Creative Binationality:
Lessons and Stories
from Artists at the Border

De Nichols
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During the Loeb Fellowship’s 2019 Fall Study Tour trip to San Diego and Tijuana, one of the most undeniably impactful features of the experience was the interweaving of art and creative practice that has grounded so much of the activism and cultural life at the border. De Nichols writes about how art infuses life in the two cities.

Our experiences were centered at Bread & Salt, an arts collective and gallery created by James Brown (LF ‘09) in the Barrio Logan neighborhood. Within the space, everything carried an arts focussed purpose, from the exhibits that filled its walls to the culinary artists who kept us fed, the artists featured in panels, and even the indigenous performers who blessed Sally Young with ceremonious dance and song.

In Tijuana, we witnessed firsthand how visual art and performance impact advocacy and activism at the border. Following a conversation among binational artists at CECUT, the Tijuana Cultural Center, we commuted to Playa Beach to listen to a minister share his experiences working with families to advance through the challenges of immigration. However, with the backdrop of the border fence behind him, what was most apparent were the outcries for the love, justice, and solidarity that scores of individuals, families, and activists had visualized along the beachfront’s portion of the 400+ mile fence.

Upon returning to San Diego on the third day of the retreat, another series of topic group panels featured artists like the team at Border Art Workshop and Chicano Park. The panels were followed by tours of spaces featured in the conversations. During the Chicano Park tour in Barrio Logan it was especially powerful to hear and witness the stories of organizers, mural artists, and community members. They were people who’d placed their lives and wellbeing at risk to collaboratively defend the park from gentrification, preserve it as a cultural asset, and sustain it as one of the largest collections of Latinx public art in the midst of existing socioeconomic challenge.

With each day of conversation and experience of art at the border, we understood more deeply how inextricably connected the struggle for social justice is to our human need for creative expression.

Art at the border is not just an aesthetic that reflects the spirit and cultures of people at the fusion of Mexico and the United States. Indeed, it is a visual language that amplifies the cries, the demands, the vision, and the power of the people who are fighting to ensure greater justice and humanity in the collective experiences and wellbeing of people caught in the middle of this longstanding binational crisis.

Rob Stein viewing photographic artworks at CECUT. The Dias de
la Raza (Race Days) exhibition by Luiz Garza features a series of black and white photographs that document the 1960’s Chicano movement for Mexican American empowerment.

During our visit to CECUT, five artist-activists shared their works and perspectives on immigration, education, commerce, and creative advocacy at the border. Artists (L-R): Mely Barragan (moderator), Griselda Rosas, Hugo Sanchez, Carmela Castrejon, Daniel Ruanova.

At Bread & Salt a panel of San Diego’s binational art historians and visual and performing artists educated the Loeb Fellowship about the history and antecedents of Chicano/Indigenous/Mexican visual arts activism. This included the 1960’s Chicano Movement, 1970’s Border Arts Era, and contemporary theater, sound, and visual art movements. Panelists included Cris Scorza, Director of Education and Engagement at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (moderator); Sara Solaimani; Cognate Collective–Amy Sanchez Arteaga and Misael Diaz; and Francisco Eme.

Following the panel about the Chicano Park development, moderator Josephine Talamantez, chair of the Chicano Park Museum and Cultural Center, joined local activists Victor Ochoa and Tommie Camarillo to guide us in a tour of some of the murals and pavilions that have filled the park since its 1971 origin.

Chicano Park activist Tommie Camarillo posed with her portrait, painted by a local artist in homage to her commitment to the preservation and celebration of the park and immigrant rights at the border.

Murals at the border wall segment of Playa Beach visualize calls for love, humanity, and justice, including a list of names of people who have been killed or incarcerated in their pursuit of immigration to the United States.

De Nichols is a designer, social entrepreneur, and keynote lecturer who mobilizes young creative change makers through the production of interactive experiences, digital media, and social initiatives. She is a 2020 Loeb Fellow.