Political Art at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Many artists use their medium as a form to express themselves in moments of heightened emotions. Political and social incidents can instigate large creative reactions from artists. Revolutions, rebellions, and social movements have served as a catalyst for political and anti-governmental or anti-systemic art. In Latin America, revolutions have served as an extensive influence of political art that is often used as a way to denounce current governmental administrations or decisions. Political art is fundamental to momentous oppositionist movements and can help spread messages from political groups. Since Donald Trump has taken office and has increased anti-immigrant rhetoric, political art that denounces the dehumanizing treatment of immigrants has appeared at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Trump's presidency is not the first time that the United States has failed to employ empathy in regards to new immigrants. “Most historians trace the origins of American anti-immigrant politics to the first big wave of newcomers to the country after the nation’s birth” (Fisher 2019). The United States and its surrounding society and culture has engaged in unwelcoming and disagreeable sentiments to a broad variety of immigrants throughout different time periods. A multitude of ethnic groups have faced discrimination in the U.S. including, but not limited to, German, Italian, Irish, Japanese, and even forced African migrants. These sentiments have recently shifted to focus predominantly on Latin American and Muslim or Arab immigrants. 

Throughout each wave of anti-immigrant climate, justification is found in some cleavage of culture. With Italians and the Irish, we saw othering under the rationale of a difference in religion, being Catholicism. Now that Catholicism and Christianity have become norms in American society, we now see the othering of Muslims due to their different religious beliefs and practices. Americans have also based anti-immigrant views in a history of racism. After transporting Africans as slaves, Americans quickly formed societal segregations when slavery was finally abolished. Viewed as a stain on American society, Americans have continued with underlying racist ideals that produce anti-immigrant sentiments based on differences in race. Another common rationale is the idea that immigrants are an economic burden on the U.S. and that they are stealing American jobs, which suggests that “true-Americans” are more deserving of jobs than immigrants. This justification denies the notion that everyone has the right to work and support themselves and their family. Though the United States has come a long way from discrimination against earlier immigrant groups, unjust intolerance towards newly-arrived immigrants prevails, and can even be seen in our current governmental administration. 

Since coming into office, Trump has repeatedly tried to reduce rates of immigration through his anti-immigrant rhetoric. His 2016 campaign for President included a strong anti-immigration stance that criticized Democrats for lenient and relaxed immigration policies. His anti-immigrant delivery is built on the fear of Latin American and Arab or Muslim immigrants. According to the Washington Post he has stated, “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals” (Scott 2018). Trump reduces Latin Americans to criminals and animals to discredit their experience as immigrants and prevent Amerians from feeling empathy for them. His belittling of immigrants is not limited to his discourse, but is paralleled in his support of detention centers across the border that engage in family separation and maltreatment of migrants. His focus on undocumented immigration and gang violence casts suspicion on any Latin American immigrant here in the United States. It not only affects those who are denied entrance into the United States, but also worsens the treatment of those who have already integrated into society. The stigmatization of Latin American immigrants has created an unsafe environment due to the fear Trump has injected in American society.

Trump’s dehumanization of Latin American immigrants was not only visible in his speeches, but also in policy. In October 2019, the U.S. Supreme court approved the Migrant Protection Protocol, a ban of asylum seekers from Central America. According to BBC World, “The policy bars people arriving at the US southern border from seeking protection if they failed to do so in a country they passed through en route” (BBC World 2019). This policy, often nick-named, “Remain in Mexico,” predominantly affects immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, who have to travel through Mexico in order to reach the United States. These immigrants will have to seek asylum in Mexico and be denied, before being able to apply for asylum in the United States. According to KBPS, a sister station to NPR, more than 57,000 immigrants have been forced to return to Mexico to “wait for their day in immigration court in the US” (Rivlin-Nadler 2020). The Remain in Mexico policy, prevents these immigrants from accessing judicial procedures to claim asylum, and furthermore, endangers them while they wait. “A report from the organization Human Rights First found that more than 816 people in the program have been murdered, tortured, or attacked while waiting in Mexico for their court hearing” (Rivlin-Nadler 2020).  Not only does this policy expose immigrants to precarious circumstances, it also puts an overwhelming amount of stress on Mexico’s current government and infrastructure. However, Mexico has been forced to abide by the expansion of this policy due to threats of economic tariffs imposed by Trump (Rivlin-Nadler 2020). 

The temporary deportation of migrants to Mexico while they await trial, is directly related to the lack of legal resources and financial support within the U.S. justice system. The Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Obama’s administration, John Sandweg, stated, “The [Trump] Administration has spent money on replacing border barriers and adding detention space but has not addressed the lengthy backlogs in immigration courts by hiring large numbers of new immigration judges” (Bennett 2019). Instead of allocating resources to the justice system, Trump has focused on implementing preventative measures against immigration, such as the construction of the border wall between the United States and Mexico. According to the National Public Radio, “Congress gave the Trump administration $1.6 billion this March for border funding” (Kelly 2018). Trump has continued his anti-immigrant agenda through his support of detention centers, the denouncement of the Honduran migrant caravan, and his continued bolstering support of the border wall.

Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda has inspired many artists to denounce the racist immigrant stereotypes through self-expression on the border wall itself. Trump’s emphasis on the construction and parole of the border between the United States and Mexico, has begun to serve as a functional surface for artists to paint murals and messages on. However, artists are limited to expressing themselves on the Mexican side of the border due to the presence of border patrol on the U.S. side. These paintings tell the stories of those that have passed through the border and those that hope to do so someday. One unknown artist painted the names of U.S. veterans from Latin America that were deported after service. The names covered an extensive part of the border wall and calls on the hypocrisy of the United States in allowing these Latin American immigrants to serve in the U.S. armed forces and then deny them the ability to stay in the U.S. after their service. Some names are followed by “R.I.P” representing the veterans who died for a country that wouldn’t have welcomed them after their service.

Other artists painted murals on the border wall, following a long tradition of Mexican muralism. One mural simply states, “Justicia” the Spanish word for Justice. On the right another portrays the word Lies in the shape and form of a stop sign, creating the statement, “Stop Lies”. Following that, is an upside-down flag of the United States with fifty crosses in place of the fifty stars. The upside-down flag is a common symbol that the country is in distress or turmoil, and the display of the flag shows precaution and worry by the Mexican people. It can also reveal the people's contempt for the country and the current government and is often used during protests. These murals on the Mexican side of the border wall demonstrate the artists’ views that the United States policies and government are upside down. The call for justice invokes a more emotional and personal response from onlookers.

Other art is less obviously political in nature. One mural includes the depiction of a monarch butterfly. The monarch butterfly or in Spanish, la mariposa, can often be a symbol of liberation and freedom. It also has political roots in the opposition of former military dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Another art demonstration shows a walkway leading up to the border wall made of stones with painted tires as the paths boundaries. Above the walkway the border is painted with a woman in a dress with her arms out to her side, with “freedom” and “love” written on the wall along with painted hearts and handprints. Propped up against the wall is a sign that says, “pide un deseo” and “make a wish.” The pebbles have writing on them, some with longer messages than others, some with names of assumed relatives, and one single rock that says, “PAZ” or peace. Other sections of the wall had messages written on them. One message reads, “Dios nos permita ver a nuestros hijos” or God allows us to see our children, thus suggesting that love defies the notion of borders or boundaries. Another message reads, “La libertad de soñar nos da alas para volar y atravesar muros” meaning the freedom to dream gives us wings to fly and cross walls. The art acts as a unifier, it engages different emotions, anger, pain, sadness, and hope.



One artist and student at the University of California in Davis, Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana, has found a way to make political murals more interactive. On the Mexican side of the border wall she constructed murals of Latin American adults who had once entered the United States illegally as children. The murals depict many including, two mothers, a U.S. veteran, and a man who were all deported by the United States. De La Cruz Santana adds a technological element to her art when, “Visitors who hold up their phones to the painted faces are taken to a website that voices first-person narratives” (Associated Press 2019). Each face tells their experience as an immigrant in the United States. The stories tell a variety of incidents, but many focus on being deported to an unfamiliar country after living their whole life in the United States and the effects of family separation on an individual. One woman states, “nobody deserves to be stripped away from your home” (221b Scars of Family Separation). The videos and voice recordings give viewers a real-life experience behind the art. Another muralist, Mauro Carrera states that the project makes others, “see the people behind the politics” (Associated Press 2019). This recognition and acknowledgment of those affected by the U.S. immigration policies are exactly what this art strives to do. It not only calls upon the U.S. government to confront the effects of its actions, but it creates a sense of empathy and a true awareness, that reinforces the humanization of immigrants. It is through these murals of faces and experiences that we are able to truly learn compassion. Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana demonstrates how powerful art can be in engaging emotions while making a political statement. 

Another installation entitled, “Teeter-Totter Wall” decided to bring unity among Americans and Mexicans across the border through the construction of pink steel seesaws. “A set of fluorescent pink seesaws has been built across the US-Mexico border by a pair of professors seeking to bring a playful concept of unity to the two sides of the divide.” (Bakare 2019). According to the Public Broadcasting Service News Hour, the idea originated in response to the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which authorized and funded the construction of the 700 mile fencing that separates the United States and Mexico. The installment had thus been in motion for a long time, however, the artists Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello had trouble gaining support from art organizations and permission from Border Patrol. Although the installment was temporary, the seesaws have been posted and widely distributed on social media, showing children and families playing on the seesaws, separated by the border. The artists sought to comment on various differences in the relations between the U.S. and Mexico. PBS interviewed Rael who stated that the seesaws represented many things, including separation, inequality regarding race and wealth, and trade and labor balances. He says, “All these kinds of dichotomies are present in the teeter-totter: sharing, community, collaboration, generosity. These are all aspects of what one feels when they are on a teeter-totter. You have to give, and you take, and there is this relation” (Barajas 2019). Rael’s emphasis on collaboration and cooperation among those on the U.S. side and Mexico side can refer to a greater sense of togetherness. The work he has done uses a childhood activity to inquire about a current norm of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. The installation, without someone on the other side, remains useless and unavailing, it is only until we come and work together do we see progress. 

Art gives people the ability to question, to scrutinize, and to comment in a thoughtful way. It can take something so unsettling, like the immigration policy and ways we treat immigrants in our country, and can create pink seesaws to draw attention to the importance of joint action and a combined effort. The art portrayed at the U.S.-Mexico border wall stresses the injustice and lack of understanding and support for immigrants in the United States. Though it may look beautiful, it reflects a harsh reality that many suffer from today, and unless there is a major change in leadership, in addition to a cultural change that modifies how we engage with one another, immigrants will continue to be discriminated against in our culture. 



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About Author(s)

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Mia Bristol
Mia Bristol is a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh pursing a double major in Political Science and Spanish with a Certificate in Latin American Studies. During summer 2019, Mia completed research on the use and accessibility of contraception in the University setting in Manizales, Colombia through the Seminar and Field Trip by the Center for Latin American Studies. Mia intends to graduate Spring 2020 and pursue a career in foreign affairs. This is her first year as an intern for Panoramas.