About 300,000 people, mostly U.S. citizens, cross daily from Tijuana. The border line can feel like a strange and chaotic ecosystem, where all parts move quickly, or hardly at all, in unison toward their goal. It often takes hours to cross into the United States, as cars and people wait in a seemingly endless queue to visit loved ones or go to work on the other side. Food vendors and itinerant salesmen from the marketplace hawk goods to the gridlocked cars. Tension builds the longer you wait and more frustrated you become.
But on a recent inky-black Saturday night, about 50 people gathered at the mercado to watch a series of short independent films being screened on a billboard, a stark contrast to the typical advertisements for liposuction or dental work. An elderly street sweeper named Manuel Parra paused to watch. He wondered aloud: “Are you going to show John Wayne movies?”
The indie film screening was part of a project created by Tijuana-raised, L.A.-based artist Tanya Aguíñiga called Art Made Between Opposite Sides, or AMBOS for short.
AMBOS explores the complexities and intricacies of border and border-crossing life through artistic interventions created by artists and creatives who grew up binational. Featuring Mexican/Mexican-American/Chicano(a) artists from Tijuana, San Diego, El Centro and L.A., the August-long project includes a film series, lectures and workshops, a pirate radio broadcast, and sound and interactive art installations in the border line.
The experience comes with many implications, misconceptions, anxieties, stigmas and points of fascination. A literal divide in your identity must be navigated and crossed. In a space so loud and bustling, one that thrives on the necessity of movement, it's rare to give people who are seemingly stuck in the space an opportunity to interact with a piece of art that tells their story. And AMBOS aims to do just that.
It also will coincide with this year's expansive multivenue Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, which will focus on Latin American and Latino art. AMBOS director Aguíñiga served on the planning committee for one of the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, and noticed a lack of interaction with Mexico in this year’s lineup.
“I just thought it was really shocking that there wasn’t going to be more done about the Latin American country next to the U.S.,” says Aguíñiga, who spent 14 years commuting across the border. “Especially because L.A. is the most Mexican city outside of Mexico. I really wanted to do something that gave more of a platform to speak about the border and our experiences here.”
Sharing that message is important to most who grew up binational. I’m one of those people. I spent eight years living in Mexico and waking up at 4:30 a.m. to commute across the border to school or work every day. You get very good at putting on contact lenses in a moving car and you learn quickly which burrito vendor has the best machaca, but you also find yourself in a position to defend where you come from. As Aguíñiga puts it, “We’re all experiencing so much turmoil and constantly trying to justify our identities because of it.”
One way AMBOS pushes the dialogue is through artists Amy Sanchez-Arteaga and Misael Diaz's Cog•nate Collective project, which presents their Borderblaster and Dialogue in Transit: Border Soundscapes programs. Borderblaster is a hyper-local FM pirate radio station located inside the mercado; it broadcasts oral histories and testimonies from border vendors, migrants and commuters, as well as DJ sets from local musicians. For Dialogue in Transit, Cog•nate invites artists, researchers and activists from L.A., San Diego and Tijuana to hop in the Cog•nate Cruiser (a refurbished station wagon) and discuss border issues while waiting in line at the border.
L.A. artist Rafa Esparza and Angeleno writer and author/USC professor Josh Kun were among the participants. Both transmissions are aired on a local radio station and online. “I think for us, part of it was having the opportunity to document the border from this particular site and the particular experience for people that live it,” Diaz says. “One of the experiences we found was that the border is constructed as an abstraction, this thing that doesn’t ever land. To think about documenting the kind of connection between those abstract ideas of nation, territory, division and border and the everyday realities of those people.”
“It’s about thinking really critically about what a border is right now,” Sanchez-Arteaga adds. “To not take for granted, as people that are able to cross the border, what this means and the privilege that comes with it, as well as acknowledging the frustrations that come with it and the absurdity.”
The films screened at the mercado also looked to share the border experience on both a large-scale and a micro level. Curated by filmmakers and artists José Inerzia and Adriana Trujillo of Tijuana’s POLEN, the Escalas Fronterizas: Border Sites + Sights + Cities series shared stories from borders around the world, inching closer to the Tijuana border and mercado over the course of the month.
During the screenings, Inerzia and Trujillo were approached by people who live and work in the mercado, who felt compelled to share their stories with them.
“It’s a complicated space, it’s a purgatory where there is all this waste of development. It revolves around drugs and the bad habits of Mexico,” Inerzia says. “But here they find a way to survive, to work on a business that’s been established on the border, and what has connected them to the films are the stories they can relate to and that they can share with us. The films become a mirror and a way to share what they’ve experienced.”
Anyone who has crossed the border understands the physical and emotional toll it can take on a person, as well as the moral changes that occur as you inch closer to America. For example, you may throw a piece of trash out of your window while on the Mexico side, but never once you cross the threshold into the United States.
Moisés Horta Valenzuela explores just that through Liminal(mente), a real-time sound installation capturing the soundscapes of the border. A binational sound artist and musician now based in Mexico City, Horta Valenzuela composed the piece while waiting in the border line in his car, processing the recordings using technology that reads brain frequency and emotion. Through this, he is able to explore the physical, mental and emotional transitions a person feels as he crosses the border in a “weird, psychedelic experience of the ritual.”
“It’s hard to put words to it, and that was the objective piece — to explore in a more abstract way, with sound, and what happens here with this physical space,” he says. “When you’re in your car you don’t move a lot, and it’s a slow shift that happens within.
“Border crossing has been a part of my life since I was a kid,” he adds. “The border won’t sound the same in 20 years, it’ll have a different soundscape, and I wanted to capture what it sounds like today in 2016 using today’s technology.”
“Even though we’re all going through this shit together, we are rarely invited to speak about that experience,” Aguíñiga says. “I think stuff like this is really important because it allows us to reflect on the larger significance of who we are and what we’re doing, and our connection to one another, because it’s really easy to just roll up your window and be pissed and not engage in the space.”
Documenting the space has become even more crucial as its future stands in limbo. Along with the stories of those who traverse the border, there are also the stories of those who live and work in the mercado. Their future is uncertain as reports have emerged that the mercado may be demolished and relocated, causing fear in those who’d be affected.
Add to that the current political climate, charged by Donald Trump as he takes an anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican stance in his presidential campaign.
Aguíñiga believes these border interventions “help humanize this space and also activate it.”
“It’s important for people to understand that it’s a complex place and we’re normal people, not just a migrating mass,” she says. “The market space really encapsulates so much of our personalities as Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and Chicanos. It’s how we view ourselves and how we think the U.S. views us. It helps us look at something and go through this with a connection to other people, but at the same time is a time capsule of what’s happening in our society and in pop culture.”
Through AMBOS, those affected in any way by the border are given a chance to heal and be heard, and to experience the space in an artistic way. AMBOS concludes this week with a closing celebration featuring presentations from participating artists, live mariachi music, another round of Dialogue in Transit and Escalas Fronterizas films, and the continuation of Aguíñiga’s fiber-art installation Quipu Fronterizo/Border Quipu, for which border commuters have been given two strands of thread to tie in a knot as well as a postcard on which to write about their experiences with the border. Those knots are added to others until a large quipu, an Incan device for recording information through colorful knots, is built. The quipu will hang above the mercado. There will also be a kids workshop on stop-motion animation led by artists Ana Andrade and Marina Viruete, and the presentation and free distribution of the photography book Border Experience, created by photographer Ingrid Hernandez. The book will feature images taken by commuters at the border.
“What AMBOS is doing is opening up a dialogue, not only physical but visual,” Trujillo says. “It’s impacting visually, it's impacting sound and the legal processes, but also it’s a space that will be lost. So it’s leaving a memory of that space.”