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19.07.2021

Every Border is a Wound to Heal

Finding a relationship between their experiences and their respective artistic practices, the artists Guadalupe Maravilla and Tanya Aguiñiga, from New York and Tijuana respectively, talk about what it means to get involved in healing processes of communities affected by the violence inherent to the border between Mexico and the United States.

GUADALUPE MARAVILLA (GM): I saw on social media that you were raising money for immigrants at the US-Mexico border. What’s happening on the Tijuana side of the border right now?
TANYA AGUIÑIGA (TA): The first caravan, mostly women and children, arrived around two and a half years ago; strangely, they arrived to the neighborhood that I grew up in, a few blocks from the wall, where it cuts into the ocean. It’s a working-class area where people who have been deported or separated from their families go since you can clearly see the US from there. The first reactions from locals in Tijuana were quite violent and racist; they threw rocks at immigrants and stole their wallets, phones, anything they had.
GM: Really?!

TA: Yes, misinformation was spreading on F*cebook around the narrative of immigrants being malandros or drug addicts. The Trumpist narrative of national supremacy resulted in the organization of huge protests against the caravan. You could read signs that said: “¡México primero!” (Mexico First!) or “Invasion Disguised as Asylum”.

The moment I heard that Tijuana, my hometown, was reacting in such a tragic way, I knew I had to do something. I went down with a friend of mine, who is part of AMBOS (Arte Hecho Entre Lados Opuestos or Art Made on Both Sides in English), a project created to give expression to and document emotion around the border through art made on both sides. It provides a platform for bi-national artists along the border.

We witnessed a heartbreaking scene. All of the asylum seekers, around twenty thousand people, had been shoved into one dirt lot that used to be a baseball field. There was no security, no food, no water services such as bathrooms or showers—no privacy. I remember there was a shelter where LGBTQ asylum seekers had to hide from Mexican Nazis.

 

We then started talking to our own families, trying to find out why our community was reacting so violently towards migrants for the first time. Fear was motivating racism against Central Americans and Haitians and blocking humanitarian aid. Food, water, diapers, and blankets were being blocked. It was so inhumane. Even under normal circumstances, the Mexican government is so messed up and backlogged with shit that they need to take care of that of course in this situation they were of little to no help. We had to take care of shit on our own. We started doing massive collections of goods, as well as corresponding with and becoming part of Comité Estratégico Humanitario [Strategic Humanitarian Committee]. Those of us who were ready, willing, and able at a day’s notice showed up to get what was needed. My 3,000-square-foot studio ended up being a humanitarian aid center. No money, dude, nomás gente sorting out mutual aid; we were receiving, processing, cleaning, sorting, putting what each person needed into small survival packs for young boys and girls, men, women, trans people—all according to their needs. The Mexican government wasn’t letting people bring aid into the camps and we had to sneak them in with fake press badges.

GM: How do you balance your art practice with all of this, plus being a mom?
TA: I don’t. I just try to do it all as well as possible. Got to do the mom shit, got to do the art studio shit, got to do the just-being-a-human shit.
GM: After that, you took a break? To make your art, right?
TA: Yes, I took a little break to figure out what the next step was. I stopped processing asylum aid to try and understand the situation at the border, which is constantly changing thanks to the bullshit that the US and Mexican governments do. Everything is volatile, and even more so with the COVID crisis. There are people coming from Cameroon, Haiti, China; it took them years to get to the border just to find the fucking door closed. The places they’re forced to wait in aren’t appropriate for the amount of trauma that these people have suffered. Understanding the need for a tiny escape, a little reprise from their situation, I started clay workshops for LGBTQ people and kids, which are taught via Zoom with a classroom teacher because of the pandemic. Art helps.

The change in government administration in the US brought many more people to the border because they believed it would be easier to receive asylum than it had been under Trump. Mainly families with children and many pregnant women came. For now, I communicate with shelters and humanitarian committees through Wh*tsapp; they tell me what they most urgently need when things get dire, and I raise money and take it in cash to buy the specific items they have requested in Mexico or cross the border with donations.

GM: What you are sharing resonates a lot with me. I have not returned to Tijuana since 1984. I was one of those children who escaped without my family from the civil war in El Salvador. I crossed at Tijuana after waiting for the coyotes in Tijuana for two and a half weeks. It was another world back then, nothing compared to what it is today.

Here in New York, I get the other side of it—I meet people here that made it across the border. Many remain in California, others come to New York. Since the pandemic began, I’ve worked as a volunteer in a church here in Brooklyn with a pastor who was undocumented himself when he was younger. His name is Juan Carlos Ruiz. The church feeds around 3,000 families per week, mainly undocumented. Before connecting with the church, I raised over 80,000 dollars to help the undocumented community in Brooklyn.

TA: Congratulations!

GM: I asked for donations on my Inst*gram and people started giving me money. I gave cash to the undocumented community so they could buy food and pay rent during the first few months of the pandemic. It was not sustainable, though. Then I started collaborating with the pastor. He turned the church into a warehouse to help feed the community. With the money I raised, I was buying around 1,500 pounds of grains per week, including dried rice and beans and Maseca (corn flour). This went on from April to December 2020. In addition, I provided sound therapy and other holistic healing workshops to the undocumented that had just arrived to New York in the middle of the pandemic.

As you say, so much trauma happens to immigrants from our countries. They arrive escaping their countries: there’s trauma in family separation, trauma in being at the border, and trauma in crossing all that unknown land. And somehow, they reunite with their families here. It’s crazy.

So, we’re working on healing that trauma. Tell me, how do you make work with all of this? How do you find the energy to make art for yourself and to have shows?
TA: It depends on what kind of show it is—if it’s for a gallery, for a museum, to sell, or for advocacy. It also depends on what the prompt is. Right now, I have a bunch of different shows that were supposed to happen last year and that now are suddenly back on. All of a sudden there are, I think, four or five different exhibitions that I have to get done within a month. I’ve been able to figure out ways of building the community on the border into it. Those are the ones that I feel more passionate about and the most connected to, pero también, the ones that cost me a bunch of money and took a bunch of crazy volunteer labor. It’s just crazy shit. There is also the work for Basel, where there’s an opportunity to sell so that I can hopefully keep paying for everything. I also have a show that I have to install at the end of April at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), I think you have a show there too.

GM: Yes, forthcoming.

TA: Ah, pues I’m in the next group show. It’s called Intergalactix. For this one, I’m thinking about the fact that we don’t have any proper memorial for all the people who have perished along the border. Other than small altars to Jesús Malverde,¹ there’s no place where mothers and families can go and pray for a safe passage.

There are different parts of the border fence that I visited with the AMBOS project. During these trips, I noticed the way that the wind hits the slats of the border fence and produces a howling sound. These last few years, I’ve been getting into curandería so I decided to make copaleros that are going to be tied to the border fence so people can go and burn some copal helped by the strong winds.

GM: This is so crazy. I also have a show opening around the same time and I’m also burning things. I wonder if I could have my opening the same day you have yours—two openings in two different parts of the country, for our ancestors, you know? Para que nos protejan.

TA: Pues, the opening is May 15!
GM: No way! That’s the day of my opening too! Haha, this is giving me goosebumps. Qué locura. Titled Planeta Abuelx, the exhibition will be my first outdoor sculpture installation here in New York at Socrates Sculpture Park. I’m building these sculptures that look like coral made out of recycled aluminum. It’s going to have a fire pit and a medicinal ancestral garden of corn, tobacco, Datura flowers, and several ancestral plants from our countries—from the Central America and Mexico region. The sculptures are going to be healing machines that produce sound. They will be used to create sound therapy and to send energy to all the people who are lost at the border, to all the people who are affected by COVID, and to our ancestors so they can help us survive the pandemic. We are planning to light the fire pits and do rituals on May 15. I am planning on performing healing rituals with sound and fire. You’re going to have fires, I’m going to have fires!
TM: This is crazy! Let’s light our fires at the same time!

My work for the group exhibition at LACE is for those who have passed—the living, the missing, the forgotten—and those who are crossing in their cars right now at the port of entry. I’m hoping to acknowledge what the body needs in relation to different ways of crossing the border—documented and undocumented. As part of the show, I also did another work called Línea-pak. I’m hand painting and assembling 500 heat-sealed línea-paks. It’s like a long plastic paleta dispenser that works as a border-crossing car survivor kit that contains emergency drinking water, granola bars, hydrating serum, a portable toilet—because you can’t get out of your car if you are waiting alone in the line to enter as a documented person—and a map of the line accompanied by a petition against the US government.

For the petition, I have to figure out how to file a formal complaint against the US government for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act between now and May 15; currently, there is no accessibility for disabled or elderly people at any of the border crossings. For example, if you’re in a walker and crossing the border as a pedestrian, you still have to stand in line outside in the heat for up to six hours to wait to cross, and most ports of entry are not accessible by wheelchair if you are alone.

The survivor kit is a gesture, but the petition is actual action. Currently, the few people who are allowed to cross due to COVID are people with green cards or people who are US citizens. So, all these people are technically supposed to be protected by the US government, because technically they’re all supposed to live here. But tell me, what have you been working on?
GM: I currently have a solo show, Seven Ancestral Stomachs, at PPOW Gallery in New York. It is composed of sculptures, paintings, and a mural. The title relates to the colon cancer I had and the stomach problems that persist.

I believe in healing seven generations back and seven generations forward, healing both my ancestors and my descendants because generational trauma gets passed down.

I have a lot to heal with what happened to me in the civil war in El Salvador, crossing the border, being separated from my family as a child, and getting cancer. I have tons of personal work to do daily. I’ve learned a lot over the years from my personal healing work and from healers from all over the world. Now I am in a position to help others with the knowledge that I have inherited. I provide the tools for the undocumented community to learn to heal themselves. We teach them to meditate, how to do many types of body movements, and about medicinal plants. We are going to start teaching men how to control alcohol and respect women and families. Because that machismo that they bring is a big problem. We are also going to have a circle of women coordinated by professionals to talk about domestic violence.

Recently, I was talking to the pastor and I asked him: “How do you handle all this pressure?” Because he never stops. He told me: “Look, I’ve been preparing my whole life for this moment. All my life’s training has been preparing me for today, for this crisis that is happening in the world.” I realized I feel the same way, too. I’ve been doing all this healing work for the last several years: I overcame cancer seven years ago and I’ve been healing my own border trauma from a long time ago. I’ve learned so much and I am ready to help others now.

TA: What I found amazing is that you put so much time into your education on healing—learning about so many different philosophies, trying the stuff out yourself to know what it feels like if it’s helping you or not.

GM: For me, the biggest test was overcoming cancer. I learned that I will never be fully healed, that healing will be a daily activity for the rest of my life. This approach allows me to constantly be in learning mode. I’m inventing my own ways of healing this border-crossing trauma, and I’m teaching others how to do it as well. It’s my life’s project. I also combine this process with art. Like you know, art does something. I am excited about how the role of the artist is changing, and it has been inspiring to see so many artists come to the front lines of the pandemic. I feel blessed to hear you are doing this work for the undocumented communities at the border. We are in two different worlds, two different crises; so different, yet so similar.

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