Tucson’s location lends itself to being a mosaic of cultural diversity, but mass media often portrays this bustling crossroads of religion, heritage, identity, food and art as a violent location.
“I feel like the biggest misinterpretation is that it’s unsafe and dangerous,” said Melissa Brown-Dominguez, an administrative associate at the University of Arizona who also works with her partner, Mel Dominguez, at Galeria Mitotera, 1802 S. Fourth Ave, to show the rich culture of South Tucson. Brown-Dominguez is the arts administrator at Galeria Mitotera.
“We get represented in the media that it’s so scary,” said Brown-Dominquez, who added that the gallery sometimes has trouble working with students “because they are told don’t go past 22nd, it’s dangerous, it’s scary. And it’s the opposite.”
With large numbers of border crossers seeking amnesty and controversy over the federal Title 42 in the headlines, the borderlands are a battleground for political contention. Much of borderlands coverage focuses on demonizing border crossers, but Galeria Mitotera and the University of Arizona Confluencenter of Creative Inquiry are illuminating unheard voices in the borderlands.
The Confluencenter recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Galeria Mitotera is one of its many supported projects through the Fronteridades program created by the Center.
“They’ve been watering us and watching us grow and it’s been such a great thing to be a part of to see that growth and connectivity,” Dominguez said.
Dominquez is an artist and muralist who is passionate about providing a safe space for artists of color, Indigenous artists and queer artists. Galeria Mitotera is the meeting place for these artists in South Tucson. Dominquez said the Confluencenter is supportive of their work.
Brown-Dominguez said the gallery will be giving out mini-grants to artists in the community to create mobile murals. The murals can be moved to different buildings in South Tucson, with possible trips to Nogales in the future.
“It’s intercambio, or ‘exchange’ of these arts,” Dominguez said.
Dominguez and Brown-Dominguez say their work with the Galeria is amplifying narratives through visual artistry.
“This is what we’re doing to tell that story that’s not being told,” Dominguez said.
Dr. Javier Duran, professor of Latin American and border studies and director of the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, said the organization wants to humanize the borderlands through not just research but also through artistic representation and community engagement.
“We see a lot of value bringing in the component of our diverse mosaic of communities to the conversation,” Duran said.
Duran describes the misrepresentation of the borderlands as a narrative of crisis. In opposition to mass media narratives, Arizona is not the most dangerous state in America. According to Statista, Arizona sits in-between South Dakota and Michigan for reported violent crimes in 2020. Neither of these states are characterized in the media as states of crisis.
“The point is that this brief indication of the wall becomes this political signal that is sent to mainstream America and the world and by extension, at the expense of the local narratives of resilience, progress and community building (that) are happening as we speak,” Duran said. “Therefore we felt, and the Mellon Foundation agrees, that this is the type of work that needs to be done from the perspective of the humanities and the arts to elevate those discourses that are really trying to empower a lot of the communities and a lot of the young people in the communities.”
To continue to amplify borderland voices, Duran and the Confluencenter want to support a new program through the recent grant called, “Amplifying Blackness in the Borderlands.”
“The idea is to work with youth in creating internships and to educate people about what the meaning of Blackness is in our region as well,” Duran said.
Dr. Stephanie Troutman Robbins is the department head of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, a Black feminist scholar, and the leader of the “Amplifying Blackness in the Borderlands” program.
Robbins said she attended a collaborative shark tank event held by the Confluencenter and presented her program idea to other colleagues. Her idea won the crowd. She hopes to bring together Black youth from different educational spaces such as graduate students, undergraduates, and possibly high schoolers in the Tucson community through her project.
“I want to create something where those Black people could come together and talk about their experience of living in the Southwest, on the border in Tucson in some kind of an expressive arts way that amplifies black identity, whether that’s Afro Latina, or Black and Mexican, or just being African American in this space,” Robbins said.
The project will begin in the upcoming fall semester. Robbins will provide resources and support to Black students to bring their projects to life.
Due to Arizona’s location, Mexican Americans and local tribes such as the Pasque Yaqui, Tohono O’odham, and Mexican Americans tend to have more opportunities for representation in media. Robbins said this leaves a lot of Black people in Tucson out of borderlands storytelling. Due to this underrepresentation, Robbins’ project will encourage Black youth in the borderlands to fill in the missing narratives.
“It’s kind of become this mosaic, you know, here’s our piece,” Robbins said. “We’re all part of this mosaic that is about the border that is about living here and being in community and being in relationships and reckoning with history.”
Robbins’ own experience as a Black woman in Tucson has informed her aims for the project. Tucson is the furthest West Robbins has ever lived and she feels comfortable here, but it’s been difficult to create relationships with other Black people. For one, the population of Black people in Arizona is much smaller compared to other parts of the country. The latest U.S. Census numbers for Tucson showed Black or African American people make up 4.9% of the population. This is much lower than the Hispanic or Latino population of 44.2%.
But Robbins notes there is a lot of diversity within the Black community in Tucson that she hopes to document through artistic work.
“What I mean by that is that there are Black folks who live in Tucson because they’ve lived here their whole life, or because they’re from Arizona or New Mexico: she said. “They are from the West and they live in Tucson. And then a lot of the Black folks who are at the University are transplants. We’ve come up to work so we joined this group of Black Tucsonans, but it’s very different. There’s a certain culture that is very geographically rooted.”