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Tearing down the wall: a review of Mariana Zapata's Reforma Migratoria

¡No muros!
No a la violencia
Tear down the walls
El planeta es de todos
No al muro, sí a la libertad
Respeto y amor a los mexicanos en USA
El muro es símbolo de la injusticia y la discriminación
No más muertos en la frontera—respeto para todas y todos
George W.C. Bush…Texas, California, Puerto Rico. ¿Quién roba a quién?
¿Que Estados Unidos no se formó de inmigrantes?
¿Qué pasó con give me your hungry give me your poor?
Se necesita mucho amor y solidaridad para lograr las metas
Los muros físicos no son eternos, pero ¿y los mentales?
Malditos Estados Unidos. No al muro.
P'al carajo la hipocresía yanqui
Por un mundo sin fronteras
Build tolerance, no walls
No nos detendrán
¡No más opresión!

The public expressed its opinion regarding recent developments in U.S. immigration reform through graffiti-style interventions on the wall installation that for four days (from 25 to 28 May 2006) divided Mexico City's Parque Mexico into north and south as part of Mariana Zapata's[1] performance/installation piece entitled "Reforma Migratoria". Simulating the proposed construction on the border between Mexico and the United States, this wall converted the public space of a park in the middle-upper-class neighborhood of La Condesa into a space for artistic protest.,

In the context of the multiple public protests in the United States in April and May in support of immigrant rights and immigration reform, and on the heels of the approval of both the militarization of the border and construction of additional walls, artist Mariana Zapata brought the border to Mexico City "con la idea de que se dieran cuenta todos en vivo lo incómodo que es separar, lo mala onda que es tener un muro entre los pueblos, entre la gente, entre los espacios." With over two months of planning and preparation, over 50 volunteers worked together on the project with the support of NGOs the main concern of which is defending the human rights of immigrants, such as Group 26 of the Mexican Section of Amnesty International[2] and the Casa Espacio de los Refugiados. In spite of generous donations from the Asociación de Restauranteros de La Condesa and other organizations, the original plan to construct a wall covering over 200 meters out of cardboard boxes needed adjusting to accommodate the cardboard available. The end result was a dramatic combination of sections of black cardboard "wall", interspersed with sections of hanging wooden crosses, representing those immigrants who have died while attempting to cross the border.

Photo: Stephany Slaughter, May 25, 2006.
The wall of cardboard and crosses divided the Parque México in Mexico City into north and south as part of the performance “Reforma Migratoria.”
Photo: Stephany Slaughter, May 25, 2006.

As part of the inauguration ceremony on 25 May 2006 Mariana Zapata explained the collaborative nature of the project: "[…] Este muro es de todos…Este muro es para que ustedes se expresen, para que escriban lo que piensan del otro muro." After welcoming speeches by Enrique Toledo of the Red de Inmigrantes and by Alicia Zama, founder of the Mexican Section of Amnesty International, Mariana invited the public to write on the wall, christening it herself with "¡no muros!" Children and adults alike followed her to contribute in their own way to the installation. Some passersby added their own words to the wall; others indulged their curiosity and paused to read the messages or take photos, while still others ignored it completely and continued on their bikes, walked their dogs, or talked on their cell phones without a second glance.

Over the next four days grafiteros filled the walls with visual poetry, bumper stickers, chalk drawings, spray-painted tags, and stencils that expressed emotions from solidarity ("Respeto y amor a los mexicanos en USA") to anger ("Fuck Bush"; "Pinche Fox"). Most messages commented directly on the proposed border wall ("Abajo el muro"), but others denounced other border issues such as the sex trade ("no a la prostitución") and drug traffic ("no a la marihuana"). Some departed further from the border theme to declare their love for their boyfriend/girlfriend ("yo [heart] Jon") while others took advantage of the space to support their candidate for president in the 2006 elections ("Boten por Felipe Calderón")[3] or to comment on other political issues ("Todos somos Atenco").

Photo: Stephany Slaughter, May 28, 2006.
Grafiteros spray paint a section of the wall as part of the public participation in “Reforma Migratoria.”
Photo: Stephany Slaughter, May 28, 2006.

Some participants created installations within the installation. Ofrendas in the tradition of Day of the Dead appeared with candles bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, paintings of skulls surrounding the word "Injusticia," and life-size white paper dolls dotted with symbolic red bullet wounds hung on a section of the crosses, while a series of white paper skulls hung on another section of crosses. These images both denounced the deaths that have already occurred along the border and presages further deaths that will directly result from the construction of additional barriers that, without offering a solution to the causes of illegal immigration, will force illegal immigrants to brave more dangerous crossings through the desert.

Like the barrier that separates Mexico and the United States, this wall did not stop people from crossing the park. A teenager simply pushed a section out of his way, a mother lifted her five-year-old daughter over and under ropes, and another woman hesitated slightly before jumping across a low section decorated with skulls and candles. Victor Cázares, one of the members of Group 26, described the difficulty of maintaining the wall over the four-day period:

"Todos los días lo tiran, lo abren—la gente siempre encuentra la forma de pasar. Entonces lo que yo he pensando es que este muro realmente no va a detener el flujo de las personas dentro del parque como el muro que están construyendo allí no va a detener el flujo de los inmigrantes a los Estados Unidos. Lo único que va a hacer [es que] va a incrementar las violaciones de los derechos humanos de los inmigrantes. Por eso estamos en contra del muro, no realmente en contra del muro, sino de lo que significa—el aumento de las violaciones de los derechos humanos en contra de los migrantes... no se puede detener el flujo natural de las personas."

Victor's comments highlight Amnesty International's position on the wall as expressed by Diana Martínez, coordinator of Group 26, who reiterated that the organization does not take a position against the proposed wall or U.S. immigration politics, but against the Human Rights violations that result from said policies. As part of the closing ceremonies on Sunday 28 May, which coincided with the 35th anniversary of Amnesty International in Mexico, Rosalía Guerrero shared AI's statement of position regarding the wall:

"La iniciativa de construir un muro fronterizo entre Estados Unidos constituye un retroceso histórico a los derechos humanos […] Este muro de separación entre naciones, constituye un nuevo peldaño en las medidas de endurecimiento para frenar la migración, que multiplicará la pérdida de vidas y restringe el derecho de todas las personas a buscar mejores niveles de dignidad […] Los migrantes no son enemigos de las naciones, y buscar restringir su movilidad, incluso militarmente constituye un grave precedente para la vigencia plena de los derechos humanos."[4]

Photo: Stephany Slaughter, May 28, 2006.
Mariana Zapata speaks at the closing ceremonies of “Reforma Migratoria” on Sunday May 28, 2006. Members of Amnesty International stand behind her (Alicia Zama, founder of the Mexican Section of Amnesty International is third from the left in the red suit). Candles on the ground spell out “35” in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of AI Mexico, which coincided with this event.
Photo: Stephany Slaughter, May 28, 2006.

The performance culminated in removing this temporary restriction to movement with the public destruction of the ephemeral political artwork, led by a chant of "¡duro, duro contra el muro!" One participant expressed the thoughts of many when he exclaimed, "Ojalá esto pase con el muro en la frontera." Whether playing or protesting, children responded first to the call to tear down the structure. After pushing it over, they jumped and stomped until the cardboard gave way. Even as part of the wall was already destroyed, parts still stood in some sections of the expansive park where people continued to add graffiti. Meanwhile the park remained in full use. A mother read a text message while pushing a baby carriage; a novice unicyclist practiced balance; a grandfather passed a ball to a child; children played soccer and ran in the open plaza; a group of adults practiced danzón; vendors sold cotton candy, nuts, balloons; young boys continued on their bikes after a brief pause to consider a way around the pile of cardboard blocking their path; two young girls drove their motorized Barbie cars past the debris of the fallen wall. People of all ages walked, talked, passed through, and enjoyed their Sunday afternoon, many oblivious that a wall had just been symbolically torn down.

Children responded first to the call to tear down the wall on the final day of “Reforma Migratoria.”

Photo: Stephany Slaughter, May 28, 2006.

"Reforma Migratoria" allowed the public to take ownership of a symbolic wall through granting them power over its construction and destruction—powers denied them regarding the wall at the U.S./Mexico border. Drawing upon public art traditions of creation/destruction such as urban graffiti, which has been used a tactic to claim ownership of public space and to gain a voice in political discourses, this artistic intervention opened a space for free and public expression regarding current immigration discourse. Group 26 of Amnesty International plans to continue the conversation started on the walls of "Reforma Migratoria." Since the performance/installation, AI has been working to transform the photographic and video materials they gathered into informative documentaries to distribute to other AI groups around the globe in the hopes of tearing down more walls and building bridges of solidarity in their stead. In the words of one grafitero scrawled in chalk on the wall, "De muros, rajas, bardas y alambradas tenemos demasiado, necesitamos caminos abiertos, puentes, que nos acerquen."

Stephany Slaughter
Ohio StateUuniversity

  [1] Mariana Zapata, a Venezuelan-Mexican artist originally trained in painting, has recently been working in large-scale sculpture. She has become more interested in public collaboration as part of her recent work in the arena of installations and performance art and has carried out individual and collective expositions similar to "Reforma Migratoria" in Mexico, Miami, Barcelona, and Caracas.

  [2] Group 26 is a section of Amnesty International, Mexico that works for immigrants and refugees worldwide.

  [3] "Boten" instead of "Voten": error in original graffiti.

  [4] This statement is also available on their web site: with the title, "El muro fronterizo entre Estados Unidos y México constituye un fracaso para los derechos humanos entre las dos naciones."