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The Border Journey

A compelling photo show at Pima Community College depicts migrants' treks

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In Mexico, determined migrants will use almost any means to get to the U.S. border.

A few weeks ago in Tucson, I met a young Guatemalan mother who had hoisted herself and her 2-year-old daughter to the top of a moving train. Perched precariously on a rattling boxcar, they rode as far as la frontera, only to be arrested by the Border Patrol in the Arizona desert—on a 105-degree day.

By contrast, the migrant men traveling in the backs of pickup trucks—pictured in Alejandro Cartagena's photos in a three-person show at Pima Community College—have it relatively easy, with the emphasis on "relatively."

In the 12 crayon-bright photos in his series Car Poolers—Poolers del Coche, migrants are jammed every which way into truck beds crowded variously with ladders and electrical equipment, lawnmowers and grass-blowers. One lean and lanky fellow is too long to fit in lengthwise, so he's squashed in side to side, with his legs bent like a frog's. Most of the men in the other pictures lie lengthwise, side by side, squeezed as efficiently as logs into the small space.

In one, four men in the back of a white truck are crammed in shoulder to shoulder, their heads resting on their telltale migrant backpacks. They're cold, too, riding in the open air with their arms crossed tightly over their chests. Dressed in the migrant uniform of sweatshirt, blue jeans and sneakers, the men are all in red, white and blue—the colors of the U.S.A. One even sports a New York Yankees cap, a good-luck charm, maybe, to get him deep into America.

Cartagena, a Dominican who lives in Monterrey, Mexico, must have positioned himself on a bridge over a road to get his bird's-eye view of the trucks' human cargo. A few of the travelers return his gaze. A couple of young guys, cheerful in the early days of what still seems an adventure, grin up at the photographer. Most, though, look at him dully, or they doze, eyes closed, perhaps worrying about what will come next.

The shape of the tall, narrow pictures—just 18 inches high by 12 inches wide—mimics a long stretch of highway, and conjures up the journey's forward motion. Lined up in rows, each pictures a different vehicle, a different load of human cargo, and truck after truck, they suggest the relentless drive to stay alive, to go north.

Mounted in the Louis Carlos Bernal Gallery at Pima, Desert Initiative: Looking Across the Border, is the first in a series of desert exhibitions that will open in waves at local institutions through the spring. Each of the three accomplished border photographers in Looking focuses on a different point in the migrant journey. Cartagena charts the beginnings of the trip in Mexico; David Taylor photographs the end—for some—in Border Patrol captivity in the United States. Paul Turounet investigates the middle, when the dusty travelers must confront the border wall that separates them from the land of their dreams.

Turounet, who has a master's degree from Yale and won a Fulbright to photograph along the Mexican side of the line, works in multiple genres, including video and installation. He was easily the star of the UA Museum of Art's Border Project show last winter. There, his metallic plates, printed with portraits of migrants, were hammered to a fragment of border wall. Glowing in the light, they looked like religious retablos.

Turounet's works in the Pima show are from the same series, Estamos Buscando A/We're Looking For, but this time, he gives us a glimpse of how the photos look in situ—nailed to the real wall.

An accompanying video and text recount that the artist traveled by motorcycle to the notorious Smuggler's Gulch outside of Tijuana, a no-man's land of crumbling canyons and treeless hills sliced clean through by the border wall. (This was before the U.S. obliterated the gulch with a gigantic—and expensive—dirt berm.)

He brought with him portraits he had already made of migrant faces, printed on large aluminum squares. When he came upon a migrant camp, where men were sheltering underneath blankets strung to the wall, he knew he had found the right spot. With the help of a camper, he drilled holes into the wall's south side and hung the luminous artworks there for future migrants to see.

The artist returned later to see how the photos fared; he found, not surprisingly, that the desert is as dangerous for photos as it is for humans. Left out in the sun, battered by heat and sand, the migrant faces eroded into rust.

The artist exhibits before-and-after plates in the gallery, pairing pristine versions never exposed to the desert with the degraded versions worn down by the weather. In "Retablo No. 9," José, a travel-weary native of Michoacán, stands before his latest obstacle—the border wall. He's dispirited and suffering, but with the help of the gleaming aluminum, he glows like a saint.

Not so much in the "after" picture. After a long period in the desert's killing fields, José's face has disappeared. Turounet's metaphor is apt: José's image is gone, vanished into the desert, just as thousands of flesh-and-blood migrants have died out there, never to be found.

Taylor, a visiting artist this year at the UA, also has a master's degree in fine arts (from the University of Oregon), and is another roving photographer. His border travel was funded by a Guggenheim grant. (For a full review of a Taylor solo show at the Joseph Gross Gallery, see "The Whole Picture," Feb. 4, 2010.)

His 13 large-scale color photos in this show include a long view of the modern border wall snaking into infinity in the Yuma desert, and several looks at the simple, tiny border markers of old. These mini-Washington Monuments are still strewn here and there along the international line, reminders of the days when citizens north and south could easily travel from one nation to the other.

Not now. In "Drop-off Spot and Border Fence, Sonora," a new mesh wall looms large in the landscape, teasing migrants with glimpses of Arizona through the webbing. Dozens of tire tracks in the dirt testify to the numbers of travelers who try to climb it.

Some get over the wall and still lose. The startling "Backpack Scars/Cicatrices de la Mochila, Arizona" pictures a just-captured, rail-thin, naked migrant standing outside of the Border Patrol vehicle that will take him to a jail cell. He's twisted and suffering, a Christ-like figure whose raised scars run like tracks across his back.

Two prisoners sit disconsolately outside migra headquarters in "Awaiting Processing, Arizona." Clad in red, white and blue, they could be the guys Cartagena photographed at the start of their trip, back in Mexico. One wears a stars-and-stripes T-shirt, and the other even has a New York cap, the near-twin of the one Cartagena shot on a truck speeding toward the border. Now, though, the journey is done—the payment lost, and the dream deferred.

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