Dislocation and Separation

Migrant artifacts from the border areas star in a new art show at El Ojito Springs

Artist Valarie James lives on the edge of Amado, in ranch country, a few miles north of the heavily traveled border. And each day, when she strolls out into the desert with her dogs, she routinely finds evidence of migrant passages.

Backpacks, water jugs and clothes litter the prickly trails. She gathers them as she walks, and brings them back to her land to convert them into art. But the objects that most engage her attention are the hand-embroidered cloths she finds clinging to the cacti and laced in mesquite branches.

Part of a long tradition of Mexican handicrafts, the squares of fabric are usually white, edged with colored crewel work and embroidered in colored flowers. Usually they have messages on them, stitched in colored threads by somebody's sweetheart back home.

"Somos Dos Enamorados" (We Are Two Lovers), reads one, above an embroidered picture of two peacocks nuzzling beaks. "Penso en tí" (I'm Thinking About You) is the message on a cloth ablaze with orange blossoms. "Amor Mío" (My Love) accompanies posies in passionate red.

Fifteen of these cloths are in the show The Heart's Path: Border Art and Artifacts From the Migrant Trail at the newish El Ojito Springs Gallery on Fourth Avenue. James washed them and hung them up, and even gave them a title, "Heirlooms in the Sand, Recovered From the Desert South of Tucson," 2004-2007. But she takes no credit for their creation.

"It was traditional for young women to make these for young men they liked," James said by phone last week. "They'd tuck in a lock of hair, or a love note, and wrap them up like an envelope."

Tokens of love for the wanderers in the desert, the cloths are among the most moving of the artifacts gathered together for this eclectic show. James has also made a pair of shrines out of discarded water bottles, dangling the jugs in their homemade burlap carriers on branches in a corner of the gallery--a somber variant on the Christmas tree.

Several of the show's 10 artists, James included, also use migrant artifacts as one material among others in larger works. For instance, "La Madre," James' powerful sculpture of a grieving mother, is hand-cast from "cotton rag from busted-up cloth left behind by migrants in the desert, mixed with Sonoran Desert grass, prickly pear mucilage as a binder and sand from a nearby arroyo," according to the label she wrote.

This Great Mother has a beautiful face, eyes closed in grief, hands crossed over her breast. Cast on a human model, the sculpture embodies the unimaginable sorrow mothers feel when their children die, in the desert or elsewhere. It's in and of the desert: Brown, beige and rough-hewn, its gritty surface is scattered with grasses. (Last May, James installed a series of life-size "Las Madres" figures outdoors at Pima Community College East, where, as expected, they're beginning to weather and return to the earth.)

Deborah McCullough, a Tucson volunteer with No More Deaths and the Samaritans, also makes art out of migrant belongings she finds on the trail. A spoon ended up as the centerpiece in the small wooden shrine "How Far Would You Walk?" She's placed metal leaves around the spoon, in a corona of light, honoring the walker's presumed intentions. "How far would you walk to feed your family?" she asks in an artist's note.

McCullough has also made a series of artist's books memorializing particular migrants. After a particularly deadly stretch in June 2005, when 12 migrants perished in the desert near Tucson in one week, she crafted 12 tiny books. Each has some text, as well as 3-D objects sewn to the pages, including religious milagros, stones, thorns, twigs. At the end of the book about Rosa Torres Corona, a 26-year-old who died of exposure, a Mexican lottery image announces the card she was dealt. It's labeled La Muerte (death), and it pictures a skeleton holding a Grim Reaper's scythe in its bony hands.

McCullough also crafted a Great Mother, but hers is a specific individual, "Lucresia's Mother." She's made of cloth, life-size, and her true story is written in text and photos printed on the cloth "pages" of her apron. Lucresia died near Sasabe, and her father traveled from Mexico to Arizona to search for her body. By the time he found her, her corpse was so decayed that he could identify her only by three rings that she always wore on her fingers. In the sculpture, the final cloth page opens into a tomb-like space in the mother's belly. Here, a trio of rings circle the fingers of a mannequin's hand.

Tucson artist Pancho Medina works in the Mexican tradition of "rasquacho," making art out of everyday objects. His three furious assemblages rage against U.S. border policies. "210 Dead" is a macabre carriage on bicycle wheels; a grinning red-mouthed skeleton, emblazoned with stars and stripes, drives a cart holding the body of a brown-skinned woman. The jukebox-style "Cleansing Arizona" accuses assorted political figures, from Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to Gov. Janet Napolitano, of racism against the migrants. Below their faces, there's a picture of a bus deporting brown-skinned cut-out figures. Below, more brown folks are swept into a dustbin decorated with a U.S. flag.

Less inventive are Tanya Alvarez's strident acrylics on canvas. These angry paintings have been used as banners in protest marches, and not surprisingly, they lionize large-scale figures and slogans. In "Who's the Real Illegal Immigrant: Pilgrim," an angry woman points an accusing finger at the viewer. It makes the valid point that we are a nation of immigrants. Still, in their fury, these paintings don't have the simple eloquence of the pieces more closely aligned to the migrants themselves.

Far more powerful is a display of migrant children's own notes and drawings, all of them dropped in the desert. A child's hand-drawn map of the journey over the border pictures "Hotel Altar," trucks, a crooked road and the intimidating border wall. A note from a schoolmate wishes a departing child well. "Que te vaya bien en el otro lado," a little girl named Elizabeth wrote. "Good luck on the other side."

A missing father apparently dropped another letter, this one from his small daughter, Marisol. All by itself, her plaintive notes sums up the cross-border tragedy of family dislocation and separation. Marisol writes about how much she misses her dad. And there's no way to know whether they were ever reunited.

"We want you to come back soon dady," she writes in her beginner's English spelling. "Where are you?"