Mujeres, Arte y Resistencia
Four women art activists redefining our view of the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands
By Kendal Blust
As published in the Arizona Daily Star on Jan. 5, 2017
Introduction: Art as activism
Men and women on both sides of the almost 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border are engaged in art activism, using paint, photography, theater, music, poetry and other forms of expression to resist dominant narratives about the border and to tell new stories about the people, places and policies of the border region.
This project highlights four women art activists working in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands who use creative work to tell more nuanced and expansive stories about the border region and the people who live there.
In the current political and media climate, conversations about the border and migration often focus on violence, militarization and human and drug trafficking, and with president-elect Donald Trump poised to take office in less than a month, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how the new administration’s decisions will impact migrant and border communities.
The women featured in this series aren’t waiting to see what happens. They are taking action with their art, approaching the borderlands through a different lens, countering divisive and simplistic narratives, and telling their own stories about the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and migration.
ArtivistaWoman, Artist, Activist
In Agua Prieta, Sonora, everyone knows what it means to live south of the carretera, or highway. The people there are poor, often living without reliable electricity or running water.
But tucked between rows of rough adobe brick homes is a lush garden where local women cultivate organic produce with rainwater they collect in rooftop cisterns. Thick stocks of corn sprout in ditches along the edge of the property and wildflowers push through spare cracks in the dirt.
“My children call it the secret garden,” says Jenea Sánchez, an artist and educator who lives across the border in Douglas, Ariz.
This place –DouglaPrieta – and the women who tend it, are the subject of Sánchez’s most recent endeavor as an art activist: a photo series capturing the beauty and power of these women entrepreneurs.
Sánchez grew up in the borderlands like her mother and father, and her grandparents before them. Born in Douglas, she and her brother spent half of their childhood in Agua Prieta, crossing the line each day on the way to school.
“We’re not from anywhere,” she says. “We’re just from this border region.”
That’s a common story in border towns, where culture, identity and community defy national boundaries. People here can “act” American or Mexican depending on what the situation calls for, she says. But living on the fringes of each country, they don’t fully fit into either one.
That duality engenders open-mindedness and empathy, Sánchez says. Migration, family separation, third-world poverty and crossing the border for work, shopping or school are abstract concepts for most people in the interior of the United States. On the border, they are part of daily life.
“When I was a kid I remember we would cross sometimes three times a day,” she says.
Where today stands a 20-foot steel fence, in some places bolstered by a second screen of metal mesh and coiled barbed wire, Sánchez remembers how she and her cousins would run to each other’s homes as children, across what they saw as nothing more than a backyard fence.
“Talking to other adults here in town, we all have similar stories of these ‘illegal crossings’ that we used to do as children,” she says.
“It became more of my mission to represent the border as I know it and highlight the beauty and the many things that don’t get highlighted and talked about in the media for example.”Jenea Sánchez
But when she moved to Phoenix to study art at Arizona State University in 2003, Sánchez realized that most people saw the borderlands in a different light. Conversations about the U.S.-Mexico border regularly focused on violence, militarization and smuggling of humans and drugs.
“It became more of my mission to represent the border as I know it and highlight the beauty and the many things that don’t get highlighted and talked about in the media, for example,” she says.
She told her college classmates how she grew up nine streets from the border and could see across to Mexico on the other side. She told them that her city was safe—there hasn’t been a homicide in years—and that people in Douglas-Agua Prieta coexist as one city, sharing history, language, culture, economic and family ties across border lines.
She used her art to spread that message, too.
Jenea Sánchez performs “Skinning to Whiten.” Contributed photo.
Expressing herself with words didn’t come naturally to Sánchez. Instead, from a young age she turned to drawing, painting, photography and video.
In college, she started to feel a sense of responsibility to use those forms of expression to speak up about social issues.
“I heard the term in contemporary art that it’s our job to be ‘cultural watchdogs,’ and that always stuck with me,” she says. “When you see something or you feel something or you witness something, it’s our responsibility to express it creatively.”
She started to create art based on cultural symbols from the borderlands, such as La Llorona, the mythical Weeping Woman, and Lucha Libre, Mexican professional wrestling. She collaborated with fellow artist Gabriela Muñoz to create an image of la Virgin de Guadalupe on the border fence on paper they made from plants that grow in the shadow of the wall.
In a piece called Border Tapestry, she wove together fabrics representing herself, her mother and her grandmother through the bars of the border fence — a metaphor for the enduring connection between these women whose lives have transcended the barrier.
“The goal is to talk about truth. To expose bits and pieces of truth. To create a pathway to truth,” she says.
For her, that means exposing the diversity, nuance and beauty of the borderlands. As a woman of color, it also meant speaking from a female, feminist and Latina perspective.
The women of DouglaPrieta are strong, powerful and ingenuitive, and that is how Sánchez portrays them in her photographs.
In one, a woman named Maty is crouched in the garden, a hose in one hand, a cell phone in the other, one eyebrow slightly lifted and half a smile on her lips, as though she’s sizing you up.
In an area where electric power lines were brought in less than a year ago and the only running water is rainwater harvested in their cooperative, this group of 12 has created a small paradise in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Agua Prieta.
Shucking conventional ideas about what they should do and how they should live, they use sustainable practices to grow organic produce, raise chickens and rabbits, and sell hand-sewn clothing, bags and embroidery.
When Sánchez was asked to paint a mural at DouglaPrieta, she was in awe of the women’s strength, resourcefulness, generosity and spirit.
“That’s something I wanted to shine a really bright light on,” she says.
She is working with the women on a how-to book, “The Mexican Woman’s Post Apocalyptic Survival Guide in the Southwest: Food, Clothing, Shelter y La Migra,” which shares strategies that have helped them turn this dusty, impoverished area into a verdant and producing garden.
Women of color are rarely represented as experts and innovators, Sánchez says. Through her art, she is working to complicate the narrative of womanhood and femininity in the borderlands.
Bi-national and beyond
And the women of DouglaPrieta are not alone. Artists and community organizers in Douglas-Agua Prieta are partnering to create binational events and art projects, jointly working on murals, concerts, performances and vigils on both sides of the border.
Sánchez and her husband Robert Uribe, elected mayor of Douglas earlier this year, spearhead a group called the Border Arts Corridor, hosting visiting artists and public conversations and creating a binational art walk.
In Douglas, wide, rusty-brown steel bars rise 20 feet above the ground. But on the other side, in Agua Prieta, the community has taken it upon itself to improve the view, painting large swaths of the metal barrier with images of unity and freedom.
The murals can only be painted on the south side of the fence, where the city of Agua Prieta is actively beautifying the area adjacent to the wall. North of the border, the fence is patrolled by federal agents and marked with signs telling passersby not to trespass.
“We’ve put up geese, monarch butterflies, clasped hands that look like they’re reaching across the wall, as though they weren’t divided,” says Laura Rios, the director of civic and cultural development in Agua Prieta.
For sister cities that have always been united across the border, the wall is an affront, she says, likening the steel posts to the bars of a jail cell.
So, they decided to erase it using art.
The murals and other intercity collaborations are picking up creative momentum, using art to strengthen the connection between the two cities in spite of the fence, Sánchez says. What that looks like may change, but whatever form that takes, she’ll be part of it.
“Whether those forms of expression will be art or writing or video making, I’m not sure yet,” she says. “But I know I’ll continue doing what I’m doing.”
Border BedazzlerIf you can't tear the wall down, paint it
On a warm Tuesday, nearly a dozen neighborhood kids gather at the border fence in Naco, Sonora.
Holding red and blue Dixie cups filled with paint, the siblings, cousins and friends splash new art onto the rough, 15-foot tall steel panels built with remnants of landing strips left over from the Vietnam War. The youngest ones smear pink, green and black paint into long stripes, while a couple of older girls add meticulous detail to their designs.
A heart, a flag, a giraffe, smiling faces — today’s paintings are the continuation of artwork that covers more than a mile of the rippled metal panels separating this 6,000-person town from its namesake across the border in Arizona. Some crisp and carefully designed, others sweet and simple, each painting is a message of unity between the people on each side and defiance to the wall that separates them.
They are the Border Bedazzlers. Founded by Gretchen Baer and Carolyn Torontos in 2010, the informal group is beautifying the wall to counter border narratives that focus on drug trafficking, illegal migration and militarization.
“I know those things happen,” Bear says. “But that’s not what it’s about. Not even close.”
The Border Bedazzlers are about bringing people on both sides together, she says, something that has become even more crucial with president-elect Donald Trump’s promises to build a “big, beautiful” border wall.
“I know it transforms the wall for the kids. I know that,” she says. “It’s a horrible, ugly wall one minute, and the next it’s their art.”
Covered in glitter-encrusted figurines, coins, plastic toys and trinkets, Baer’s “Hillcar” is painted with images of a smiling Hillary Clinton alongside messages like “Madame President,” “more art” and “let’s go Hillary.”
She decorated the 1989 Toyota Corolla in 2008 in support of Clinton’s first presidential bid. She was impressed by the candidates’s intelligence, passion and tireless work for children and families, she says.
“I’ve always thought women should rule the world,” she says.
Never having considered herself a political person, she didn’t want to back Clinton in the traditional way — no paperwork, nothing boring. Instead, she created a group called the Hillary Clinton Army and traveled across the country in her attention-grabbing art car, self-funding the project from her waitressing wages.
The Hillcar was a hit — even Clinton herself, who Baer met several times, was a fan.
When Clinton lost the nomination in 2008, Baer was disappointed, but also energized and motivated. Touring the country in the Hillcar showed her that people will support art projects and expressions of creativity even if they wouldn’t otherwise get involved in political issues.
Baer headed back to Bisbee determined to keep the momentum going. This time, she set her sights on a problem in her own backyard — the border wall.
Tucked into the steep hills of the Mule Mountains, Bisbee has transformed itself from a thriving mining community into a quirky, 5,000-person town beloved by artists and daytrippers alike.
It’s arty and unpretentious. When Baer happened through in the early 1988 after art school, she stayed.
She held “art envoys” at her Bisbee studio to teach local youth the basics of painting, then hit the streets, creating art to brighten up the community. Eventually she decided to extend the project 10 miles down the road to the tiny border towns of Naco, Arizona and Naco, Sonora.
She couldn’t tear down the wall, she figured, but at least she could give it some color and make it more joyful for the people living in its shadow.“I seem to do things that are activism of a sort,” she says. “I like art of the people. I like getting out there and inspiring other people to pick up a paintbrush too.”
She dubbed the project Border Bedazzlers and made T-shirts with the name inset on a bejeweled Arizona flag. But the idea laid dormant for the next couple of years.
Meanwhile, fellow Bisbee resident Carolyn Torontos was invited to work with a group of youth from Naco, Sonora who were collaborating with U.S. students to paint a mural on the border fence. It was an image of the Mexican and American flags side-by-side with doves lifting the corners, as if opening the wall to a view of the other side.
“It’s a great image,” Torontos says, and it caught Baer’s attention.
“It was actually her idea, and then I happened to be doing it,” Torontos laughs. “So we joined forces.”
They started with the leftover paint from the mural. Working with neighborhood kids, little by little they covered more than a mile of the fence with colorful artwork.
“It’s like closing the doors, like saying, ‘You belong here and that’s as far as you can go. Stay out of my space.’”Maria Elena Borques
Crunching over stray rocks and withered shrubs in October 2016, Baer drives along the rough dirt road that follows the borderline in Naco, Sonora, stirring up hazy swirls of dust behind her. She slows to a stop in front of the last of the paintings atop a small crest where the rusting brown and green metal barricade rolls on as far as the eye can see into the valleys and hills east of the city.
The Border Bedazzlers are an informal bunch, at times meeting regularly with as many as 40 kids joining in or as few as two or three, other times taking a months-long hiatus. But when Clinton announced her plans run for president again during the 2016 election, Baer kicked the project into overdrive.
“I thought, what can I do to help?” she says. “I’ll just amp up what I’m already doing, the Border Bedazzlers.”
Today, the first Bedazzlers to arrive are two teenage boys. Laying claim to an empty metal panel, they slapped brushes dripping with white and red paint onto a section of the fence, forming a large Mexican flag, a favorite subject for the young painters here, Torontos says.
“Because we’re Mexican. Viva México!” says 12-year-old Gabriel Corona, climbing onto a three-tiered stepladder that still didn’t give him enough height reach the top of the solid steel fencing.
“We love Mexico. But we like America, too,” Manuel Garcia, 13, adds, eyes sparkling mischievously as he promised to paint a U.S. flag next. “It will be smaller, of course,” he jokes.
For these kids, painting the border wall is messy and novel, a fun afternoon activity. But it’s also a way to make the fence less of a visual and emotional eyesore, says Maria Elena Borques, a Naco, Sonora historian, who has worked with the Border Bedazzlers since the beginning, encouraging local children to take part in the beautification project.
“The children understand that it’s a barrier that divides two worlds, two countries. But they know that on this side we are equal as human beings,” she says. “They don’t live in anger. They don’t put up messages of hate. They come happy and content—they paint hearts and suns, and they send a positive message and live an experience that helps them grow.”
Maria Elena Borques, Naco, Sonora historian
Borques, who has spent her entire life in this small border town, has seen many changes over the years, including the construction of this “ugly, horrible” wall that replaced a simple barbed wire divide that kids from both countries would easily pass through to visit friends and family on the other side, she says.
They can’t do that any more, but the wall hasn’t changed those connections or the rhythm of life here that relies on movement back and forth across the international line. The real change is psychological, she says.
“It’s like closing the doors, like saying, ‘You belong here and that’s as far as you can go. Stay out of my space,’” Borques says. “So we decided to change that energy, to fill it with color. It’s a metaphorical way of removing the wall, converting it into a piece of art where children can come and express their ideas.”
“This is a message to humanity that we don’t need walls, that even though these walls are here we continue to be united, to work together, to live together and to share,” she says.
Painting hearts and flowers, cartoon characters and cars, each week the kids add to a mile plus of murals, some of the earlier paintings starting to fade after six years of exposure to the elements.
“Unfortunately there is more space than we’re ever going to paint,” Baer says, and painting the other side of the fence, constantly patrolled by Border Patrols agents in their signature white and green trucks, is out of the question.
Dreams over disappointment
Baer recently learned that the murals she and the young painters have worked on for more than half a decade are slated for removal when the current border fence is replaced by a double layer of wire mesh fencing.
“It’s literally coming down any day now,” she says. “There’s nothing I can do to try to save that. So that’s the end of the Border Bedazzlers.”
But it’s not the end of her work in Naco.
In a small, donated building just south of the port of entry, Baer is opening an art center where she’ll work with youth, and maybe adults, to develop their creative potential.
“We move on. We paint different stuff,” she says. “Art doesn’t stop and we’re not stopping.”
The community in Naco has already shown an outpouring of support for the new center, called Studio Mariposa, or butterfly, fitting its humble beginnings, she says.
“I hope it will grow and other artists will come down, too. Why not? It’s one thing that you can do in these times that seem so desperate. This seems like a positive thing.”
Migrant MemorialsQuilts honor migrants who died in the Arizona desert
Some are bejeweled with tiny black coffins, images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and colorful crosses. One has rows of skulls stitched into the back pockets of faded blue jeans. Another is a patchwork of embroidered flowers and deconstructed shirt collars.
Each quilt is unique, but what they all have in common are the names. Thousands of names. On each quilt the names of people who died trying to cross the desert into Arizona are stitched and penned onto denim patches and pockets, strips of fabric and clothing labels.
At once beautiful and staggering, the quilts are part of Los Desconocidos and The Migrant Quilt Project, founded in 2007 by Tucsonan Jody Ipsen to honor the thousands of migrants who have died in the Arizona desert since 2000 and to bring awareness to the policies bound to their deaths.
Ipsen has lived in Tucson since she was 6 years old, so she was familiar with tales of migration and border security. She knew that migrants who don’t cross through legal ports of entry often trek through the Arizona desert on their way to family members or jobs across the country.
She knew, but she didn’t really understand.
Then, in 2006, hiking in the Huachuca Mountains with a friend, she happened upon a “lay-up site,” where smugglers bring migrants to eat, rest and maybe change their clothes before continuing on their journey. The small clearing was littered with things that had been left behind.
She saw clothes, shoes and backpacks — but also with baby diapers and infant’s clothing.
“It was so overwhelming to see those baby items in the desert,” she says. “I was just so completely appalled, but sad. Deeply sad. Because these people were crossing for a better life, but they were also bringing babies and children.”
The sight sparked her curiousity, and she decided to make the grueling journey herself. She found a translator, bought a plane ticket to El Salvador and backpacked north along the route manyCentral American migrants travel.
On the way, she stopped in tiny, remote villages in El Salvador and Guatemala to talk with families of deceased migrants whose names she had found in Tucson’s newspapers.
She met farmers who couldn’t compete with subsidized imports from the United States that hit local markets mid-1990s, when the North American Free Trade Agreement went in to affect. She spoke to the families of people who couldn’t find jobs and felt they had no choice but to leave their homes, even though they didn’t want to, she says.
Migrant quilt for fiscal year 2010-2011, quilted by Cornelia Bayley.
In these rural areas, “there’s not a livable wage. There’s no work. There’s violence, corruption, poverty,” she says. “And they hear of the American Dream — and the American Dream is vast and powerful in the imaginations of others.”
Around the same time that NAFTA was being drafted and implemented, the U.S. government also started cracking down on illegal migration.
First came Operation Hold-the-Line in 1993 in El Paso, Texas, and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, California, as well as Operation Safeguard in 1994 in the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. New and higher border fences went up, the number of Border Patrol agents increased and migrants began crossing in remote deserts to avoid being caught and deported.
Deaths in the Tucson Sector surged from fewer than a dozen each year during the 1990s to nearly 300 in fiscal year 2004-2005 alone, records from the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner show. Since 2000, more than 3,000 migrants have died trying to cross in this sector and upwards of 6,000 across the entire U.S. southern border.
Distressed by what she found, Ipsen started volunteering with the nonprofit group Humane Borders, filling water stations in the desert and collecting belongings left behind at migrant camps: T-shirts, embroideries, bandanas and blue jeans. Lots and lots of blue jeans.
She saw the discarded clothing as a tool to talk about migration, so she used the fabric to make bags and purses. But it didn’t seem like enough.
Thinking of how the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt had brought awareness to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, she decided to turn the clothing into quilts with the names of the migrants who died trying to cross the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, 262 miles from the eastern edge of Yuma County to the New Mexico state line.
She recruited volunteer artists and quilters to create bold works that would both honor the migrants and draw attention to the policies that pushed them into the desert where they died.
When Cornelia Bayley quilts, she doesn’t do it half way. Attaching a dazzling assortment of beads, buttons, charms and embroidery, her eye-catching pieces are as unique as they are beautiful.
“Oh, I’m terrible,” she chides good naturedly, pulling a tin filled with white buttons of every shape, size and color from wall of shelves loaded with stacks of fabric and boxes of beads, one dedicated to nothing but birds, another full of skulls and skeletons.
Bayley has been quilting for as long as she can remember, at least since the 1970s when her children were born, she said. And for almost as long, she has been making quilts with an emotional significance—personal or political.
She has made anti-war quilts, one about the death of Princess Diana, quilts for people protected in the Sanctuary Movement and small ones that she donates to migrant mothers. But the pair of quilts she made for Los Desconocidos may be her most important work as a quilter, she said.
Cornelia Bayley holds up a string of skull beads in her quilting room.
Handed a list of names and a stack of clothes collected from the layup sites, each quilter is given carte blanche to create her quilt, and for many of the quilters the process of designing and constructing these works of art becomes very intimate and emotional, a grieving process.
“I don’t think when I signed up for it I had any idea how it would grab me,” Bayley says. “When I made those migrant quilts it was touching me down to the bone. I was obsessed with it for months.”
As she held the migrant clothing she imagined the hopes of dreams of the people who had worn them, where they came from, what their lives and deaths had been like.
“The hunger, the thirst, the fear, the bugs, the cactus, the night times. Can you imagine the night times out there with all the noises you hear? I wanted people to think about what that journey was like. How hard it really is.”Cornelia Bayley
She used bordados, or embroideries, some stitched with loving messages from home, and well-worn blue jeans, faded and tattered at the heals.
Stitched into the waistband of one pair she found $300, clearly hidden away to be spent in the wearer’s new life in the United States.
“That was their special money. And it was sewn in so it wouldn’t get stolen while they were traveling,” she says. “I thought that was heartbreaking. That was a real part of that person.”
When it came time to hand the quilt over to Ipsen, Bayley was shocked to find that she couldn’t bear to part with it, “because part of me was in those quilts.”
Many of the quilters have a hard time letting go. They’ve grown so attached to the people and the names, and the hopes and the dreams they represent, Ipsen says. But in the end they always do.
The point, of course, was always to create something that would be seen by others, Bayley says.
“The hunger, the thirst, the fear, the bugs, the cactus, the night times. Can you imagine the night times out there with all the noises you hear? I wanted people to think about what that journey was like. How hard it really is,” she says.
Confronted with comfort
Quilts have deep ties to activism and consciousness-raising. From abolitionists to the temperance movement, civil rights to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, textiles have long served as a way to communicate political and social ideas, especially for women.
“That was a way that women had a political voice when they had no vote,” says Peggy Hazard, an artist and curator retired from Tohono Chul Park.
Quilts convey emotion and meaning. But they also speak of home and family, safety and comfort.
That’s what makes them effective tools to highlight social issues.
“Somehow you’ve hooked (people) in with the fact that it’s a quilt, and maybe they’re more willing to look at what it has to say,” she says.
A bordado, or embroidery, that reads ‘with you from a distance.’
Hazard joined the migrant quilt project in 2010, working with fellow artists Suzanne Hesh and Alice Vinson to create a quilt for the 205 migrants whose remains were found in the desert in one fiscal year.
“For me, it was a stretch. I was not involved in any kind of activism, only very mildly politically active,” Hazard says. “But something about it spoke to me.”
After the quilt was finished she didn’t plan to stay involved with the project. Yet she kept coming back to it.
In 2012 she curated an exhibition at Tucson Meet Yourself called “Quilts Making a Difference,” which showed activist and fundraising quilts, including the Migrant Quilt she had worked on. Two years later, attending the annual American Quilt Study Group Seminar, she found herself pitching the migrant quilts as a research topic.
“It was just two days before the meeting, I was literally in the shower washing my hair and I went, ‘The migrant quilts. People need to hear about the migrant quilts,’” she says.
When the seminar came to Phoenix in 2016, she talked to fellow quilters about migrants, the border and the quilting project.
Many audience members told her after that was the first time they had heard about migrant deaths.
“I’ve become more of an activist, which isn’t my personality,” she says. “But I think the quilts have the ability to very subtly and quietly and humanly and visually show what’s happening.”
“They have named all of the migrants for each year. And to me that naming is super powerful. They are there saying, ‘These migrant lives are worth grieving. We must memorialize them. Because if we don’t who will? And if we don’t they are literally erased from ever existing.’”Sonia Arellano
Dignity in death
When people don’t matter in death, the violence and hardship they experience in life is also ignored, Ipsen says. By creating the quilts, she and the other artists recognize migrants as human beings whose deaths — and lives — are worth remembering.
Though the quilts have been incorporated into several exhibits over the past several years, Ipsen and Hazard are actively working on to increase their exposure, preparing them to be shown across the country.
Twelve have been completed and four more are in progress — one quilt for each year since the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner started tracking migrant deaths in 2000.
“They have named all of the migrants for each year. And, to me, that naming is super powerful,” says Sonia Arellano, a University of Arizona doctoral student who is writing her dissertation about the Migrant Quilt Project. “They are there saying, ‘These migrant lives are worth grieving. We must memorialize them. Because if we don’t, who will?’”
Since the beginning of this fiscal year in October, the remains of at least 36 migrants have been recovered in the Arizona desert.
Sonia Arellano looks at a quilt her grandmother made.
FronterizaStories of a border woman
“I am Americana to the core
Rooted here from before before
An indigena’s face with a Spanish tongue,
I learned to say American when I was young.
I am a borderlander, an open wound,
Two flags torn and re-sewn, torn and re-sewn.
I am a fear of the unknown.
A third country marginalized,
Neither from the U.S. or Mexico in their eyes.”
– from “One Journey,” performed in Douglas-Agua Prieta in October 2016
Yadira De La Riva is a fronteriza, from neither here nor there.
Born and raised in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, she is a proud product of the borderlands. An artist and performer, she wrote a one-woman play about coming of age in la frontera, or the border, weaving together personal experiences, family stories and the social and political history of the United States and Mexico.
Then, she took the show on the road from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, performing her story of border life and encouraging other borderlanders to tell their stories, too.
Life on the border is dynamic and culturally rich. It makes for a special type of people who can navigate two governments, two currencies, two languages and “two types of police,” De La Riva says.
But when she started to discover her own voice in theater, the artist and performer was disappointed to find that border stories weren’t being told on stage, and “much less by women.”
She started studying theater at the University of California-Santa Cruz, but despite her passion for the stage she quickly bored of the Greek, classical and “very European” subject matter, she says.
So she switched to American studies and acted at the university’s Rainbow Theater, where a diverse cast performed works that addressed social and political issues.
Around the same time, she fell in love with John Leguizamo’s solo show “Freak,” a partially imagined story about his life and the hilarious characters he encounters. Inspired, she decided to tell her own story in a single-voice play.
“I had a mentor who said if something doesn’t exist then you have to create it,” she says.
And she did.
Yadira De La Riva performs her one-woman play “One Journey” in Douglas, Ariz.
Wherever she goes in the United States, people ask De La Riza where she’s from.
“I’ll say, ‘Well, I’m from … the desert land, vast and flat the palm of my hand, brown and rough like my hand when it’s dry. Why, I say I’m from long family parties and sun and moon ceremonies, drums beating in the distance.”
But those aren’t the answers people want, she says. They want to know if she’s “American.”
Sharing tales about her family and piecing together the political history of the borderlands, De La Riva’s play uses characteristic elements of her border culture — the music, the Spanglish, the customs and the physical space, including the border wall. “One Journey: Stitching Stories Across the Mexican ‘American’ Border,” was her master’s thesis at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, built on the foundation of oral histories.
She dug up family stories beginning with her beloved grandmother, who migrated to Ciudad Juárez from Chihuahua City to help her family financially when she was just 16 years old. She crossed the border every day to work in El Paso as a maid.
“So she was already living that binational life as a teenager, and she was part of the movement of labor from Mexico to the United States,” De La Riva says.
The show reflects De La Riva’s experience gorwing up in a border family and as a border woman.
“You can’t talk about the border without talking about women. You just can’t,” she says.
Women are the workers in the maquiladoras, or cross-border factories. They are the victims of hundreds of killings, or femicides, in Juárez. They are the pillars of families and communities and social movements.
“But in terms of history or who’s telling the stories,” she says, “it’s hardly ever us.”
Women are, in many ways, erased from the common narrative of the border region, says Michelle Téllez, a University of Arizona professor who studies and writes about the border, community and gendered migration. When women are the subject of stories, they are often seen solely as “breeders” — the producers of children who are not wanted in the United States, demonstrated by terms like “anchor baby,” she says.
When De La Riva performed her play in border communities, it resonated. Audiences connected to the stories of family across the border; of not wanting to choose between being American or Mexican; of crossing the line to go to your grandma’s house or the doctor or the grocery store.
“I probably take more pride in saying I’m a fronteriza than I would to say I’m a Mexican-American or a Chicana or Latina. Those are such huge umbrella terms,” she said. “Fronteriza’s just a lot more specific to my experience and how I see the world.”
That identity extends beyond the U.S.-Mexico border,too, she says. Working on a project in Spain and Morocco, she found that her experiences often mirrored those of the women who transport merchandise across the border each day.
“Spain and Morocco, Palestine and Israel, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and so on and so on and so on,” she says. “So I’m also trying to expand what that identity means along this 2,000 mile divide for us on the U.S.-Mexico border, but also internationally.”
Yadira De La Riva performs “One Journey” to a bi-national audience in Agua Prieta, Sonora.
“I feel like theater changed my life. Theater gave me a platform for my own voice. It allowed me to come together with other people, to learn about other people, learn about other’s histories, to see life through a creative lens. So if it’s changed me, then hopefully it can change others too.”Yadira De La Riva
Sharing the stage
Kiara Morales Diaz stepped up to the microphone.
“Eres dos paises en uno y por eso eres especial, porque tu conoces el ambiente de Agua Prieta and el Douglas life. La frontera no te divide. The border does not divide you. Nos mantiene juntos. It holds us together. This is my Agua Prieta, and this is my Douglas. My home. And as we say en México, mi casa es tu casa.”
Morales is one of nearly 20 students in Douglas and Agua Prieta who stand on parallel stages divided by the 20-foot fence as they perform original works to an audience on both sides of the border.
The high school drama students performed with De La Riva as part of her two-week Arizona art residency with the Arizona Commission on the Arts AZ ArtWorker program and Arizona State University’s Performance in the Borderlands initiative.
Drawing inspiration from letters they wrote to each other from across the wall, the students wrote monologues, poems and skits about life on the border and their connections and separations from people on the other side.
Karla Carrazco performs a monologue in Agua Prieta, Sonora
(From left) Haylee Novoa, Nelva Jacinto-Valenzuela, and Matthew White
Paola Valenzuela performs in Douglas, Ariz.
“Art, the best language we can speak,” says Angel Ramírez, who teaches high school drama in Agua Prieta. “These kids don’t speak English, and many of the kids in Douglas don’t speak Spanish, but they still want to have these conversations and experiences together.”
For his students, just knowing that people in the United States came to hear their stories was the best part.
“We live in a small border town, cut off from opportunities to work with other artists, or to get attention from the outside world,” he says. “It has given them so much more motivation to keep working and performing.”
Social and political theater has a long history on the border and in Mexican-American culture, from El Teatro Campesino — founded by Luis Valdez in the 1960s to draw attention to the plight of migrant farm workers — to Tucson’s Teatro Libertad, which opened 1975 and performed pieces on contemporary social issues from racism and inequality to the economy and drug addiction.
Performing across the border fence added a new, and special, element.
“I’ve done the play in a lot of different spaces, and I divide the stage in half with a piece of tape,” De La Riva says. Being at the place itself was “intense and amazing.”
Theater isn’t the “end all be all” of activism and social change, she says, but it can be a good place to start, opening doors for new connections and a deeper understanding of the world, and of ourselves.
“Theater gave me a platform for my own voice. It allowed me to come together with other people, to learn about other people, learn about other’s histories, to see life through a creative lens,” she says. “So if it’s changed me, then hopefully it can change others too.”
Celeste González de Bustamante, committee chair
Kim Newton, committee member
Maggy Zanger, committee member
Michael McKisson, honorary committee member
Carol Schwalbe. graduate advisor
Elena Stauffer, Celina Centeno, Renée Schafer Horton, Mike Chesnick and Paloma Boynkin
My professors, colleagues and friends in the University of Arizona School of Journalism
My beloved family: Kurt, Frankie, Robyn, Kristie, Jack and Charlotte Blust and Gail Yohe