El Bordo: Conversations With Tijuana’s Border Artists in the Trump Era
The brightest lights of Tijuana are attached to a wall that, contrary to chants at our president’s campaign rallies, already exists. The lights are of the sort typically seen illuminating a football stadium. They dominate the border town’s nightscape.
If you have the appropriate visa and want to cross the inhospitable wall to get to the United States, you must load yourself into a car or bus and risk hours-long inspection delays, slightly mitigated by the wares of the burritos vendors who stroll between vehicles. You can also cross on foot, passing through a glass and metal tunnel of the sort typically seen in high security prisons. Along the way, you will see security cameras and signs cautioning that your conversations are being recorded. However you choose to cross, be prepared to answer questions about where you are going, where you have been, and the nature of any monetary transactions that have taken place along the way.
Despite its forbidding nature, this is one of the most trafficked border crossings in the world. Every day some 75,000 trips going north into the US are reported at the San Ysidro Land Point of Entry. For many Tijuana residents it is a twice-daily ritual, part of the commute to work or school. The city only started using the Mexican peso in the 1980s, but dollars are an acceptable, if not the preferred, method of payment for everything from taxis to your rent. The wall is not just a boundary but a crux, a place where the culture and people of two countries are irrevocably mixed. Tijuana has no place in the current political dialogue of separation, punishment, border tax. To be here is to see jingoist political surrealism at its highest contrast with reality.
Photographer Ingrid Hernández was shocked when friends visiting from other Latin American countries found the wall offensive — for her it was as benign as any other building. She crossed it regularly to go to the San Diego library, to go shoe shopping, to show her work. Her artistic output highlights the complexity of the border’s social ecosystem. For years she has used anthropologic methodology to capture homes built by Tijuana’s working poor from the United States’ refuse, on many occasions maquiladora workers utilizing cast offs from the very factories that employ them.
On a day like any other in 1996, Hernández was entering the United States when an agent from the Department of Homeland Security looked at her border crossing card and informed her that she was using someone else’s documents. She surmises that the mistake may have been due to the fact that the photo on the card had been taken many years before, but in any case the border agents declined to check her fingerprints to verify her identity. Her visa was taken, and for the next two years she was unable to enter the United States. Suddenly, she could see the wall just fine. She has since gotten a new visa and now facilitates critical workshops for artists at Relaciones Inesperadas, a project space she runs with her partner Abraham Avila. You can see the border from the school’s front door.
A politician’s child, Daniel Ruanova says he doesn’t miss a protest in Tijuana. His family turned out to march in the vast Sunday demonstrations that shut down the San Ysidro border in January after Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto’s petroleum privatization sent gas prices soaring in the nationally despised gasolinazo. Ruanova’s work reflects the preoccupations of the city. When an exaggerated wave of narco violence around 2008 rendered Tijuana’s downtown tourism strip Avenida Revolución a ghost town, Ruanova created sculptures bristling with firearms, later shifting focus to self protection with 2010’s Fuck Off Project, an armored spaceship that speaks to the Tijuanense need for safety.
He has long seen a need for Tijuana to step out from under the United States’ shadow. TJ in China, his project with partner Mely Barragán, began as a gallery space in Beijing, where the couple found that Mexican contemporary art was in short supply. Upon moving back to Tijuana, the couple re-opened the gallery on Avenida Revolución. Central to the project was Barragán and Ruanova’s desire to build local ties to an entirely different empire, and to create a dialogue between artists in Mexico and China.
Tijuana is fresh in the learning process about what it means to be on the world’s front line with Trump’s United States. These conversations took place in Tijuana three days after President Trump signed his executive order authorizing construction of a new wall along the United States-Mexico border. The shadows of the wall are shifting.
Caitlin Donohue: Tell me about your new project Nada Que Declarar [Nothing To Declare].
Ingrid Hernández: To me it’s very important to speak about the línea [the line]. Nowadays, there are young artists who think that the border is something we no longer need to talk about, or that it’s corny. I think the opposite.
The first thing I did when Tanya Aguiñiga got a grant from Creative Capital and asked me to do a project, was invite Peter Wisse, an artist from Holland who had never seen the border, to work with me. His lack of familiarity allowed for a project that wasn’t just based on my own experience of living in a border town.
The project consists of asking people who cross the border daily to send us images they captured as they crossed. Together, Pieter and I developed the concept of each image, taking as a point of departure the absurdity that is el bordo. We tried to do something that was yes, political commentary, but above all that had humor, you know? To comment on the absurdity that this wall can be. The absurdity of this concept, the wall, the wait. In the end, we produced 500 copies and gave them out at the border, where people were waiting.
CD: Faced with so many changes in the political landscape, what do you think the people of Tijuana are going to have to do to protect themselves?
IH: Here in Tijuana we have a very distinct relationship with el bordo compared to the rest of the country. You mentioned yourself that it was very different crossing into the country here compared to if you cross flying into Mexico City. It’s very different being a gringo here compared to being a gringo in the rest of Mexico. Those who live here can cross every day to work in the US, or go to their factory in Tijuana every day when they live in the United States. They have that ability. There’s also another kind of gringo who doesn’t work in Tijuana or in the US and lives off of unemployment quite comfortably in our city and only crosses to get their checks in the US.
We have a love-hate relationship with the border. We live with the desire to cross — and not just the desire, crossing the border becomes natural for those that have the visa. Although not everyone who lives in Tijuana has a visa, and not everyone who lives in Tijuana speaks English. But for those that do, the United States is like another neighborhood. For us, it’s hard not to have a visa, unthinkable not to have a visa.
I think the wall is so deep within us that we don’t see it. You can’t say that’s it’s good or bad, black or white. There are no extremes. On one hand it’s an attraction — you go to take a photo of it. And on the other it’s permissible — it doesn’t make you feel offended. In another way, it’s something you penetrate, you get a visa and you cross it all the time. So what can you think of the wall when you have such a complex relationship with it?
It’s not the same for everyone. There are people for whom the wall turns into an impediment to seeing their family. It converts into the thing that separates us from the only thing we care about, whether that be friends, our culture. There are those people who were brought when they were young to live in the United States and then they get deported.
CD: I’ve heard a lot of stories this week in particular about how the border crossing is changing — they’re checking people harder, etc. Do you think the punitive steps Trump has suggested he might take, like heightened border taxes, are going to change Tijuana’s relationship to the wall?
IH: I crossed a few days ago to work. I had an exhibition in the United States. I have the SENTRI pass, so supposedly I can cross with less checks. Four days ago in the SENTRI line, they checked me. They were checking everyone. That was strange to me. I thought, hmm what could this be due to? But I haven’t had any strange experiences beside that. I do think that there’s going to be more fear. Trump said that he’s going to be implementing more costs associated with things at the border, and that’s going to affect the way we cross. It has consequences in your life, you know?
CD: I suppose we’re used to politicians who don’t do any of the things they promised. But I never thought it could all happen so fast. Would it be so bad if Mexico distanced itself from the United States? Do you see positive possibilities in that vein?
IH: As a Tijuanense I can tell you that it seems absurd to distance myself from the United States. Absurd. I don’t know about DF, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, but here it’s like if you said to me that I could no longer go to the Zona Río neighborhood. How? I wouldn’t be able to buy books, go to the movie theater, see my friends. It’s strange, no? We have a very shared economy. And US residents also cross daily, gringos bring their children to study in my daughter’s school in Tijuana. And it’s not a school that teaches in English, the classes are in Spanish.
There’s a very interesting investigation that a person from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte did that’s called Metrópolis Trans Fronteriza. It says that a trans metropolis has to have united and shared politics. We’re not that. When we look at the facts, they tell you no — that only thirty percent of the population can cross to the United States, that only five percent speak English.
But I insist. I know the facts, but what I live from day to day in the neighborhoods that are right by the border, I see how there are people who come to Tijuana only to sleep. They don’t know life here, they live in the United States. At the end of the day, we are still going to be crossing the border to buy our Converse. We cross to consume all kinds of cultural goods. If you ask me what shoe size I am in Mexico, I don’t know. For me it’s easier to understand dollars than pesos. Even now, people pay their rent here in dollars.
And when the peso falls here against the dollar, it benefits the people who live here but work in the United States. They get a raise. And they are never going to give up that privilege. So it’s absurd to think about leaving the United States out of nationalism. Why?
We’re in a really complex situation. You’re not going to say “no, fuck the United States.” No. It’s a relationship of mutual interest, and Trump knows it and everyone knows it.
CD: It’s very heavy that it is all happening at once — that you have Peña Nieto’s gasolinazo on one side and Trump’s proposed taxes and his “new wall” on the other.
IH: Yes, it’s national and international, the crises happening right now. But there are also the opportunities of the border. For example, we’ve always used the things that the United States gets rid of and it makes our lives better. In Tijuana there are washers, dryers, computers, cellular telephones in all the houses because they’re really accessible. You can’t go to Mexico City and look for a used dryer. Here that does exist because the United States gets rid of things more quickly.
I don’t want to say that in Tijuana we like to live off of what the United States throws out, or that this is something positive. What I want to say is that it’s a particular reality of a city that is on the border of the richest state in the United States.
CD: It was interesting this week, the back and forth between Peña Nieto and Trump. It seems that at no point were Tijuana’s interests represented. Where can we find Tijuana’s voice, who speaks for it?
IH: It’s clear that all of the decisions about us in Tijuana are made from the middle of the country, by people who have never lived here. By people who have no idea. Life here is a competition between the United States and Mexico; we’re an international region. We need local politics and that doesn’t exist. There’s only this desire to homogenize us.
I can’t tell you that you can get to know Tijuana through its art. That would be too presumptuous. I think that where you can learn about Tijuana is through the construction that international companies have developed here. What has built Tijuana into what it is today, more than anything, is foreign machinery. That is what has built Tijuana in the exterior imagination and not necessarily us as artists. Tijuana was built to give services to foreigners who came here looking for things that were prohibited in their country. Alcohol, gambling, drugs, prostitution, all of that. That’s how it was built and that’s how it remains to this day.
You know this book Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border? Fiamma Montezemolo is an anthropologist who put it together with Josh Kun. She saw that there had been some interesting constructions about what Tijuana is, written by Heriberto Yépez, Ejival, Rafa Saavedra, among other people. But none of them were in English. So they made this book to publish them in English — a collection of articles, essays and studies that they considered important to know Tijuana. They did an interview with me for this book and they asked me for some photos.
CD: What do you think Trump thinks of Tijuana?
IH: I think that it’s an idea that the United States has in general: the dangerous place where they penetrate my country. A place you have to be careful of, that you have to protect your society from. It’s so absurd because we obviously don’t see San Diego like that. For us San Diego is almost boring. It’s a quiet place, though it has things to offer like a library that has texts from the entire world. It’s so disparate, what we are for each other. Though we can see the good and the bad of them, they can only see the negative.
If you go to the center of Tijuana you’re going to see that it’s all gringos that have been rejected from the United States. They get welfare, Social Security and they take that and come to live here to take drugs. They don’t want to work, they live off this money and do nothing. I can tell you because I used to live by the beach and all my neighbors were like that. I could say, “man, what are you sending us, what the hell?” But you don’t say that, why? Because they live here, they buy things. And you’re in a situation where you’re not in the empire with the power.
A little while ago, we were talking about how it feels to cross the border knowing that they can take your papers away. Well that’s how it feels all the time, about everything. You are always in this place of disadvantage, this relationship of inequality. A relationship that makes you think that you are bad.
We had a conversation here at Relaciones Inesperadas about how it felt to live on the border. There was a woman who said that each time she crosses, she feels fear. Even if she doesn’t have drugs, even if she doesn’t have anything bad on her. And I thought, I’m not the only person who thinks like this! I thought it was my own trauma but no, it’s from this surveillance, the cameras, the sensation that you’re being recorded, that they can hear what you’re saying. There are officials with dogs. It’s this sensation that something is going to happen here. Something bad, that you have to take care of yourself. It’s like going to war.
CD: During the 2008 to 2010 period of heavy drug cartel related violence, your work dealt with naked aggression, but with the arrival of 2010’s Fuck Off Project, you initiated a shift to include a focus on the protection of self. Do you think that Tijuana is dealing with another kind of threat now? Or is this one more twist in an ongoing toxic relationship with the United States?
DR: We have thick skin in Tijuana. The peso has fallen dramatically, so we’re all a lot more poor than we were six months ago. But you don’t see fear here, no? I arrived here in 1982 and I’ve never seen the Tijuanenses coming together like they have for the Sunday protests over the last month, coming together to take over the Chaparral [the San Ysidro border crossing], just as a show of strength. That’s something that didn’t happen before in the north. It’s possible that without these showings of solidarity, you would have seen more fear here. But we’ve had enough! The narco violence took a lot of fear from us.
I lived in Ohio for three months. That was a segregated United States, a United States where there were rich and poor, nothing else. Before this election, the United States media promoted a cinematographic image of the US. But today we’re seeing a more rural image of the US that those of us on the border already knew about, one that we’ve been living with forever. We Mexicans take a lot of hits, and I think that right now people are ready to hit back. Because otherwise we’re going to hit back at our president, our governor, our mayor. This is an enemy in common that we Mexicans haven’t had in a long time.
CD: Before, when Tijuana was suffering primarily from narco violence, people were dealing with a fear of their neighbors. These heightened aggressions with the United States must be easier in a way. I guess it’s still a fear of your neighbors, but —
DR: To speak out against the narcos is to probably to get yourself in trouble. You will probably start to say things that they kill you for here. But saying this other thing, it’s a rallying cry, it’s a chant. I want to see what happens at the protest tomorrow because the last three Sundays have been all about President Enrique Peña Nieto, against Kiko Vega, the governor of Baja California. I want to see what happens tomorrow, because things are going to come out against Trump, I’m sure of it. [After that day’s protest, Ruanova had this update: “It was horrible to see that prediction come true, but that was the case […] the crowds fell exponentially on these past two Sundays. But northern Mexicans are mad as hell, and I’m sure that the governor is now political toxic waste.”]
CD: You’ve worked a lot in China and in 2013, you and your partner Mely Barragán brought the TJ in China project from Beijing to a gallery on Avenida Revolución, Tijuana’s main tourist strip. The mission was to invoke cross-hemispheric artistic dialogue. Do you think that there are new possibilities in the current situation for Mexico, or Tijuana specifically?
DR: When we began TJ in China in 2010, it was because of this. I was tired of believing that there was only one empire in the world. There’s another one that’s much older, let’s go! The Chinese — no one is going to stop them, no one has stopped them, the world is theirs. We think that we live in an Occidental world but no, that’s temporary. Obviously there’s a big opportunity for China to retake and lift up the baton. This protectionism, the industrialization that they want to promote in the United States is not allowing us to see the world. Let’s see how far Americans can see after they start feeling the Trump effect in their pockets. Most Americans I know hardly consider the rest of the world in their ideas. There’s an opportunity in the world today to get rid of a police force that have been around for eighty years telling everyone else how they have to do things.
CD: You mentioned before that you’ve been a part of the weekly protests over Peña Nieto’s privatization of the petroleum industry and the subsequent raise in gas prices, or as it’s been nicknamed, the gasolinazo. I couldn’t believe it when I saw protestors shutting down the Tijuana-San Diego border in the news!
DR: “A part” as in I’m a citizen who has been there, has brought my family to march? Yes. Am I organizing and leading? No. But who, with any sense of humanity, hasn’t been part of the protests? Since I was a boy I’ve been to all of the protests in Tijuana. There have been very few.
CD: How have these recent protests been different?
DR: Well they’re the largest that we’ve had. When we had the protests for peace, when we were at the height of the narco related violence from 2006 to 2008 we had three, five thousand people. That’s nothing. If you bring the [Californian norteño band] Tigres del Norte, 80,000 people are going to show up.
CD: How many people have been showing up at these recent protests?
DR: Supposedly at the first one there was 35,000, at the second one 25,000, last weekend we were 15,000 and obviously this one tomorrow we’ll be 10,000. But those numbers are still larger than the narco protests. The north of Mexico and the south of United States, I think, say a lot about the future of the politics that are going to take place in our countries. I’m very optimistic that things will serve humanity.
CD: Can I go back to shutting down the border? I think that imagery is just so relevant to this discussion. Has that always taken place during Tijuana’s protests?
DR: I don’t remember exactly when we first shut it down. I think the first time that we shut down San Ysidro was during the Bush Jr. administration. There were 1,500 of us and we shut down the southbound traffic to Tijuana. You could see the little heads of the snipers. It was really cool, but as a good Mexican cynic, I have to think there were other interests at play.
But we actually haven’t shut down the road to Tijuana. We stopped the federal government from charging fees, checking cars, doing their business. We didn’t shut down the road, we opened up the road! The people who have shut down the road has been US Customs and Border Patrol. They’re the ones that stop people from getting into Mexico during the protests.
CD: Ah, I didn’t understand the dynamic, interesting. It must feel really intense, being a part of that.
DR: But it’s a party. Last time there was a mariachi. These were the same sensations that I felt last week when I saw the video of the press conference of Carlos Slim, the Mexican magnate who stole everyone’s money with his cell phone business. He excited like a little kid — saying that he had never seen so many Mexicans so united. That’s how we all felt. This week, everyone is supporting Carlos Slim when last week they wanted to lynch him! These incongruities. And we’re all thinking; did these assholes sign a pact to lift the popularity rating of this jerk, Peña Nieto?
CD: And now Trump and Peña Nieto have announced that they won’t be talking about the wall in public.
DR: Carlos Slim is going to end up writing this contract, is the problem.
CD: It’s going to turn out to be the biggest civil construction scam —
DR: — they’ve ever done —
CD: — in history. And who could be better at construction scams than Donald Trump?
DR: That’s right, that’s right. This is how you take it all. He’s the best at it from over there and Slim is the best we have here. But we’re waking up. They’re forcing us to talk about things. Before, my interviews were about art. Now that’s changing. Right now Tijuana is turning into the world’s front line with Trump.
CD: Speaking of the artists here — you’ve traveled a lot, where do you see the voice of Tijuana emerging for the rest of the world? Is it in the art? I’m guessing you’re not going to say that it comes from Mexico City politics.
DR: Look, Mexico City doesn’t understand Tijuana. Not at all. If it understood, it would take better advantage of Tijuana so that it would be a lot more productive. Washington and Mexico City aren’t interested in the border. The darker they make it here, the better. I’m not sure if I’m explaining myself but the less transparent it becomes here, the more they can manipulate it. If they would let the Mexicans and the Americans who live on the border run it, it would be another thing.
But going back to your question, I think the most important part of Tijuana is not actually in Tijuana. I think that there is a Tijuana in each city in the United States, and if you will, Tijuana residents are a photo of all Americans before they became Americans. We have been frozen in this moment. We’re a case study to see what is lost or won when one becomes an American. This leads me to think that the importance of Tijuana doesn’t lie here, but in the difference that the border has made to everyone within the United States.
It’s not a wall — here, we make fun of the wall, it doesn’t matter to us. The wall is important to those who don’t live close to it, do you understand? It’s a symbol that protects you from things that are far away. For us it’s one more damn building — there are walls between neighbors that are larger than that wall. The border is really my culture in Los Angeles, my culture in Fresno, my culture in Colorado. The border is this new Americanization of Mexico City. That’s the border. Our cultural diasporas have already invaded each other. There’s a book called The Next 100 Years by George Friedman, who is a crazy guy. He proposes that in eighty years this is going to be another country. California and the border are going to be their own country, because the coasts have nothing to do with the center. Northern Mexicans have nothing to do with Southern Mexicans. There’s very little that unites us. I think that we’re in a very powerful moment of revolution.
CD: Do you think Trump thinks of Tijuana? What’s his image of this place?
DR: You have to look up someone named Jaime Cleofas Martínez Veloz. He’s an interesting guy. He sued Trump because Trump perpetrated a multimillion dollar fraud to sell real estate here on the beach of Tijuana [at the never-constructed Trump Ocean Resort, which has been blamed for stealing $32.5 million from would-be condo owners]. So obviously Trump knows about Tijuana.
This guy has to be an idiot, but not that much of an idiot — he did get to be the president. I think he’s just a businessman who is going to fuck everyone. There were signs here in Tijuana for Trump, gigantic ones, “invest in your luxury condo.” Then the market crashed. Look it up, you’ll find it.