Folk arts in Mexico on the Border: Make Art, Not War

Pete Brook 10.18.13 6:30 AM

Wrestling costume and mask designer Mascaras Eduardo Sanchez at his workshop in Cuidad Juarez. Sanchez also creates masks for clients in El Paso, Texas.

Ruben Garcia Benavides at his house. Banavides is one of the foremost painters in Mexicali, Mexico.

Artist Ana Maria Cruz, alias Ana Formismo, in front of her mural in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Paulo Escamilla Rodriguez is the director of ballet dance at CEMAVI, a school of visual arts in Matamoros, Mexico.

Erica Marin installed her work “ Mis Rezos” at the border fence in El Paso. She is a member of Puro Borde, a cross border group of artists in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.

Fabiola Sol Amaro designs costumes mostly for local theater productions at her workshop in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

Photographer Tochirock Gallegos on the roof of his studio in Reynosa, Mexico. His strong personal work reflects the often violent circumstances in border cities like Reynosa.

Artist Oslyn Whizar at her home and studio in Tijuana.

Photographer Oscar Monroy A. with one of his award-winning photos in Nogales, Mexico.

Writer Miguel Angel Chavez Diaz with a friend in his hometown Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. He won the Mexican National Journalism Award for his book El Dulce Encanto de Mi Embolia, which means “The Sweet Charm of my Stroke,” in 2009. The book recalls his survival after a stroke that almost killed him.

Jaime Ruiz Otis is an internationally known artist from Tijuana.

Alfredo Gutierrez paints portraits of American homeless in Tijuana, among other projects. He has painted several murals in the city as well.

Punk rock musician Christian Mueller and his band “Los Whats” shoot a video in a pizzeria in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Mueller lives across the border in McAllen, Texas.

Leobardo Sarabia is an art promoter in Tijuana and director of the annual art festival Tijuana Interzona. Here he is shown on the roof of La Casa Del Tunel (house of the tunnel), an art center in a house that once featured a tunnel between its basement and a parking lot several hundred feet away on the American side. The art center is a few feet from the border.

Pastor Galvan is the founder and director of the Vision en Accion mental hospital near Ciudad Juarez. He’s also an artist who expresses his opinion about the governments and other issues in his paintings.

Newspaper editor Jhio Raga in the printing room ofLider Laredoin Nuevo Laredo. He is also a journalist, photographer and playwright. Newspapers in Nuevo Laredo and other cities have publicly announced that it has become too dangerous for them to report on crimes, so entertainment news is the higher priority.

Jellyfish Colectivo is a collaboration of four young artists in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. One of their murals covers a two-story house in downtown Juarez. Jellyfish also is showing its work across the border in El Paso. The artists work on a variety of projects, including short animated films.

Painter Francisco Acosta at his home in Nuevo Laredo.

Daniel Maldonado lives and works in Brownsville, Texas, where he offers art classes for children and adults at his studio near the border with Mexico.

In the years since Mexico, under former President Felipe Calderón, declared war on the drug cartels of Mexico in 2006, most of the photojournalism from the border has focused on the inevitable violence. With more than 60,000 people dead and another 25,000 missing, such attention is warranted, and vital.

Yet there’s more to the border region than just gunfire and body counts. Stefan Falke’s ongoing project, La Frontera: Artists from the U.S. Mexican Border, examines the borderland’s flourishing arts communities with photographs of more than 170 painters, muralists, art promoters, museum directors and musicians.

“It’s a story as true as those about crimes and violence,” Falke says. “There are a lot of amazing cultural activities going on along the border, on both sides. Artists are the pulse of societies and they can have a tremendous positive influence on their communities.”

Falke, who lives in New York, was born in Germany. His interest in national borders stems from his experience growing up in the shadow of the Iron Curtain.

“We lived with a physical border dividing my country,” he says. “I was drawn to the U.S.-Mexico border after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Since then, the U.S.-Mexico border wall has been continuously growing. I wondered about all the bad news coming from La Frontera and had to check it out for myself.”

Falke’s first portraits of artists were made on a trip to Tijuana in 2008. He has since traveled to different parts of the border eight times. In 2012, he crowdfunded nearly $9,000 for the project.

The majority of his work has been made on the Mexican side in cities such as Tecate, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Mexicali and Nuevo Laredo. But he has also photographed in U.S. cities — most recently in Brownsville, Texas. During his time on the border — which Falke describes as “almost its own country, a region unparalleled anywhere, good and bad” — he has only felt unsafe once.

“There were hand grenades or other small explosives going off near my hotel in Matamoros one night. I literally fell out of my bed. This was the only time I thought I might be in trouble,” Falke says.

The rest of the time he’s been welcomed by everyone he’s approached.

“People are positively surprised that anybody would do what I do because most international photographers who come here want to shoot crime scenes or work on stories about the drug wars or immigration related issues,” Falke says. “The support from the artists in every city I have been to is just fantastic. Everybody I photograph recommends other artists to meet.”

One of Falke’s main goals with La Frontera Project is to create a bilingual and interactive website that presents the artists’ portraits and edited photo stories alongside their corresponding web-links, career information and activities. The site would serve as a hub.

“It could connect artists and art institutions along the entire border, on both sides, which each other,” he says.

Because the region is so vast he’s got no shortage of material and is excited to keep exploring both the major cities and smaller towns that dot the nearly 2,000-mile border between the two countries.

“I am having a ball working on this project. It took on its own life, and it is hard to quit,” he says.

Images and captions: Stefan Falke.