A Force of Beauty


Thoughts on Nogales, from Both Sides
Written by
John Washington

From a hill on the Mexican side you see the taunting red, white, and blue written in the steel of the roofline. The newly renovated Mariposa Port of Entry, guarding the border between the cities of Nogales and Nogales (Sonora and Arizona), is a poster child of free-trade economics. Despite a gloss of eco-friendliness and sleek iron-and-rock aesthetics, the new port—funneling more than a thousand trucks and a couple of hundred humans a day from one side of the rust-red the borderwall to the other—is, in the end, little more than an elaborate barrier. And a barrier is defined as much by what it bars—the undocumented and what the state deems as contraband—as by what it lets through—more than 4 billion pounds of Mexican produce a year, as well as many tons of maquila-manufactured goods and people lucky enough to have their documents in order.

According to Nogales native poet Alberto Ríos, “The border is what joins us,/Not what separates us.” The poem is stenciled, nearly illegibly, in what Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents refer to as the lobby, the pedestrian crossing zone where agents scan documents, riffle through bags, and, seemingly more often these days, pat down border crossers. I recently watched as a CBP guard unwrapped and inspected a young man’s sandwich. The guard was particularly thorough that day, or maybe bored—I was the only other one in the “lobby”—and he also patted me down after scrutinizing my documents.

The Ríos poem was one of the primary inspirations for the $187 million dollar renovation of the Mariposa Port of Entry, which is one of the busiest land ports in the United States, and where 60 percent of all the winter produce from Mexico consumed in the US passes into the country. The port functions mostly as a commercial gateway, though pedestrians and personal vehicles also pass through. Brian Farling, a Project Designer with Jones Studio, the architectural firm that designed the port’s renovation, told me that the studio was given “an opportunity to come up with an aesthetic endeavor that told a story about the place.”

John Washington

But what is the story of Nogales? A modern border town, Nogales is a single city halved by a wall, the birthplace of jazz genius Charles Mingus, a town beset by a surge of maquiladoras (foreign-owned factories feeding off the “cheap” Mexican labor force that has been “liberalized” by the North American Free Trade Agreement). It is where tens of thousands of migrants have been deported over the last decade, and where a Border Patrol agent on the US side of the fence shot to death a baby-faced sixteen year-old, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, as he walked on the Mexican side of the border. It is a town full of rich birria taco stands and dilapidated, congested downtown. And though Nogales stands for much more, perhaps what most defines the city today is the wall, the recently constructed 18-foot high wall (at some points as high as 30 feet) made of rusting steel beams, and the deep division the wall cuts between Nogales and Nogales (Sonora and Arizona). The massive rock, concrete and steel structures of the Mariposa port thus loom like a monster guarding the gate.

Jacob Benyi, Senior Project Manager of Jones Studio, described the renovation of the port of entry, completed in 2014, as “shovel-ready” at a time, in 2009, when legislators were looking for shovel-ready projects to pipe money into and kick start the economy. Over 90 percent, or $173 million of the $187 million came from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the budget Stimulus Package, intended to help revitalize the economy after the financial collapse.

The port is constructed largely of unpainted steel (intended to rust and harden with age), concrete, and gabion baskets (rock jacks, or wire mesh filled with chunks of rock or concrete). In a post-industrial, almost Mad-Maxian way, the port claims its beauty.

According to designers at Jones Studios, the new facility (it feels almost like a campus) is largely bulletproof, fireproof, and low maintenance. Even the lines in the parking lots are marked by inlaid steel circles, so as never to need repainting. And the concrete in the gabion baskets consists mostly of chunks of the old road that workers tore up before repaving the port. Farling described the firm’s aesthetic and environmental decisions as “a way to dignify and humanize the scale of the facility.” There is a million gallon tank for rainwater collection buried under the port, and a whole “language of rooflines and scuppers” which divert rainwater and keep the tank filled. After the first monsoon storm, in 2010, the tank has never gone empty. All the collected water provides drink to the relatively lush landscaping—all native plants and grasses—that bedeck the corners and pathways of the port.  

John Washington

Wandering over the myriad concrete walls of the port are three sets of footprints—representing a mother, a father, and a child—which look as if three people had tramped, sideways along the wall, into the wet concrete. Farling explained to me that the footprints are meant to symbolize “a step on a journey from one country to another.” They seem, however, to be the tracks of a lost people, occasionally walking in circles or vanishing at the edge of a wall, as if whoever was leaving them had just walked off a cliff. The prints evoke exasperation, discombobulation, and given the reality playing out in the surrounding deserts, where nearly three thousand migrants have died since 2000, they seem to symbolize death more than a “journey.”

The renovated Mariposa Port of Entry, despite its chic rustic charm, is in all respects a fortress. Instead of antiquated battlements and arrow slits, it is protected by Z-Portal gamma-ray vehicle scanners and a border enforcement regime that extends its moat 100 miles from every international border, covering two-thirds of the entire US population. The story it tells about Nogales is one in which border militarization and free trade economics are the principal protagonists.

On December 2, Palestinian-American artist Leila Abdelrazaq was detained at the port “because of notebook sketches and Arabic writing”—she was visiting the border area for research, and making sketches. Abdelrazaq was held and questioned for several hours, until the group was released when it was clear there was no security concern. Later, right wing media outlets distorted the incident by suggesting it was a possible security breach. I wonder if the xenophobic fear betrayed by the incident was in part provoked by the port itself. The ostentatious grandiosity of the security system inviting both paranoia and awe.

On a mild morning last December, a few days after Abdelrazaq’s temporary detention, I drove from Tucson to Nogales to meet Marcia Amendariz, Public Liason Officer for Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) at a Shell gas station, where she would lead me into the port for a tour. When I got out of my car Mendariz took me through a few security gates, and introduced me to Joyce Jarvis, the Assistant Port Director for Trade Operations. Jarvis is a 25-year CBP veteran with rhinestone-dotted eyeglasses and dyed blonde hair; Amendariz referred to her as Miss Jarvis.

“What do you want?” Jarvis asked me. “I can’t give you a tour.” After some negotiation, I told her I had been approved for a tour, and that I was interested in the artworks commissioned by Government Services Administration (GSA, who commissioned and oversaw the renovation), and that I had also come to see what architects called the “oasis.”

Farling had described the “oasis” to me as “a mental place where [the guards] can let down their guard.” Border crossers can’t access the oasis; only CBP personnel can enjoy its supposed balm. He explained that the intention was for “the tranquility [the guards would find in the oasis] to trickle down to the people moving through the port.” Jarvis told me that we were already in the oasis. (We were standing in the employee parking lot). She nodded towards the end of the lot, where there was a desert-grassy, vine-walled, concrete patio. As we walked over, I asked my two reluctant cicerones how frequently agents enjoyed the oasis. “Hardly never,” Jarvis told me.

John Washington

In all commissioned architecture, as Traci Madison, Regional Public Affairs Officer & Communications Manager, explained to me, GSA allocates one-half of one percent of each public building's estimated construction cost for artwork. GSA has been officially advocating for the inclusion of art into public buildings since 1962. Although I wasn't able to get the exact breakdown between the two projects, GSA paid $800,000 for the two artworks commissioned for the Mariposa port.

The first artwork one might catch sight of upon entering into the port is the video installation “Album: Sewing into the Borderland,” by South Korean artist Kimsooja. I had walked through the port dozens of times before noticing the work. The screen is “exactly on the border”, north-facing, directly above the first turnstile gate you enter when crossing north, and so unless you turn around and look up, you’ll miss the artwork. It’s all part of Kimsooja’s plan. The screen is about fifteen feet wide and is shaded by the same rusted steel that makes up so much of the construction. The silent video shows local men and women from Nogales in three separate postures: looking directly into the camera, facing away from the camera, and turning over their backs to look into the camera (the same posture you have to make to notice the work in the first place). The people in the video seem roughly to reflect the demographics of Nogales: mostly Latinos, of varying ages (though all adults) and skin colors. The subject’s alternating forward and backward facing symbolizes arrival and departure, with “subtle changes in their facial expressions hint[ing] at interior, psychological journeys,” according to the steel plaque on a pylon next to the artwork. Though the subtlety is hard to see in the low-res screen, especially in the bright sunshine (the last two times I’ve crossed the border the video has not been playing, the screen black) it reflects the psychological journey of crossing a border when the physical journey is so palpable. The non-functioning screen and the consistent glare seem to mask over the nuances in the artwork the same way the borderwall, and the port itself, pound a distinct duality into Nogales: this side, that side. In, out. Citizen, alien.

For those who have official authorization, the journey through the Mariposa Port is meant to be as seamless as possible. Even for the truckers, bearing loads of pumpkins or summer squash, who need to submit to full inspections, the new port is designed for efficiency—coupled to the idea of the “free trade zone,” the Trusted Traveler, SENTRI, or FAST crosser programs. But for those who do not have the proper documents, for those crossing the dangerous deserts, there is little that is subtle in their journey: they pay thousands of dollars to black market or criminal networks, they jump or dig under a clearly demarcated line, they are hunted by helicopters, dogs, and bandits, and they are politically branded as “illegal.”

Kimsooja’s soft touch thus seems at first to minimize this violence inherent to the act of crossing the border. In a certain space, perhaps, one could revel in the subtleties of cultural blending, or the muted psychological transition that occurs in some at the international boundary, but it's an unnerving contrast against the backdrop of the steel and concrete structures of the port, where so many migrants are subjected to such outrageous and discriminatory violence with each passing.

But perhaps the work merits a more radical reading: that “the border” is totally imaginary, a political construct of a deadly edge where no line naturally occurs. This, too, seems to be what Kimsooja’s subjects turn around to see, or perhaps, even as they are confronted with the artificial wall, to see beyond: to somehow gain sight of the natural boundlessness of the landscape, to be witness to the human spirit that seems to be able to brim over any edge.

Photo by Anne Eggebroten (marthaymaria.blogspot.com)
Photo by Anne Eggebroten (marthaymaria.blogspot.com)

“Passage,” a sculpture in aluminum and acrylic, by Matthew Moore, the other GSA commissioned artwork, addresses the burdensome journey of the undocumented migrant more directly. The work is an upside down mountain range suspended from the ceiling, beginning in the “lobby” and extending above the pathway that leads out of the port. Further along my tour, when Miss Jarvis pointed to “Passage” hanging above our heads, she told me that, “This represents the pathway to freedom.” I asked what she meant by freedom. Amendariz chimed in: “It’s a family’s journey, from one country to another.”

The grillwork skeleton of the hanging mountain chain in “Passage” drops strange and enchanting patterns of shifting shadow on the walls and ground below. Moore modeled the form of the mountain chain on the nearby Baboquivari Mountains, which are sacred for the Tohono O’odham people (an indigenous group who have had their ancestral land cleft by the border), and seem, in Moore’s rendering, a tantalizing dream as much as a formidable obstacle or ceiling. The sheer beauty of a deconstructed aluminum mountain hanging from the ceiling, however sharp and perilous the edges and holes, serves as a humbling reminder of the hardships of those who cannot legally and easily amble through the port. Even the mere fact that the mountains are hung upside down gives the impression that for those walking on their rocky paths and for those strolling along the port’s paved sidewalks, our worlds are separate—not joined. That the border wall has cut a divide so deep, that those who mosey past the bored CBP guards and those who trudge through the perilous deserts experience what seem to be completely alternate universes. The soaring border wall and the redoubtable Mariposa Port of Entry emphasize this split.

The renovated port reminds me of a historical curiosity, yet one that still functions—exploits, defends, oppresses—today. And yet, no matter how much I want to despise every wire and stone, I still see the beauty in the architecture. Its false tranquility, its masked violence, infects me. I feel as if I'm betraying myself when I take pleasure in the serenity of the landscape. I feel myself turned upside down, as if walking in the mountains in Moore’s hanging “Passage” and, somehow, am able to glide smoothly down the easiest pathway.

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