He grew up in the "entangled streets, hills and dry riverbeds of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico," he writes, where "vagrant ghosts litter the floors with memories of kin and friends that sleep in the burial grounds ... where children are born into the names of dead saints and statues. This is the someplace where I was brought into existence."
It's also the someplace where the United States has piled up its military hardware, erecting fortified walls that split First World riches from Third World poverty.
"Barbed wire and sheet metal: These were my urban landscapes," Velez told an audience one night last week at Concept: MOCA, where his one-person show Bajo La Frontera/Under the Border is on view. "When you cross the border, everything is a different color. In Mexico, there's an overload of color, information, banners. How do you manage to digest all this? That's why there's overload in my paintings."
Overload is right. Cartoon characters, monster teeth, guns and graffiti crowd into his big, crayon-bright paintings, the way pungently colored walls and lettered, painted signs explode in the Mexican streetscape. A whole clutch of mixed cultural objects--from Superman's logo to Bugs Bunny to a Minuteman--bubble up in acrylic paints on unstretched canvas.
Alfred Quiroz, his professor at the UA, where Velez earned a BFA in 2005, exhorted his students to "attack the canvas, work it," Velez said. "You have to attack it and fill it."
Painted and scratched and collaged, the paintings are multiply layered, their rough, worked surfaces reflecting what Velez calls the chaos of the border. The paintings gyrate all across the walls in one room of the gallery. Cartoon line drawings in black and white are around the bend. An adjoining room is given over entirely to an installation that's a plaintive lament for the deaths on the border.
The installation, "Teratology: The Study of Human Monsters," re-creates the border wall in all its barbed and sheet-metal ugliness. Traditional Mexican holy objects--burning candles, statues of the saints, photos of ancestors--turn the work into a shrine. On an altar, a mannequin is dressed as El Niño de Atocha, the patron saint of travelers often invoked by crossers slipping over the international line.
Velez uses the rabbit--quick, smart, vulnerable--as a metaphor for the migrant. In "Exe/cute," a painting that made it into the competitive Tucson Museum of Art Biennial this spring, a bleeding rabbit has been impaled by barbed wire. A menacing Minuteman with a swastika on his helmet aims a gun at the critter, who keeps a helpless cartoon grin on his face.
In "Teratology," five mutilated children's plush bunnies hang on the walls. Their ears and paws are torn off, their stomachs ripped open. Painted blood drips down from each one. The rabbits stand in for the corpses yielded up by the desert, "unknowns" and "desconocidos" in the language of border medical examiners. Velez has done them the courtesy of naming them Juan or Juanita Doe, and labeled each with an age and cause of death.
Juanita Doe, 14, a bunny whose ear and front legs have been torn off, was "raped and dismembered by coyotes (smugglers)," he notes on a label. Juan Doe, 27, swathed in barbed wire, suffered a "cruel and unusual punishment" at the hands of Mexican soldiers. Velez is at home in both the U.S. and Mexico, and he doesn't let his native land off the hook for the deaths. A furious diatribe on one wall, all in Spanish, attacks Mexico for allowing the hemorrhage of its poorest across the border, sometimes to die, leaving widows and orphans behind.
"It's an open letter to Mexico," he said. "Mexico is a slave to Coca-Cola" and other big corporations.
The border was not quite so menacing when Velez was a small child, he said. Born in 1975, he crossed the border daily to attend a Catholic elementary school in the other Nogales, in Arizona.
"I remember I could cross," he said. "It was never a big deal. In first and second grade, I would see the same officers every day. They would know, 'He's going to school.' It was easy."
But as he grew older, the once-flexible border hardened. He began to hate crossing, even though he could do so legally.
"You feel guilty, powerless. The way you're approached, you get that guilty feeling. They interrogate you. I have a right to cross the border, but you have to be submissive. I hate crossing. It's intimidating."
Despite the wall growing higher and more impenetrable as he grew up, Velez always felt a part of two cultures. The son of a schoolteacher mother and a poet father who worked long hours at a maquila, he switched languages each day as he traveled north, then south.
"I dealt with two cultures, two languages," he said. "My parents wanted me to know Spanish and English, not Spanglish. But I use Spanglish a lot. It's who I am."
His bilingualism--and biculturalism--spills readily into his work. The graffiti scrawled onto "Exe/cute," for instance, moves easily between the two languages. "Swinging to the new world order," reads one message, in white. Another, "America, te dado todo y ahora yo soy nada!" (America, I give you everything, and today I am nothing!), in screaming lime green, may well be the plaint of the hardworking, but despised, illegal migrant.
Art gave Velez his soft landing al otro lado, on the other side of the border. As a child, he recalled, he used to color all over the walls of his mom's house. She'd punish him, mildly, to no avail: The extemporaneous drawings just kept coming. Finally, the two compromised. His mother told him, "Draw whatever you want on the walls in your own room."
The sculpture "Crayola Rocket/Escape From Nogales" pays tribute to that fond memory of his mother's encouragement. Velez made it out of ordinary household materials, in the Mexican tradition of rasquachismo. Its cylindrical body, painted to look like a blue Crayola crayon, is a hot-water heater; its wings are ironing boards.
"As a child, I used to think, 'If I needed a rocket to escape, I could build one out of things around my home.'"
And now he's found a way to get away.
"It's painting," he declared. "Painting is my escape from everything."
He's devoting himself full-time to art, but he hasn't forgotten those he left behind. The installation also features a video he shot on the mean streets of the Mexican Nogales. It plays on multiple screens, returning again and again to the haunting image of a 12-year-old boy. The kid is trying to sell Chiclets to passers-by, who universally ignore him. He could have been Velez once.
"The child selling gum is like a ghost," Velez says. "Nobody sees him."
Now, in Velez's art, they do.