Archive for culture crit

Public Art at Tijuana Border Crossing

During 2004/2005, I spent my mornings waiting in line at the border. The commute from Tijuana to San Diego gave me plenty of time to watch, listen and think. For several weeks, I watched a group of men working behind a shroud of old vinyl banners and recycled plastic sheets. I couldn’t see what it was, but they were building something. Every day, I’d catch a glimpse of color or a peculiar shape. On days when traffic moved quickly, I felt a little disappointed that I hadn’t been able to see more. Day by day, the anticipation grew.

Finally, it was revealed.

The structure stands around 40-feet-tall. The base holds an imprisoned hand; the top, a tile mosaic cityscape with two spires reaching upward. Four engraved Mayan hoops face north, south, east and west. A south-facing plaque reads:

ESCULTURA
“ENTRE VENTANA Y PUERTA”
DEL ARTISTA VISUAL
OSCAR ORTEGA

Sculpture “Between a Window and a Door” By Visual Artist Oscar Ortega

At the time, I was the technical director for KPBS Radio’s The Lounge, a daily talk show covering the arts in San Diego. The show’s producer, Angela Carone, and host, Dirk Sutro, were interested in Tijuana artists as well, so I made contact with Oscar Ortega. We started an email conversation, but unfortunately, there was turnover at work and I was reassigned to a different program. After not receiving Oscar’s reply to a set of questions — and with the changes at work — the story faded into that quiet place where memories go to gather dust.

Oscar Ortega has several public pieces in Tijuana, including a mural just a short distance from the sculpture. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an online portfolio that I can find. Searching “entre ventana y puerta” returns an image of mine on Flickr as the top result (I’m curious if this blog post will take it’s spot after it gets crawled). So after two years waiting to read someone else’s review of the piece, I figure it’s about time to share my own.

He explained the title as a description of Tijuana’s physical (and perhaps psychological) situation. It’s an incredibly transited city, but has no seaport, making its coastline only a “window.” The “door” refers to the U.S. border — a door locked for many. The piece, like the city, is rich with layered symbols: the hand of Mexican labor, cars circle the base endlessly, the round indigenous blocks carved with the men’s bathroom figure, the jumbled mosaic like the residential architecture covering Tijuana’s hillsides.

Certain patterns line up at particular angles, allowing you to discover each scene as you move around it. For me, Ortega’s sculpture stands as a monument to the culture of Tijuana: a mix of indigenous and modern symbols, a city of travelers, glimpses of family struggle, international labor and commerce, and all of it trapped in a corner at the edge of the world. And I’m curious if the people who pass “between a window and a door” daily manage to see themselves in it.

Non-Hispanic

Every time I go to the bank for anything that requires a conversation with a person who isn’t behind an inch of bullet-ready glass, I seem to get the same lady. She added Rosario to my accounts after the wedding, ordered new checks, and wired money to an escrow company. She’s always been courteous. She keeps a professional distance, not asking more than the necessary questions.

Tall and trim, large brown eyes, long brown hair, medium to light brown skin. She’s got a mysterious look and a subtle accent. But it’s not a Spanish accent so it has me guessing Brazilian.

Today, I walk into the bank, write my name on the clip board and sit in a chair just firm enough to be unwelcoming. I notice my usual helper is with someone else. A guy walks toward and past me saying “I’ll be with you in one sec.” Before he returns, she finishes with the older gentleman at her desk and calls me over.

As she’s entering information into a screen I can only see the back of, a co-worker says goodbye and asks when she’s taking her day off. “I’ll be off Thursday because I’ll be doing the Latin festival.” I jump in, “The Latino Film Festival? Will you be working at a booth or something?” “Yeah,” she explains, working a table for opening accounts.

Counting on her accent not being Spanish, I ask what she thinks of the term “Hispanic.” She tells me she’s often asked to fill out forms at work that show they’re hiring a diverse workforce, but she always fills in “other.” “I’m from Brazil and I speak Portuguese, so I’m not Hispanic. Here they think you’re all the same. In Brazil, you call it by your color: white, black or in-between. In Brazil I’m white,” she explains.

“Do your Mexican clients ever get upset you don’t speak Spanish?” She says they get frustrated, not angry. “They do get angry with this other guy who is third generation Mexican-American ’cause he doesn’t speak Spanish. You know, he’s like, get angry at my parent’s; it isn’t my fault.”

She hands me the receipt and the transaction is over — just in time to keep me from embarrassing myself by regurgitating my thesis.

True Mexican Novelas

After visiting the tomb of her daughter in Guadalajara, my mother-in-law Luz sits quietly in the backseat with her sister Esperanza. The high-beams guide us in the darkness. Rosario takes advantage of the two-and-a-half hour drive to León, Guanajuato to interview her aunt about her youth. “Tenía ud. muchos novios? Did you have a lot of boyfriends?” she asks. “Uy, sí. Oh yeah.” They both chuckle. Esperanza continues, explaining how she dated three boys at the same time, one being her future husband. Once, she was out dancing with one boyfriend, and another boyfriend arrived. Her friends quickly alerted her “Ahí viene José Here comes José” so she could excuse herself from the dance-floor.

Rosario asks her aunt how she eventually married José. “Por accidente! By accident!” Esperanza explains how different times were back then. She was a good girl who held hands but didn’t kiss. One day, she got angry with a neighbor and the two exchanged heated words. Later, Esperanza’s father, a man who rarely spoke to her whatsoever, asked her if what the neighbor told him was true. She reluctantly agreed. What she didn’t know was that the neighbor actually said Esperanza and José were having inappropriate relations. Her father obliged José to marry Esperanza. She liked José but had no interest in marriage at age 16. Her father insisted. The Catholic train couldn’t be stopped and the two were married. It wasn’t until several years later, while talking with her mother, she realized what had happened.

But the story didn’t stop there. She describes José’s drinking, the beatings, the 20 pregnancies, and their first kiss after over 50 years of marriage. After an hour of her stories, all those telenovelas with ridiculous plot turns somehow seemed a little less ridiculous.

Meet Esperanza:

Esperanza

Holiday Border Traffic

Leaving the Tijuana airport as Sunday became Monday, Rosario and I stood in the cold air, waiting for the taxi. After a delayed return flight from Guanajuato, we prepared ourselves for what border traffic we might encounter. On a typical Sunday night at this hour, you can expect to cross in an hour or less. But this was the Sunday end to Thanksgiving weekend. And anytime there’s a U.S. holiday, border traffic is exponential.

The taxi drops us at Rosario’s sister’s home, where the trusty Nissan Frontier waits. We transfer luggage to the truck and head like zombies for the Otay crossing. When we arrive at 1:30 a.m., there are only two short, thin lines. “Mira, it’s not so bad,” I say to a reclined Rosario. I undo my seatbelt and make myself comfortable for what should take 30 to 40 minutes. At this hour, the customs agents typically work slower than normal, but after 45 minutes and only advancing 10 cars, I start having my doubts. Cars continue to gather in other rows, to the point that I no longer have an exit option. After asking a passing window washer, and seeing cars turn and head back, my half-conscious mind realizes the lanes are closed. No one is getting through.

I see a brief opening between cars and shove my way into the outside lane, making an overdue escape. Too tired to be outwardly angry, I take my grumpiness to San Ysidro to give it another shot. Otay is supposed to be open 24 hours, but because it’s a secondary entry point, it can be less consistent. We arrive at San Ysidro to much longer lines full of sleeping cars, lights and engines off. “Let’s just go to a hotel to sleep,” Rosario offers. But I’m not in the mood. I want to sleep in my bed tonight even if it’s just for a few hours. “Let’s just sleep in the SENTRI lane. It opens in a couple hours,” I decide.

It’s now 3 a.m. as we pull alongside one other car already waiting in the lane. I put it in park, turn off the engine, and pull out the laptop to play solitaire. I hit a second wind, now unable to sleep. After a half-hour losing repeatedly at the Vegas-style three-card game, I take out the camera.

Waiting for the SENTRI lanes to open

Lanes Closed

At 4 a.m., the lane opens and we cross the line. The final leg of the drowsy marathon came to a close another half-hour later, and sleep came soon thereafter. As a privileged member of the SENTRI program, my heart goes out to all of my compas who were already beginning their workweek as I recoup a few hours sleep under the high thread-count sheets and synthetic down comforter of my king-sized bed.

GreenCard Energy Drink

From Convenience Store News:

GreenCard Energy Drink, made by Z CORP, markets its energy beverage to illegal immigrants on their way to the U.S. It claims that it will give energy to those looking to cross the border and potentially outrun U.S. Border Patrol.

“It’s a fact,” that people illegally cross the border, president and CEO of Z CORP, Jeff Weiss, told CSNews Online. “If they are going to come to the U.S., I don’t want them dying in the desert, I’d rather have them hydrated.”

GreenCard Energy Drink

This would have been a perfect art project. Unfortunately, they beat me to it, and it’s real to boot (as far as I can tell). It is a pretty amazing commentary on the industry’s lack of social consciousness. It also has the “help them cross” irony like Judi Werthein’s Brinco shoes. I’m still sort of in awe that they actually think this is a reasonable idea…

[ via cindylu ]

Smack Those Political Campaigns

Eyes unopened, tangled in sheets and the morning light, the sound invades my waking mind. “Smack that, all on the floor, smack that, give me some more, smack that, until you get sore, smack that, oh oh oooh . . . “ It can’t be inside the room, and it isn’t coming from the window. Synapses slowly begin to fire in order and I realize it’s coming from another sector of my brain where the absent DJ left a record spinning. Smack that, la la la laaa, smack that, la la la laaa. I flop out of bed and step into the shower, but the song continues…

All day, I caught myself whistling, humming, and strutting to “Smack That.” See, I have this unconscious musical recorder that’s something like muscle memory. I hear music through the window of a passing car, and 10 minutes later, I’m whistling it. But waking up with a song in my head is rare. I imagine the political ads that pummeled me the night before while watching Law & Order SVU could have knocked something loose. No commercials for iPods, movies, or shampoo. Just wall to wall political propaganda. Just thinking of all the money that goes into convincing voters makes me ill.

A troubling trend in the campaign wars has to do with “family values.” I picked up this pamphlet at a church in Escondido. It’s from FamilyVoterInfo.org and at first glance, appears to list candidates and their opinions on the issues. But several things are a little off kilter. The only Democratic candidate whose responses appear is Phil Angelides, and every Republican candidate agrees on the issues, making this anything but a comparative study. It’s real purpose becomes clearer when you notice that drivers licenses for illegal immigrants (against), oil tax for alternative energy research (against), political campaign reform (against), and raising property taxes (against) are all now apparently family values issues. The only issues that seem remotely related to families are parental notification for abortion (supporting a YES vote), limiting marriage to one man and one woman (supporting a YES vote), and paid preschool for all children (supporting a NO vote).

If this wasn’t odd enough, the issues for congressional candidates include school choice vouchers (YES), voting against raising taxes (YES), registering firearms (NO), legislating to limit abortion (YES), parental consent for abortion (YES, note that this time they used the term “consent” not “notification”), gay marriage (NO), censoring libraries (YES), and amnesty for illegal immigrants (NO). Ok, since when did immigration status start threatening family values? And how does NOT requiring gun owners to register and license weapons protect families? The whole idea is absurd. A shameless attempt to influence conservative Christians into voting Republican or family values in this country will be lost.

Didn’t Jesus teach loving your neighbor as yourself, giving to the needy, and nonviolence? Christianity would be a lot more attractive if Christians worked a little harder to practice the fundamental principles rather than promoting political agendas that include military action, eliminating services for the poor, and selfish tax laws.