Driving down the main street that cuts through Nogales, Sonora, it dawns on me that maybe my always-worried mom is right after all: Maybe life on the other side of the border is dangerous.
The driver of the car is Nogales artist Guadalupe Serrano, who casually grips the steering wheel with his left hand. In his right hand, he holds a small remote control, turning up the stereo's volume while hitting the gas and speeding into traffic on a busy street that appears to be one-way—and not the way we're heading.
Faith No More's "Epic" grows louder, and the passenger-side door begins to vibrate. Oddly, I relax and think to myself, I can't die. I'm in the car with artists who may be destined to rid Nogales and the border region of our preoccupation with narco-violence, through the power of art.
I watch as several cars avoid near head-on collisions, and try to ask questions above Mike Patton's booming voice. Serrano—joined by documentary filmmaker Tino Varela, painter Luis Diego Amaya Taddei, and painter and performance artist Paco Velez—drives us through Nogales to check out a series of murals that have been going up in the city since the mid-1990s as part of a municipal project that pays local artists to bring art to the people.
Inside City Hall, you can find one of the murals at the top of the main staircase. Off a busy street is another mural that Serrano explains was originally created for a medical exposition—but the people of Nogales came up with their own mythology, since the people in the mural are without skin, their muscles showing, stripped of their identities.
Back toward the border is a mural that's more than a decade old and was recently refurbished when the building it is on was remodeled.
"Do you see how the hands follow you everywhere you walk?" Taddei asks. In the middle of the mural is the upper body of a man with a deer head, a take on the Yaqui deer dancer, a symbol of the state of Sonora. His arms are outstretched.
The painting method, Taddei says, was developed by Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco, who with muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros propelled the Mexican art form, which is meant to do exactly what the murals in Nogales do—take art out of the museums, and bring them to the people.
In a quiet neighborhood above a municipal jail, there's another mural near a basketball court with a colorful vision of the small houses that cover the city's hills.
As the artists walk across the basketball court, they stroll past a group of young girls sitting on the court and listening to their dance teacher talk about an upcoming recital, while their mothers sit on a nearby bench, waiting to take their children home.
The idyllic scene of the children listening to their teacher in a park is another part of Nogales these artists wish more people north of the border could see. If they did, perhaps rather than shunning Nogales, they'd understand the city these artists love.
Despite the narco-violence that haunts the border region, Varela says, Nogales residents go to school here, work here, love here and make art here—and most of them have nothing to do with cartels or narcotics-trafficking.
"We want to show another face of Nogales," Varela says. "Most of us living here are not narcos. People need to know that inside this town, people live here and work here, just like they do in Tucson."
There's a bar on the eastside of Nogales where shellacked blowfish hang from the ceiling, and it's so dark that you can barely see your hand in front of your face. It's called La Tavernita, although locals and longtime Nogales visitors sometimes refer to it as the "fish bar."
Varela loves this place, which is featured in his third documentary about Nogales. It's also where he and his friends decided it was time to start an art collective that they named Nueva Escuela de Arte.
Taddei says there has been a group of established artists in Nogales, and most of the city's art shows have featured the same rotating cast of artists. New and younger artists felt stifled, and "we want new artists to show new work. We want the arts community to grow in Nogales."
There's another goal the collective shares—reaching out to artists across the border. That's where Velez steps in. The Nogales native calls Tucson home, and he thinks that if governors and policymakers can't heal the divisions caused by border issues such as narco-violence and SB 1070, maybe artists can.
When Velez was growing up in Nogales, he walked across the border every weekday morning to attend a Catholic school in Nogales, Ariz. Ever since, he's lived and worked in both worlds, which offers him a unique perspective. Right after Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law, Velez remembers being scared that he'd be pulled over, even though he's in the country legally.
He also recalls watching the U.S. put up a new border wall—a large steel wall that no one can see through.
"You can't see the other side like you used to," Velez says. "It feels like everything has changed."
But at the same time, Nogales, Sonora, remains his hometown. While driving through the middle-class neighborhood where he was raised, Velez points out a house down the hill from his childhood home, where his mother and stepfather still live.
"The punk band La Merma used to live there," Velez says. "I'd go over there all the time to watch them practice or play guitar and drink beers."
He points to another house in the neighborhood where Mexican Olympic medalist Ana Guevara grew up. Not a lot of tourists venture this far south into Nogales, Velez says. "If they did, maybe they'd realize that regular people live here."
As you move away from the border, the stores that sell Cantinflas marionettes, made-in-China mini-guitars and sun-bleached bull skulls begin to thin out, replaced by businesses that reflect the normal life Velez talks about: supermarkets, bakeries, neighborhood bars, Chinese-buffet restaurants and tire shops.
Inside Velez's house, his mother asks if he's eaten anything. She dishes up rice, chicken and molé while her son heats up a stack of corn tortillas on the gas stove in the family's kitchen.
In Spanish, she says she doesn't get to see her son as often as she'd like. But lately, Velez has been spending more time in Sonora, away from his Tucson home and his studio at the Toole Shed warehouse on Toole Avenue.
In June and July, with friends Logan Phillips and Heather Wodrich, Velez put together Arizona Between Nosotros, a performance, media and visual-art exchange that took place in Tucson, Phoenix and Nogales, Sonora, with artists from Mexico and the United States. Velez says that's where he first got the idea of doing more art exchanges between Nogales and Tucson—and it made sense to include his Nogales friends and their collective.
In September, the first step in exchanging art between the two cities began at Velez's Studio One space at the Toole Shed, with a display of works from visual artists in Nogales, Sonora, including some from Serrano and Taddei.
"I don't think that's ever been done before between Nogales and Tucson," Velez says. "Now that same show is headed to a gallery in Guadalajara, expanding our reach."
On the Nogales side, the friends found a space for a gallery that they named Taco de Perro, an homage to the tacos from the street vendors in the city that some joke are made with dog meat. For one of the first shows, Velez brought works from Tucson artists such as painter and musician Salvador Duran.
This month, the collective opens a new show by a Nogales artist who's painted for more than 20 years, but has never shown his work publicly until now.
"We've shown our work, so now we wanted to show the work of other artists in Nogales," Varela says. "The point we want to make is to get away from showing the same artists over and over again, and to grow the community in Nogales."
While Velez walks toward La Tavernita, he laughs out loud, going over memories tied to this bar on the eastside of the city. La Tavernita was once surrounded by three busy table-dance bars, but they are now closed.
"I've gotten into a lot of trouble at this bar," Velez says, telling a story that involves baseball players and their girlfriends, and Velez and his friends being chased from the bar and down the street by men carrying baseball bats.
Inside, Varela points out the barely visible junk that decorates the back of the dark bar.
Varela's documentary on the bar, La Tavernita, Rock Frontera, is in production. "It's an establishment here," Varela says. "It makes sense that we came up with our collective in this place."
The third documentary is the last of a trilogy Varela dedicated to Nogales, a city he tried to leave behind when he went to live in Guadalajara. "I realized that if (documentaries are) what I want to do, then the only place I want to do them is in Nogales. So I came home," he says.
The first film in the trilogy is about the Nogales punk band La Merma, called La Merma, 15 años de camino. The second, which he is finishing up, is Arte Público Yonke, ciudad a cuerpo, which includes Serrano and Taddei, and is about the public art and artists of Nogales.
"I'm glad I came back," Varela says. "I figured out the only thing I can truly talk about is this place. It's been very revealing. When you're from someplace, you don't always see what makes your city special. When you return ... it's new, like discovering sleeping monsters."
One thing that Nogales and Tucson have in common is that many, if not most, of the families moved there from somewhere else. Velez's grandfather and grandmother relocated to Nogales from Chiapas, and his stepfather is also from Chiapas. Serrano is from Sinaloa, and says he moved because Sinaloa was too conservative. He kept getting beat up for having long hair.
What makes Nogales different from other Mexican cities, Velez says, "is that it's a little bit of all of Mexico."
Looking down from the hills east of the city, Nogales appears to be a city in constant motion—with foot traffic, cars passing through the border checkpoint, and taxis scrambling along the streets. There are also new structures, the artists point out, including El Instituto Municipal al Fomento a la Cultura y las Artes, a two-story building dedicated to performances, visual arts and Mexican cultural arts. Another building, almost complete, will house a contemporary-art museum.
Velez notes that it's hard being a working artist in Tucson. Government support for the arts is shrinking; keeping and finding studio space can sometimes be a battle. When he buys supplies, he goes to The Home Depot for the best deals, snapping up gallons of rejected paint, usually in fuchsia.
"I'm lucky I like that color," he says, laughing.
In contrast, his friends and counterparts in Nogales get paid to create murals there. They are provided free studio space at the cultural center, and even the paint, which comes in a range of beautiful shades, is subsidized by the government.
"It's not hard to feel that artists are taken more seriously here," Velez says.
Then a question comes up about the border: Do the artists, including Varela, consider themselves border artists?
The answer, it turns out, is complicated—yes and no. The two Nogaleses were once separated by a small fence instead of the mammoth steel one that now cuts through neighborhoods, right against the heart of the city's tourist district. People once crossed easily between the two cities, creating an interdependent economy.
Serrano bristles at the question. It's obvious that border politics informs his work, but it's not exactly reflected in his art. In Spanish, he says that he likes to think there is more to Nogales than the border and the fence.
"But it seems there are a lot of artists out there who come down to the frontera, take a picture, go home, and call themselves border artists," Serrano says. "There are artists working on the themes of violence, but only creating it because it is a fashionable topic, not because they really understand it."
Serrano's work is colorful. One series of paintings features fish moving across the canvas. Another group of large paintings depicts mythological women, nude with horse and bull heads.
Taddei's work is far more political. There's a painting of a Cantinflas marionette holding a real Cantinflas marionette dangling from the canvas—the puppet is controlling the puppet. Another painting is of a sad woman in a black veil, like La Llorona of the border. Yet another is of a man's face cut in half by the border wall, represented by a piece of fabric that protrudes from the center of the painting. One side of the man's face is obviously Mexicano, while the other side is Anglo.
Velez's work is more violent—including a black-and-red painting of a pig torn apart, and other works that use narco imagery or play on words taken from border politics.
"It's not always family-friendly work," Velez warns.
Julio César Sarmiento, a poet and newspaper reporter originally from Chiapas who's lived in Nogales for almost 40 years, is Velez's stepfather.
Sarmiento says he thinks he has a unique perspective on Nogales after writing about and working in the city for so long. He's written five books, including one on the history of Nogales.
It's true, he says, that its residents come from across Mexico. But the city is also a mixture of U.S. and Mexican culture, he notes. "It is a space of both and neither."
He says the city even has its own words, a mixture of Spanish and English that you only hear on the streets of Nogales.
The narco-violence, he laments, has "isolated us from the world," although he points out that it is a problem for all of Mexico, not just the border cities.
In Nogales, however, it has caused the near-destruction of the tourist district. Sarmiento says many of his friends' shops in the district have gone out of business. Sarmiento estimates that only 50 percent of the stores that once thrived in the area remain, but he says that doesn't mean that things couldn't turn around.
"But it would take more security for the area in order for people to return," he says.
Despite the losses, Sarmiento sees a city that has gone through many positive changes, including an increase in the population that has helped create a better economy, with more factories and growth in other businesses. He says there's also more interest in the culture of the area, and more attention paid to the welfare of the city's children.
And there is the art. Serrano and Taddei have three mural projects in the planning stage, and Velez plans to bring together a group of Tucson artists who will live in Nogales while they work on one. Likewise, Serrano, Taddei and a few other Nogales artists will come to Tucson to work on a mural in the Warehouse District.
"Maybe working together, and making art, can help us remember how we used to treat each other, and remember how important we used to be to each other," Velez says.
"Maybe that could help us look at the border differently. I'm hoping it can heal what's taking place—that art can heal the border."