Tanya Aguiñiga’s Art Tells the Story of Communities Along the US/Mexican Border

With all the talk about the US/Mexican border, it’s easy to forget that it is a real place that people cross on a regular basis. The border crossing of San Ysidro in San Diego—the largest port of entry on the border—sees over 300,000 commuters cross every day, and the wait can take from one to three hours. Tanya Aguiñiga grew up commuting back and forth through San Ysidro to go to school, and she began making art there after studying design. Her Creative Capital project, Art Made Between Opposite Sides (or AMBOS), is a series of works of art and engagements with the commuters who spend time in both countries, and the communities along the entirety of the border. Aguiñiga and her team have spent time in these communities for several years, and the work they made is part of a group exhibition, “Disrupting Craft: Renwick Invitational 2018,” at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum opening November 9.

Alex Teplitzky:How did you start working on AMBOS?

Tanya Aguiñiga: I grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, and for fourteen years I crossed the border every day to go to school in the US. I attended school in San Diego as a US citizen. It was a pretty difficult thing to do as a child. We would cross at 3:30 in the morning so I could go to school at 8, and if the crossing went quickly, I would have to find a place to wait in the morning before school started. The border crossing itself is a very harrowing thing to go through. Everybody is defensive, and on edge trying to get across to work or school. It made for a different experience growing up than most people in the US. It was also something I couldn’t talk to other people about. If they knew that I lived outside of the district of my public school, I would have been immediately kicked out. It was very stigmatizing. My parents also didn’t talk to anyone at their workplace about living in Mexico because of the ideas people have of what the country means. Back in the ’80s and ’90s it was even worse than it is now.

Hundreds of thousands of us go through this experience of commuting across the border every day, but we go through it in silence, without talking about the traumatic aspects of it. So, it was one of those things that really shaped my life, especially in the ’90s when there were thousands of migrants lined up along the border fence. During our commute, I would see how many grown men were risking their lives to make it to the other side, when I, as a child who hadn’t contributed much to society yet, could just go back and forth. My privilege of being a US citizen was always something that I kept in mind.

As I moved on in my career and studied furniture design, that experience was something that allowed me to be creative and expressive, but it also kept my work within a more working-class mindset. For instance, my dad could really relate to how good my welds were. Or, my uncle could appreciate that I spent eighty hours on an object and you could sit on it. The older I got, I started to get away from that and focused on community-based work and migrant rights. So, it’s been this long process of working with communities for 20 years.

After learning these skills, during the last presidential election I decided that because there were so many bad things being said about Mexicans and Mexico, it was time for me to return to doing work on the border. That’s how I started the AMBOS project.

Photographs by Gina Clyne, Courtesy of AMBOS Project

Alex: So, it was after the 2016 election that the project shifted from a one-off community engagement project to a multiple city engagement, involving all the communities along the border.

Tanya: It wasn’t until I got the Creative Capital Award that I was able to actually start the work on the ground. It had been in planning stages for four years, but it wasn’t until political rhetoric became more pointed toward Mexico that I got funding. But in the beginning it was really specific to the San Ysidro border crossing and the vendors there, who really humanized the process of crossing. We turned a stall on that border crossing into a community space where artists from Tijuana, LA, and San Diego could do different activations about the border in regards to the riff between Mexican, Mexican-American, and Chicano identities.

Once I started thinking about the larger implications of the work, and its larger potential, I turned it into Art Made Between Opposite Sides, so that it could be more open and relate to regions outside of the one where I grew up, which is one of many.

Alex: Ok, so let’s back up. Especially after the election, you decided to engage all of these border crossings and these sister communities along either side of the border, like Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, in Sonora, Mexico.

Tanya: That was a three-pronged action plan that me and my team came up with. After the first iteration of AMBOS, we started to focus on one of the big projects, the Border Quipu. It’s a piece that is commuter collaborative, and it visualizes our experience as a community through engaging people that congregate at and cross the border into making a knot that’s symbolic of their experience. We go up to every pedestrian and every person in their car waiting to cross, and we give them a postcard that says, “These two strings represent the relationship between the US and Mexico, our two selves on either side of the border, and/or our emotional state while crossing.” Then it says, “Please make a knot.” On the opposite side it says, “What are your thoughts when you cross this border?” The postcard allowed us a double way to engage with people on a very simple level, and we could talk to people very young or old, or vendors, taxi drivers—everybody whose lives are highly affected by border politics. But it’s all centered around each of the ports of entry.

We decided to continue the Border Quipu so that we could get a better sense of what life is like and how people feel emotionally in each of the different places. Also, because of the changing state of the fence, we wanted to document what the fence looked like, and what life was like in each sister city. Doing that, we engaged artists on both sides of each border to document what art was being made on either side, and if there was any dialogue between the communities, and checking in with them to see how they felt.

When I was in emotional distress as a border commuter, all I really needed was someone to check in with me, and to ask me how I was feeling. It’s something we rarely do, we just go about our day.

Alex: I love that sociological element. You never hear the story of what the two communities on either side of the border feel about each other.

Tanya: For me, as someone who experienced that as a child age four to 18, I took it all raw and emotionally. Thinking about the impact of this project, I kept thinking back that in so many times when I was in emotional distress as a border commuter, all I really needed was someone to check in with me, and to ask me how I was feeling. It’s something we rarely do, we just go about our day. We don’t give a lot of attention to the psychological aspects of the things that we go through every day. So, I just wanted to check in with people and give them an opportunity to express themselves.

Once we saw what was coming back in the postcards—how that reflected, regionally, the different issues that each part of the border faces, and how all the different areas are affected by border policy per state, border patrol sectors, and the political issues in either Mexico or the US—it became this really interesting project. It turned into a three-year project of us driving along the border and spending time in each of the cites. As a result of us engaging with different artists, we ended up doing collaborations at the border, or activations at the actual fence.

Alex: Before hearing about your project, I had never heard about how the communities on both sides of the border have this relationship.

Tanya: Yeah. On the majority of the border, wherever there’s not a major socio-economic difference between the two sides, it’s more like one unified community, or one family that’s split in half. People go back and forth constantly, they have family on both sides. It’s also a place where as tensions amp up in Mexico, then that community won’t cross anymore, and they become severed from the other side. In a lot of places, we thought there would be more mention of US politicians. For instance, in Texas we thought people would be more for building a wall, but it turned out to be the most Mexican place we visited. In some places we didn’t even see any white people. Many people only spoke Spanish. Everybody had this different way of relating to Mexico because they don’t have a large visual barrier between them. They only have the Rio Grande.

Every single region is so different. The way that people live with borders in different places is something we can learn from. Every place started to project its own emotion through the postcards and our conversations with people. We noticed there were specific words that would come up. Most of them tended to be negative, but there were two cities where it was positive. One of them was Douglas and Agua Prieta where Postcommodity did their installation, Repellent Fence. The people there see the wall as a place of coming together rather than a point of division. They cross the two cities, and they work together to do cultural programming along the fence, so the two cities can come together over music or theater. They use it as a place to gather, rather than a divisive place.

Alex: Wow, so they’re basically doing what you were trying to do for other places?

Tanya: Yeah, so the emotion that came back from the cards was “gratitude.” When we first got there, we didn’t believe what people were telling us, that they have a relationship with both sides of the cities. We hadn’t really seen a place where they engaged with the other side in a natural way before going there, so we were skeptical of it. But after spending time there and talking to everybody, we realized it was true. Even the border patrol is made up of people that are from the town, rather than people from the outside. They treated us with respect, and gave us space to mourn and allowed us to do more at the border fence than we were allowed to do in other places.

In other places in Arizona, the fence is super militarized. Those places where there’s a majority of illegal crossings, in the desert, it’s very intense. When we got close to the fence, a helicopter would come and kind of harass us. It was very different than in Douglas. Being in places where the border patrol has killed people through the fence, it makes for a really different way of people interacting with the border.

Photographs by Gina Clyne, Courtesy of AMBOS Project

Alex: Your medium is craft. You mentioned before that it’s this form of art that involves the body in a way that other mediums don’t. How do you see craft informing this community engagement project?

Tanya: For me, using craft-based mediums is a really beautiful starting point. We all have a relationship to crafted objects and materials, like fibers, ceramics. These are all the things we live with. In most places outside of the US, craft is art. There’s not an issue of it being constantly questioned. So, for me, it offers a really incredible design solution to engaging communities and creating community around the creation of objects collectively.

In the beginning I wanted to teach people to knit and crochet, but thinking about it in practice, we imagined ourselves physically running after the cars to do that. It seemed like the easiest way to do a really successful engagement would be to ask people to do the most minimal thing. Once you get them involved, you can spend more time talking about where this is going, or what it’s for. It leads to a lot of interesting conversations about cultural erasure, colonialism, and hierarchical structures.

Craft offers a solution for a lot of problems. It’s more open to people, it’s easier to get them engaged. When people say, “I don’t know how to do this,” I respond, “Well, you tied your shoes this morning!” Then it allows you to start a conversation, and demystifies what art or sculpture is. It allows people to participate regardless of their social or financial status.

Alex: What does success look like for you with this project?

I think success is if more people are able to read people’s stories about the border, and how all the different places feel, so they understand that the border is a larger, complex place that’s constantly evolving and reacting to policy on both sides, and that it’s something that we need to learn to use as a starting place for a conversation, rather than something that negates someone’s humanity—that would be success.

I started it all from a really personal place with my own story. As I kept going with the project over the years, I had to check myself and I realized that I was focusing on just the people who had the privilege to cross. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t think about that from the beginning, the other stories that are so shaped by the border. Those who haven’t crossed, or were deported, or those who perished trying to cross. In the second year, we sort of ended up chasing ghosts of people who were affected. We spent time traversing the desert memorializing people who perished, and engaging with the presence of all those people who I couldn’t ask their opinion or how they feel.

The third year in 2018, we went to Texas, and when we got there, the family separation policy had just taken affect. We started in El Paso next to Tornillo which is the tent city where the children are being held. So, this year was really shaped by family separation and asylum seekers and all of the people who are yet to be affected by what happens depending on US policy. Every year was different, and we got deeper and deeper into all the levels of people who are affected.

Photographs by Gina Clyne, Courtesy of AMBOS Project

Alex: Why was it important for this project to premiere at the Renwick?

Tanya: The Renwick is one of the most visited of the Smithsonian museums, and it’s across from the White House. So, I felt like it was an important place for me to premiere the project because of its proximity to power, its proximity to people that actually have the capability to cause change, and speak to their constituents about the reality of the border. I wanted to focus attention on this showing of the AMBOS project because of its location.

Alex: A lot of the AMBOS works were just exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. How was it received?

Tanya: It was so surprising. I was there, I think, four times through the run of the exhibit and spent time in the gallery working on new pieces. I was super surprised that so many Latin Americans came in to talk to me. The Museum told me that they had an uptick in Latin Americans coming in because of the show. So many people came up to talk to me in Spanish from all different countries thanking me for doing the work and for exposing to them to the realities and to people’s stories. I also met teachers that had undocumented students, and they didn’t know how to speak to them, or engage them, or empower them. So, a lot of teachers used the project as an educational opportunity to speak to their students and their family members.

Alex: How was Creative Capital helpful to you?

Tanya: I wouldn’t be able to do the project if Creative Capital hadn’t given me money! It was incredible for me to go through all the training that they put us through. It helped me think about how one presents oneself as a successful artist, and one that others should support. All the training on public speaking was really helpful.

Also, the way they emphasized taking our time on the project—don’t rush it, give yourself time to think—that was something that had always been a luxury because I don’t come from money. It was really incredible to give myself the gift of time to really think about it. Had I premiered it with the first iteration it would have been a completely different project then it turned out to be. It was such a gift for Creative Capital to force us to not rush into things.

Read more about the AMBOS Project on their website, and see Tanya Aguiniga’s work at the Renwick’s “Disrupting Craft” exhibition open through May 5, 2019.