Published October 22nd, 2019 at 6:12 PM
It took months of travel, run-ins with Border Patrol and a press pass from a McAllen newspaper for curator and artist Israel Alejandro Garcia Garcia to produce two Kansas City-based exhibits on border crossings.
“Bordes Carnosos/Border Carnage” at the Metropolitan Community College Penn Valley Carter Art Center and “Border Crossings” – a traveling exhibit within the Mid-Continent Public Library system’s three branches – currently at the Midwest Genealogy Center. The exhibits mark the beginning of a larger project. Garcia said he will soon create a living sculpture with items from these shows using a modified 40-foot shipping container, representative of how some immigrants travel to the United States.
The images, found objects and sounds bring to life raw experiences in the borderland for those “disconnected” from that reality.
“You can’t have an opinion about the borderland until you’ve been there,” Garcia said. “Because it’s so different, it’s so dynamic. Every town has a different dynamic (but) it is so broad stroked.”
Garcia sought to change that with visual cues and debris found during his 2,000-mile trek along the U.S.-Mexico border. The goal of the exhibits was not to change anyone’s political views, he said, but to show people in the Midwest what migrating through the frontera really looks like and to humanize the journey.
This, in a nutshell, tells the modern tale of immigration. Collecting footage and found objects was also personal for Garcia. His family crossed the Tijuana, Mexico, border in 1984 and later settled in Los Angeles, where his mother became a farmworker. He became a U.S. citizen in 2018, though he lived as a permanent resident for the past 30 years.
“(The exhibit has) really has opened up (the line of) communication for people to share their own stories,” said Bernadette Torres, gallery director at the Carter Art Center. “It’s a (topical) point but from a humanistic point of view.”
In the first exhibit at the Midwest Genealogy Center, Garcia collected items left behind by people crossing through migrant trails along the U.S.-Mexico border. Items include battered backpacks, a child’s torn sandal and make-shift shoe coverings. Camouflage shirts and pants and sneakers with peeled back soles filled with desert rocks also are exhibited.
There are food items such as weathered plastic bottles of Electrolit, instant bean packets and rusted cans. All of the items are on display in a glass case at the entry of the center.
Garcia deliberately chose the Mid-Continent Public Library and the suburban branches like the nationally known genealogy center because he knows the majority of its patrons are white.
“They’re not all willing to take a trip to the border,” Garcia said. So displaying real, tactile items that many consider “trash from the border” gives them the opportunity to ignore the news and see it for themselves.
The second exhibit, at Carter Arts Center at Metropolitan Community College, is an immersive audio-visual exhibit showing scenes from Tijuana and San Diego. Video kick-starts the exhibit, set at a border checkpoint with Border Patrol agents peering down as the video gets closer. Audio plays in the background that consists of whistling – a call-and-response between Garcia and people held in detention centers.
“The (audio of) whistling has been the most moving part. People tear up when they hear it,” Torres said.
On one wall, Garcia projects a slideshow of white families smiling while on vacation over a famous image of Braceros (farm workers from the 1940-50s) lined up, about to be sprayed with a toxic pesticide.
At the center, beneath a photograph of a detention center, are stacked metal filing cabinets with the names “Juanita Doe”, “Juan Doe”, “Juana Doe” and “Juanito Doe,” an interpretation of John Doe, Jane Doe, Johnny Doe and Baby Jane Doe.
To the left, looped video footage of the border fence plays over a steel ladder. Two scenic portraits – the first of an asylum camp near the San Diego-Tijuana border and the second a view of Tijuana on one side and the San Diego desert on the other connected only by the ocean – flank the installation.
“What I very quickly realized is there was this huge disconnect,” Garcia said. “Even with the community here (in Kansas City) that is of Mexican descent … there was this generational gap of storytelling and information. It wasn’t being passed on.”
Garcia said he has lived in constant fear since he was seven years old. That fear escalated in 2016, “forcing” him – as he puts it – to file for citizenship soon as he returned from conducting research in Guatemala and Mexico for the two exhibits. He feared whether he’d be able to return to his family.
But in 2018 he became a citizen, allowing him to make this months-long project a reality. Not just that, he reconnected with the border he crossed three decades before.
“Since I entered the country I hadn’t been back,” he said. “It was full of emotion.”
“Border Crossings” is on display at the Midwest Genealogy Center until Oct. 27. “Bordes Carnosos/Border Carnage” is on display at the Carter Art Center until Dec. 6. These exhibits will be part of the mobile exhibit in a shipping container that the artist calls a living sculpture and will be on display in the metro area in 2020.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misreported that Warren Watkins Jr. is Bruce Watkins’ son. This article has been updated to reflect that Warren Jr. is Bruce Watkins’ nephew.