Americans rarely think of the US-Mexico border as anything but a symbol of the division between the two countries. This rift has been especially obvious in the wake of the controversy surrounding the president's proposed 2,000 mile border wall. If the Trump administration's explicit anti-immigrant stance continues to direct national policy, this disconnect is sure to grow more pronounced. But if you ask the fronterizos, a group of artists living in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, the US-Mexico border functions more like common ground then a dividing wall. With a foot in each world, people along the border have developed a shared culture that transcends nationality and documentation. Refusing to let economics or politics come between them, the artists of El Paso and its bordering town Ciudad Juárez use art to bridge the divide. As they like to put it, " Ninguna pieza es ilegal!" ("No work of art is illegal!")
In the past decade, the sister cities have witnessed an explosion of street art festivals, gallery shows, and new art collectives. The fronterizos , who see El Paso-Juárez as one city with a river running between it, have a reputation for creating elaborate murals with plenty of politics.
According to David Flores, the founder of Ciudad Juarez's Colectivo Rezizte and co-founder of Puro-Borde, the first artists to develop the Rezizte collective were "transborderistas" who used art as a way to develop a fronterizo identity. "Colectivo Rezizte was born in 2003 out of the crack that opens between two juxtaposed cultures on the northern border of Mexico[ ...] bringing together different forms of expression and different genres to celebrate the diversity that makes us fronterizos," says Flores.
When these artists began hosting lively community events, they established themselves at the center of cultural life along the border. Flores recalls that one of the more memorable events in the early years featured Lucha Libre matches, poetry readings, live paintings, and surf rock. "Collaboration is key in creating autonomous art [with the purpose of serving] the community," says Flores.
A political consciousness and community focus put the fronterizos in the tradition of Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. In the 1920s and 30s, these artists became the nation's visual storytellers in part as a way to bring the ideals of the Mexican revolution to a population without access to education. By creating large-scale murals that were available to all, and retelling history from the perspective of the people, the Mexican muralists merged art with populist politics
El Mac is a Los Angeles based artist who has lived all over the Southwest. In 2014, he painted sister murals in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez of people who have lost loved ones to border violence. For him, art and social responsibility go hand-in-hand.
"The Mexican muralist movement was so amazing because it really was for the people. I'd like to think that I'm helping continue this legacy of social realism. As a public artist, you have power, and I've always felt a certain responsibility to create images that are uplifting and hopefully inspirational in some way," says El Mac.
LxsDos, the husband and wife art duo Ramon Cardenas and Christian Pardo Cardenas also feel a need to carry this tradition forward. "We see our work as an intersection between Mexican muralism and street art," says Ramon. "It's about re-appropriating public spaces with images that are relatable to us as a community, and in which we are protagonists."
LxsDos are based in El Paso, but they make art on both sides of the border. Their work often speaks to the close relationship between the cities. In their 2015 mural Sister Cities/Ciudades Hermanas Ramon and Christian painted Juárez and El Paso as two nearly identical women: "The women are used as a metaphor for the connection between the border communities. The characters illustrated inside the sister's chain fence pattern shirt represent the people who have been at the mercy and directly affected by capitalist trade agreements and interests, which have a very notable impact on our communities. At the bottom, both landscapes converge at the center with a dried up river in between. It talks about our commonalities, like being illuminated by the same sun, but also about our struggles," explains Ramon.
For Jesus "Cimi" Alvarado, a popular El Paso street artist who has painted more than 15 murals in the area, the perseverance of these communities is a source of inspiration. "The truth is that the regular gente are powerful. They keep working, keep on fighting to create better conditions for their children. When we work proactively to educate our youth about how strong we are, we inadvertently involve the whole community. It gives a context for the viejitos (children) to share stories and memories with one another. It strengthens our community to see ourselves and our stories reflected on the walls of our barrios."
According to Alvarado, it's important that artists incorporate history into their work, and in so doing fight a larger cultural tendency to only consider the present day. "To me, we do a disservice to our community locally and globally when we do not celebrate our own stories. As artists, it's our duty to tell those stories—no one is going to tell them for us."
One of the best ways to get a sense for border history is to visit the old El Paso neighborhood Segundo Barrio, where Alvarado painted some of his first murals. Located just blocks from the border, during the Mexican Revolution, El Segundo Barrio was a hub for journalists, revolutionaries, and ordinary citizens fleeing political violence. In the revolution's early years, it was home to Constitutionalist Francisco Madero while he plotted the overthrow of dictator Porfirio Diaz, and later it was frequented by outlaw revolutionary, Pancho Villa, who liked to stop in Segundo Barrio for ice cream. According to Kerry Doyle, the Director of the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso, the neighborhood is a testament to a history of binational exchange which goes far beyond recent memory.
"When you walk around Segundo Barrio, you'll see all of the sites that relate to the history of the two cities and the history of the Mexican Revolution. The two cities are very closely tied together. Physically, you can walk from one to the other. There's no distance between us—the revolution was a big part of our history as well."
This shared history is reflected in the lasting affinity between El Paso and Juárez. "It's not as if there's 'El Paso artists' and 'Juarez artists' and there's a big line in the middle. Many of the artists that do a lot of the murals are some of the people who are most at home in both places," says Doyle.
In recent years, collaboration between fronterizo artists has only increased. El Paso's LxsDos works on art projects and community workshops with Juárez's Jellyfish Collective. Puro Borde is a joint project between Juárez's Colectivo Rezizte and El Paso's Movimiento Honab Ku. Puro Borde has sponsored projects such as Pollero Cultural, a program that gets art to and from the two sides, on behalf of those whose status prevents them from crossing the border, and Borde Manifiesta, a collaborative weeklong art festival that is held in both cities. Myker Yrrabali, a muralist and tattoo artist from El Paso, who has been involved with the annual Borderland Jam street art festival sees these events as a way to resist the division imposed by outside forces.
"This Is our land, this is our home," Yrrobali told us. "Many people here have family across the border. Many come back and forth for work or school or both. It is our sister city and they are trying to block the view of her beautiful face. We want our work to say loudly, 'you can't keep us out, and you can't keep us in!'"
When asked about the contentious border wall, Yrrabali seems undaunted. "We hope it's paintable because both sides will shout till it crumbles. It does not belong in our landscape. This land is beautiful, the world is beautiful, and it is greedy to want to corral it in and tear families apart, and prevent learning and appreciating other cultures."
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