his art pieces. Eventually, Hernández decided that Chaa was harmless, maybe even interesting.

“Now Angel’s like a brother. We’ve been working together six or seven years,” Chaa says, patting the husky artisan on the back

But finding Hernández took much longer than that one parking-lot introduction.

Twelve years ago, Chaa stopped liking the art he’d been making. He was becoming known for his ancient-artifact-inspired work, but it was starting to feel fake. He wanted a more direct connection to primitive peoples and their art. While meditating in the desert one day, he got his answer: Go to the Amazon.

“I was, like, Amazon dot-com? What? Why?” he says.

Eventually, the voice in his head made it clear that he should go to the Amazon jungle. A few months later, he bought a one-way ticket, packed a backpack and made the trip. At first, he was interested in investigating the “art instinct.” He wanted to know if primitive people had an inclination to make and own art, or if it was ingrained through economics and other external influences.

“I didn’t have to go around asking that question, though, because they had hanging art in their house,” he says. “I asked, ‘What is the function?’ And it’s just beautiful—that is the function. So, I got my answer the first week.”

Chaa wandered from village to village, witnessing what had become of the indigenous peoples’ way of life, which had been devastated by the Brazilian government’s pursuit of the Amazon’s natural resources.

The Brazilian military wasn’t exactly accommodating—Chaa managed to get himself arrested and put in a makeshift prison. He escaped, but was shot with a pellet gun in the process. He calls getting shot “the big accident” that ultimately helped him find his way.

“I thought, ‘This is so bad; this is so, so bad. And I cannot do anything about this reality. What can I do?’” he recalls.

He left the Amazon knowing he had to make art that would tell the story of the plight of the indigenous people. He tried a couple of different methods before settling on weaving, a skill he’d seen on display in the villages he visited. With no background in textiles, he taught himself traditional weaving techniques but replaced the geometric patterns with portraiture and other real-life images. The process, though, took too long. His hands were starting to cramp and he couldn’t do the work himself or find anyone in L.A. willing to help. So, he went looking for a weaver and a better technique in Mexico.

The result was stunning. With Hernández by his side, Chaa is able to make large-scale weavings that, from afar, look as well-done as a Renaissance painting. Close up, viewers see that the images are created through carefully woven colored fibers, similar to the those found in baskets. An exhibition of the work is on view at the Universidad Tecnologica de Tijuana through April 29.

Chaa’s been weaving for a decade now, but his idea for the peace-sign sculpture required learning a new skill: welding. Because of his experience with weaving, he knew he could do it as long as he found the right teacher.

Victor Chavez has run a successful welding shop and storefront in Rosarito for 12 years. At the height of his business, back when tourism was booming, he had 40 workers in his factory making everything from custom gates to those giant, familiar ants made of welded rebar and rocks. Chavez is actually working on a book about the ants—he claims his shop was the first to carry them, and they’ve since become one of the most popular Mexican souvenirs.

Chaa and Hernández knew Chavez was their guy. They showed him the drawing of the sculpture and asked if it was possible. Chavez didn’t know, but he was willing to try.

“Art, I start with Chaa,” Chavez says proudly. “Before I made artisan things for tourists. I do real art with him. It’s different when you’re making art. It’s different than the things I normally make. When you’re making art, you don’t want to stop, you know?”

Chavez says Hernández learned to weld in three days. Chaa’s getting it, too, and he’s teaching himself how to galvanize steel because he wants more control over the end result. The ragtag team has made three small-scale hand sculptures so far, and they estimate that about 1,000 hours were spent on each one.

“Even with my weaving pieces, people say it’s between art and insanity,” Chaa says, holding up one of the hands. “This is really insane.”

Back at the park near the border, Hernández tells me he might like welding more than weaving. He doesn’t mind staying up all night with Chavez and Chaa working on the hands. He and Chavez both say the project is the biggest, most exciting thing they’ve ever worked on. And they’re starting to hate the dolphin sculpture almost as much as Chaa does.

“A lot of Mexican people, we don’t want that thing,” Hernández says. “It’s so sad for me; the border line. It keeps going up and up, higher and higher. So, we need to do something nice to break that feeling.”

Jorge Conde, director of cultural affairs at the Universidad Tecnologica de Tijuana, is somewhat of a bigwig in the Tijuana art scene. He says he’s behind “La Mano de la Paz” 100 percent.

“I really love the location of the piece,” he says as he shows Chaa’s exhibition, which he curated. “The concept is very important to say, ‘Latin America is a continent of peace.’ And it won’t be kitsch at all. Not in the hands of Chaa.”

Conde stands back from one of Chaa’s large-scale pieces, a woven portrait of a nude woman with her back to the viewer. “This one is my favorite. Just look at it, see the shadow on her back?”

Conde will be a driving force behind getting the necessary permits and approval for removing the dolphins and mounting “La Mano de la Paz.” He’s joined forces with Martina Montenegro, director of the arts nonprofit Casa de Cultura Playas, who’s also a fan of the project.

“It’s very important because it’s related to hope, peace and fraternity between two countries,” Montenegro says. “The fence has a very negative impact, when you’re talking about two countries that are supposed to be friends. This is not the way you treat your friends.”

Funding for the project will come through a Kickstarter campaign. The team is hoping to raise $50,000 through crowd-sourcing, offering small versions of the sculpture and things like T-shirts and hoodies in exchange for higher bids; they say they’ll secure the rest of the funding through grants and private donations. If enough money is raised, Chaa, Hernández and Chavez will begin work on the full-size version of the hand this summer. They hope to have the piece done and installed by the end of the year.

The biggest hurdle, though, could be figuring out who has jurisdiction in the park.

“That’s a good question,” laughs Margarita Diaz, director of the nonprofit Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental. “The land is everyone’s and no one’s.”

Diaz, another supporter of “La Mano de la Paz,” says the land is being transferred from state to city property and that her nonprofit, which was selected by a dozen nonprofits to represent them, has submitted a formal request to have the land turned over to them. She says that since Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his wife came to visit Playas de Tijuana in 2010, demanding the region be redeveloped, the state stepped in and did a lot of quick construction—including adding the dolphin sculpture—without first checking with the community.

“It’s a mess,” Diaz says. “And no one likes those dolphins. They’re falling apart and dangerous. I want to rip them down with my bare hands.”

Getting the Instituto Municipal de Cultura y Arte (IMAC), the organization that oversees Tijuana’s public-art program, on their side could be a challenge, too. Elsa Arnaiz Rosas, director of IMAC, says she enjoys the present art.

“I’ve seen the dolphins, and I know they do need maintenance, but I think they’re lovely,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to see the sculpture go.”

On the way back from touring Chaa’s art show at the university, the “La Mano de la Paz” team is spread out in a big van. Conde slows the vehicle after it merges onto one of Tijuana’s main highways and points toward two huge construction projects near El Trompo, Tijuana’s children’s museum.

“That’s going to be the Human Rights Museum,” he says. “And that will be the Centro Estatal de Las Artes, a new art center.”

Chavez smiles and says that things in Mexico are starting to improve. He’s seen his business drop by more than 80 percent since drug-war violence erupted a few years ago and tourism plummeted, but he hopes things will get better.

“How long do you think before Americans forget all this violence stuff and come back?” he asks. “I think one, maybe two years. I think ‘La Mano de la Paz’ could help. Peace—we have a lot to learn here in Mexico, but this sculpture could be a start.”

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Nicol backs call for investigation of DPS' border security contracts

Rio Grande Guardian
March 18, 2012
by Raul de la Cruz

McALLEN, March 17 - Scott Nicol, a founder of the No Border Wall coalition, has backed calls for an investigation into the contracts between the Texas Department of Public Safety and Abrams Learning and Information Systems.

The request for the investigation has come from state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso.

In a letter sent last Friday to Comptroller Susan Combs, Rodriguez said the outsourcing of Texas border security operations to Abrams Learning & Information Systems (ALIS), a private consulting firm based in Arlington, VA, have raised “significant concerns” about the transparency of DPS' bidding and procurement processes as well as DPS' management of millions of state and federal taxpayer dollars.

Nicol welcomed the development.

“It is great that this may finally be receiving some well-deserved attention. State and federal governments should be outsourcing only those functions which they are incapable of accomplishing themselves, and certainly not asking contractors to develop their mission for them and sell it to the public,” Nicol said.

Nicol said a number of reports have come out over the years indicating that the Department of Homeland Security does much the same thing, and that in their tactical infrastructure office, in other words border wall contractors, outnumber federal employees.

“In Texas border security is apparently nothing more than a cash cow for contractors and a way for ambitious politicians to get their names in the papers,” Nicol said.

In his letter to Combs, Rodriguez pointed to a State Auditor's February 2012 report (SAO Report No. 12-019) of DPS. He also referenced recent media reports on the outsourcing of Texas border security operations to ALIS. He said the reports have raised significant concerns about the transparency of DPS' bidding and procurement processes as well as DPS' management of millions of state and federal taxpayer dollars.

“According to records from your office, ALIS has received nearly $20 million in payments from the state. After this initial review, numerous questions arose regarding the determination of ALIS as a "sole source vendor" as well as the lack of any meaningful performance or accountability measures,” Rodriguez wrote.

“Furthermore, the issues surrounding these contracts bring to light a serious public policy consideration of whether the state of Texas should have outsourced the bulk of border security operations to a private company with negligible experience in international border operations.”

Rodriguez said that in an attempt to clarify the parameters of DPS's relationship with ALIS and to determine exactly what ALIS's contract deliverables were, he has posed several follow up questions and requested additional information from DPS in a letter to DPS Director Steve McCraw.

“In addition to the issues surrounding DPS's contracts with ALIS, the State Auditor's report raised numerous questions about DPS's procedures regarding procurement contracts. This independent report indicates that, on at least three occasions, DPS was unable to document why "emergency" action was necessary,” Rodriguez said.

“Not only was there pervasive abuse of the "emergency" contracting procedures by DPS, this appears to be part of a larger failure to open contracts to competitive bidding as required by state law. A startling 83 percent of the contracts reviewed by the State Auditor in the cluster of federal grants for homeland and border security were not bid competitively as required by state law.”

Other disturbing findings by the State Auditor, Rodriguez said, include duplicate payments made by DPS to sub-grantees and that DPS has no process in place to track federal sub-grants, in some cases paying for one program with federal funds intended for another.

“Given your agency's purview over the state bidding and procurement processes, I ask you to conduct a full investigation of DPS's contracts with ALIS as well as DPS's general policies for bidding and procurement. As the elected chief steward of the state's finances, I trust that you will share my concerns that Texans' taxpayer dollars are not being spent in an accountable, transparent manner,” Rodriguez said.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Napolitano Blasts Border Access Bill

Congressional Quarterly
March 8, 2012
By Jennifer Scholtes

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano leveled pointed criticism Thursday at a House border security bill, in a rare divergence from the administration’s usual policy of refraining from passing judgment on pending legislation.

Several Democratic lawmakers have already voiced opposition to the measure (HR 1505), which would give Customs and Border Protection the authority to patrol and set up physical infrastructure on federally protected land within 100 miles of the United States’ southern and northern borders. Officials from the Border Patrol have also told lawmakers that they don’t feel such legislation is necessary, as they have worked out access deals with the environmental agencies that manage the lands.

But Napolitano and other Cabinet officials make it a practice to keep mum on specific measures pending in Congress, making it somewhat unusual that she told the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee the bill “is unnecessary, and it’s bad policy.”

“We don’t need it for our immediate Border Patrol needs,” she said. “We already have an agreement with the Department of Interior. If we’re doing a chase or there are exigent circumstances, we can go onto lands without having to seek prior approval or any of that.”

And given the nature of those areas, the secretary said she believes it is “highly appropriate” to consult with the Interior Department in carrying out those missions. Through interdepartmental cooperation, DHS has been able to address patrolling needs such as setting up surveillance towers and constructing roads on public lands, she said.

In 2006, the two departments signed a memorandum of understanding to ensure that border agents get the access they need to apprehend drug traffickers and illegal immigrants trying to enter the United States through protected lands. But the Government Accountability Office has reported that such coordination has not always been a smooth process.

A report GAO released last year said that Border Patrol access to some federal lands along the southwestern border has been limited because of land management laws, according to many of the agents surveyed. Agents have sometimes been unable to obtain permits or permission to access areas in a timely manner because of delays due to environmental and historic property assessments, the report said.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has argued that environmental laws should not take precedent over national security. Bishop’s measure, which the House Natural Resources Committee approved in October in a party-line vote, has attracted nearly 60 Republican cosponsors, but not a single Democratic supporter.

Lawmakers have introduced several related bills this Congress, including a measure (HR 1922) approved by the House Homeland Security Border and Maritime Subcommittee last June that would provide CBP access to federal lands for routine patrols and for deploying temporary tactical infrastructure.

A broad border security bill (HR 1507) introduced by Rep. Jeff Flake and a companion measure (S 803) being pushed by fellow Arizona Republican John McCain in the Senate include similar language. Their proposals stipulate that the Agriculture and Interior department would have to provide CBP personnel immediate access to federal lands for security activities.

Of those measures, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he finds the Bishop bill “the most egregious.” The legislation, which would bar the Interior and Agriculture departments from impeding, prohibiting or restricting DHS activities, would give DHS “unprecedented power to do as it sees fit” on lands near the northern border Montana shares with Canada, Tester said.

“I think a one-size-fits-all approach in this particular instance — we both know the northern border and the southern border are two different borders — it doesn’t fit well,” Tester said. “I don’t think it’s about catching bad guys, I think it’s about allowing governmental agents to build roads and watch towers and buildings in places where other agencies, even tribal units, would not have any input.”