Most U.S. citizens will never venture south to spend time with these images so let me take you along as I scout the margins of culture, my eye in my camera. Unless we get to know our neighbor’s cultural landscape, we are foreigners; “us and them,” unforgivable on this benevolent planet filled with Art and wildflowers.
Wildflowers along the border thrive in the poorest of soils. Tenuous but tough, they prove to be some of the most resilient species on the planet.
Like wildflowers, street art flourishes in the bleakest of conditions. Art by the people and for the people: Graffiti, one-off posters, pop-up installations… wild, spontaneous, renegade art mirroring culture’s political truths and spiritual yearnings.
Our instinct as human beings, our unstoppable drive to “make marks” leads one to wonder if indigenous rock art, petroglyphs, and pictographs, were, in fact, the visual wildflowers of the Ancients.
Symbols stenciled on rock faces and laid out in line, shape, and form on the earth itself, gave human beings a pictorial language, a way to communicate pre-dating the written word.
Long before and after our small band of border artists in Amado and Arivaca, AZ., laid down our tools, other artists from the Americas, alone and in groups, have gathered at the Arizona – Mexico wall. Magnetized by a collective ache in the soul, wielding brushes and spray cans like a warrior army of creativity, artists manage to surmount the border wall time and again.
I believe artists of the future will be less lauded for singular genius and more noted for collaborating with other artists (and non-artists) in collective work that fosters community.
If there is any upside at all to our current Administration’s political climate, it is that more people recognize how essential the role of Art is in uplifting hearts and minds. Artists carry a necessary role in inspiring, educating and healing the planet.
Outsider Art (who is the “outsider” here really?), like all natural phenomenon relegated to the margins, will always find its way to the center. Marginalized Imagery, walled away unseen and unimagined, eventually seizes the Commons with a new irrefutable language of the eye.
Unsigned and sometimes unschooled, created with no obvious economic incentive, and often scrawled furtively in the dark of night, Art on the margins carries a prescient message to the dominant culture. Fresh ‘Outsider’ – there’s that word again – perspective roots and spreads like weeds, takes over and becomes the norm.
Here and now in the Sonoran Desert in early summer, the wild white Southwestern Prickly Poppy takes over. I think of it as the flower of June.
All along the highways of Southeastern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, and coming up through the cracks in the sidewalks, stands of Southwestern Prickly Poppy rise as high as four feet tall. Known locally as “Cowboy’s Fried Egg,” (Cardo or Chicalote in Spanish), the flower is as showy as it is prickly.
I think of another prominent summer flower, the Sacred Datura, as the flower of the monsoon season. As surely as the upward thrust of Sacred Datura and other desert wildflowers after the rains, Art of the people rises in response to the U.S.’s current anti-immigrant, anti-human regime especially here on the streets of border communities in Mexico.
I first saw the permanent ten-foot ft. high painting of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, gunned down by U.S. Border Patrol, this Spring at Jose Antonio’s annual vigil in Nogales, Sonora, MX.
The frontal portrait, boldly executed in afterlife blue, mounted on steel and footed with rebar, was painted by a Tucson artist and donated to the family unsigned. Jose’s prominent and compelling face preserves history and guarantees that Jose Antonio will not soon be forgotten.
And in May, at the Mothers across Borders Unity Celebration held at the primary school nearby, we faced the border wall in front of us. Art executed by and for the people covered the wall’s concrete abutment. Eye level, it was all we could see.
The slatted 18 ft. high border wall loomed above us, jutting up from a concrete reinforced bank, itself 20 ft. high in some places. An alien thing, the metallic snake of a wall undulates up and over the hills of Nogales, disappearing over the horizon.
On the wall of a storefront between the primary school and the spot Jose Antonio was killed, you can still stick your finger in the holes in the plaster left by the bullets that cut that boy down.
A ghosted Banksy-like stencil of Jose Antonio is flanked by posters glued with a patina of decomposition. At the vigil, the wall provided support for posters of other victims of U.S. Border Patrol.
Walking along the wall, I see another equally large painting affixed to the base of the wall. Imfoculla Inocencia en la frontera, depicts a young boy carrying a backpack astride a burro, looking over his shoulder, his eyes wide with fear. The shadowy figure of death waits implacably in front of him. The painting is signed by the artist Ruben Daniels and dated Dec. 2014.
Down the line, the concrete abutment to the wall is tattooed with graffiti. Universal symbols – A white dove, hearts, tears, bullets – share the concrete along with the powerful text: No Mas Muertos and Chinga la Migra plus the artist’s own street tags e.g. “We are as Free as the Paper.”
Wooden crosses, in every color, span the length of the wall and lean against its metal base. I wonder if they are the same crosses (once white, maybe now repainted) I saw there in the early 2000’s or if they are wholly new. Probably, new. So many more have died since then. There will never be enough crosses to mark the dead.
White palm prints climb the rusted metal slats leading to the words: Migrando Al La Libertad Sondeh – Migrating to Liberty. And: Volemos sin Rumba Sigamos Al Viento – Let’s fly without a Party, Let’s go to the wind. Here the palm prints change shape. Fingers turn to feathers.
Down the wall, images of candles painted in dusky gold flame on every post, inviting one to go through, lit by hope. Each wayfarer can’t help but feel the presence of all the souls who passed this way, though their hopes may have been forever extinguished.
Lastly, free-standing painted metal figures appear to be growing in number over time. Paseo de Humanidad, the Parade of Humanity, created by Nogales artists Guadalupe Serrano and the late Alberto Morackis are symbolic human figures combined with Aztec and Mayan codices and painted with contemporary border symbology.
Apparently, when it was first installed on the Mexican side of the border the compelling piece became a shrine for families of migrants who placed candles and small offerings at the base of the sculpture.
I invite you, dear reader, to look closely at each figure. Paseo de Humanidad is a 3-D mural in the historical tradition of Mexico’s famous painted murals. Paseo de Humanidad instructs, inspires and in this case, memorializes thousands who have died crossing the border.
One set of figures includes a skeletal human bent to the ground. Carried overhead: a mummy wrapped in cloth and tied with rope. A mariachi musician carries a sack of musical instruments, a mother holds a child, even narco saint Jesus Malverde joins the line. One human figure sports a volcano erupting from its chest, another is a human bomb, one is coiled with snakes, and one laborer shoulders giant screws and a washing machine.
Large corn husks, prickly pear cactus pads, giant chilies and tropical flowers, all symbols of the earth are part of the figures themselves.
The iconic symbols continue through the next set of three figures chased by the dark green figure of a Border Patrol agent wielding a club. One orange humanoid has a retablo-like image: a carved soldier with a table-top cross on his chest. Another figure is covered with hand symbols and the next has eyes in his appendages while his internal organs have migrated to the outside of his torso.
Running over the heads of each figure are graphic iconic-like shapes, multiple Mesoamerican mask motifs, wild birds and a huge fish breathing water like air, along with plants, grasses, and shoes endemic to the migrant path.
Over the years, Artwork, especially Graffiti fades in the harsh sun but is inevitably retagged and replaced by more. Each season of repression gives rise to another generation of artists. The degraded soil sprouts Spring and Summer wildflowers and year after year, Mothers bear children… children who pick wildflowers, make art, and dream of freedom.
*Note to the reader: Please extend a necessary grace to this post with regards to translations. The visual language of the people’s Art just south of the border wall has much to teach us. As a writer, I celebrate words, but as an artist, I hope my words don’t get in the way. *Also, I would like to see the Graffiti artists in this post be credited. Message me…