The Birds and the Border 

Why a group of East Bay artists and activists ventured to Tijuana to paint Quetzals on the border wall.

click to enlarge The muralists secured permission to paint on the Mexican side of the wall.

The muralists secured permission to paint on the Mexican side of the wall.

On a chilly November morning in Playas de Tijuana, a group of East Bay artists and activists is congregating with migrants from a nearby shelter to begin painting a mural on the U.S.-Mexico border fence next to the ocean.

As the migrants exit the shelter, a group of troops arrives from the Instituto Nacional de Migración, the Mexican government agency that supervises migration into that country. With black AR-15 assault rifles clutched against the front of their beige uniforms, the troops ask the migrants for identification.

A man standing nearby begins recording the scene with his cellphone. "It's illegal for you to be here!" the man, Hugo Castro, yells at the troops.

"We are just doing our job," one of the troops retorts. "We are here to serve you."

"Who do you work for?" Castro goads. "The Mexican government or Trump?"

Scenes like this have not been hard to come by in the last 12 months. Castro, a staff member with the non-profit organization that provides the shelter at Playas, Border Angels, said the presence of such troops has increased ever since the Trump administration pressured the Mexican government to stop the flow of migrants into the United States. That pressure culminated in policies such as the Migrant Protection Protocols, enacted in January, which send asylum-seeking migrants to Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings and keep many migrants in border shelters for weeks and sometimes months as they await their U.S. court dates. In June, President Trump threatened to impose additional tariffs on Mexico if it didn't do more to stop U.S.-bound Central American migrants passing through its country.

In response to this climate, the muralists assembled in Playas de Tijuana over Thanksgiving weekend. Their goal was to capture the stories of the asylum seekers, deportees, and others living in migrant shelters in Tijuana and turn them into a visual testament of migration.

Their project, Quetzal Migrante, was created by a group of East Bay artists and activists who spent the holiday weekend painting on the twenty-foot-high border fence at Playas. The project also consisted of collaborations with migrants to give them a platform to share their ideas and stories. The project "is very deep and personal," said Lulu Matute, one of Quetzal Migrante's organizers.

Matute, a first-generation Honduran immigrant who lives in Berkeley, started planning the project a year ago, along with three other artists and activists. Having official permission to paint on the fence, the group coordinated with the Tijuana-based advocacy groups Border Angels, Enclave Caracol, and Casa del Migrante to locate the spot they eventually painted on.

With Quetzal Migrante, other project members wanted to highlight the Central American experience as well. Kiara Machado, a painter originally from Los Angeles, also is a first-generation immigrant. Her mother came from Guatemala and her father from El Salvador.

"Unfortunately, many Central American asylum seekers have gotten stuck at the U.S.-Mexican border," said Machado. "What are they supposed to do?"

In the past year alone, almost a million migrants have arrived at the U.S. southern border, most of them fleeing violence, disaster, and economic crisis in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

"In general, there's a lot of racism and classism in Mexico toward Central American migration," said Dulce Lopez, a project artist from Oakland. "With this project, we want to address that as well." Lopez believes that Mexican and Central American migrants should not be turned against one other, "because we are in very similar situations."

Seeking to create the sort of solidarity that Lopez alluded to, group members decided to make Quetzal Migrante into a social art project, where the community and migrants themselves could contribute to its creation.

To help do that, one day before painting the mural the artists and activists hosted a full-day workshop with immigrants, deportees, and refugees from countries including Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Venezuela. The workshop was hosted at Border Line Crisis Help Center, a humanitarian service site for migrants stuck in Tijuana, and consisted of activities such as guided meditation, group discussions, and art making. Twenty adults and children participated in the workshop.

"This part of the project is a chance to empower people to make their stories more visible," Oakland project member Oona Valle told the assembled participants. "To help them share their hopes for the future, for a better world."

At one point during the workshop, Lopez asked the participants the following question: "¿Cómo es que usted y su comunidad desearían que fuera un mundo de libertad, sin fronteras ni obstáculos?" In translation, she was asking, how do you and your community envision a world of freedom, without borders or obstacles?

Project members then had participants split into groups to create poster boards that answered the question visually. One group drew a man standing next to the Honduran flag with a message written on the side: "A world without borders is a world without divisions."

On another board titled "Yo le quisiera exigirlea" — I would like to demand — participants wrote down a list of things they wanted in a world without borders, including demands such as "No Machismo," "No Racism," and "No more violence and abuse of power."

A young man in his late teens, wearing an Oakland A's baseball cap and a red camouflage vest, listed his demand along with those of dozens of others. In Spanish, he wrote, "I demand that society in general not be homophobic and respect my sexuality."

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