Marfa Dialogue

Marfa Dialogues: Politics and Culture of the Border

In Charles Bowdens opening talk for the Marfa Dialogues: Politics and Culture of the Border symposium, the acerbic journalist spoke about the hard boil, hard tack Boy Scout in him. “Americans think things should be fixed,” he said, alluding to what keeps him returning, intrepidly, to Juarez over the past 30 years. He described violence there as the fabric of life-a violence that has become such a pervasive reality since president Felipe Calderons cartel crackdown began in 2006 that it has no center. Bowden described an impoverished city besieged by slave factories, street gangs, addicts and the Mexican military. And though the Mexican government characterizes 90% of the monstrous killings as bad guys killing bad guys, only 5% of the murders are ever actually investigated. Bowden posed no prophetic solution to the violence. No one at the symposium did and no one can, the conference made that clear. “I dont even have a language,” he said, “Im here to convey to you the questions.”

Despite the unprecedented nature of the geo-socio-eco-political situation along the Mexican-US border, a handful of journalists, writers, academics, photographers and filmmakers came together and searched for a language during three days of dialogical politics and culture, September 17-19. Organized by Ballroom Marfa, the symposium was “inspired by arts potential to elicit critical conversation and generate new ideas.” Hamilton Fish, publisher of The Washington Spectator, hosted the weekends events in Marfas historical Goode Crowley Theater. The weekend began with interviews by celebrated journalists Charles Bowden, Laura Flanders and Mark Danner as well as a panel discussion by local academics and writers. Guggenheim fellow David Taylor presented his photographic series Walk the Line and Luis Carlos Davis screened his immigration documentary 398 Miles. A reading by El Paso poet Benjamin Alire Saenz and a free brunch provided by Marfa Burrito closed the weekends events. Though the symposium was infused with the eminence of certain leftist luminaries, the weekends most persuasive and substantial portions were those that originated closest to home.

Laura Flanders with Charles Bowden.

Laura Flanders with Charles Bowden.

Sandra Rodriquez Nieto, or El Diario de Juarez, was slated to participate in the panel discussion Saturday morning. However, the brazen attack on two photographers from El Diario, which left one dead in the parking lot of the Rio Grande Mall two days before, prevented Nieto from participating. Cecilia Balli, Professor of Anthropology at UT Austin, opened the discussion by reading a message of regret from a shaken Nieto. Nietos absence was a searing reminder of the violence, for anyone who needed it, visited upon any and all media in Juarez right now. Nietos grief and expressed desire to stay put in Juarez also spoke to what each of the six panelists agreed was one of the most important issues in dealing with the violence in Juarez: media recognition of human agency and civil spirit. “There is a normalcy that co-exists with the apocalypse,” Benjamin Alire Saenz reminded the audience, “the world is ending but not ending.” Juarez has always been a harrowing city; it has a history of smuggling related violence dating back to prohibition. Nevertheless, there is much more to the city than the murder and mayhem reported in nightly media.

La Santa Cecilia performance at Padres.

La Santa Cecilia performance at Padres.

Without downplaying the violence, the panelists agreed that the citizens of Juarez have indomitable spirit and that the discourse of fear only serves to dehumanize Mexico and its citizens. “Once it is understood as an inferno, it becomes not worth our time,” Alire Saenz explained. Kathleen Staudt, a panelist and a Political Science Professor at UTEP, expressed the opposite fear, that this demonization of the other will eventually justify US military occupation of Mexico. Just last week US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the Mexico drug war as an “insurgency,” drawing a controversial comparison to the situation in Columbia during the 1980s. However, ending cartel violence will not eliminate the stagnancy that accompanies extreme poverty. Staudt explained that part of Juarezs structural violence results from experimental American economic theories of the 60s and NAFTA in the 90s. Juarez has become a proto-typical global manufacturing site since mass migration began in the early 90s. 50% of the population earns less than a living wage. Yearly factory turnover is nearly 100%. Half the population will end their education before high school because educational infrastructure is non-existent. Given the current global-economic trends, Staudt wonders if Juarez is a likely or even inevitable paradigm for other regions.

Juarez needs economic help but the current model of US aid is ineffective and even inflammatory, said the panelists. The panel was unified in its call to renegotiate NAFTA and end the failing War on Drugs. Under the Merida Initiative, the US has pledged 1.6 billion dollars to the Mexican army for training, equipment and intelligence. However, since the Mexican army marched into the Juarez after Calderons contested election, violence and corruption have only increased.  “They tried to fight illegality with illegality,” Balli described. Soldiers systematically went to poor neighborhoods, disappeared and tortured residents. All the time they asked, “Who is selling drugs on your street?” The reflexive resort to violence blatantly ignores the crime-government nexus, which Balli and Bowden both stress, is where attention needs to be focused. “You cant measure success from how much is confiscated,” Balli said as the panelists nodded their heads in unison.

Later, the audiences attention was turned to those whose task it is to confiscate illegal drugs and persons in David Taylors photographic series Working the Line. The series grew out of an unlikely commission he received from the Van Horn Border Patrol, one-hour North-West of Marfa. After months of close quarters with the men and women in forest green, he cast off his pre-conceived notions and caricatures of the Border Patrol.  The agents filed away his liability forms and invited him back whenever he pleased. What resulted was a sprawling photographic series of the 1890s monuments that demarcate the US-Mexico border west of the Rio Grande. The project spanned four years and all 276 monuments. The true grit of the series, however, lies in the dialectic presence and absence that he captured in between. Photographs of two cartel lookouts staring down the camera collide with photographs of contiguous landscape divided solely by a monument.  Taylors photographs capture the solemn hide-and-seek, which characterizes the long history of the US-Mexico border.

The photographs, which document the daily goings-on of the Border Patrol, also highlight the conspicuous absence of any Border Patrol representatives at the conference. Post 9/11, the BP became part of the Department of Homeland Security and underwent considerable expansion. The Marfa BP sector, just one hour from the Ojinaga border, has increased 250% in the past six years. Thats an additional 500 agents and their families that have moved to the Marfa area-a sizable population in a town of roughly 2,500.

A number of Marfa participants commented on the absence of dissenting views in the audience. “It feels like they are preaching to the already converted,” one of the audience members said. Nevertheless, the symposium was a valuable first step in bringing attention to a crisis that is so geographically close and yet seems so politically and emotionally far away.

Q&A sessions followed each portion of the conference to ensure the maintenance of the symposiums organizing principle of dialogue. The question on much of the audiences mind and was asked many times over the three days is “what can we, as Marfans, do to help?” Cecilia Balli fielded the question poignantly, eloquently and practically when she urged the audience to support art and writing residencies close to the border. “They offer Mexican artists, writers and activists a re-vitalizing reprieve they wouldnt otherwise be afforded,” she said. She also illuminated the need for more English translations of Spanish texts. There is prodigious literary production by civil activists in Juarez right now, she said, “you can help by spreading their words.”

(All photos are © Aurora Tang, 2010 and are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. )

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