The Death of José Antonio

Tucson artist Wesley Fawcett Creigh previews animated video about the Border Patrol shooting of a Mexican teen

Here's what we know about the death of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez.

The 16-year-old Mexican citizen was fatally shot to death on Calle Internacional in Nogales, Sonora, on the night of Oct. 8, 2012. Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz, standing on an embankment high on the Arizona side, aimed his gun at Elena downward through the bars of the border wall and fired some10 shots across the international line. Most of the bullets hit Elena in the back. He died instantly.

Here's what remains to be decided: Was the killing justified? Or was it an act of murder?

Swartz claims he killed the boy in self-defense, saying that Elena was throwing rocks at him that endangered his own life. Witnesses maintain that the boy was simply walking along the street. And even if he were throwing rocks, he'd have to have had the arm of a major league baseball player to hurl a rock high enough to rise up some 40 feet, ascending up past the embankment and soaring higher than the border wall.

U.S. prosecutors have charged Swartz with second-degree murder; a trial, much delayed, is scheduled to take place in June.

This agonizing tragedy, dragged out—so far—over four and half years, is the latest subject for Tucson artist Wesley Fawcett Creigh. The artist, who's long done work around border and immigration issues—one large mural featured paint-by-number portraits of detained women—gives a preview Tuesday night (April 11) of "Of Rocks and Bullets: An Animated Discourse," her new animated video about the deadly episode.

"I pull up all the things that surround the story," says Creigh, who has followed the case for years. She did intensive research, including interviewing Elena's grandmother, Taide Elena, and his aunt, Ana Cuen.

"And I look at how the community responds, with compassion or with coldness."

Creigh's ideas for the work started developing after the Tucson band Vox Urbana wrote a song about the incident, "La Piedra y la Bala" (The Rock and the Bullet).

"I was inspired by the song to tell the story and respond to it," she says. "I'm using an instrumental version of their song."

Creigh will give a sneak peak of the film at an evening presentation sponsored by the Arts Foundation for Tucson, formerly known as TPAC (Tucson Pima Arts Council). Creigh won a New Works grant from the group to create "Of Rocks and Bullets."

Three other winners of the grants, meant to seed provocative art in groundbreaking media, will also introduce their works. All four works evoke a sense of place. Alexandra Jimenez will share "The Talking Mural," her interactive, site-specific piece that tells tales of life on Tucson's S. 12th Avenue.

Nika Keiser's video installation "Threshold" examines the meeting of desert and sea in western Sonora. Bill Mackey's "Old Nogales Highway" is both a book and an "accompanying bus ride" about the historic road that heads south through physical and cultural terrain that defines Tucson.

Creigh, primarily a painter, created at least 18 "fully painted backgrounds" for her short film, strung them together and then added moving parts.

"It's a mix of traditional art and moving animation," she explains. "I've been a huge admirer of animation my whole life and this is my first foray into moving images."

One painting is a wrenching portrait of José Antonio's mother, Araceli Rodriguez. Painted in the blacks and grays of mourning, Ariceli has a hole where her heart used to be. An animated banner bearing the word "hijo," Spanish for son, flutters through her empty chest.

Rodriguez struggled for some years for the right to file a wrongful death suit in the U.S.; her civil suit, accusing the Border Patrol of killing "my son in a senseless act of violence," is proceeding independently of the criminal trial. Creigh's work considers issues that go beyond the Elena case alone: the unusual legal issues raised by a cross-border shooting, where the shooter is in one country and the victim in another, for example, and the rarity of Border Patrol agents who've killed or injured immigrants actually being charged and brought to trial. (Elena was one of 42 people killed by agents between 2005 and 2013).

Creigh says she's heard hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric bile hurled at the dead young man, even though he was a Mexican who died in his own land.

"How can we be so divided when something is so tragic?" she asks.

After its brief outing Tuesday, her video will be part of a one-evening gallery exhibition at Exploded View Microcinema on April 22.

The show, Peripheries, showcases video works by five video artists, all of them "innovative, powerful" border pieces that "deal with the intersection of community, international borders and resistance," Creigh says. "I'm excited to show my piece in context with these other works."

The five artists will stake out video-viewing territory throughout the gallery and visitors will cruise around from one installation to another.

Connected through a mutual friend, Creigh and UA journalism grad student Jennifer Hijazi, cooked up the idea for the multi-artist show when Hijazi was prospecting around for an exhibition space for her master's thesis project. Hijazi traveled widely to film a series of 360-degree videos of international borders in North American and the Middle East. Spread around Exploded View at various viewing stations, the sprawling piece also includes audio of Hijazi's interviews with border dwellers.

Conor Elliott Fitzgerald focused his video on aging anglo snowbirds who come to the borderlands and contribute their own views to the region's difficult border debates.

Khaled Jarrar, a Palestinian multidisciplinary artist, loops his short documentary, Khaled's Ladder, about a sculpture he made from materials "gleaned from sections of U.S./Mexico border wall."

Jason Aragon, a longtime member of the local Pan Left Productions, takes over a viewing room at the back of the gallery to run his "collection of videos that encapsulates the last 10 years of the immigrant rights struggle in southern Arizona," Creigh says.

She'll install "Of Rocks and Bullets" inside a viewing booth, with the four-and-a-half-minute video looping again and again.

"People can come in and engage with it," she says. "I'm asking people to generate their response on a piece of paper."

She hopes to glue the scraps of paper together, and eventually project them onto a screen in Nogales, in the shadow of the border wall, in the place where José Antonio died in the nighttime streets of his hometown.

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