Honoring the Dead

Check out two exhibits—one in town, and one across from Douglas—critiquing our murderous border policies

The grandmothers, artist Carmen R. Sonnes says, are pissed.

In her Contreras Gallery show Radiance, about the deaths of migrants in the Arizona desert, Sonnes has a triptych painting of five angry grandmothers. Equipped with sunglasses to ward off the fierce desert sun, and wrapped in old-time Mexican rebozos (shawls), the white-haired women in "The Grandmothers Are Pissed" lament the deaths of their children, their grandchildren and the rest of the desert's dead.

They have good reason to be angry. In the last dozen years, the bodies of some 2,401 border-crossers have been found in Southern Arizona. This year, blazing heat descended on Southern Arizona earlier than usual—and almost immediately, the deaths of migrants shot up.

The temperature hit 100 degrees in Tucson on April 22. Last year, the first 100-degree day was May 27, and the kinder temperatures were reflected in lower numbers of deaths.

The Border Patrol's Tucson sector recorded just five deaths of border-crossers in May 2011; this May, in hotter times, the agency counted 19 migrant bodies. One of them was an unidentified young man whose corpse was discovered May 12 by Samaritan volunteers north of Tubac, just a half-mile east of the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 19.

"It got warmer earlier this year," Border Patrol public information officer Brent Cagen says. "The deaths are up a little bit."

Just last week, on June 12, agents found another body, of a Mexican man, near Topawa on the Tohono O'odham Nation. "The west desert is extremely remote," Cagen observes. "There are very little resources out there."

And even though the numbers of undocumented migrants slipping across the border are way down, deaths so far for this fiscal year are way up. Deaths for June are not in yet, Cagen says, but the 2012 fiscal year total so far—from Oct. 1, 2011, through May 31—is 114 bodies found. Last year, by May 31, the known death toll was 100.

Sonnes' work honors these lost souls in acrylic paintings and sculptural mixed-media works. Completed during the last year, her paintings are not tied to these specific headlines, nor do they depict particular individuals. Rather, Sonnes makes these dead into archetypal figures with the timeless look of saints.

Encircled with halos and dressed in flowing robes, they're lost in a sanctified wilderness where the earth and sky glow orange and gold. "Queen of the Desert" stands amid saguaros unmoored from the soil; her eyes are cast down and sorrowful, and she's wrapped herself in a mortuary cloth woven of cacti. In "Dreaming of Water," the face of a migrant, eyes closed, floats in an imaginary pool of water. A tiny butterfly, a sign of death, hovers over this mirage.

Only one work conjures up the harsh political reality of the border. The face of a corpse is embedded into the border wall in "The Fence #1," a thick 3-D piece made up of crumbling concrete and barbed wire. The work silently critiques a border-enforcement policy that pushes desperate migrants deeper into the dangerous wilderness, where they are more likely to fall ill, and more likely to die.

Laurie McKenna, an artist who lives between Bisbee and Douglas, has made a suite of works honoring another group of the borderlands dead—those shot to death by Border Patrol agents.

Her exhibition, Rock Paper Fence, will run for three days next week at the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta, just steps from the Douglas border-crossing.

Consisting of 25 pieces—pen-and-ink drawings and oil paintings—along with audio files taken from 911 calls and cell-phone videos made in the aftermath of the killings, the works zero in on particular cases, examining five different shooting deaths along the border.

"These works are a testimony and a witnessing," McKenna says. "I want them to express sadness. People are sometimes uncomfortable with their bereft quality—these are not going to be hung in someone's living room."

Two of the deaths she investigates took place in McKenna's stamping grounds. Carlos Lamadrid, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen, was shot to death March 21, 2011, in Douglas. He'd been suspected of transporting drugs in his car. The Border Patrol gave chase, and an agent shot him in the back as he scrambled up a ladder on the border wall. (The U.S. Attorney's Office is investigating the case, and last week, Lamadrid's mother sued the federal government for using "excessive force" in the killing of her unarmed son.)

Like Lamadrid, the unarmed Francisco Javier Dominguez Rivera was shot in the back by a Border Patrol agent. The 20-year-old died Jan. 12, 2007, in the open country between Naco and Douglas. Agent Nicholas Corbett claimed that Dominguez Rivera was throwing rocks, so the agent shot him in self-defense. Corbett was tried twice, and both times, the proceedings ended in a mistrial.

McKenna also examines the shooting deaths of 17-year-old Ramses Barron Torres, in Nogales on Jan. 5, 2011; Sergio Adrian Hernández Güereca, age 15, in El Paso on June 7, 2010; and Ramiro Gamez Acosta, age 20, in Calexico, Calif., on March 26, 2007.

"I do drawings according to what witnesses said," she explains. The artist maintains that she does not "have a general dislike for Border Patrol. I support their efforts and duty." Agents handle most confrontations without violence, she says, but the force seems to harbor a number of agents who are "overly aggressive."

McKenna draws in a deliberately naïve style, making swift, sure lines in ink, simplifying both bodies and landscape. The unnerving audio component of her art is taken directly from 911 calls and cell-phone videos. The sounds are embedded in innocent-looking cards she'll hang on the exhibition walls; open them, and you will hear the panicked voices and emergency sirens that wailed in the wake of La Madrid's death, for one, and the anguished screams of a girl in El Paso after Hernández Güereca was killed, for another.

Among the exhibition's other images drawn from this surreal Arizona time are a portrait of Russell Pearce, the recalled state senator who authored the anti-immigrant bill SB 1070; and an image of a Colt revolver, named the Arizona state gun just after the mass shootings in Tucson on Jan. 8, 2011.

One of the simplest and most-ominous drawings is of a Wackenhut bus. The private company is contracted to shuttle captured migrants to jail cells at Border Patrol headquarters and then back to the border to disgorge them into Mexico. The buses routinely travel the borderlands roads, but their darkened windows prevent Americans from seeing their human cargo.

McKenna was making a painting of the firebombing of a Freedom Riders bus during the civil rights wars of the 1960s when she "started seeing the Wackenhut bus every day. I started painting that, too, and they became a pair," each evoking a different civil rights battle—and a different use of buses, with one taking people to freedom, and the other taking freedom away.

McKenna displayed Rock Paper Fence in a Bisbee gallery last fall, but now she's looking for venues outside of the art scene, and close to the locations of the killings she's memorializing, in Calexico, El Paso and Nogales.

"My goal is to get a show in each of the border towns where the shooting incidents I document have taken place," she says. Like the three-day show in Agua Prieta, they'll likely pop up "guerrilla style," in unlikely spaces, for short periods of time. "The work is telling me that's where it wants to be."

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