Blending art, agriculture and activism

Frontera NorteSur

Tucked away in a south-central El Paso courtyard, the lively pulses of border culture danced away on a recent summer evening. Sponsored by a cross-border movement of cultural workers from El Paso and neighboring Ciudad Juarez, artists, poets and musicians delivered their stuff to an attentive audience that turned out to raise funds for farmworker support services. 

In addition to supporting the people who harvest the nation’s food, the fifth annual Borde Manifiesta was an opportunity for the sister cities’ creative spirits to express their own culture from a region that’s been typecast in the mass media as split between danger on one side (Ciudad Juarez) and safety (El Paso) on the other, said Aron Venegas, Borde Manifiesta organizer and member of the local Hunab Ku Movement.

The binational collaborative, Venegas told Frontera NorteSur, is a means of shattering   physical and ideological borders.

“One way we break it is by working and mixing different kinds of art and culture and opening it to the public,” Venegas said. “It doesn’t exclude anybody. If art is not for the community, it isn’t good for anything.”

The young activist said dedicating this year’s Borde Manifiesta to El Paso’s Border Agricultural Workers Center (CTAF) was a way of reciprocating mutual solidarity and giving back to an organization that was the first one to extend a friendly hand and offer its walls to new cultural energy bubbling up from the grassroots five years ago.

Located astride the US-Mexico border, the non-profit CTAF provides a roof to sleep under and social services for seasonal farmworkers who labor in nearby fields in west Texas and southern New Mexico. Within the past year, the CTAF has run into financial problems and is struggling to stay afloat.

The CTAF’s operational challenges come at a moment of deepening crisis for immigrant farmworkers.

In a wide-ranging interview at Borde Manifiesta, Carlos Marentes,  CTAF founder, spoke about the current state of agriculture, the convergence of environmental and economic crises and the difficulties facing many community non-profits. According to Marentes, mechanization, drought and globalized production are pulverizing the wages, working conditions and employment prospects of farmworkers.

Marentes recalled a recent visit he made to an onion field near Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he said the workers did not have legally-required drinking water available for them even though the late morning temperature was already pushing 100 degrees fahrenheit. Many workers are now afraid to speak out against labor law violations, Marentes said.

“Workers are accepting everything because of the desperation to work, even if it’s just one or two days, whatever they can get,” he added.

The Las Cruces area ranks among the hardest-hit localities in the nation for job loss, and employment scarcities have expanded well beyond the agricultural sector. Citing New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions data, the Albuquerque Journal reported this week that the Las Cruces area lost 1,700 non-farm jobs between May 2010 and May 2011, resulting in a 2.4 percent drop in overall employment outside of agriculture.

Marentes contended that a downward pull on the working class as a whole is in acceleration.

“We were saying that it’s not true that the North American workers with their wages and conditions and possibilities of well-being were going to pull up the exploited workers of Mexico and the South,” Marentes said in reference to arguments that were made in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement 20 years ago. “With the passage of time, the opposite has occurred.”

Coinciding with an economic crisis is an ecological one, Marentes said, adding that unseasonal dust storms, unrelenting drought and unforgiving wildfires are symptomatic of a larger environmental disaster that’s hammering farming and bludgeoning the people who work the land.

“For us, it’s clear that the changes in weather have to do with a climate crisis,” the veteran farm labor activist affirmed. “We’ve talked about this a lot. This is a very important issue for us.”

Marentes maintained that the climate crisis lays bare a “predatory agricultural model” that’s taken hold in arid New Mexico, and which is exemplified by the highly profitable but hugely thirsty pecan orchards that have expanded from the border region in the south to the Middle Rio Grande Valley near Albuquerque in the north. Machine-intensive, export-oriented agriculture is prioritized over locally-oriented food production, he asserted.

“Of course, it creates prosperity and makes the state of New Mexico proud to compete with other states like California and Georgia in the production of pecans,” Marentes said.  “But, for starters, how many pounds of pecans do we consume in our homes each week? They are not producing the food we need. How many pecans are sent to the Asian markets? This production is based on strong pressure on the little water we have in our region.”

In terms of the CTAF, Marentes said the farmworker shelter’s current problems are indicative of a generalized financial squeeze not only on farmworkers and other low-income workers, but on grassroots organizations as well.

In the past the CTAF has survived thanks to the contributions of sympathetic individuals and organizations, and from a hodge podge of state and city funding. A $10,000 grant from the City of El Paso is pending, Marentes added.

Asked if the CTAF was in danger of closing, Marentes replied that some in government would like an independently-run center shut down and then take over a building located just yards from the international border, but that staff and supporters will continue “resisting” to keep open a place that has “cost us many years of struggle” and attracted the backing of many people from different walks of life. “We don’t have the luxury of losing the Center,” Marentes concluded.

Crisis is also the watchword for artists from across the river in Ciudad Juarez who  expressed support for the farmworker cause and contributed works for exhibition at the Borde Manifiesta event.

Although some artists could not be physically present because of immigration and travel restrictions, their images were on display for viewing, said muralist David Flores of Ciudad Juarez’s Colectivo Rezizte. The collective is a group of Mexican artists that co-sponsors Borde Manifiesta.

“Since they can’t be present, we cross their art,” Flores said.

The Ciudad Juarez pieces contained an almost built-in cross-cultural stamp as well as a notable influence from the violence that’s ripped apart the city during the last several years.

A stencil series by an artist named “George” was entitled “Sicario” (Hit Man), with one drawing showing a spooky-looking gunslinger pointing a pistol at the viewer. Works by a young female artist named “Mustang Jane” combined traditional sewing techniques with short but poignant statements in the “Spanglish” of the borderland.

“The best conversation no tiene words,” read one piece. “El only good system es El Sound System.” proclaimed another.

For Flores, a paradoxical situation currently defines Ciudad Juarez’s cultural scene. While the violence has kept greater numbers of people away from public events, more and more poetry, music, visual art, filmmaking, and writing have flowed from the grassroots within the past couple of years.

“It’s a contradiction to a certain point, because at the same time (violence) affects the  events we organize in Ciudad Juarez and we don’t have the same turnout as in previous years,” Flores said in an interview. “We’re going to motivate people to go out on the street and take back from the violence what belongs to them, which is precisely public space.”

Both Venegas and Flores described Borde Manifiesta and its participants as a sort of underground cultural movement that holds other events during the course of the year  which are largely uncovered by the mainstream media. Nonetheless, the binational cultural initiative is gaining recognition from artistic circles outside the Paso del Norte region. According to Venegas, Borde Manifiesta will do a September show in Mexico City and one in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in November.

“The goal is always to celebrate being borderlanders,” Flores summed up. “This fact allows us to cross the border and dilute it. It’s in this way that we don’t feel apart from one another.”

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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