Border Art / Border Wall

The other side of border security: binational effort saves border wall art in Nogales

There’s another side to border security.  And it has nothing to do with so-called spillover violence we hear about so often in the mainstream media.

This is the story of the power artists can wield when they work with the community.

A community mural painted on the south face of the border wall at Ambos Nogales, Sonora/Arizona has been saved from demolition, illustrating the the potential of border art to bring people together.

In late May and early June, the Department of Homeland Security was engaged in a project to replace 2.8 miles of the old “landing mat” border wall with a steel bollard design at a cost of $11.6 million. The wall divides Ambos Nogales, the name affectionately given to the sister cities of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona.

“Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla” or “Life and Dreams of the Perla Ravine” on border wall at Ambos Nogales. Photo by Daquella Manera

In 2005, a 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.

The mural is a replica of a mural painted by the community of Tzetzal Indians in Chiapas on the façade of the community center of Taniperla, Chiapas in the wake of the Zapatista resistance in the 90s. Painted in 1998, the mural represented the lives and dreams after declaring themselves part of an autonomous Zapatista revolutionary municipality. Just one day after the mural was unveiled celebrating the inauguration of their autonomous municipality–April 11, 1998–the mural was destroyed by the Mexican Army. The Mexican Army retook control of the town, destroyed the mural and jailed the man who had directed its creation, university professor Sergio Valdez.

The 2005 replica in Ambos Nogales points back to this earlier moment of community resistance against the overreaching power of the state. Thus, saving this mural in the current context of border wall construction in the U.S.,  itself a consequence of failed NAFTA policies, adds additional layers of meaning to an already powerful work of art.

As  Jonathan Clark of Nogales International reports, the new mural was saved at the very last minute by the extraordinary binational cooperation of artists, community members, non-profit organizations and public officials.

When the construction project advanced into the city and contractor Granite Construction was about to demolish the border wall panels with the mural painted on their south side, city officials contacted the Sonora-based artist Guadalupe Serrano and his creative partner Alberto Morackis, warning them that the mural was about to be destroyed.

“At the same time, Serrano 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.

This victory in Ambos Nogales mirrors similar efforts by the Friends of Friendship Park to save border wall art from the advancing forces of border wall reconstruction in San Diego-Tijuana.

For the past year, Friends of Friendship Park coalition members have been meeting with U.S. Border Patrol San Diego Sector Chief Paul Beeson and Brown Station Chief Kelly Good to negotiate details on a new architectural design for Friendship Park.  With DHS plans to replace the old rusting primary barrier and the “Surf Fence” descending into the Pacific Ocean with a new bollard style wall, the fate of border wall art was unclear.  Friends of Friendship Park have worked out an agreement with San Diego sector to remove border wall panels with art created by Swiss artist Pirmin Breu in January 2010 and commissioned by local group Border Angels–and transport them to a local facility where they will be stored until local artists and activists can find a permanent home for the art work.

Postscript: This extraordinary cooperation is happening as increasing numbers of Mexican citizens are being killed at the border and Ports of Entry. Just last night, Mexican national José Alfredo Yañez Reyes, age 40, originally from Sinaloa, was shot and killed by a border patrol agent as he climbing with two other men on the south side of the border wall in Zona Norte de Tijuana, located about a mile west of the San Ysidro Port of Entry at the San Diego-Tijuana border.  One of the three men started throwing rocks and pieces of wood, injuring the agent and prompting him to fire his weapon. According to a report by SanDiegoRed, Yañez was there with his wife and four-month-old baby to pick up his car parked in a storage lot and was not trying to cross the border into the U.S.


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