Bordertown, USA

One artist is humanizing the U.S.–Mexico divide by focusing on the southernmost entry along the entire border

The wait climbed from 15 minutes to 30 on a scorching day in July. Eventually, Tanya Aguiñiga made her move. Just after 9 a.m., she; her seven-member team of artists, designers, photographers, and videographers; and I each plunked one dollar’s worth of quarters into old metal turnstiles and walked from Brownsville, Texas, to Matamoros, its sister city opposite the border.

We proceeded along the Gateway International Bridge, a 1,050-foot-long span shrouded in chain-link fencing and barbed wire, surveilled by American and Mexican border officials, and bookended by customs and toll booths. The border was physical, sterile, and foreboding. Between some of the chain link, I spied a few rusty locks, the tributes to love typically attached to romantic bridges in Paris and New York.

We reached a cherry-red arch with a “Bienvenidos a Mexico” sign demarcating Mexican passport control. But unlike American customs, with its computerized passport scanners and questioning for all crossers, we were met with a stop signal. If it lit up green, you could continue walking; red, and the customs officer inspected your baggage before waving you through. After clearing customs, we then darted over six lanes of car traffic and headed back over the bridge toward the United States to begin the work that brought Aguiñiga to this crossing, and to the 16 before it: recording the psychogeography of the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the 1950s, artists, theorists, and architects coined the term “psychogeography” to describe the impact of a geographical location on a person’s state of mind, emotions, and behavior.

The snaking 1,254-mile-long border between northeast Mexico and Texas hugs the Rio Grande. It’s typically discussed in concrete terms: the fences marking where it is, the millions of pedestrians and cars crossing annually, the number of family separations resulting from its enforcement.

The view of the Rio Grande River on the Brownsville-Matamoros International Bridge.
Gustavo Santoyo, 21; Gustavo Campos, 28; and Salvador Reyes, 24, are soccer players visiting Matamoros, Mexico for a game. They came onto the Brownsville-Matamoros International Bridge to take a photo with the sign dividing the United States and Mexico.

There are 28 “official” crossings, including bridges, dams, and even a hand-operated ferry. Countless more informal crossings exist between them, marking a border that is constantly evolving—one that extends beyond the political boundary between the United States and Mexico and encompasses the cities and towns adjacent to it. But there are perhaps more insightful ways to measure this space: by how people respond to it psychologically.

Throughout her career, Aguiñiga, a Los Angeles–based artist and designer, has been creating artworks about the U.S.-Mexico border, which has figured prominently in her own life: She grew up in Tijuana and crossed the border into San Diego for school every day. Her present work uses craft-based techniques to explore identity, culture, and class. The cross-generational mediums she chooses (textiles, for example) are steeped in tradition, yet deeply familiar, and democratic.

A few years ago, Aguiñiga began AMBOS—Art Made Between Opposite Sides—to express and document emotions at the border.

Diana Budds
Diana Budds
Diana Budds

The longest-running component of AMBOS is the Border Quipu, a contemporary adaptation of an Incan record-keeping method. For the participatory project, she and her assistants stop at ports of entry along the border and query people who are crossing—for any reason—about their emotional response. The participants write their answers anonymously on a postcard printed with the question in Spanish and English. Then Aguiñiga invites them to tie a knot using vibrantly colored textile offcuts: a simple creative act, a symbol of their contribution to the project, and a record of all the individuals they’ve encountered. She then ties the knots together to create cascading, kaleidoscopic bundles for each crossing.

After assembling parts of the Border Quipu at the westernmost Tijuana-San Ysidro crossing in 2016 and between Lukeville, Arizona, and El Paso, Texas, in 2017, Aguiñiga began work this summer on the final stretch, from El Paso to Brownsville, the easternmost crossing and final stop.

The situation at the border has changed significantly since the Border Quipu project began, before the 2016 presidential election. Calls to “strengthen” the border have escalated. In a twisted exhibition, the government built border wall prototypes to show the world what it intended to do. Then came the legal changes. In April 2018, the Trump administration began enforcing its “zero tolerance” policy by prosecuting as many people crossing the border without documentation—many of whom do so to declare asylum—as possible.

Crossing illegally has been considered a misdemeanor offense since 1929, but previous administrations released asylum-seeking families and individuals into the civil court system. The Trump administration decided to detain asylum-seeking adults in the criminal court system, leading to the separation of more than 2,500 children from their families this spring and summer.

The Rio Grande Valley was ground zero for this new policy. For the 2018 fiscal year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 54,498 “family units”—meaning undocumented individuals who crossed with another family member—in the 17,000-square-mile region .

The next-highest sector for undocumented crossings was Yuma, Arizona, at 12,367 family units apprehended.

New policies meant to deter asylum seekers from entering the country have involved physical changes at the border throughout Texas: In June, Customs and Border Protection began setting up secondary passport checks midway across the state’s border bridges to prevent asylum seekers from stepping foot in the United States (a requirement to declare asylum). Because CBP doesn’t, it claims, have enough capacity to process migrants, those migrants camp on bridges for multiple days—where they could be stuck without food and water, or apprehended by law enforcement—until CBP decides to let them in.

The border crossing and the cities on either side of them are liminal space, an in-between zone that isn’t quite American and isn’t quite Mexican, the product of continual cultural exchange . If the obvious political boundary weren’t there, Brownsville and Matamoros could be parts of the same city. For many residents in the area, it basically is.

The Rio Grande Valley is predominantly Latino: Cameron County, which includes Brownsville, is nearly 90 percent Hispanic or Latino, of which 24 percent are foreign-born. Neighboring Hidalgo County’s Hispanic-Latino population is 92 percent; nearby Starr County is 96 percent.

The divide between Brownsville and Matamoros is as much a physical construction as a mental one, shifting in permeability depending on the political and economic context. To Mauricio Sáenz—a performance and multimedia artist who was born in Matamoros and now lives in Brownsville, where he’s an art teacher at a local high school—the border looms large.

“I feel isolated from the rest of the United States. I feel alienated,” he told me. “The border is a country all its own. This is Mexico but also the USA.”

Today, he travels between Brownsville and Matamoros about three times a week to visit friends and family, to look after apartment buildings his family owns, and to run errands. He remembers a time when more tourists came to Matamoros, and the streets on that side of the border were lined with bars and restaurants. This was before the Mexican Drug War, which began in 2006 when newly elected Mexican president Felipe Calderón “launched an intensive counternarcotics campaign.” Today, the street—while brimming with people trying to reach the crossing—is filled with aging shops.

“There is a lot of exchange, yet people are not coming [to Matamoros] as often as they used to because of the violence,” he says.

The Brownsville side has developed like a typical American city: Its downtown—which dates from the 1800s—is laid out in a grid, and its building stock includes historic homes with cast-iron railings, midcentury storefronts now selling discount goods, and aging Art Deco theaters. Sprawling suburbs have grown around it. The strip malls are filled with lawyers advertising specialties in immigration and accidents, medical offices, and taquerias.

Scenes of downtown Brownsville, Texas.

Matamoros’s streets are more meandering and informal, with buildings painted in now-sunbleached greens, yellows, pinks, and blues. While the influence of Latin America in Brownsville is distinct, the slow influx of “Americanness” into Matamoros has been more subtle.

Both cities have been shaped by trade and manufacturing due in part to proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. Starting in the 1960s, American companies built factories—called maquiladoras—in Mexican border cities like Matamoros, taking advantage of inexpensive labor and few environmental regulations . Trade agreements allowed American companies to transport machinery and raw materials into Mexico and export finished products back to the United States virtually free of duties.

In the 1990s, Brownsville experienced an unusually high number of babies born with brain defects, which some experts believe is tied to industrial pollution.

Since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Rio Grande Valley has grown tremendously. But inequality is a challenge. According to census data, nearly 30 percent of Cameron County—which includes Brownsville—is uninsured, the poverty rate is about 30 percent, and 47 percent of children live in poverty. The diabetes rate in southern Texas is 20 percent higher than the rest of the state. In 2013, Brownsville was named the poorest city in the country.

A section of the border fence can be seen behind houses in a neighborhood in Brownsville, Texas.

But the city, and the region, is ambitious. In 2014, Brownsville was recognized by the National Civic League for its efforts to improve public health through urban design, like growing its bike-lane network. SpaceX is opening a launch facility near Boca Chica beach. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is expanding its School of Medicine with a focus on health care programs.

Brownsville’s three ports of entry for pedestrians and personal vehicles span a no-man’s land between Mexico and the United States, an idyllic riparian landscape of emerald grass and bushy trees . Chirping birds and humming insects rise over the low rumble of car engines.

The Gateway International Bridge, the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge, and the Veterans International Bridge—locally referred to as El Nuevo, El Viejo, and Los Tomates, respectively.

Customs and Border Protection agents constantly thin trees and trim grass so people who attempt to cross illegally have nowhere to hide.

The people crossing from Matamoros to Brownsville on that Thursday morning were primarily commuting to work—the cost of living is lower in Matamoros and the wages are higher in Brownsville—shopping, and visiting relatives.

The first four or five people who passed Diana Ryoo, a designer and activist assisting Aguiñiga, didn’t make eye contact after she said good morning. She speculated it’s because of heightened security along the border and the Trump administration’s volatile discourse about Mexicans and immigration.

“Other places, people have been more receptive off the bat, but people [in the Rio Grande Valley] have been kind of on edge.” Ryoo told me as we waited. “They think it’s something political, and they don’t want to get involved.”

Ryoo, like most of Aguiñiga’s team, is bilingual. When she greets someone, she introduces herself and explains she’s with a group of artists working on a project that will be displayed in New York and Washington, D.C. She asks them the question on the card, and sometimes about why they’re crossing. Then she invites them to tie a knot.

The responses AMBOS receives can be ordinary of-the-moment thoughts—“Loving the 7-11 donuts,” read one card. A middle-aged man wearing blue crocodile boots wrote that he was thinking about shopping and autographed his card. Prayers and “Jesus Saves” come up frequently, as do reflections on discrimination and inequality. One crosser wrote:

I do not feel nervous because I am a connected person, but I would like everyone else to be treated like me. I left a surgical knot because I’m a Mexican doctor. We’re not all bad!”

[Read this quote in its original Spanish—as well as the entire story—here.]

That morning, we saw a handful of people crossing from Brownsville to Matamoros with flesh-colored bandages cinched around their elbows—the telltale sign that they visited a blood plasma donation center across the street from the bridge on the American side.

Veo el 90/100 de gente cruzando para vender la plasma sangre,” a taxi driver wrote on a postcard. “Ninety percent of the people crossing”—surely a hyperbolic percentage— “are selling blood plasma.”

“Borders shouldn’t exist. We should fight to embrace values so humans can live in peace.”
A card from the Brownsville-Matamoros border crossing

On a typical day, the group might collect hundreds of postcards and knots. But in Southern Texas, they received far fewer. Before Brownsville, they were at the crossing between Hidalgo, Texas, and Reynosa, and border control agents wouldn’t let them work on the bridge due to heightened security following the enactment of the Trump administration’s family separation policy and the Mexican elections. As soon as they reached the middle of the bridge, American border protection agents took them to secondary screening and threatened to detain or arrest them if they didn’t leave. They expected to receive more cards in Brownsville, but Customs and Border Protection asked them to leave after an hour. At crossings like Tijuana, they blended in and were able to stay for hours unbothered .

Aguiñiga also works on the Mexican side of the border, which leads to less scrutiny from border protection. For the Tijuana activation, Aguiñiga had the support of the Mexican consulate and seven street vendor labor unions.

Now that AMBOS has finished the Border Quipu activations, Aguiñiga and her group of artists have raised more questions than they’ve answered.

“Other than having lived experience, I’m not trained as a qualitative data analyst in immigration law,” she says. “How do I take advantage of this platform to get other people involved, to share the labor of trying to figure out how to make people think about the border in more humane ways?”

Aguiñiga plans to create a report about the project that could be shared with politicians and a guide for other artists who want to address the border and immigration in their work. She also wants to figure out how to have more of an immediate impact.

When I crossed from Matamoros into Brownsville with AMBOS, on a 90-degree afternoon, we saw one of those families stuck in limbo. I felt distraught for the family and enraged that government officials would leave them there. When I made it to passport control, the room for secondary screening only had a handful of people in it. There was ample room for the family to wait, out of the blazing sun and with access to water and restrooms.

The audiences for Aguiñiga’s work are often in cities that feel removed from the debate, like New York, and she hopes to reach people who think they know what’s happening, but don’t have a deeper understanding of what it’s actually like. However, now the implications of border policy change are being felt more widely.

“Since all the family separation stuff started, it feels like people are experiencing the exhibit really differently,” Aguiñiga told me. “It touches closer to home for them. It’s something that seems so far away and now it’s not.”

“Tanya Aguiñiga: Craft & Care” was on display at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City from May 8 to October 2, 2018.

At her residency at the Museum of Arts and Design this fall, Aguiñiga met a Florida public school teacher. She mentioned that some of her students didn’t return after spring break, which made her realize she’s unsure about the legal status of her students. She said she had never seen pictures of border crossings before visiting the exhibition.

“That’s why we say, ‘Humanize the border,’” Sydney Barnett, a filmmaker who assisted Aguiñiga, told me after we finished the Border Quipu.

“Humanity is complex; let’s stop making this about ‘policies.’ People live there.”

Diana Budds is Curbed’s Senior Story Producer.


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