From issue: Indivisible: A Special Issue on the U.S. and Mexico ( )


A special look at culture on the border, including: Fernanda Solórzano on the U.S.-Mexico border in film; poetry by Melissa Lozano and Abel Salas; a look at classical music intitatives in Mexican border cities; a portfolio of work from inSite.

In this issue:

Trump's Border, As Seen on TV

Fernanda Solórzano

Hollywood has a history of depicting the border in black and white. We could all use a few more shades of gray.

This article is adapted from AQ's special issue on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To receive AQ at home, subscribe here.

Those looking for affirmation of President Donald Trump’s “bad hombres” idea of the border are more likely to find it in fiction than in fact. Through much of its history, Hollywood has portrayed U.S.-Mexico relations through a lens of antagonism, or painted northern Mexico as a lawless land of bandits and corruption. Westerns such as John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960), Orson Welles’ classic noir Touch of Evil (1958), or Sam Peckinpah’s violent road movie Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) are prime examples.

Mexican cinema itself has gotten in on the act, appropriating the theme of illegal migration through exploitation genres such as the “wetback” and “trucker” films of the 1970s and 1980s. Well-known Mexican directors have since offered more sympathetic treatments of migrants, as in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006), Diego Quemada Diez’s La Jaula de Oro (2013), and Jonas Cuarón’s Desierto (2015). These films have their merits, but they continue to describe the binational relationship primarily as one of conflict.

However there are some recent films and TV series that address the complexity of border relationships without papering over the sometimes violent juxtapositions that surround them. Here are three recent productions that, in vastly different ways, succeed in illuminating those relationships and, rather than reinforce Trump’s view of U.S. self-sufficiency, provide an antidote to it.

The progenitor of modern border storytelling in Hollywood is Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000). Shot in a semidocumentary style, with intersecting narratives and a unique aesthetic, Traffic was visually innovative for its time, but also took narrative risks. For the first time in popular cinema, the film offered a portrayal of the drug trafficking problem in which the U.S. was not just a participant, but a codefendant.

Two storylines in Traffic feature Americans living comfortably without knowing—or without caring to know—that their families are part of this dynamic: a newly appointed White House drug czar (Michael Douglas) who discovers that his daughter has a problem with addiction; and a rich housewife (Catherine Zeta Jones) who has ignored her husband’s dealings with a Mexican cartel.

Traffic debuted six years before Mexico’s then-President Felipe Calderón declared his war on narcotráfico, unleashing a wave of violence in the country that continues to this day. But while the film didn’t anticipate this new reality, its primary reflection remains relevant: The drug business in Mexico is a product of demand for narcotics in the U.S. and the money laundering that keeps it lubricated.

Another subplot of the film, involving a police officer in Tijuana (Benicio del Toro) who accepts a job with a military man allied with the cartels, exposes the equally painful truth that the salary and protections the Mexican government offers its police are not enough to liberate them from the temptation to switch sides.

The contrasts that Traffic draws between the judicial and economic systems of Mexico and the U.S. are stark, but the film’s most telling point is the suggestion that the drug trade is nourished by inequalities between border communities. The inverse implication—that better living conditions can reduce drug violence and criminality—is what Traffic aims to capture in its final scene. After collaborating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Del Toro’s character asks that they install an illuminated youth baseball field back in Tijuana. The message is clear: Investments like these would be much more effective in improving lives on both sides of the border than, say, building a wall.

The Bridge
Adapted from the Swedish-Danish TV series Broen/Bron, the short-lived FX series The Bridge (2013) took themes from the Soderbergh film a step further. The first episode takes place on the Bridge of the Americas, an auto crossing between Juárez and El Paso. A blackout has left the bridge in darkness, and when the lights come back on, police discover what they believe to be one dead body. It turns out to be two: the torso, belonging to an American judge, lies on the Texas side of the line; the legs of a young, unidentified Mexican woman lie on the other. This grisly discovery obliges detectives from both sides of the border to solve the case together.

But while the opening imagery is unsettling, the idea of a human hybrid—half Mexican, half American—is an apt metaphor for the dual character of the borderlands. The Bridge effectively uses this dynamic to introduce an angle that was absent in the Soderbergh film: The shared identities of border residents can put them in deadly conflict, but they lead to friendship and affection, in addition to mutual dependence.

That duality is illustrated by the complex relationship between the show’s central characters. Mexican state police officer Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) and the American Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger), the two agents tasked with solving the crime together, are destined to clash. Marco is impulsive and disordered; Sonya is meticulous and cold. Marco’s nonchalant nature allows him to navigate the turbid waters of Mexican policing; Sonya’s brusque impassivity, and the suggestion she has Asperger’s, is a clinical metaphor for the unemotional and precise character often attributed to officials in the United States.

Yet the series soon introduces characters who turn these national stereotypes upside down. Detective Ruiz’s impulsivity is reflected in the gringo journalist Daniel Frye, an impetuous addict with a dark past. And there are echoes of agent Cross in Adriana Méndez, the hardnosed Mexican journalist whom Frye takes under his wing. Frye and Méndez join forces to investigate the case themselves, representing the mirror image of the pair of detectives. Indeed, each character in The Bridge has a replica on the other side of the border, and government agents from both countries prove themselves complicit in the horrors of the drug war, continuing the discussion of shared responsibility that Traffic put on the table.

Like The Bridge, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) also begins with a grisly scene on the border. An FBI team led by Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is preparing to raid a suburban home occupied by cartel gunmen. The raid quickly devolves into an exchange of heavy gunfire, and when the smoke clears, a hole in the drywall reveals a macabre surprise: The spaces between the tract-home’s flimsy walls are stuffed with unidentified bodies wrapped in plastic.

As the opening scene suggests, Sicario paints a bleak picture of the U.S. -Mexico border. In just the first six minutes of screen time, Villenueve renders true the worst fears of many Americans, with faceless Mexicans infiltrating the country as part of a vast criminal network, leaving violence in their wake. The cadavers stuffed into the walls could belong to rival gang members or to illegal immigrants — either way, they are evidence that those “bad hombres” operate beyond the scope of normal morality.

Benicio del Toro interrogates Mexican migrants in a scene from Sicario

Such a depiction can appear to have given in to sensationalism, but really the difference between this film and The Bridge or Traffic is that Villeneuve offers a less empathetic view of his characters and the situations they face. The French-Canadian Villeneuve’s work is characterized by moral ambiguity, and Sicario is no exception. In a drug trade that is often portrayed as a conflict between good and evil, neither side can claim absolute moral superiority.

Sicario lays bare ugly truths about the drug war that can be uncomfortable to accept. Villeneuve’s idealistic U.S. protagonist finds that the struggle against the cartels is not always ethical, transparent or legal. As her eyes are opened to the perverse complexities of the war on drugs, Kate sees the degree to which her own government is willing to compromise its values.

Shortly after Sicario debuted, a city councilman from El Paso convened a panel of journalists and academics to discuss its grim portrayal of the border. Juárez had long been considered one of the most dangerous places on Earth, but at the time of the film’s release, the city was enjoying a steep drop in violence and a revival of cultural and civic life. Most panelists thought Villeneuve’s film painted an unfair picture of the new Juárez. But one saw value in the pessimistic view of border life. The director of an organization that helps migrants who have been the victim of crimes said that the film “serves as a reminder to people that things still aren’t okay in Juárez.”

This idea underlines the challenge of depicting the border on screen. It is true that Juárez, Tijuana, and other northern cities are not “okay” — rising murder rates in 2016 make that plain. But neither is the border a one-dimensional place. Manichean portrayals of the U.S.-Mexico divide — in fiction or in real life — do little justice to the lives that are lived on and across it.

As never before, the U.S.-Mexico border is now the subject of media attention and curiosity the world over, owing to the real and symbolic implications of Trump’s plans to extend the wall that separates the two countries. But while the U.S.-Mexico border divides two places that are often out of balance, the people living around it continue to build relationships that transcend differences. Whatever the economic or political circumstances, the ties between people on either side of the border are so fine and so natural as to be almost imperceptible. But to ignore them is folly, whether you’re a screenwriter or the new U.S. president.

Tijuana Is for (Opera) Lovers

Sebastián Zubieta

Leave the stereotypes aside. Tijuana's annual Ópera en la Calle is a symbol of the city's rich and evolving cultural identity.

This article is adapted from AQ's special issue on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To receive AQ at home, subscribe here.

Tijuana’s annual Ópera en la Calle (Opera in the Street) is as much a musical occasion as a symbol of the city’s evolving cultural identity — a retaking of public space too often claimed by violence and a sign that expectations always can be upended.

Run by the independent organization Ópera Tijuana, Ópera en la Calle came about when an anniversary celebration at the Café de la Opera (located four blocks from the border) drew an unexpectedly large crowd that flowed into the streets. After that surprising success, the owner of the cafe, together with a group of supporters led by Teresa Riqué (now Ópera Tijuana’s general director) decided to turn the occasion into a yearly festival of concerts, food stands and staged operas. Now in its 14th edition, this year’s celebration in July will bring a variety of musical offerings (including the massive second act of La Bohème) to four Tijuana neighborhoods, all at minimal or zero cost to spectators.

Ópera Tijuana is no one-act play. Indeed, the organization has emerged as one of the most exciting proponents of opera and classical music in Mexico. They present a winter festival every December at the city’s iconic CECUT cultural center, and a series of indoor and outdoor recitals in public squares and theaters throughout the year. Ópera Tijuana’s programming relies mostly on classics like La Bohème or The Barber of Seville, but also explores lesser-known works in the repertoire — a bold strategy for a company hoping to win over new audiences.

José Medina, Ópera Tijuana’s artistic director, said the company’s efforts to respond to the city’s “hunger for culture” have given it both greater visibility and a foundation for sustained growth. That’s helped by ongoing collaborations with local and national organizations, such as the CECUT and CONACULTA (Mexico’s national cultural council), which allow them to connect with audiences that are new to opera while at the same time creating spaces for artistic activity in other Mexican cities. In 2014, in collaboration with CONACULTA and the Ibero-American Cultural Foundation, Ópera Tijuana brought an original production of Pagliacci to town squares in cities such as Querétaro and Ecatepec.

Opera has always been expensive and difficult to produce, but Medina is optimistic about the company’s future — both in Tijuana and in Mexico as a whole. One reason he’s confident is the role that Ópera Tijuana has played in supporting both producers and new audiences. To that end, the organization offers training to children and young artists in voice, acting and physical technique — promising a new generation of opera lovers in “the most visited city in the world.”


Zubieta is director of the music program at Americas Society

Juárez-El Paso's Cross-border Harmony

Martha Cargo

A flourishing musical partnership has taken root along the U.S.-Mexico divide.

This article is adapted from AQ's special issue on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To receive AQ at home, subscribe here.

Just a few days after Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20, hundreds of young musicians from the United States and Mexico performed Verdi’s “Triumphal March” from Aida to audiences on both sides of the border. It wasn’t meant as political commentary , but rather as a showcase for the newly formed U.S./Mexico Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, a collaboration between the El Paso Youth Symphony and Esperanza Azteca Youth Orchestra/Ciudad Juárez. The combined orchestra was established in 2016 to promote cross-border musical partnership — as well as the rich musical heritage of both countries. To underscore that point, the group also performed George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Mexican composer Samuel Zyman’s “Canto a la Música.”

Both orchestras have long been committed to instilling a love of classical music in young people. The El Paso Symphony Orchestra (EPSO), established in the 1930s, is the longest continuously running symphony orchestra in the state of Texas.

Its most recent transformation into a vehicle for music education was inspired by a Venezuelan program for children from low-income families called El Sistema, which EPSO executive director Ruth Ellen Jacobson learned about after seeing a story about it on TV. In September 2013, EPSO launched an after-school program called Tocando Music, based on the Venezuelan model. EPSO’s youth orchestra, led by musical director Dr. James O. Welsch, today includes 300 musicians.

EPSO’s work with young musicians found a perfect parallel in Esperanza Azteca Youth Orchestra (EA), which similarly took its inspiration from El Sistema. Founded by Mexican businessman Ricardo Salinas and the nonprofit Fundación Azteca, the orchestra began in the Mexican city of Puebla with 275 students in 2009. Today, the program includes over 17,000 participants in 87 student orchestras, including the chapter in Juárez. Most of the young people involved in the program have no musical background when they join the orchestra.

The collaboration between EA Juárez and the El Paso Symphony Orchestra has gone far beyond the enhancement of music education for low-income students. As Salinas said ahead of that debut concert on the border, “This is a good investment because these young men and women will become much better citizens. This is what we need, not only in America, but in the whole world … citizens that know how to work together.”


Cargo is a freelance musician and assistant to the director of the music program at the Americas Society

Border Beat: Tijuana's Homegrown Electronic Sound

Sebastián Zubieta

Pioneered in the 1990s, Nortec remains one of the most important features of Tijuana's musical landscape.

This article is adapted from AQ's special issue on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To receive AQ at home, subscribe here.

"Fusion” is often less than the sum of its parts, whether in music, food or anything else (I’m looking at you, Snuggie). But that’s not the case when it comes to Nortec — a merger of traditional northern Mexican and electronic sounds that combine for a unique, danceable and quintessentially Tijuanense musical genre.

Nortec was born in the 1990s, thanks in large part to two Tijuana-based composers and producers, Ramón Amezcua and Pepe Mogt. The pair’s early experiments blending electronic techniques with horn- and accordion-heavy Norteño and Tambora musical styles led to the creation of the Nortec Collective, a group of producers (including Amezcua and Mogt under the stage names Bostich + Fussible) that have since become synonymous with the Tijuana sound.

Between 1998 and 2014, Nortec Collective released more than a half-dozen albums and compilations, mostly on the Los Angeles-based Nacional Records label. The group’s 2006 release, Tijuana Sessions Vol. 3, earned two Latin Grammy nominations — including one for Best Alternative Album — thanks to tracks like the belching, tuba-and-trumpet-infused “Tijuana Bass” (produced by Amezcua). Many of the group’s releases have been accompanied by surreal, Tijuana-centric music videos that, much like the music itself, speak to the irreverent essence of the city’s gritty alternative pop culture.

Nortec Collective has shifted shape over the years. Members have pursued separate and solo projects and two of the founding producers left the group in 2002. But Amezcua and Mogt, along with two other longtime members (Jorge Verdin and Pedro Gabriel Beas), continue to perform and make new music under the Nortec banner. No discussion of Tijuana’s musical evolution would be complete without mention of their genre- and border-hopping contributions.


Zubieta is the director of the music program at Americas Society

Curating on the Divide

Susanna Temkin and Verónica Flom

inSite provides a space for contemporary art on, around – and above – the border.

This article is adapted from AQ's special issue on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To receive AQ at home, subscribe here.

Over the last two decades, inSite has established itself as a pioneering curatorial and artistic program for contemporary art in Latin America. In five editions held at the Tijuana-San Diego border, inSite has supported more than 150 commissions by Mexican and international artists, using the divisive space to explore issues related to migration, labor, surveillance, nationalism and military intervention. Notable contributors have included Francis Alÿs, Allora & Calzadilla, Mark Bradford, Javier Téllez and Silvia Gruner.

Throughout its history, inSite’s goal has been to document change not only regarding how the border is perceived, but also in the practice of contemporary art itself. According to Osvaldo Sánchez, an inSite curator and its current artistic director, “The successive versions of the exhibition have documented the historical development of artistic practices of intervention, ranging from urban-scale sculpture to site-specific installations, from performances to non-object-based processes and situations.”

For its sixth and current iteration, inSite relocated to the gentrifying Mexico City neighborhood of Santa María la Ribera. Under the name inSite/Casa Gallina, this latest version of the project consists of long-term residencies in which artists work in close collaboration with the local community. As was the case on the border, inSite/Casa Gallina remains outside the realm of the conventional art market, instead emphasizing creation and coparticipation within the neighborhood as an alternative to final or finished artwork.

InSite 05
In “One Flew Over the Void,” artist Javier Téllez launched the world’s most famous human cannonball across the Tijuana-San Diego border, creating a parodic illustration of the tensions characteristic of the frontier.

InSite/Casa Gallina
One of the first artists selected to work at inSite/Casa Gallina was Mexican multimedia artist Erick Meyenberg, who spent more than two years working with students from the Lobos Military Band in Mexico City for his latest work, “The wheel bears no resemblance to a leg.” Together with composers, costume designers and choreographers, Meyenberg and the band members enacted performances and flash mobs at the city’s Plaza de Tlatelolco and Monument to the Revolution, as well as at the students’ school and the Centro Comercial Forum Buenavista shopping mall. The resulting three-screen installation will be presented at Americas Society Visual Arts Gallery from May 4 through July 22.

InSite 97
For the 1997 edition of inSite, Mexican artist Marcos Ramírez, known as “ERRE,” constructed a monumental Trojan horse and parked it on the Mexican side of the border crossing at San Ysidro. The two-headed horse, meant to embody the ideal of interdependence between the two countries, encouraged viewers to ask themselves from what side and in what direction the horse might cross the border. This concept is further underscored by the sculpture’s physical structure, which was composed of a wooden frame that left the interior of the horse’s body exposed, thereby challenging the notion of a concealed invasion.

InSite 94
For 1994’s “Cross the Razor,” U.S. artist Terry Allen parked two vans on either side of the Tijuana-San Diego border. Each van housed a platform and music equipment that allowed people to connect to one another by singing, talking, or listening to music together from either side of the divide. By enabling communication through both sides of the physical border, the artist called into question the nature
of the boundary itself.

InSite 97
For inSite 97, the Belgian-born, Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs subverted the seemingly direct line between Tijuana and San Diego by taking a journey that allowed him to circumvent the border between the two cities entirely. Using his commission fee to travel through Latin America, Australia, Asia, and into the U.S. through Canada, the artist’s “loop” charted an alternate migrant journey across the border. However, while exposing the inconsistencies of the U.S. immigration system, Alÿs’ arduous and fully compensated passage also underscored the excesses of the art world.

InSite 05
For inSite 05, Argentine artist Judi Werthein launched “Brinco” (Jump), a line of sneakers with built-in references to the U.S.-Mexico border, such as a map and a compass. The artist distributed the shoes through different organizations that support deported migrants, and also sold them as a limited edition in a boutique near San Diego.  


Flom is exhibition and public programs coordinator and Temkin is assistant curator for visual arts at the Americas Society.

Two Poems on Border Identity

Abel Salas and Melissa Lozano

Reflections on life at the U.S.-Mexico crossroads by two California poets.

This article is adapted from AQ's special issue on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To receive AQ at home, subscribe here.


I recognize the signs
                                  of heartbreak
I recognize them
                                  in me
in the ball of twine
                                  four inches in diameter
someone has made
                                  to kill memory
I recognize the signs
                                  now repeatedly
of ancestral sadness
                                  sewn into skin
in ambition to feel
                                  free of sin
I recognize the signs
                                  of worlds imposed
I know I belong
                                  to none of them

Abel Salas publishes and edits Brooklyn & Boyle, an art, literature and community journal based in historic Boyle Heights, on L.A.'s Eastside. A poet and journalist, he also cofounded Corazón del Pueblo, a Los Angeles community cultural arts center and collective.


Don't Hold Back

My mother is 21,
conjuring María Félix, smolder
kohl eye.

She is the sound of freeways at rush hour
crashing hips. Hourglassed—an ache.

She wears a beehive of unanswered questions:
Curios, feathers, silences, heart songs, grafted tongue.
Tangerine mouth, pouting
lips. She is engaged to Rubén González.
She is cleaning houses.
She is walking home
late with the moon.

Don’t hold back
She says when she braids my hair
When she rolls tortillas
I roll them into shapes of California.
Her tortillas are as round as records.
When she sings Juan Gabriel
She gives me words to make my dance spiral.
When she chooses me to flip the tortilla and not my sister

Don’t hold back
She wants to call her mother
through invisible telephone wire.

Her lifeline,
a record melted in the sun.
She only knows.

She unravels a thread, motions:
It is good luck when the tortilla bubbles

Originally published in Huizache #6

Melissa Lozano is an MFA candidate at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She has studied under and performed with Elia Arce in We Carry a Home With Us and The Fruitvale Project.



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