One night on the Tohono O'odham reservation, there was a knock on Morgana Wallace's door.
An artist from back East, Wallace had only recently moved West to join her boyfriend, a teacher at Tohono O'odham High School. She didn't yet know that nighttime knocks are common on the rez, where numerous migrants trek by on their way north from the border.
She and her boyfriend opened the door to find a young Mexican man.
He was alone. He'd gotten hurt somewhere on the giant O'odham Nation, a prickly outback of almost 4,500 square miles. He could only limp, not walk, and his friends had gone on without him. Now all he wanted was to go home, back to Mexico.
He asked the couple to call the Border Patrol.
The encounter, described in The Border Project exhibition at the Arizona State Museum, puzzled Wallace. Why would a migrant give up after traveling so many miles?
The artist later got a chance to immerse herself in the contradictions on the Arizona-Mexico border. The Smithsonian was staging Borders, Fences and Gates, a traveling exhibition, and Wallace was picked to come up with a local component. She put together The Border Project, an installation of photographs, art and spoken word, created in conjunction with art students from three high schools where kids experience the border crisis every day.
Hailing from Ajo High School, Tohono O'odham High School and Cobach High School in Sonoyta, Sonora, just south of Lukeville, the students live within a nexus of borders. The Ajo kids live in a small town just west of the Tohono O'odham Nation, and 43 miles north of Mexico. More than 200 Border Patrol agents are stationed in Ajo, along with all their attendant paraphernalia, including buzzing helicopters and racing SUVs.
Kids on the rez have plenty to deal with, too. At one point, the Nation calculated 15,000 migrants were crossing every month, and its hothouse corridors have claimed more migrant lives than any other immigration trails in Arizona. The Border Patrol races up and down the roads, and the United States has used vehicle barriers to seal up the O'odham's 75-mile border with Mexico. Tribal members can no longer pass freely to their lands—and their families—on the other side.
The Mexican kids in Sonoyta see American tourists routinely coming into their territory on their way to Puerto Peñasco, and migrants turning up to try to cross the line. They also witness the elderly O'odham in their communities having trouble getting over the border to the U.S. Indian Health Service hospital at Sells.
When Wallace asked these border kids what the la frontera means to them, they were blunt. Their recorded voices, in O'odham, Spanish and English, are broadcast into the museum gallery.
"It's a division, a limitation," said one Mexican girl. "Dinero," said another.
"Death and rights," an American kid said.
An O'odham had an insight particular to a people whose traditional lands have been sliced apart by the vehicle barriers.
"When the border was first built, it caused some families to be separated from each other," the student wrote. When the kid wrote it out, he illustrated the sentence with a stick drawing of a large family, parents and kids, lined up as though trapped by an invisible barrier.
Wallace also got the kids to do visual art, and their clay works and crayon drawings depict the mayhem that surrounds them. (The Arizona State Museum show only includes The Border Project, not the rest of the Smithsonian exhibition.) One boy drew a pile of skulls, representing the migrant dead yielded up in the furnace-like deserts.
Somebody made a fine little line drawing of the ubiquitous Border Patrol SUV, and somebody else (all the artists remain anonymous) made a fired-clay plaque: It pictures a stick figure crawling on hands and knees through the ocher sands, a brown mountain in the distance, a blazing sun overhead.
A girl drew a coil of black barbed wire over a wall, and an O'odham boy drew an array of floating blue ceramic pots, in traditional style. One slice of unfired clay sums up the tragedy of the border in a few simple strokes. Crosses surround the words "No Trespassing."
Jewel Fraser Clearwater, an artist from the Curley School artists' community in Ajo, where Wallace also now lives, made evocative color portraits of each of the kids. In her photos, the students' young faces are framed by their artwork.
At the center of the room, Wallace has arranged fence-like panels—as ugly as Homeland Security's border walls—and covered them with chain link and black screen. Reflecting the violence and chaos of the border, she's cut up the students' written texts and paper artworks and collaged their fragments to the wall, in between the diamond shapes of the chain link.
The clay works survive intact on little shelves, and the photos of the students' fresh faces glisten along the tops of the walls. Wallace has made one fence for each high school, and she's joined the three barriers together in a pivot at a central point, making a visual plea for unity in the divided borderlands.
Many of the students are critical of the wall and the Border Patrol. ("I think of the border as a waste of money," said one girl. "The Border Patrol, they're useless.") They're also unhappy with Americans' attitudes toward migrants. ("Who's the illegal alien, Pilgrim?" another student asked.) But not everybody blames the Americans for the problems of the border.
"I think of Mexicans overpopulating our country," one Ajo boy said on the recordings. "I think of how drugs are getting through the border. The Border Patrol tries to stop it. I just don't think they have enough support."
Another student targeted the environmental devastation caused by the massive migration—and massive enforcement—in a fragile desert. The artist crafted a clay coyote vehicle, crowded with migrants, smashing down every saguaro in its way.
But all of the students are conscious of the agonies that surround them daily. A Mexican spoke of the families split apart, and an American girl noted out that "Mexicans cross the border and suffer, and some don't even make it."
Her point is well taken. The total of known migrant deaths for the fiscal year that just ended is 203, a full 20 bodies more than last year.
Death creates a new border for families to cross, one perceptive boy said. Migrants' stories often end in death, he said, "leaving their families to cross another border, an emotional border."