The Border Project—Border Dwellers Offer Border Perspectives
By Debra Utacia Krol, Salinan/Esselen
Debra Utacia Krol is the editor of Voices Heard: Journal of the Heard Museum
For uncounted centuries, people of the Tohono O’odham, or Desert People, have observed the O’odham Himdag, or Desert People’s Way of Life, amongst the harsh beauty of Sonoran Desert lands and the jagged peaks of the Baboquivari Mountains. Following lessons learned at their elders’ knees, the O’odham are intimately acquainted with the seasonal changes heralding the proper times to plant, harvest and hunt. Ceremonies, accompanied by the gentle thump of feet upon the ground, the rhythm of gourd rattles and the voices of men and women, mark significant events in people’s lives, help bring on life-giving rain or observe spiritual obligations.
An international border created in the wake of the Mexican-American War and the subsequent Gadsden Purchase in 1853, a condition noted wryly by O’odham people as “the border crossing us,” split the nation’s traditional lands. However, for more than a century the border existed only on maps. O’odhams, Mexicans and Americans crossed the broken-down barbed-wire fence freely. Irregular immigrants, once referred to derisively as “wetbacks,” were fed and watered by O’odham and Anglo residents and sent on their way. These folks, mostly Mexican men, knew the deserts; some were even regulars. O’odham families rarely locked the doors of their desert homes.
The situation changed for the worse in the 1980s. Immigration reform meant to help stem the tide of undocumented immigrants, most fleeing dire economic conditions in Mexico and Central America, instead severely impacted residents on both sides. O’odham people accustomed to crossing the dusty cattle guards back and forth now find themselves cut off from families, ceremonial sites, tribal services on the U.S. side or even from shopping. These policies are creating havoc in border communities as well as fracturing relations between Anglos, American Indians and Hispanics on both sides of the fence.
Allison Francisco, Tohono O’odham, who works at the Tohono O’odham Cultural Center, is originally from the Mexican side of the O’odham lands. Francisco still has family living down in Sonora. “We had a delegation come up from Mexico,” says Francisco. “It was hard to let them go.”
Francisco’s family is not the only one divided by the political border. “I hear kids say, ‘My grandma lives on the other side and I hardly ever see her.’ It’s like having relatives by proxy.”
After the federal government stepped up patrolling less dangerous immigration corridors, the tide of immigrants using the deadlier desert paths quickly swelled to a flood. Now, instead of the usual campesinos who crossed a few times a year, new immigrants who don’t understand the harsh climate, and who are oftentimes dumped off by coyotes, accost O’odhams with demands for food and water. Homes are being burglarized. The waves of new immigrants include drug smugglers and criminals fleeing Mexican justice, creating even more instability. The pristine, delicate desert washes are now fouled with fetid refuse, human excrement, dirty diapers and occasionally even human bodies. The tribe has been overwhelmed with immigrants, smugglers and Border Patrol agents and staggers under the financial burden of dealing with hundreds of thousands of border crossers. The Tohono O’odham Nation has expended more than $3 million of its own revenues to deal with the problem over the past decade.
Further north, the U.S. is dealing with an estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants. Most “illegals” these days are poorly educated, some nearly illiterate. Some are Indians who were forced off their traditional lands and who can’t find other work; indeed, California is dealing with more than 25,000 Mixtec Indians who don’t even speak Spanish. Too frightened of discovery to become fully integrated into mainstream American society, fearful of green la migra vans and vulnerable to criminal predators, these people are increasingly reviled by Americans weary of dealing with uninsured, non-English-speaking and working poor families packing emergency rooms, classrooms and older neighborhoods. Emotions have run high the past few years as activists on both sides of the issue clash over day labor centers, English-learner classes, tuition for undocumented students brought over as infants, drop houses, soaring health costs and uninsured drivers.
It seems at times like rational discussion of the issue of undocumented immigration is impossible.
The Border Project provides students from three cultures with a voice on border issues
Deep in the heart of the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona, an exhibition created by students from the tribe as well as Anglo and Hispanic students from the United States and Mexico is challenging how many Americans view the U.S.-Mexico border.
Artist Morgana Wallace first encountered the immigration issue in her home on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Raised in the Northeast, Wallace had little first-hand knowledge of the issue when she moved to Arizona to join her long-distance boyfriend after a term in the Peace Corps.
“A Mexican immigrant knocked on our door one evening asking us to call the Border Patrol,” says Wallace. “We invited him in, gave him food and water and tried to understand why he would want to turn himself in after having trekked through the desert so many miles only to go back to where he started.” She learned that the young man left his family in Mexico on foot with two of his buddies to find work in the U.S., only to become injured. His friends subsequently abandoned him. “This man limped in to our living room and told us that he simply wanted to go home to his family,” Wallace says. “The sadness and confusion that I felt as a result of our interaction, has never left my memory.”
After moving to a new residence at the famed Curley School artist community in Ajo, a small, isolated, rural town located more than two hours from Tucson or Phoenix, Wallace continued to wonder about the humanitarian aspects of immigration. Then she learned about The Border Project.
A partnership between the Tucson Pima Arts Council, the International Sonoran Desert Alliance and the Smithsonian gave Wallace the means to express the views of those most affected by border policies. In conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibit Between Fences, which in turn is associated with the Smithsonian’s project Borders, Fences and Gates, the exhibition aims to give voice to the families that immigration and border policies are ripping apart.
Wallace was selected to create the local exhibition. Her thoughts turned to the students she teaches in Curley School’s Las Artes GED Program and to the students at Tohono O’odham High School, where her boyfriend teaches. Grants from ISDA, the arts council and the Ajo Rotary Club helped with expenses. Photographer Jewel Fraser Clearwater documented the project, including the student portraits.
“Because of its isolation, Ajo was an ideal location for a new exhibition that involves discussion and support on border issues,” says Wallace. “This exhibition may have been the first opportunity for young people to voice their opinions in a very deliberate and powerful way.”
During the process, which took place in October 2007, the students formulated their thoughts about the border. They also created one piece of art crafted in clay representing their feelings. Wallace was struck by how openly and honestly the students expressed their views and shared their perspectives in a respectful manner.
The finished exhibition features a picture of each student accompanied by his or her art. Pieces range from skulls and crosses dotting the land, representing the many deaths of people trying to cross, to stop signs in both English and Spanish. A rusty chain-link fence is placed over small papers with the students’ statements about the border.
And just what do these young people think about immigration and international border policy? The overwhelming sentiments appear to be sympathy for the immigrants, sadness at the families split by current policies, and concern about fairness and the economics of the border.
The initial exhibition, though, lacked something. “I realized as I myself saw it on display, that I had left out an important player in the process,” Wallace notes.“My eyes narrowed in on a written statement by one of the students that read, ‘It's as if we hate Mexicans.’ I decided then that the project needed to be extended to Mexico so that their voices could also be heard.”
ISDA helped Wallace link up with Cobach High School in Sonoyta, Sonora, where she spent two days with 25 Mexican students to develop their own displays and comments.“While in Mexico, the energy was contagious,” Wallace says.“Students easily expressed their thoughts on 'border' with images of family, money, drugs, death and the United States as a kind of heaven.We left Mexico feeling overwhelmed by the mix of hope and dreams and misconceptions and sadness.”
To preserve their privacy, the students' names are not displayed anywhere in the work. In fact, the only way to determine where the students live is by the color of their photo's background.Students with white-based backgrounds are from Tohono O'odham High School, black-based backgrounds represent Ajo High School students, and Cobach High School students’ displays sport colored backgrounds.
Another facet of the exhibit is the colored line decorating the faces of each student. Francisco notes that the kids came up with the idea to show how the border has divided their families and lands.
“Mostly I like that the exhibit brings attention to how this current and heated issue of borders affects our youth,” Wallace says.“It is also a wonderful collaboration between artists of all ages, styles and cultural backgrounds.” Wallace also credits her committee of eight artists, teachers, interpreters and cultural liaisons for contributing to the exhibition. “It is obvious in its multi-cultured, all encompassing way that many minds and hearts contributed,” says Wallace.
The Anglo artist also benefited from the exhibition; she says she learned much about the cultures of the border region and what is important to them at the group and individual levels as well as the interplay of different perspectives. “The patience and deliberateness of the Tohono O'odham students humbled me,” says Wallace.“I became more curious, confused and even angry about the building of the fence when I learned about how it divides their land, separates families, turns them into suspects in their own homes and puts death right in their backyard.”
After being on display at the Curley School, the exhibition went to the Tohono O’odham’s cultural center for three months over summer 2008.
The exhibit will travel again in spring 2009, continuing to raise awareness on how border issues affect youth on both sides of the border.Through funding from Pro-Neighborhoods, the exhibit will be built into freestanding collapsible walls that can be sent to venues within Arizona and beyond, thus reaching a broader audience and providing the youth with more opportunity to be ambassadors for their generation.
Francisco, who is a member of the exhibit committee, says that the cultural center was excited to host the exhibition. “It’s like the kids have so much to say, and they’re not able to eliminate the emotional aspect [of the border issue],” she says. “Morgana is great at getting them to talk about how they really feel.
“It proves that kids have more to them in relating to real issues—and what an issue to contribute to!”
For more information, visit The Border Project website.
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