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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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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.



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