Emerging artists in Douglas & Agua Prieta create safe spaces to shift border narratives.
Story and photos by Kimi Eisele
Just 500 feet south of the United States, beneath a set of cream-colored arches on Calle Tres in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, artist Ammi Robles moves in and out of a large green camping tent. Inside are fluffy pillows to sit on and a video screen with a rotating display of photographs of the city. A hand-painted sign on the front of the tent reads, “Mi Safe Space.”
Nearby, Stephany Zamarripa has set up an outdoor exhibit of oil paintings, a body of work she calls “Cultura Compartida,” which highlights the shared culture of Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta.
Both artists are fellows with the Border Arts Corridor (BAC), a Douglas-based organization that creates art installations, workshops, and other programs on both sides of the border. The BAC Fellowship, a new program, supports emerging binational artists with funding, mentorship, professional documentation, and opportunities for public engagement. The Fellows are sharing their work as part of the Binational Artwalk, an annual event that brings art into streets, public spaces, storefronts, and the border wall in Douglas and Agua Prieta.
Beneath “El Arco,” a company of young dancers takes the stage, each dressed as a character from the popular Mexican card game, La Lotería—el soldado, el diablo, la dama. On the closed-off street, vendors sell everything from pan dulce, tamales, and flavored mezcal, to hats, embroidered blouses, and jewelry.
I’ve come to the Artwalk specifically to see the work of the BAC Fellows, who were awarded their fellowships in February 2021, but because of the pandemic have not been able to share their work publicly until now.
After the dance, Zamarripa talks to me about her paintings of fronterizos, people who reside on the border. “This one is called ‘Hot Dogos,’” she says of a painting featuring a white hot dog truck. “As Mexicans, we eat a lot of hot dogs, but we know they are from America.”
Another painting shows the interior of Food City, an Arizona chain of grocery stores that caters to the state’s Mexican American population. “When I was a kid, I used to go to Food City in Douglas, and it was so familiar. We saw the piñatas and many name brands from Mexico. It was the perfect bicultural store for me.”
One painting of the border wall includes a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle barely visible through the steel slats. On the wall is a white cross. “For the people who have died crossing the border,” Zamarripa explains. The painting is called “Vivamos siempre como hermanos,” she says. Let’s live forever like siblings.
From the border wall to hot dog vendors to pastel de tres leches, a Mexican cake made with “three milks,” Zamarripa’s subject matter is intimate. These are familiar scenes to the fronteriza artist, things she sees all the time. Yet the paintings themselves remind me of blurry photographs, as if the scenes are taking place behind a thin gauzy curtain. This doesn’t create distance, but a softness, a tenderness.
As a hip-hop artist from Douglas starts to sing his poetry on the stage, I crawl into Robles’s tent and sit for a while on a faux-fur pillow. On a flat-screen monitor, a slideshow cycles through images of people and places in Agua Prieta—girls in sombreros, distant dusty mountains, people conversing through the border wall. Like Zamarripa’s paintings, these images feel intimate, as if I’m tucked in Robles’s backpack, peeking out and viewing her world up close.
Robles says her installation, “Mi Safe Space,” is a way to show people how she experiences her hometown of Agua Prieta. “Kids feel safe when they build like a pillow fort, a blanket fort. That’s how I feel here.”
She acknowledges that the borderlands are not always safe for everyone, but as a photographer and videographer, she wants to shine a different light on the community and its history. Robles assembled her favorite images in a book called “Frontera: recuerdos de mi hogar, which visitors can look at while inside the tent. “I also include interviews in the book with people that live here. I wanted to show that this is an interesting place. It has wonderful people. We are more than what the news says we are.”
As the late afternoon sun dips below the top of the arches, a baile folklorico group from Agua Prieta begins to dance, their colorful twirling skirts catching the light in kaleidoscopic whir. I leave behind the sounds of the dancers’ percussive feet and head north, a short walk and easy crossing (as long as you have the right documentation) into Douglas.
Not separate and not equal
Though Douglas and Agua Prieta are connected by culture, family, and commerce, there are significant differences between the two cities. Agua Prieta is home to nearly 80,000 people and bustles with pedestrians and car traffic. Restaurants and farmacias are on every corner. By turn, Douglas, a city of just over 17,000, feels quiet and rural. Wide empty streets connect residential neighborhoods to the town’s main street, Avenue G, where just a few stores and cafés are still open; the rest are boarded up. However, the recent sale of the historic Gadsden Hotel to Harrell Destinations, a company specializing in destination travel, might mean that change—and more tourism—is on the way.
Both BAC and the annual Binational Artwalk celebrate the arts’ communities in both cities, but there are distinctions here as well, says Jenea Sanchez, the artistic director of BAC and one of the Art Walk organizers.
“We’re one community, and we say that all the time. But this year the pandemic and closures at the border really brought to light the many ways we are separated,” she says.
She uses Robles, the photographer who created “Mi Safe Space,” to illustrate her point. “Ammi lives on Calle Internationale in Agua Prieta. She looks out her yard and sees the border,” Sanchez says. “She’s lived her life crossing the border, as a student and now as she expands her professional career, building her portfolio and working with organizations in the United States. And then one day, because of the pandemic, she couldn’t cross the border north.”
Given these realities, and the inequities related to accessing financial resources and presenting work, Sanchez says BAC needed to be more intentional around providing support to artists, particularly those living in Mexico. The BAC Fellowship emerged from that need.
Organizers had to think creatively about how to address artists’ distinct needs. For example, they worked with fiscal sponsors and individuals willing to pay taxes for Mexican artists so that the fellows—three from Douglas and three from Agua Prieta—could receive the same support: $3000 and a $1800 supply fund.
Funding for the fellowship was granted by the National Association for Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC) through a larger initiative called “Reclaiming the Border Narrative,” funded by the Ford Foundation. (Note: I am part of the Southwest Folklife Alliance‘s ethnographic team on that initiative).
Sanchez believes “reclaiming the border narrative” can happen by interrupting familiar and repetitive stories of border of violence, struggle, and poverty, and giving space to those that more accurately reflect the wide range of experiences people living on the border have every day. Rather than relying on outside narrators, whether scholars, visiting journalists, business people, or policymakers, Sanchez says it’s time to recognize people in border communities as their own experts about border issues. That includes artists who live and work on the border.
“It has to begin with opening up the conversation, creating an opening to have conversations to allow a shift to happen, whether a shift of the mind or manifested in the artwork,” Sanchez says.
While the pandemic limited opportunities for the fellows to gather, each artist offered virtual workshops and panels related to their areas of interests, including the history of the borderlands, gender identity, and migration and trauma. BAC staff and mentors helped connect artists to relevant speakers and sources, Sanchez says, and the conversations were open to the community on digital platforms. Each fellow is also being mentored by a professional artist—Carolina Aranibar Fernandez or Alejandro Macias—who provide support and critiques of their work.
“What I’m seeing is a deeper appreciation, a sense of pride,” Sanchez says. “Along with an eagerness and passion to know more and share that knowledge through their artwork.”
She can relate. Sanchez, a visual artist who grew up in Douglas, says her journey in learning about the border shifted both her own sense of identity and her art practice. “When I learned about border history in college, I felt betrayed. How did I not know about how this line came to be? Why didn’t we talk about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in grade school? Those pieces of history can inform your approach to the world, but too often those pieces of history have been erased.”
Making space for new voices
Since its inception in 2015, BAC has helped turn the sleepy town of Douglas into something of an arts mecca. BAC not only co-organizes the annual Binational Artwalk, but also has created pop-up art galleries on Avenue G, hosted artist workshops and fellowships, and collaborated with the Binational Arts Residency to bring internationally renowned artists to both cities. In 2018, the organization acquired Douglas’s historic Grand Theatre, taking over its restoration to turn it into a downtown cultural center.
It is in the corner window of the Grand Theatre that I find an installation by another BAC Fellow, Geovanny Maybe. A fashion designer, Maybe has a studio in the theatre’s basement and uses the street-level window as a gallery. For the Artwalk, he’s lit up the small window-front space to feature two mannequins, one seated in a kimono-style robe, the other standing, wearing a tattered American flag and a black cowboy hat.
“I found that old flag in a thrift store for a dollar four years ago,” Geovanny told me. “I kept saying, ‘I’m going to do something with that someday.’”
Born in Agua Prieta and raised both there and in Douglas, Maybe studied fashion at the Art Institute of Tucson and moved to Los Angeles in 2013 to work in the fashion industry. The pandemic brought him home to Douglas, where all his extended family now lives.
Maybe says he wanted to focus his work during the Fellowship around themes of migration and homophobia. He believes clothing and accessories send strong messages about beauty, rebellion, and contrast. His fashion design is based, in part, on his collection of antique and costume jewelry and clothing. “I’m a big fan of vintage pieces. I have worn most of what I’m displaying and now I want to sell those pieces,” he says.” It’s like giving a piece of me to someone else.”
A few blocks south at Gallery 917, I find more of Maybe’s work, including a pair of pink satin stiletto boots called “Flora y Fauna.” Each boot is decorated with costume jewelry: bejeweled birds and insects on the left and flowers on the right.
Also on display is bomber leather jacket embellished with real fox fur and a hefty horseshoe necklace. “I’m very superstitious. That is a horseshoe of my grandmother. It’s a good luck amulet. I wear it. It’s heavy. It’s metal.”
Also in this gallery is another of Robles’s “safe spaces,” smaller and more intimate than the one across the line. But she says has even bigger ambitions for the concept.
“I would love to see it become a giant pillow fort where people can come in, sit down, watch a video, or hear some music and stories from the border. It could work at the wall or in a museum or anywhere because you make it from pillows,” she says.
Robles also wants to continue to document local history with photographs and interviews and publish and sell her book. Some of her photographs are currently on exhibit at Tucson’s MOCA through a collaboration with Sanchez, Phoenix-based artists Gabriela Muñoz, and several other women artists from the border.
She says both the professional guidance and the connection with other emerging artists has shifted the ways she sees herself. “I never thought of myself as an artist. But then the fellowship came. And that’s how it all changed.”
Unmasking an insider and more accurate view of the border
In addition to the galleries, four blocks of Douglas’s main street are blocked off during the Artwalk for artist displays, activities, and food vendors. In front of one empty storefront, an artist is spray painting a mural on plywood panels. On one corner, children stand at easels painting canvases.
The evening’s performances take place under a gazebo in a small park across from the Hotel Gadsden. I miss the dance by half a dozen preteen girls but judging from their ebullience—they’re still doing their moves on the street near the taco vendor who sells me dinner—it was an energetic show.
I sit on the bleachers to eat and listen to an older man in a cowboy hat sing mariachi songs to recorded music. Some of the locals around me sing along.
Alan Rubio, another BAC Fellow, performs a contemporary dance solo wearing a mask that he eventually removes during the piece. I notice his facility with movement: crisp turns and clean lines that suggest ballet training, but also no fear of movements some might consider less “pretty”—melting, crouching, crawling—that to my eye are more authentically human. The mask, when he takes it off, makes me think about identity and what it means to be an artist living on the border, between and within two countries.
The goal of the BAC Fellowship, Sanchez tells me, is to support artists who are already working to shift border narratives towards more of an “insider and accurate view.” “The work is already happening,” she says. “Now we can just back it up with funding and resources.”
Later in the night Rubio returns, this time as Chanel Douglas, a drag queen, with long golden hair and audacious makeup. She wears a black, sequined leotard, thigh-high white boots, and jacket designed by Maybe that features a waterfall of plastic film tape, the kind found in movie reels or VHS tapes.
Chanel holds a star-shaped mirror and gazes into it, brushing her hair. Then she begins to dance and lip sync. On display is all the same movement facility as before, but this time it’s bigger—full splits, windmilling arms, and fan kicks. Chanel commands the stage, and with every twirl, prance, and kick, the preteen girls scream. (She’s doing all the moves they love to do, too.) In the audience, mothers and fathers and siblings and grandparents and neighbors also applaud Chanel. It’s her first public hometown appearance.
After the show, I watch Chanel pose for photos and think about the many ways shifts in narrative can happen. Dramatically, of course, with masks and costume and shiny sparkle. But also in less performative ways—with paint on canvas, conversation, and tacos on streets closed to traffic. And in the quiet, but poignant moments when people are given the chance to walk freely across lines, to tell their stories their own way, to create and occupy safe spaces in the very towns that made them.
APSon Rising: A Food Tour through Agua Prieta, Sonora, BorderLore. June 2017.
Performance in the Borderlands, BorderLore. August 2015.
Arizona Cowbelles Beef and Cattle Women Heritage. BorderLore. February 2015.