The University of Texas – El Paso sits on a ridge overlooking a tangled mess of highway overpasses and freight lines, down on to the Anapra neighborhood of Ciudad Juarez. It is for the residents of the latter, the poorest sector of El Paso’s sister city, a constant reminder of the education and progress afforded “Americans”—a future that is at once, painfully close and impossibly far away for the children who stand clutching the thick metals bars of their continental prison. This desert, reeking of death and stained with the blood of Mexican and Central American migrants, punctuated only by jagged mountain peaks that protrude from the brushland like the jaws of a crocodile, once concealed a network of hideouts used by the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Now it’s a graveyard.
“Juarez is constantly on fire – the missing women, the cartel wars – and its artists are soaked in the ashes of this burning,” says Monica Lozano, a Mexican American photographer who has documented the border and migrant crossings for 18 years. She becomes emotional when talking about the thousands of missing and murdered women in Juarez, cases that since the late-1990s have been neglected and unsolved, eclipsed by the extreme violence of the cartel wars that erupted in 2011. Monica wraps up her uneaten burrito: “I lose my appetite thinking of this,” she says, followed by a painful chuckle.
Along the Mexican side of the border wall, we detour on to a barren dirt road that leads us to an escarpment looking out over El Paso—a cold, poisonous, metal snake winding through the desert as far as the eye can see. Every day, thousands of Mexicans and Americans cross at one of the four checkpoints along the Rio Grande to work, shop, trade, or visit family on the other side. The people crossing are used to being exploited, their bodies bearing the brunt of American imperialism manifest in the so-called “war on drugs.” Juarez was at one point considered one the most dangerous cities in the world, and El Paso one of the safest. The contradiction is glaring.
Walking in the brush, we happen upon a pile of teddy bears. Nearby, dozens of articles of clothing, seemingly frozen in time swirling ominously in the dust. How did they end up all together? What happened to each of the small humans who hugged them while being dragged through this scorching desert heat? Monica crouches to the ground and snaps photographs for her on-going body of work What Remains. The uncertainty is nauseating.
In the recent past, “replacement theory” inspired hate speech oozing from conservative right-wing politicians has resulted in increased anti-Mexican sentiments and corollary violence. In 2019, a 21-year-old white male who had published a white supremacist manifesto on 8chan, gunned down dozens of customers at a Walmart supercenter in El Paso, killing 23 and injuring as many. At the time it was the worst crime against the Latino community in US history. There is no doubt that virulent statements made by the former president continues to fuel the churning hatred of his acolytes, rabid bigots who believe themselves to be the rightful inheritors of the land their ancestors stole from Mexicans. The absurdity is astounding.
Crossing the pedestrian bridge from Juarez to El Paso, it’s hard not to notice that most of the TSA, police and border patrol are Mexican American. The transition from colorful, textured Juarez to the seemingly endless strip mall that is El Paso is surreal. And there standing on the wall, the “vendidos,” meaning sellouts or traitors, act as proxies for their white overlords, paid and promoted to subjugate their own people. The militarized abscess of the border does not warrant optimism, yet there are those like Monica who continue to bring humanity back to their communities through their artistic practice. Committed to the uphill battle for their people’s collective dignity they challenge the dominant, racist narrative by capturing the lived experiences of communities. It seems for many, that any hope for the future of El Paso lies in the soul of its sister city. Monica says: “Juarez has two hearts, its own, and another for the one that is missing in El Paso.”
All images are the sole ownership of Monica Lozano and cannot be republished or reprinted without her consent. To view her work, please visit: www.monicalozano.com