Growing up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas has taught me about change and stillness, transitions and numbness, roadless desert journeys, hiding while seeking…. The border is a mirror reflecting a distorted reality, two places crashing into one another and impacting each other, while we, the people living here, stand in the middle observing and absorbing all of it—the birth of subcultures and the daily visual shock that unfailingly pulls us down into the same abyss, time after time.
After eighteen years spent researching, witnessing, and photographing the human impact of borders in different countries, it is very easy to lose hope in humanity. Although I have always tried to find the light in the middle of so much darkness, sometimes I cannot find it, especially while standing in a place that is constantly on fire. For political and humanitarian reasons, it would be too painful to keep my eyes open when the most fragile among us are burning. It is the impossible stories, the courage, and the “talking eyes” of the people I meet that give me the strength to keep my own eyes open. Keep looking, I tell myself. Don’t close your eyes now.
The most common phrase I hear is: “There is NO JUSTICE.” It is an expression of fragility, a mantra of the displaced that seeks to encompass the gripping journey and the feeling of not belonging anywhere—the complete and utter fear of carrying your child in your arms and having no alternative but to walk—and keep walking—toward an uncertain horizon. Most of us could not endure the type of journey that migrants embark upon with such strength or bravery. Their selflessness is the embodiment of courage and love because their decisions are driven by the instinct to protect their families, no matter how desperate their situation. I have learned during these years of documenting border stories that preserving the life of children is almost always the reason a person risks it all and dares to undertake this perilous journey. They are brave because there are no other options.
In July 2022, I reconnected with Siddhartha Joag, who was visiting El Paso with Declan MacLaughlin, a singer-songwriter from the North of Ireland, and Michael Marinez, an artist from San Antonio for an ArtsEverywhere project. I hadn’t seen him in 10 years and I was excited to drive them around and show them a “deeper” side of the border. I picked them up on a Tuesday morning and drove them to breakfast for the classic Burritos at Crisostomo. I was so glad to see they ordered the spiciest of food, so I knew then it would be a fearless day and we could go anywhere. We only had one day, so right after breakfast we went directly to the wall, the strongest symbol of the border, the cut. We parked and walked on the American side and I knew we would be approached by the border patrol within minutes but I still took the quiet risk. We then crossed to the Mexican side and I was so content to be driving them in the silence of the journey. There was no need to talk at that moment. It was a day of sharing personal stories, confortable silence, writing, thoughts, and personally waking up for months of numbness to this eclectic group of artists.
I hadn’t photographed anything related to the border since “What Remains” (2019), a series of contemporary still-life images documenting the objects that immigrants carry on their journeys and discard before crossing into the USA. I got too close to the caravans, the people, the stories of pain and loss coming from South America and Mexico all at once. I had to stop documenting for my own safety and sanity; it was becoming too hard to take photographs and “keep my eyes open,” then come back home to the experience of being a new mother to Max and Bruno, my two little loves. When the pandemic hit, a few dear friends and I focused our energy on collecting donations for different asylum shelters in Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, while we adapted to our new “normality.”
Around the same time, I started working on a new project with Dr. Adriana Alvarez, a childhood friend who was also raised on the border and with whom I had collaborated on and off since 2014. We were sharing ideas about how to encapsulate the physical and psychological impacts of the migrant’s experience: the trauma of the journey, family separation, bilingualism, cultural and lifestyle adaptations, the aftermath that unfolds after making the crossing itself. These experiences had informed both of our individual life-stories and we saw an opportunity to integrate her doctoral dissertation and my photography to create a stronger conceptual and visual body of work. Soon after, Adriana and her team invited me to the University of Colorado Boulder’s Crown Institute to collaborate on a research project called “Trust and Belonging and Circles de Confianza.” This is when I began to understand the story of migration as a generational process that extends long after families find new ways of living after “settling” in the United States.
I took the ArtsEverywhere team to various sites in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, explaining the terrain and its history. During a drive along the wall on the Mexican side of the desert, memories of “What Remains” came back to life unexpectedly. We found a cemetery of discarded objects and clothes that migrants were forced to leave behind before climbing over the tall, iron fence. We got out of the car and absorbed the scene in the noontime heat of a desert summer. There were dozens of plush toys that seemed to have been carefully arranged under the bushes. As we stood there contemplating what the teddy bears and books might have represented to the children who carried them, it felt like we had all sunk into the sand along with their toys.
Days after, I was speaking with two artist friends, Iris Morales and Mabel Weber, about what happened that afternoon at the border when Mabel came up with an idea. She suggested that we transform the objects into “La Trenza,” a sacred braid woven ritualistically by women, as was done in ancient times, to unify and honor the stories and the lives of those who left the objects behind. Thinking about the act of collecting these objects felt like a punch in the gut, but at the same time I felt I had to do it—in my own way to help rescue and recover some of the stories forgotten in the desert of Mexico. The next day I went back to the site accompanied by my brother Marco, who had offered to help me put the clothes and toys in bags. I had to disconnect from my body and myself in order to touch so many objects that looked like they belonged in a holocaust museum. We left ten minutes later without gathering all the clothes after both of us experienced moments filled with unbearable fear and pain and a very known darkness emanating from the borderlands where we grew up. We just had to leave. At that moment I had no way of knowing that we would travel back to this scenario in our minds, again and again, as we continued documenting stories of migration on the American side.
In October 2022, Adriana and I drove three hours from Boulder to the Rocky Mountain town of Glenwood Springs near the Roaring Fork valley, home to several immigrant communities, where we’d begin the next phase of “What Remains.” The valley extends south to Aspen, where most immigrants find work in the service industry at high-end ski resorts. Guided by the concept of La Trenza—the braid—our intention was to connect and unite intimate objects from the “found-stories” as a means of metaphorically erasing the border by weaving together the journey from both sides into one. Adriana had the idea that participants in Colorado should begin the braid, so we solicited donations from a few families and gathered the objects together—intimate material possessions that had accompanied them on their journeys. During the photograph sessions and interviews that followed, the families shared incredible stories of survival and resolve.
During the trip, we met Daisy, a teenage girl, who was nine years old when she crossed the border with her mother and was aggressively ordered to drop her teddy bear in the desert by the “coyote,” the Mexican guide who had been hired to lead them across the desert graveyard to the wall. Her mother explained to us that that moment had been the most difficult part of the journey—when her daughter’s most precious belongings had to be left behind in the middle of nowhere. The forcible separation from her best friend, companion, and comfort object represented the ripping apart of the only life she had ever known. Her mother promised to buy her a new one when they reached the USA, but Daisy told her: “It will never be the same, it will never be my teddy bear.”
Daisy waited until the last moment before jumping the fence to leave her teddy bear behind. Once she and her mother crossed the threshold, there were no more directions, no more guides, no more roads. They walked for two days before turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents because they could not stand the hunger and the pain. They spent days in a holding tank known as “the freezer,” where they were interrogated repeatedly and became sick because the temperature in the rooms was so cold. After three days, Daisy and her mother were deported back to Mexico and had to find a way to survive and struggle to reunite with the rest of their family who were now living in the US.
Daisy’s story is one of many we documented on the US side of the border. We asked participants: Was your journey worth it? Would you do it again? What objects did you bring with you that where crucial to you and could not be left behind? What happened to those possessions? Do you still have them now? We learned a great many details about how those precious objects saved them or harmed them during their journey.
Yeni, a mother of two, remembered having to decide what shoes to take with her. “It was winter and I chose some rain boots thinking they would protect me from the cold, the spiky desert plants, and the animals we might encounter. But I didn’t think that if nothing can come in through those boots, then neither can anything go out. So my feet got wet and blistered as I walked for days in the desert of Arizona. During the night I would take them off to see if they would dry a little, and the small group of people traveling with me would all come close and all surround my feet with theirs so I could warm them up. I will never forget this gesture that got me through those unbearable days. Of course, my boots never dried.”
“It almost feels like I auto-kidnapped myself,” conceded another migrant we interviewed. “I cannot get out of this country ever and I chose to come here, but the American dream is nowhere to be seen. I graduated with a doctorate in Mexico, and here I am cleaning houses and doing the jobs that Americans don’t want to do.”
Unfortunately, this phenomenon replicates and metastasizes along the border. Although there are so many stories to be told, “What Remains” is a platform for visibility and an intimate illumination of the journeys undertaken by fronterizas and migrants on both sides of the Mexico-US border. Some who agreed to participate in “What Remains” chose to share their true identities, others preferred to remain anonymous, while others asked us to show only the objects that tell a story themselves. This was requested for their safety and protection.
This experience is profoundly interconnected with my personal story, the most sacred place, the only place where I can create from. It has also taught me that my work can only go so far through photography. The revival of “What Remains” with a focus on process and collaboration has given birth to new and meaningful ideas, as well as the potential of a powerful multi-disciplinary reach into the arts, education, activism, and social justice. This is beyond anything that I could have ever achieved alone.
*Selected images from “What Remains” are currently on exhibit at the Garden of Reflection Gallery in Derry City, Northern Ireland as part of the annual commemoration of Bloody Sunday co-sponsored by Bloody Sunday Trust and ArtsEverywhere.