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Straddling both sides of the US border

Gabriela Munoz (Latinx) and M. Jenea M. Sanchez (Latinx), Labor/Retratos 1, Mujeres de DougaPrieta Trabaja, 2016. Serigraph on handmade Mexican bricks, 42-by-6-by-24 inches. (Courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Borders can be barriers or bridges.

Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum is showcasing “Indigenous Women: Border Matters” in a timely look at four Indigenous artists straddling both sides of the U.S. border. Their work explores contemporary issues of identity, human rights and the impact of living near that borderline through printmaking and sculpture.

The roots of Gabriela Muñoz’s (Latinx) art practice grew from her time living in Arizona as an undocumented immigrant for more than a decade. When she earned her MFA at Arizona State University, she began producing work documenting her experience as a woman of color.

In 2010, the state legislature passed S.B. 1070, making it a misdemeanor crime for an undocumented person to be in Arizona without carrying the required documents. The law obligated police to make an attempt, when practicable during a “lawful stop, detention or arrest,” to determine a person’s immigration status.

“That was when I became socially, politically conscious,” said Muñoz, who is now legal. “My biggest inspiration comes from the women around me,” she continued. “The narrative that is told of their lives leaves a lot unsaid.”

Muñoz’s mother worked as a cleaning lady in Phoenix.

“All of the domestic work women do is taken for granted and they do so much to hold each other up,” she said.

Her mother set up her own cleaning business employing five women who became financially solvent. Some also started their own businesses.

“But, on the surface, she’s just a cleaning lady,” Muñoz said.

These women living at the border have made it their home, forming a collective to teach one another embroidery, sewing and gardening.

“They started selling some of their wares and (the building owner) upped the rent,” Muñoz said. “They still meet; they still collaborate. Because it’s so hard to find pesticide-free vegetables, they teach permaculture. They also have a woodworking workshop. They give work to migrant men. They don’t believe in charity; they’re like, ‘Come and work, and keep your dignity’.”

The artist used hand-made bricks with her collaborator Jenea Sanchez as a canvas to project portraits honoring these women.

“They could have adopted a narrative of victimization,” Muñoz said. “They’re masters of their own destinies.”

Many of the women live in a settlement near the border where they made their own bricks to build their own homes.

Muñoz also created a “Brown on Brown” series of printed portraits of the women using handmade paper sourced from plant fiber – saguaro, cholla and yucca. Nursing at the time, she produced her own ink by mixing breast milk with earth.

“It’s earth taken from the Chihuahua Desert,” she said. “I wanted to show it as a place of beauty and a place where beautiful, strong women live.”

When Mikaye Lewis (Tohono O’odham) was finishing her fine arts degree in printmaking at Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts last year, her thoughts turned to reservation border issues. She lives in southern Arizona.

“Here, it’s very normal to see the border patrol on a daily basis,” she said.

Officers regularly stalked her family.

“They lashed out at my Dad,” Lewis continued. “He’s disabled, so he can’t turn his body. They were following us. He stopped and started yelling at them. It was pretty traumatic. I don’t even know how old I was back then. I think they thought we were smuggling. It felt like an invasion of privacy.”

Her monotype and linocut “This Was All We Could Find to Drink” captures a regular migration occurrence.

“That happened at a friend’s house,” she said. “We had seen them waiting for us. He said, ‘Can I fill up my water?’ I never really thought about the conditions out there. I was 15, 16 at the time. We let them fill up their water.”

IAIA assistant professor Daisy Quezada Ureña grew up in southern New Mexico and Arizona. When she was finishing graduate school at the University of Delaware, she felt displaced and started researching border issues. The results were her provocative series “Arbol de Violencia” or “Trees of Rape,” undergarments dipped in porcelain, fired and hung from pointed hooks.

Ureña was inspired by the Sonoran Rape Trees dangling women’s underwear along the border.

“As women are migrating into the U.S. with the coyotes, they are sometimes sexually assaulted,” she said.

The rapists then hang their victim’s underwear on the trees like trophies.

Reactions to the pieces have ranged from outrage to awe.

“They’re holding breath, holding life in support of that individual,” Ureña said. “I think we all know stories of women who’ve been sexually violated. This takes ownership of that. It is about the border region, but, in the larger context, it’s about people and survivors who’ve been affected.”

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