Border Art and Song

A visual artist and a singer explore the tragedies that spur migrants to come to the U.S.

Cesar Lorenti Castillo has more works than any of the other 14 artists in the Endurance/Resistencia art show at the Raices Taller gallery.

He's showing eight watercolors and drawings, so many they take up a whole wall in the gallery. And he made them all in Tucson in just the last month. Before that, until Feb. 1, he was being held in the ICE federal immigration detention center in Florence.

"I'm very happy to be here in the United States," Lorenti said in Spanish during an interview two weeks ago at a border conference at the UA. "But I feel sad for the people who have been deported, who are being left in the desert without their life. I also feel sorry for the people in detention."

Lorenti, a 61-year-old Guatemalan, was released after 4 1/2 months in Florence; the judge let him go on the strength of his claim for asylum. A one-time journalist and teacher as well as an artist, he can't work in the U.S. for now, and he still has hearings ahead of him. But he has legal permission to be here.

The personal history that persuaded the judge might have derailed a person less resilient than Lorenti. Four of his family members were murdered in the wake of Guatemala's bloody civil war, and he has the official autopsy reports to prove it. The first to die was his 19-year-old- son, Gerber, shot in the chest and abdomen in 1997. Brother Mario, 32, followed in 2000; nephew Julio, 21, in 2007; and great-nephew Angel, 17, in 2011.

Lorenti believes his family was targeted because of his work as a journalist and teacher.

"I wrote about kidnappings, extortions and murders," he said. "People in the government were involved." And he had his students interview the guerrillas who had fought against the regime. "The government wanted to make me flee. So they began murdering my family."

Lorenti had tried to get into the United States before, but was deported repeatedly, he said. His last deportation was in 2009. The U.S. flew him back to Guatemala and, in fear for his life, he fled for Mexico the next day. He bounced around Mexico for a couple of years, working various jobs, including at a migrant shelter in the southern state of Oaxaca. There he saw hundreds of Central American migrants riding atop la bestia metal—the metal beast, or trainand being horribly treated by criminal gangs.

Avoiding the trains himself, Lorenti eventually made his way to Nogales last September. He presented himself to border officials at the port of entry and asked for asylum. After his odyssey through Border Patrol custody and ICE detention, he rode a Greyhound bus to Tucson.

Although Lorenti is forbidden to work, he's been feverishly creating art. (Because he's not allowed to work, he can't sell his art but it's available by donation.)

The gentle landscapes, he said, "are to escape reality. They're about peace and tranquility."

The watercolors, though, conjure a world of terror.

"Figures are intertwined. People are fearful and they're clinging to each other," he said. "The colors are aggressive and the lines are grotesque.

"I am representing my people of maïz y frijoles (rice and beans) but there are problems in all parts of the world. I want to represent universal suffering, the suffering of all human beings."

Bluesman Scott Ainslie is an artist with a conscience, a musician who tries "to use my time on the stage to make the world a little better."

He's long explored the music of Robert Johnson, the legendary guitarist of the Mississippi Delta. But he considers himself a historian as well as a musician. While performing Johnson's blues songs, Ainslie tells his audiences a little about the horrors of sharecropping in the old South.

"I'm bringing history to the table," he said by phone last week from his home in Vermont.

Yet Ainslie, who will perform at an acoustic solo show Friday, March 15, in Sahuarita, knew nothing about the tragedies of the Southwest border until one Sunday morning in 2007. That day, he heard a radio report from Tucson on a national NPR feed about the presumed death of a pregnant migrant who was lost on the Tohono O'odham reservation. The story, by reporter Claudine LoMonaco, recounted the futile search for the woman's body.

"I carried the story in my head for a couple of months," Ainslie said. "I couldn't let the injustice of it go. We build a wall to keep people out when we've taken away their ability to make a living."

Eventually he wrote a song about the woman, imagining her story from her husband's point of view. In the tune, "The Land That I Love," the man explains how NAFTA took away his livelihood and drove him and his wife from their home. Their own little farm couldn't compete with the subsidized corn flooding into Mexico from the United States.

"I go to the market/ In the town I was born/ It's full of cheap clothes from China/ And American corn. ...Why would I leave the land that I love? ... If it wasn't for the wages I'd be living there still."

Ainslie recorded "The Land" for Border Songs, the compendium CD put together by NAU professor Robert Neustadt. The album is a fundraising vehicle for No More Deaths, the activist group whose members leave food and water for migrants on Arizona's dangerous desert trails. Pete Seeger, Sweet Honey in the Rock and Tucson's own Calexico all contributed songs to the 2012 disc, which has so far raised some $20,000. (Full disclosure: My son Will Gosner's song "Sunset Limited," played by his band Lakesigns, also appears on the CD.)

Since he wrote the song, Ainslie has twice come to Arizona to learn firsthand about the plight of migrants crossing the desert and of deportees stranded in Nogales, Sonora. He's hiked the desert with Shura Wallin and Rev. Randy Mayer of the Green Valley Samaritans, and visited the comedor (eatery) for migrants run by the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales.

Ainslie sings his border song regularly in his concerts.

"I work mostly in the East," he said. "People there have no idea what's going on" in the Arizona borderlands, where more than 2,500 migrants have died in the last dozen years.

At his solo concert Friday, Ainslie will sing "The Land That I Love," along with blues numbers by Johnson, at least one piece by Sam Cooke and a new composition of his own. He wrote the new song "Where Is He Now?" to alert Americans to the raft of suicides committed by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"They give themselves death sentences for what they have to do in our name," he said.

Ainslie's songs may be serious, but they're lyrical rather than strident.

"Songs pounding somebody over the head fail," Ainslie said. "They're only useful in a rally. I try to find the story. Show the facts. Then drive the point home emotionally with a song."

Tucson Weekly arts editor Margaret Regan reports on the arts twice monthly on The Buckmaster Show, which airs from noon to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday on KVOI 1030 AM. Her next radio report will be broadcast live on Tuesday, March 19.


1 to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through April 6

Raices Taller 222 Art Gallery & Workshop, 218 E. Sixth St.


EXTRA: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, March 16: poster and art workshop for kids and adults focusing on the legacy of César E. Chávez

6 to 9 p.m., Saturday, March 23: César E. Chávez community celebration, including guest speakers and performances of youth slam poetry, music and spoken word.

Scott Ainslie, singer/songwriter and blues guitarist

7 p.m., Friday, March 15

Javarita Coffeehouse, The Good Shepherd United Church of Christ, 17750 S. La Cañada Drive, Sahuarita

$10; benefits Sahuarita Community Food Bank