What kind of conditions must exist in order for a flower to flourish in a junkyard? Must the seed be planted deliberately and consciously, or will the wind deliver it to its home where it may soak the world up through its roots and blossom? Artist collective Taller Yonke’s Guadalupe Serrano Quinones and Luis Diego Amaya Taddei seem to know the answer. Named after the Mexican slang word for junkyard, this duo aims to use discarded materials and raw ideas and images to bring the experience along and across the border to the fore.
For our final Critical Issues excursion, we had the privilege of returning to the U.S./Mexico border once more to speak with the artists of Taller Yonke about their use the Ambos Nogales border wall and urban landscapes as canvases to make statements about the nature of migration and the open wound that is the border. As we have learned over the past few months in the borderlands, countries like Mexico have been intentionally and systematically destroyed and disempowered by the United States, and the global systems of oppression that it expands into, both literally and figuratively. The city of Nogales, Mexico – a region of the country we’ve become considerably familiar with over the course of the program – almost feels particularly contaminated by our Northern ways with its dizzying proximity to our prisons of comfort, as revolutionary Simon Sedillo aptly described our beloved aula, or classroom. While we may have a grasp on the kinds of injustices that exist in the world and how they have been created and maintained over time, we too often forget the material consequences of these violences in the lives of people everyday. While we are all implicated in these violences, we must push ourselves to make sacrifices and choices that threaten the dominating systems that perpetuate them. Our syllabus comes to life in Nogales as we are forced to negotiate and dissect our privilege and position in the transnational economy that we have grown so complacent with. Indeed, Nogales looks a lot like our greatest fears as comfortable and accustomed Norteños: working for 4 hours to be able to afford one gallon of milk, increasingly limited opportunities for advancement, and wanton abuse perpetrated within the community and even more intensely and obtrusively by forces emanating from outside the community. Before the construction and expansion of the U.S. – Mexico border there was a vibrant Ambos Nogales, in which bodies and culture flowed between the two countries like currency does today, cultivating a symbiotic and reciprocal relationship between the communities on other side of the imaginary divide. Though the imposition of a concrete and tangible border served to slow and nearly staunch the flow of cultural exchange and cast a bleak shadow over the Nogales area, there are reminders of a burgeoning and blossoming vitality where you’d least expect them to be.
Nestled in a courtyard on an isolated side street, propped against the iron fence on the border, and tucked away in sparsely trafficked underpasses, we are reminded of the life, beauty, and humanity of Nogales through the artwork of Taller Yonke. Their murals and sculptures are not only breathtakingly beautiful, they also pack a political punch and have received global recognition. Their choice to bring art to the commons, to reshape and mark their environment is one that breaks down the idea of who art is for, who is worthy of seeing it, and who should own it. And while some in the community have expressed that they would prefer more pleasant images, Lupe and Diego seek to create work that makes its viewers uncomfortable and pushes them to think about their surroundings in new ways. These artists humbly and bashfully present our group with their portfolios and a short documentary detailing their organizational history, but otherwise do not speak much to us – their message is already salient enough in their complex work, which features representations from indigenous, Mexican and U.S. culture and customs, as well as depicts humans as muscular entities without skin, “porque somos lo mismo debajo de la piel.”
All too often we forget and underestimate the resistance that comes in the shape of art. Our movements cannot be only populated with community organizers, folks calling shots on a megaphone, non-profit employees, social workers or other roles that are typically associated with activism. We need people who are willing to contribute to our cultural understandings. Cultural work is transformative. It allows us to flip and control our own narrative in a hostile political landscape. As prominent migrant rights artist and agitator Favianna Rodriguez describes “Culture is a space where we can introduce ideas, attach emotions to concrete change and win enthusiasm for our values. Art is where we can change the narrative, because it’s where people can imagine what change looks and feels like.” Her campaign “Migration is natural” which uses the symbol of the monarch butterfly and it’s journey across the U.S./Mexico and U.S./Canada border is a call to view movement as a part of survival and the people that do it as warriors.
In order to have the resilience to keep working towards a more just future, we must develop our ability to dream and hope together. Let us ask, what does this border wall signify and indicate about our society? What barriers exist between individuals and communities that enable and secure physical borders? But let us also ask, how else can this and all geographical, political, social, cultural, environmental borders look and what steps can we take to get there? What would a world look like in which people could move freely to better their life circumstances? What would a world look like where people would not have to leave their homes? What would a world look like where we all had access to all of the goods, services, and opportunities that we need?
These are the kinds of questions that Taller Yonke ask when they insert themselves in the narrative of the border which is continuously justified in the mainstream media and by government and state powers as a protection to our national security against terrorism and is used a tool to construct the legality and illegality of people. It is used to harbor fear of those who fit outside of the normative white upper-middle class America and to present them as a drain on the country, erasing and twisting their historical and current contributions and the U.S.’s role in creating conditions where people are forced to their homeland. The border serves to reinforce power. By pushing back against it’s physical, militarized form we also question the ideas that uphold it. Taller Yonke is more than just “junkyard” artwork; they inspire us to recognize our internal strength, beauty, and passion – indeed, become one with our inner flower – and root ourselves in the most desolate of junkyards. Surely someday a garden will flourish.
— submitted by Megan Gisela Bautista & Ana Patricia Robelo