Art Against the Wall
By Stephanie Elizondo Griest
© Maurice Sherif, from The American Wall Project
The first object revealed itself immediately: a man’s black Reebok, size nine. That there was only one, inches from the steel bars, implied struggle. The absence of dust on the shoe—which coats everything in this swath of Texas—meant it hadn’t been here long.
“It wasn’t there when I took my walk this morning,” said Mark Clark, a painter who lives half a mile away.
I noticed a second object in the dirt: a water bottle. Like the sneaker, it was also stranded in the no-man’s-land on the other side of the wall, between the eighteen-foot-tall barrier and the Rio Grande. My friend, the artist Susan Harbage Page, saw the bottle too. After making a photo with her Canon 5D, she slipped her fingers through the three-inch gap between the bars. She unscrewed the bottle’s cap. Carbonated water fizzed out, drenching her sleeves. She drained and tugged the bottle through the wall—our border wall.
We walked along, and objects cropped up every fifteen to twenty feet. A belt. A shoelace. A toothbrush snapped in two. Page photographed each one, then put them inside her oversized shopping bag emblazoned with La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
Page has been making annual trips to the Texas-Mexico borderlands since 2007, and one of her projects is walking along the river in search of objects people leave behind when they’re crossing. She photographs the items in situ, then brings them back to her studio in Chapel Hill to add everything to her “anti-archive,” which will eventually become an online searchable database. The last time she counted, she had collected nearly eight hundred objects, ranging from Bibles to pill bottles, combs, wallets, passports, clothing, and slips of paper scribbled with telephone numbers.
“The first one I found was a toothbrush. When I saw it, I just felt it in my whole body. I didn’t even know whether I should pick it up,” Page said. “It was a powerful remnant of that person’s life, and I felt it needed to be seen. That’s what the anti-archive is: the unofficial history of immigration. The one nobody wants to look at or deal with.”
Many of the archive’s contents were found right here in Hope Park, a leafy strip of green that slopes down to the Rio Grande. Standing on its bank, you are either a seven-minute walk to downtown Brownsville or a seven-minute wade to Matamoros. Long ago, the city built Hope Park to commemorate its close ties with Mexico. Tree-lined and bike-trailed, it would be beautiful were it not for the eighteen-foot steel wall cleaving through.
“They have painted it black to make it look better, because it’s rusting like a motherfucker,” said Clark, gripping a stake in his fist. In his mid-sixties, he has a regal gait and a beard straight out of Quixote. “It has two or three coats of paint on it, and it’s only three years old.”
He pointed out an imprint of a hand about halfway up a steel bar. As Page focused her camera lens, I noticed that, at a certain angle, the sun revealed dozens of other handprints—shoeprints too. Clark said that after a good rain, immigrants leave a trail of mud all the way up one side of the wall and halfway down the other.
“I once saw some guy get thrown out of a four-door sedan, run across the street, scale the fence, and hop over the other side in fifteen seconds flat,” he said.
Down the path, we came upon a storage facility surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with concertina wire. A gray jacket was trapped high inside the coils. Page stood on her tiptoes and pulled. In her mid-fifties, she has pixie blonde hair and was wearing turquoise glasses and a bright red vest. After a struggle, she released the shirt from the razor blades and stuffed it inside La Virgen. Clark unearthed a shirt half-buried beneath the trail. “Sometimes you come out here and it’s like a ropa usada,” he said, using the Spanish term for a used-clothing store.
The border wall ended a few feet later at the offices of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where a chain-link fence began. Clark showed me a section where some of the links had been snipped, creating a gaping hole. Half of it had been mended with plastic, but the breach was still big enough to slide a package through. He picked up one of the broken links in the dirt and dropped it into my palm.
“Take it,” he said. “It’ll be your souvenir of Mexican ingenuity.”
Border walls have a history of serving as public art spaces. The west side of the Berlin Wall was long a canvas for artists like Keith Haring, who deemed his work “an attempt to psychologically destroy the wall by painting it.” In the West Bank, both Palestinians and Israelis have adorned the twenty-six-foot concrete slabs that split their respective territories, and China’s Great Wall hosts music festivals and other events. Certain sections of our border wall have become bi-national art spaces, too—most notably at Friendship Park in San Diego (though the U.S. side is largely blank). Granted, much of the wall is constructed of mesh or steel bars and is therefore tough to paint—but then, the Mexican side is too, and people there have embellished the wall as fast as the U.S. government has constructed it. Politicians plaster campaign posters; immigrants inscribe their names, home villages, and dates of crossing. Muralists and graffiti artists layer image upon image. Artists have nailed up coffins and crosses to memorialize the immigrants who have perished during their crossing. In Tijuana, the artist Ana Teresa Fernández tried to erase the wall altogether by painting a stretch of it pale powder blue so that it blended into the sky.
In the United States, artists’ chief deterrent is the Department of Homeland Security, which has fortified our portion with infrared cameras, heat sensors, stadium lighting, drones, and the bulk of its twenty thousand Border Patrol agents. Anyone wishing to embellish the northern side must do so covertly.
Ten years ago, Clark moved to Brownsville from Washington, D.C., and opened Galeria 409, which showcases artists from the Rio Grande Valley. When the government announced it would install a wall less than one hundred feet from his business (which doubles as his home and studio), Clark joined the local protests. Twice he has staged flash-mob exhibits called “Art Against the Wall,” where artists gather in Hope Park and hang their work directly on the wall, sans permit. The pieces have included piñatas shaped like Border Patrol agents, complete with sunglasses, walkie-talkies, and binoculars. Thirty-foot ladders made of bamboo and twine. A deflated black inner tube fished out of the Rio Grande. A colossal funeral wreath, fastened to the steel bars.
In 2011, the exhibit was up for four hours, Clark said. “Then the viewers thinned out and it was just three artists and a Boston terrier until four Border Patrol agents surrounded us with bulletproof vests and Glocks. They said, ‘We know you don’t have a permit,’ and I said ‘Okay’ and they were shocked. They had expected a confrontation, but we had made our point and so we took it down.”
By then, we were talking inside his gallery, in the heart of downtown—a massive space with exposed brick walls, a high wood-beam ceiling, and plenty of sunlight. I flipped through a thick stack of his canvases. In a series called Moonlit Mojada (Moonlit Wetback), bikini-clad Mexican women distract Border Patrol agents by inner-tubing down the Rio Grande while migrants scale the wall behind them. Another project entails Aztec codices reinterpreted through the latest headlines out of Matamoros: cockfights, gunfights, kidnappings, beheadings. Clark used to walk to Brownsville’s sister city a couple of times a week to eat or stock up on art supplies. Lately he’s grown wary.
“I try to be back on the bridge by noon on the notion that the sicarios”—hired assassins—“sleep in,” he said. “I was on the bridge once when a gun battle broke out. My framer lives a block and a half away and was pinned down in his bathroom with his family for four and a half hours. Once they get going, it’s totally deafening. It’s worse than the Fourth of July.”
When I was growing up in Corpus Christi, my family loved to pile in the Chevy and drive to the border towns of Nuevo Progreso or Nuevo Laredo. We crossed over for no-prescription-necessary penicillin when one of us fell sick—or for cajeta, a goat-milk spread that tastes like caramel, when one of us craved something sweet. We stocked up on cartons of confetti-filled eggs to smash on each other’s heads on Easter, and bought salt-rimmed margaritas and bottles of tequila with little worms floating inside. We went to feel Mexican. We went to feel American.
But when Clark suggested having dinner in Matamoros that night, I realized with sadness that I didn’t want to cross over at all. In the past, I’d thought nothing of trekking into Burma at the height of its military rule, or Tajikistan when the U.S. State Department explicitly advised otherwise. I barely flinched while hitchhiking across Moscow after the metro closed at midnight. But even though—or, more likely, because—I grew up just 150 miles away, the thought of walking three blocks into Matamoros for a platter of enchiladas and a round of micheladas unnerved me. No one in my family has dared visit since narco-violence erupted there a decade ago. Undoubtedly our paranoia is overblown and media-fed, yet it paralyzes us just the same.
So rather than replenish my veins with essential salsas and tequilas, I walked with Page to the plaza on the northern side of the international bridge and sulked at a table. A steady stream of Mexicans flowed past, some lugging shopping bags, others wheeling carts as they made their way home to Matamoros. A father carried a giant star-shaped piñata festooned with multi-colored streamers. His young daughter trailed behind him, bearing the stick she’d later use to whack it open.
Suddenly a merry burst of norteño music blasted out of a nearby store. Within an instant, the middle-aged man sitting a few tables over rose to his feet. He was wearing a black shirt depicting dollar bills cascading over a rooster outlined in glitter. el dinero no hace al gallo, it said: “Money doesn’t make the man.” Keeping time to the syncopated beats, he swiveled his hips and clapped his hands. Three teenage girls holding fistfuls of balloons stopped to watch. More passersby paused to watch in amusement. Across the street, a young man wearing a red leather jacket and sneakers joined the dance. Smiling to himself, the man lifted his face skyward and pumped his arms as he strutted about in circles.
Early the next morning, Page and I rode the aptly named Military Highway out of Brownsville, searching for more wall. Ever since Congress passed the Secure Fence Act in 2006, more than 670 miles of new barriers have been erected along the U.S.–Mexico border. Yet it is not a contiguous structure: throughout the 1,954-mile border, the wall starts and stops without any perceivable pattern. As documented in The American Wall, photographer Maurice Sherif’s 2012 book, its height and price tag vary from place to place, as well. The eighteen-foot structure that soars above the 3,500-foot peak of Otay Mountain in San Diego cost approximately $16 million a mile, while the nine-foot barrier at the Tecate port of entry ran about $4 million. The “floating fence” that cuts across the dunes of Yuma, Arizona, can be mechanically lifted and repositioned whenever the sand starts to bury it. Some parts of the wall have been fashioned out of landing plates left over from the Vietnam War; others consist of six-foot, Normandy-style crosses that deter only vehicles. One portion Sherif photographed resembles a gate from a nineteenth-century insane asylum, with terrifyingly large bolts and locks.
By contrast, the wall we have in Brownsville, Texas, is boring. It is not austere, like the Berlin Wall, or imposing, like the Great Wall, or frightening, like the West Bank Wall. It isn’t even big. It’s just a row of scalable steel posts, rusting stupidly in the sun.
I was about to ask for Page’s thoughts on this matter when she thrust out her forefinger. “There it is!” she called out. I pulled into a gravel thoroughfare across the street from a Valley Fireworks stand. We climbed up the hill where a sweep of wall began.
“So, uh, where is Mexico?” I asked.
We gazed into the vibrant green valley that stretched out before us, but the Rio Grande was nowhere in sight. According to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo—the 1848 treatise that ended the Mexican War and allowed the United States to buy large portions of present-day California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming for $15 million—the Rio Grande is the official borderline between Texas and Mexico. But because the river wends and floods, construction crews had to build the wall up to several miles away from it, cutting off scores of ranchers and farmers from their property and creating the seemingly nationless land before us. Not three minutes passed before a Border Patrol vehicle rolled up and an agent stuck out his head. We asked which way to Mexico.
“The river is up ahead, but you shouldn’t go down there,” he warned. “It’s dangerous. Anything can happen.”
“Oh, but you’ll protect us,” Page said with a smile.
He half-grinned back. About thirty years old, he was your classic buzz-cut, boots-shined, yes-sir, no-ma’am agent. I asked if he’d give us a lift to the river. He shook his head no and moved on.
Maybe five miles down the road, we saw another section near a cornfield and parked. As we approached on foot, Page noticed a box perched on a steel post. Assuming it was a camera, we waved. Sixty seconds later, a Border Patrol vehicle appeared in the distance, dragging half a dozen tires behind it. Page explained that they were combing the dirt road so they could better see footprints. Thick dust billowed behind the truck—so much that, once the driver determined we were gringas with notebooks rather than smugglers with backpacks, he turned around and retreated in the opposite direction. A second vehicle arrived minutes later.
“Just don’t go south of the levee,” he said after hearing our spiel. “It’s quiet during the day, but at night there’s a lot of activity.”
“Does the wall help?” I asked.
“It’s a good filter, so we know where they go through,” he said. “But if there’s a will, there’s a way. Nothing is ever going to stop them from coming.”
He asked where I’m from. When I said Corpus Christi, we started swapping names to find our inevitable connection. The man was perfectly pleasant, but I felt conflicted about our interaction. More often than not, Border Patrol agents are Mexican Americans, like me, whose families have lived in this region for centuries, like mine, but I still reflexively grimace whenever I see one. I know I shouldn’t begrudge this man his profession any more than nativists should berate undocumented workers for theirs. There aren’t exactly a ton of employment opportunities in Brownsville, Texas: Cameron County is one of the poorest in the nation, with an annual per capita income of $14,710. Agents usually earn four or five times that. But I couldn’t help myself.
On our walk back to the car, Page noticed shriveled corncobs, eaten and discarded, on the side of the dirt road. A trail had been pressed through the cornfield, and when we stepped onto it, we saw a flip-flop. The mesquite that bordered the cornfield had grown so tall and thick it had fused a barricade of its own. Now that the Border Patrol had departed, we were all alone, surrounded by steel and green. For the second time in two days, I felt ill at ease, and the only reason I could fathom was that I was standing in the shadows of walls.
Among the many artists who have answered the border wall’s siren is photographer Stefan Falke, who grew up less than 250 miles from the Berlin Wall (and partied atop it soon after its fall). He was astonished when the United States started expanding its wall. In 2008, he flew to Tijuana to see it, right when the city was besieged by narco-violence. Though he couldn’t have asked for a flashier news story, he ultimately decided to turn his camera lens elsewhere. “When we only read and see the violent side of places for ten years, we lose the value of the people who live there,” he said during a recent Skype interview. “Crime stories, those represent the problem. I wanted to work on the solution.”
He wound up making portraits of the artists of the borderlands: painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, performance artists, and even a few curators. Then he built a website, borderartists.com, to feature them all—180 at last count. Yet only a small percentage of the artists Falke has met—maybe one-third, he guessed—overtly engage with the border. “The younger ones in particular refuse to buy into it,” he said.
Clark has noticed this at his gallery in Brownsville, too. “I try to find artists who are political but it is as rare as hen’s teeth,” he told me the night before we parted.
He could name only a handful of Texas artists who infuse border politics into their work. There’s Angel Cabrales, an El Pasoan sculptor who satirizes the border’s militarization by building arsenals of personal drones and Patriot missile launchers and staging performances at the wall. The Edinburg artist Paul Valadez designed certificates of achievement for border-crossers for Clark’s “Art Against the Wall” exhibitions. David Freeman of McAllen has a piñata series that includes not only Border Patrol agents but immigrants in inner tubes, drones, a stretch of wall, and La Virgen de Guadalupe as well. San Antonian Bill FitzGibbons’s recent opening at the International Museum of Art and Science featured modern dancers from McAllen and Reynosa performing together at a replica of the border wall decorated with flashing LED lights and ladders.
Clark ticked off a few more examples before sighing. “But everyone else might as well be painting in Denton. They just take it for granted, the stories.”
None of the artists he mentioned were women. When I pointed this out, he said he knew a talented Chicana artist with a taste for subversive work, but she couldn’t quench it because her husband works for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “You can’t bite the hand that feeds you,” he said.
“Plus, the border is such a gendered space,” added Page, who teaches women’s and gender studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Who inhabits it? The Border Patrol, and they are largely male. The people who cross, and they are largely male. It’s an intimidating place to be. I have been chased by helicopters. I have had guns pointed at me. A woman’s body is a form of protest out here.”
Clark especially recommended I meet the oil painter Rigoberto A. Gonzalez, so I drove up to Kingsville the next day to catch his exhibit. Walking inside the spot-lit space, my eyes fell first on a life-size portrait of a human head, hung at eye level. It appeared to belong to a monk wearing a cloak, though the rest of his body was hidden. His large bulging eyes were cast skyward, as if beseeching grace. As I drew closer, however, I saw the thin trickle of red oozing from his neckline. A news story sprung to mind, of the night the Mexican drug cartel La Familia bowled five human heads onto the dance floor of a discotheque in Michoacán. This head hanging before me was not of a monk at all, but of a narco-victim freshly rolled out of a gunnysack.
Backing away from the image, I confronted “On the 17th of February of 2009 in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico”—a three-paneled tableau that occupied the bulk of one wall. In the piece, a crowd of life-size Mexicans gathered around a mother who had collapsed to her knees in grief as her son sprawled across a street corner, a semi-automatic assault rifle at his feet. Two people held up the mother’s arms so that she formed a Pietà-like cross above him. An apostolic dozen federales milled about in riot gear as the terrorized crowd gazed on. Every face tilted in a different direction except for those of a federale and a matronly woman, both of whom stared at a fixed spot in the distance with such wide-eyed horror, I couldn’t help but glance over my own shoulder—where I saw more paintings of severed heads.
Just then, the door swung open and Jesus De La Rosa, the curator of the exhibit and a friend of Gonzalez’s, blazed in.
“That’s me,” he said, nodding at a massive painting of six thugs caught in the limb-strewn act of kidnapping a man and woman on a dark city street. A car approached with its high beams on, but I sensed it wasn’t coming to help.
“You see how he’s covering my mouth?” he asked, pointing at the man forcing his burly replica into submission. “That’s how it has felt all of these years, like I’ve had to keep my mouth shut.”
De La Rosa grew up along the Mexican border town of Nuevo Progreso and for nearly a decade ran an art gallery there—until the drug war scared away the tourists. Now he teaches studio art here at Texas A&M-Kingsville. De La Rosa rarely visits his family in Mexico and refuses to let his children cross the river. “It’s all about being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said, stroking his beard. “My father’s cousin was taken about two years ago. He was in the drug business. He said, ‘Mom, they are going to come for me,’ and that was it.”
He showed me more of Gonzalez’s work, each canvas increasingly daunting. A federale in combat boots brandished the decapitated head of a naked woman, à la Cellini’s “Perseus with the Head of Medusa.” La Llorona, the wailing ghost-woman of Mexican folklore, navigated a river with her children. A tattooed punk clenched a knife and grinned as he crouched beneath a man whose pants pooled around his ankles. Gonzalez works in the style of seventeenth-century Baroque painters like Caravaggio, casting gruesome realism into an almost celestial light.
It occurred to me that many of the paintings included at least one figure who stared directly at the viewer. When I pointed this out, De La Rosa nodded. “That is Rigo’s way of saying you are a part of what is happening, as much as you think you are not involved. You smoke one joint a week thinking you’re not hurting anything, but you don’t think about how it got into your hands. There are people who are enslaved to grow it, people who transport it, people who sell it.”
His voice trailed off as we stared at the violently beautiful images surrounding us. “It is all connected.”
The Rio Grande Valley used to be a pastoral place—cowboys and snowbirds, citrus groves and taco stands. Tíos hovered over barbecue pits, drinking beer, while little primos ran around barefoot and tías gossiped in kitchens. But as I drove the hundred-plus miles back to the border, the wind-swept roads felt almost haunted.
Before rejoining Page at the wall, I cut through the town of Harlingen, passing cinderblock buildings adorned with signs advertising Garza Tortillas, Salinas Pharmacy, and Robles Law Firm. A side street led me through a labyrinth of pawnshops to the office of the local psychic. help with all problems through the power of prayer, read the sign above the barred window. It was tempting, but instead I knocked on the door labeled “K&S Pool Supply.”
The door cracked open and Rigoberto A. Gonzalez peeked out. Given the macabre content of his artwork, I was half-expecting a tormented poet-type, turtle-necked and bedraggled. But no. His top half was professorial. He wore an Ivy cap, rimless glasses, and a neatly trimmed goatee. His bottom half was pure lounge: basketball shorts and slip-ons. He stepped to the side to allow my passage, then bolted the door behind me.
The walls of his studio were white, the bookcases royal blue. Fat volumes of Rembrandt and El Greco crested the highest shelves while cattle skulls occupied the lower ones. Images of the Baroque masters plastered the back wall. My eyes were drawn to an especially large canvas of a man hanging upside-down in the crucifix position—feet tied, arms at ninety degrees—wearing only red briefs against a black backdrop. Another news story flashed across my mind, of narcos throwing their victims off an overpass.
Gonzalez and I are the same age and grew up just 150 miles apart, he in the city of Reynosa. But while he also remembered this region being “peaceful and boring” when we were kids, he absorbed narco culture early on.
“As a child I would play with little Hot Wheels cars, and I’d put grass in the wheels because I heard that’s how drugs were smuggled,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t think I ever wanted to do it, but you dream about it, about the aura of power. I did not go into it directly, but if you look at my paintings, in a way I am involved.”
He walked over to a shelf and pulled down a rifle I’d overlooked. “This is part of my background, the culture I grew up in. Reynosa always had that aura of the Wild West, the guys with the entourage and their weapons. What is happening now is a natural evolution of that cultural mentality. The border always had that darkness to it.”
Gonzalez explained that his work had met with some local resistance. One museum director told him he’d need to create an entirely new body of work in order to be shown there, lest they “get in trouble.”
“There has been reluctance because of the negativity of my stories, not to mention the proximity,” he said. “Yet you can’t suppress it. My work is about starting a dialogue and maybe about starting the healing process. Because it’s a holocaust out there.”
Recently Gonzalez had begun a new series of landscapes featuring the border wall and the people who dare cross it. He handed me a pencil sketch of the Rio Grande snaking through a bend. While not as grisly as his earlier work, this series won’t necessarily be less violent. He said, “I want to show a storm over the border.”
Gonzalez had one more thing to share before I parted: a book on the drug war by Mexican documentary photographers. My entire body shuddered when he flipped to an image of men grinning over the row of corpses lying at their feet. Something about their triumph transported me to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, where years ago I burst into tears over a photo of American GIs posing by slaughtered Viet Cong.
Gonzalez’s response was more intimate. “When you see the men they capture, the men responsible, the heads of the cartels, the hit men,” he said softly, “when I look at them, I see that they could be my cousin or my brother. That similarity really scares me.”
He removed his glasses and stared at me without blinking. “It could even be me.”
I awoke the next morning feeling somber. It was my last day in the borderlands. However many emotions this region churns within me, the hardest always surface when it’s time to leave.
Over hotel biscuits smothered in powdered gravy, Page and I decided to spend the day in Hidalgo County, which has a “hopping” border, according to Clark. On the drive out from Brownsville, we traversed roads that had flatlined into silence. The sky, meanwhile, was an ocean inverted—an all-encompassing blue. One yard displayed a row of tiny American flags flapping above the chain-link fence, along with a larger flag impaled into the stump of a tree.
We parked at the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, where—according to the brochure—“steam-driven irrigation pumps transformed Hidalgo County into a year-round farming phenomenon.” A garden thick with huisache and anacua surrounded the complex. A World Birding Center extended beyond it, home to tropical kingfishers, Altamira orioles, and clay-colored robins, all out of reach beyond an eighteen-foot wall.
The town of Hidalgo stretches along the banks of the Rio Grande. Earthen levees have long held its floodwaters at bay, but a few years ago some of them were replaced with levee walls, which serve the dual purpose of flood control and border security. These were the the ugliest walls I’d seen: miles of concrete slabs teethed in tall steel posts presided over the green like a cubist sentry. We found the hiking trail leading to the wall, but what should have been a five-minute walk took us nearly thirty. The trail was practically paved with objects.
“Here’s one,” Page said, stopping mid-stride and reaching for her camera. I peeked over her shoulder to find a toothbrush at her feet, whole and blue. A red one missing its bristles lay a few inches away, along with a broken hair clip. “This is what the border used to be like at Brownsville. It means it’s really active.” She slid the objects into La Virgen.
Next was a purple shirt, tangled in weeds. As she grabbed one end and pulled, a Border Patrol vehicle drove by. Its back end was outfitted with a holding cell, something a dogcatcher might use. Before I could mention it, Page said, “Whoa, look at that!” and bounded over to a Macy’s bag half-hidden in a clump of grass. A pair of Wrangler Originals tumbled out, then a long-sleeved shirt, and finally a handsome belt with a buckle shaped like a Longhorn. She examined the jeans. “Size 32x30. Made in China. And . . . they’re still wet.”
That’s probably why they were there, she speculated. Over the years, Page says, she has learned that the Border Patrol does not allow migrants to bring anything wet aboard their vehicles, perhaps because there is no way to dry clothes at the station (plus they can’t risk the spread of mold). Page explained that belts are also forbidden, lest they be used as weapons. Same with shoelaces. Same with hairbrushes. Same with toothbrushes.
“Bras are often a sign of rape,” she said. “Coyotes will hang them on a tree afterward, like a trophy. Homemade flotation devices usually mean a baby has been brought across. Sometimes you find religious cards on the banks of the river, and know someone left them there in thanks for a safe passage. You see caffeine pills, and it is so they can stay awake during the journey.”
We continued down the trail. Toothbrush, toothbrush. Shoelace, shoelace. A water bottle, squished. A tennis shoe. Half of a comb. Most of a shirt. Nail clippers. Another shirt. A lacy black bra. Page and I halted mid-step. Yes: a lacy black bra. It wasn’t dangling from a tree, but still. A lacy black bra.
When this expedition began at Hope Park a few days ago, it felt like a most peculiar egg hunt. But as La Virgen began to fill, I started to see as Page does: the objects as reliquaries; the journey as pilgrimage. But the vulnerability of this bra curled in the dirt rendered the trail into a crime scene. No woman abandons her lacy black bra unless she is forced to.
Scattered nearby were two pairs of panties, a wallet, a travel-size Speed Stick, a pocket-size Bible (Nuevo Testamento), two pairs of socks rolled into balls, a three-ounce tube of Colgate, a pack of Trident chewing gum, five packages of pills in various colors and sizes, and a light blue handkerchief. The relief I felt from this additional discovery—maybe a Border Patrol agent made her drop everything, as opposed to a coyote ripping off that one thing?—gave way to the dread of imagining a woman walking around without these items. Nothing here was irreplaceable, of course, though the items had been packed with care. The bra looked almost new. The panties were still folded. So often in our culture we are the sum of our possessions. Indeed, at times they seem the only markers of our passage through this world. What does it mean to pare them down to the essentials—and then to lose even those?
Just ahead, a Border Patrol SUV was parked by the gate of the wall. Long slabs of wood were piled against the steel. As I drew closer, I saw they were ladders. Missing half their rungs, yes, and with nails protruding all over the place—but ladders nonetheless. As I tried to lift one up, a door opened and an agent stepped out. I thought he was going to tell us to leave the ladders alone, but no. He had been sitting by himself for hours and wanted company.
“They scale the wall with these?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “They bring them from Mexico and store them in the brush and then we find them and bring them over here. The city picks them up and destroys them once a week or so.”
He chattered on while Page documented the ladders and I studied them, only half-listening until he mentioned detaining a three-year-old and a one-and-a-half-year-old the other day, both traveling alone.
“Alone?” we asked.
He nodded. “There was a twelve-year-old boy who was told to help them get across. He was carrying the one-and-a-half-year-old. There are a lot of kids coming without their parents now. It is just insane.”
We bid the agent well and started walking along the wall. Its southern side was a mass of tangled green beyond which ran the river. The northern side was lined with the backyards of family homes. We passed by trampolines and wading pools, conked-out appliances and junked-out cars. We passed by an RV park crowded with campers. We passed by a generator-run, Border Patrol-operated skybox that was Seventies Soviet chic. We passed by every iteration of fence Home Depot has in stock. And we passed by so many abandoned objects, not even La Virgen could hold them all.
Suddenly a siren went off. Commotion ensued in the near distance. We quickened our pace as a Border Patrol SUV pulled up from behind. A Tejano agent stuck out his head and informed us that sixty bodies had been found up ahead.
“Bodies?” I asked, envisioning a pile of corpses.
“We got two of them. The rest went back to Mexico. Where you ladies heading?”
Page told our story, then asked if we could walk down by the river.
“Si, pero . . .” He looked at me. Yes, but . . .
“Pero peligroso?” I asked. But it’s dangerous?
“Pues, si.” He rolled up the window. Sure is.
We hurried on until we saw three Border Patrol vehicles idling by the wall. One was outfitted with the container cell I noticed earlier. A female agent stepped out, walked around back, and opened the door of the cell. Page and I froze in place as a middle-aged woman popped out. Maybe five feet tall with sienna skin and curly hair, she was dressed more for a day at the office—nice slacks, a jacket, pumps—than for fording an international riverbed. Page put her camera down as the woman climbed aboard the adjacent vehicle. Although the windows were darkly tinted, I saw her head turn sharply away from us.
Next out was a fortyish man with an Olmec nose, wearing a white shirt and jeans. He paused to look at Page and me before stepping inside the awaiting vehicle. My hand instinctively rose and waved. What I meant by this was hard to articulate, but something like: You are here and I am here the way our ancestors have always been here but now you are being taken away while I still get to stand here and I am bearing witness to the injustice of that and I am sorry.
I watched the man get swallowed inside the dark of the windows and search for a place to rest his gaze. At one point, he seemed to be looking at me. For half a second, I wondered whether or not to wave again. He beat me to it.
View Stefan Falke’s portraits of artists working along the U.S.–Mexico border.
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