Ambos Nogales

Leah Motzkin, B.A. ’16

The twin cities of Nogales, Arizona, United States and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico exist in conversation with each other. Here Interstate 19 meets Federal Highway 15, one of the only roadways for almost a hundred miles in either direction that allows drivers to travel north and south.[1] Mexicans with day passes visit stores on the Arizona side to buy U.S. goods, while U.S.citizens travel south to buy cheap medicine. Factories that serve U.S. companies dot the expansive Sonoran landscape. The cities are far from identical twins, as the population in Sonora (200,000) is nearly ten times that of its counterpart.

As a part of the constantly evolving stream of people who move from one area to another, migrants come to Nogales from southern Mexico to work as maquiladoras (factory workers) or to enter the United States. There are three legal points for border crossing and many extra-legal ways that individuals move over and under the border fence. Most enter legally. Others enter through the occasional holes in the fence or through drain tunnels that connect under the unified city of Ambos Nogales. Narcotraffic takes the same routes.[2]  

Spurred by 9/11 and the resulting wave of fear and xenophobia that gripped the United States and  rhetoric around “National Security,” the Secure Fence Act was passed in 2006 and the slow process of rebuilding the border fence in its current form began. Construction reached Nogales in 2011, and the earlier wall—easy to cut through, though opaque—was replaced by a higher fence made of steel and concrete. Migrants could no longer pass through it with ease, and now they seek ways of going around, under, or over it. Each path includes its own challenges. Going under the wall entails complex tunnelling under Nogales. While the governments build tunnels for drainage, narcotraffickers build their own tunnels for illicit movement between countries. Then, individuals known as “coyotes” use the tunnels to smuggle humans into the United States for a fee, Migrants who use the tunnels to gain entry  face a variety of risks, including kidnapping and being swept away by  flash flooding [3] Passing around the fence also presents danger. When migrants leave cities and go into the Sonoran desert, they find vast arid expanses without water.  Between 2001 and 2014, more than 2,100 individuals died under the hot Arizona sun attempting this journey.[4]  Finally,the rebuilt fence reaches between 15 and 30 feet in height, making the climb that much more dangerous. The fall from those heights is even more dangerous, often leading to injury or death.

One striking image speaks to the human toll associated with the increased militarization and deportations along the border. The photo shows a woman with her back to the lens, her arms reach through a break in the fence. Her husband—unseen—pushes his hand through the fence to grab her waist. The hug they share with the fence between them is emblematic the fence manifests. The hug in the photograph features individuals and tells a story about love entangled in the physical limits of a political and economic system. It is a system that only values labor. The photograph shows the hands that work and the structure that keeps them organized.

An increasingly solidified border manifests state priorities that hierarchically devalue  the individuals who live on either side. Concrete borders continually, discount the value of the trans-national or cosmopolitan communities.[5] Just as the fence has grown to reflect state interests, it could also evolve to serve the surrounding communities. Scholar Pablo Vila coined the term de-bordering, which takes form in the “ethical and practical activities that assist migrants, recast the terms of official discourse, and challenge existing institutional arrangements.”[6] In the modern era, there has been an attempt to move past the well-marked differences between “them” and “us” that characterized the nation-state to a multicultural transnationalism.[7] One project capitalizes on the idea of the border as an imagined space and takes on the physical structure that the fence imposes. Just as politicians in the 1850s imagined the space that would become the border, Mexican-American artist Ana Teresa Fernández imagines a border region without a dividing wall, where binational communities are allowed to thrive.

On October 13, 2015, Fernández’s imaginings took a physical form when she and a group from the binational community painted a 50-foot stretch of the border fence on the Sonora side of Nogales “electra” blue. The piece created the  illusion of a hole in the fence, effectively “bringing the sky down.”[8] Sponsored by an Arizona State University initiative, Performance in the Borderlands, the work was titled Borrando La Frontera, or “erasing the border.” Three years earlier, on October 13, 2012, Fernández created a similar work by painting the border fence blue at the point where it reaches the ocean between Tijuana and San Diego. For that project, the artist worked alone and viewed the work as a performance piece.[9] As her body engaged with the border fence, it spoke to the bodies of migrants that move over, under, and around it and those who are stopped by it. For her Nogales work, however, she drew more on the possibility of binational community engagement.

While the economic system suppresses individual agency at the border, individuals and the community at Nogales have proven resilient. Though many associate the fence with pain, community movements question its longevity and imagine the border without a fence. As a site of connection and division, Ambos Nogales was created through an act of imagination. Fernández facetiously referred to her work as merely painting, and proclaimed to the New Times, “I’m no threat.” In the process of her act of imagining becoming physical, however, Fernandez performs an alternative agency for a community that remains divided.

A woman, who declined to give her name, is hugged by her husband as they chat between the border fence separating Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, Wednesday, July 28, 2010. A federal judge on Wednesday blocked the most controversial parts of Arizona's immigration law from taking effect, delivering a last-minute victory to opponents of the crackdown. The overall law will still take effect Thursday, but without the provisions that angered opponents — including sections that required officers to check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
A woman on the Arizona side of the border hugs her husband on the Sonora side on July 29, 2010. Photo by Jae C. Hong from the “On the Border” series published in The Atlantic on May 6, 2013

 

[1] This work is a part of ongoing research.

[2] The situation regarding narcotrafficking in Nogales will not be largely discussed in this work. There is a substantial amount of information and scholarship available on the topic, and I would encourage anyone interested to look to Irasema Coronado’s chapter “Towards the Wall Between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora.”

[3] Fernando Romero, Hyperborder: The Contemporary U.S.-Mexico Border and Its Future, (New York: Princeton Architectural, 2008), Print, 165.

[4] Maeve Hickey and Lawrence J. Taylor, Ambos Nogales: Intimate Portraits of the U.S. Mexico Border, Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research, 2002. Print, 80.

[5] Irasema Coronado, “Towards the Wall Between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora,” Borders, Fences and Walls: State of Insecurity? Ed. Élisabeth Vallet., Print, 140.

[6] Olivia Mena, “Intervention – ‘Removing the Monument to Overcoming Walls: Reflections on Contemporary Border Walls and the Politics of De-bordering, ‘” Web log post. Antipode Foundation, 09 Dec. 2013, Web.

[7] Pablo Vila, Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders: Social Categories, Metaphors, and Narrative Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Frontier, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000,) Project MUSE, Web, 170.

[8] Lynn Trimble, “Artist Ana Teresa Fernández on Erasing the Border with Blue Paint,” Phoenix New Times, The New Times, 23 Oct. 2015, Web.

[9] “Mexican-Born Artist Is ‘Erasing The Border,” Audio blog post, Here & Now, Ed. Jude Joffe-Block, KJZZ, 12 Oct. 2015, Web.