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The Birds and the Border

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

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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."

Children and adults also created message slips, about the size of a birthday card. On one slip, a young girl, no older than 10, drew the U.S.-Mexico border fence across the paper, with a question written at the top that said, "Estados Unidos, ¿a qué le temes?" — United States, what are you afraid of?

The poster boards and message slips were used in the making of the mural the next day, with the pieces fixed into the empty spaces between the painted parts.

The design for the mural itself was created by Machado and Lopez. The quetzal, a vibrantly colored bird commonly found in Central America, served as the motif of the art.

"The Quetzal is very symbolic in Central America," said Lopez. "We use this bird not only to identify Central American people, but also to represent movement, the crossing of borders."

Equipped with spray cans, brushes, and paint rollers, the artists and participants started painting the mural's left half first. That portion of the mural depicted a mother in a dress holding her daughter's hand, with huge purple and pink flowers interspersed between their bodies. With their black-dotted eyes staring from otherwise featureless faces, the mother and daughter were human, but heavenly; culturally specific but broader than that, broad enough to resonate with anyone who has ever felt the love that bonds a family together. The figures were indistinct and rudimentary, their matching dark blue dresses forming their frames into small shadowy mountains, their dark brown faces smiling from the peaks. At first glance, this portion of the mural feels unbalanced, amateur even, but upon closer inspection one can see it was created with technique, purpose, and a dab of surrealism, reminiscent of work from artists like the late Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo.

Overhead, the artists painted a large rainbow-colored quetzal within an orange-illuminated sky. Its wings were coated in black and white stripes and looked quite small in comparison to the rest of its body. The bird's turquoise-colored tail looked more like the tail of a fish, giving the painting a more mythical tone. Like a creature not meant to be shackled, the bird stretched across the fence, past the mother and daughter below, through the orange rays of the glowing sun, and directly toward the actual barbed wire of the border fence — determined to break free.

In contrast, the right half of the art piece consisted of a more modern take on the theme of the mural. That portion of the mural depicted an even larger quetzal perched on a cluster of flowers. Three main colors — red, black, and orange — surrounded the bird on all sides. The limited palette made the colorful bird look highly expressive and stylized. Its bright blue and green feathers stood in stark contrast to the drab background, creating an optical drama — a visual allegory about power and control, set in a monochromatic world, but with vibrancy taking the central role. As if part of a choreographed photoshoot, the bird, with its head tilted upward so that only one eye was in view, stared firmly ahead, like a creature set on transcending all barriers and finding home.

For this portion of the mural, the artists printed out the design in life-size form and cut it into columns that measured about six inches in width and eighteen feet in height. They pasted each print over a succession of 20 fence columns and repainted the colors to help blend it into the rest of the mural, creating a cohesive image out of fragmentary remains.

More than 20 people overall helped paint the mural, including participants from the workshop and migrants from the nearby shelter at Playas. As a whole, the mural measured about 50 feet in width, and 20 feet in height. Using bird-shaped stencils, the artists also spray-painted a trail of colorful birds leading from the border fence to different parts of the beach.

Far more important than the art itself was the significance the artists and activists attached to it. Prior to Quetzal Migrante, most project members had done some type of humanitarian work at the U.S.-Mexico border last year. Although they saw the value in that work, they wanted to try a different way of addressing migrant issues, a way that united people through the exchange of ideas, stories, and art.

"Art transcends above the need and suffering of the situation," Valle said. "It gives people the space to reflect and strategize."

Project members hoped that Quetzal Migrante would help capture the collective voice of migrants. For members like Machado, migrant inclusion was the other key component of the project.

"If we are going to tell someone's story, then they need to be present," said Machado. "We intended for migrants to be included at every point of the project."

The artists and activists believed the Tijuana side of the southern border to be the best location for the project because of the high volume of migrants that get stuck there while waiting for their U.S. court dates. Several of the migrants that participated in Quetzal Migrante had either arrived in Tijuana on their own or were sent there after they were deported from the United States.

In the future, Matute said, the East Bay artists and activists hope to replicate the project and create another mural on the Mexico-Guatemala border.

"The beautiful long-term seed we can plant with this project is this: having a visual affirmation and reminder that we [migrants] are not alone," she said.

Kiara Machado’s art is showing at at the Juan R. Fuentes Gallery at Acción Latina from Jan. 24, 2020 through March 6, 2020. 2958 24th St., San Francisco. AccionLatina.org

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