Standing at the western end of the United States / Mexico border fence is like being plopped into the middle of an awkward conversation between Frida Kahlo and Dick Cheney. Nowhere are the differences between the two cultures more apparent.
During the past few years, Playas de Tijuana has undergone a facelift. A nice, new wooden boardwalk runs alongside the beach, businesses are popping up and a handful of noisy vendors—hawking fresh coconuts, churros and frozen treats—pitch their goods. The bullring hovers in the distance as for-sale, fighting roosters run freely around a dusty lot nearby. Tourists and locals frequent the revamped park (recently renamed Parque del Mar, although locals don't call it that), some to snap photos, others to take advantage of cell-phone signals that don't always recognize the precise location of the international boundary. A large fiberglass sculpture of dolphins frolicking in the sea has been placed in the middle of a concrete slab in the park, just feet away from the fence.
On the U.S. side of the border, signs of new construction are visible, too. A huge crane casts a shadow across the fence. It's parked a few feet in front of a temporary construction platform that stretches out into the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is in the middle of replacing the old border fence—a rusted, ragtag wall made of recycled helicopter landing pads from the Gulf War—with a much higher, sturdier barrier. A new tower structure, complete with what appear to be video cameras, adds to the militarized feeling—one of the reasons few folks visit the surrounding state park these days. But no matter how high the fence is or how many Border Patrol agents sit at the ready, it all seems futile—the fence still ends abruptly in the ocean, met by the vastness of the sea.
Artists have already responded to the new fence, covering its brown, oxidized steel columns with white messages and images commenting on, and questioning the need for, a higher fence. One artist has taken the iconic street sign that warns freeway drivers about immigrant families darting across the road, flipped the image on its side and armed the father, who's pulling a woman and child forward, with a small bundle of balloons.
“This should be a very, very important place, but it's like nothing is here to let you know,” Youn Woo Chaa says, squinting in the afternoon sun as he looks out over the border fence. “It's a little strange. And the dolphin piece, why is that here? It doesn't make sense for me as an artist.”
Chaa, a Korean artist with long black dreads dangling down his back, first set foot on the site more than 15 years ago. It was different then—not as developed on either side— and he remembers being astounded by the openness of the border. born in Seoul, his idea of an international border came from the one separating South Korea from North Korea. “You cannot cross through that border,” he laughs. “Maybe if you're a 007 secret agent or something.”
The closest Chaa ever got to his hometown border was the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Three years of military service is required in South Korea (up to 10 years is mandatory in the North), and Chaa was stationed in the DMZ for a short time before too many deaths, mostly caused by friendly fire, exploding mines and other accidents, forced a commander to relocate his unit, Chaa says.
Chaa eventually married a woman from the United States and moved to Los Angeles. He liked the idea of being able to cross an international border whenever he wanted with relative ease—no mines or gunfire—so he started making regular trips to Tijuana. He began feeling strong connections to the Mexican people. The poverty in the region reminded him of Korea in the '60s, and though he didn't speak Spanish, he felt as though Mexican people understood him and vice versa.
“It's like I can open the curtains to their minds,” he says. “I know who they truly are, what they want and how to talk to them. I feel much closer to Korean people when I'm here in Mexico.”
The language barrier is partially responsible for giving Chaa his big idea. He noticed that when Mexicans said hello to him, they often nodded their heads and threw up a quick peace sign, as if trying to communicate friendliness without having to understand words. The image stuck with him, and while visiting the border fence in Playas about a year ago, he suddenly knew exactly what he needed to do.
“La Mano de la Paz", a giant hand making a peace sign—that's what the park needed. Nothing too kitschy or corny. Something elegant and interactive with a water feature at the base of the sculpture that misted, creating a rainbow at certain angles, plus an interactive component that responded to noise by generating the image of a snowflake on a circular LCD screen below the sculpture's elevated base. The hand would need to be at least 15 feet high and made of galvanized steel wires, welded and wound together in a way that made each finger end in its own unique fingerprint.
“After I got the idea, I got stuck on it, and I started hating those stupid dolphins even more,” Chaa says. “That sculpture is falling apart, anyway. It's fine for some hotel or resort front, but not here. The border is right there, you know?”
When Angel hernández Huerta got the call from the elderly lady at a basket shop in Rosarito, he was skeptical. Probably just another gringo looking for a weaver to make a bunch of cheap goods, he thought. He arranged a meeting in a parking lot, and when he saw that Chaa was Asian, not American, his wariness grew. What was this guy really up to? Hernández pretended not to speak or understand any English. He listened as Chaa explained to the translator that he was an artist looking for a professional weaver who could collaborate on his art pieces. Eventually, hernández decided that Chaa was harmless, maybe even interesting.
“Now Angel's like a brother. We've been working together six or seven years,” Chaa says, patting the husky artisan on the back
But finding hernández took much longer than that one parking-lot introduction.
Twelve years ago, Chaa stopped liking the art he'd been making. He was becoming known for his ancient-artifact-inspired work, but it was starting to feel fake. He wanted a more direct connection to primitive peoples and their art. While meditating in the desert one day, he got his answer: Go to the Amazon.
“I was, like, Amazon dot-com? What? Why?” he says.
Eventually, the voice in his head made it clear that he should go to the Amazon jungle. A few months later, he bought a one-way ticket, packed a backpack and made the trip. At first, he was interested in investigating the “art instinct.” He wanted to know if primitive people had an inclination to make and own art, or if it was ingrained through economics and other external influences.
“I didn't have to go around asking that question, though, because they had hanging art in their house,” he says. “I asked, ‘What is the function?' And it's just beautiful—that is the function. So, I got my answer the first week.”
Chaa wandered from village to village, witnessing what had become of the indigenous peoples' way of life, which had been devastated by the Brazilian government's pursuit of the Amazon's natural resources.
The Brazilian military wasn't exactly accommodating—Chaa managed to get himself arrested and put in a makeshift prison. He escaped, but was shot with a pellet gun in the process. He calls getting shot “the big accident” that ultimately helped him find his way.
“I thought, ‘This is so bad; this is so, so bad. And I cannot do anything about this reality. What can I do?'” he recalls.
He left the Amazon knowing he had to make art that would tell the story of the plight of the indigenous people. He tried a couple of different methods before settling on weaving, a skill he'd seen on display in the villages he visited. With no background in textiles, he taught himself traditional weaving techniques but replaced the geometric patterns with portraiture and other real-life images. The process, though, took too long. His hands were starting to cramp and he couldn't do the work himself or find anyone in L.A. willing to help. So, he went looking for a weaver and a better technique in Mexico.
The result was stunning. With hernández by his side, Chaa is able to make large-scale weavings that, from afar, look as well-done as a Renaissance painting. Close up, viewers see that the images are created through carefully woven colored fibers, similar to the those found in baskets. An exhibition of the work is on view at the Universidad Tecnologica de Tijuana through April 29.
Chaa's been weaving for a decade now, but his idea for the peace-sign sculpture required learning a new skill: welding. Because of his experience with weaving, he knew he could do it as long as he found the right teacher.
Victor Chavez has run a successful welding shop and storefront in Rosarito for 12 years. At the height of his business, back when tourism was booming, he had 40 workers in his factory making everything from custom gates to those giant, familiar ants made of welded rebar and rocks. Chavez is actually working on a book about the ants—he claims his shop was the first to carry them, and they've since become one of the most popular Mexican souvenirs.
Chaa and hernández knew Chavez was their guy. They showed him the drawing of the sculpture and asked if it was possible. Chavez didn't know, but he was willing to try.
“Art, I start with Chaa,” Chavez says proudly. “Before I made artisan things for tourists. I do real art with him. It's different when you're making art. It's different than the things I normally make. When you're making art, you don't want to stop, you know?”
Chavez says hernández learned to weld in three days. Chaa's getting it, too, and he's teaching himself how to galvanize steel because he wants more control over the end result. The ragtag team has made three small-scale hand sculptures so far, and they estimate that about 1,000 hours were spent on each one.
“Even with my weaving pieces, people say it's between art and insanity,” Chaa says, holding up one of the hands. “This is really insane.”
Back at the park near the border, hernández tells me he might like welding more than weaving. He doesn't mind staying up all night with Chavez and Chaa working on the hands. He and Chavez both say the project is the biggest, most exciting thing they've ever worked on. And they're starting to hate the dolphin sculpture almost as much as Chaa does.
“A lot of Mexican people, we don't want that thing,” hernández says. “It's so sad for me; the border line. It keeps going up and up, higher and higher. So, we need to do something nice to break that feeling.”
Jorge Conde, director of cultural affairs at the Universidad Tecnologica de Tijuana, is somewhat of a bigwig in the Tijuana art scene. He says he's behind “La Mano de la Paz” 100 percent.
“I really love the location of the piece,” he says as he shows Chaa's exhibition, which he curated. “The concept is very important to say, ‘Latin America is a continent of peace.' And it won't be kitsch at all. Not in the hands of Chaa.”
Conde stands back from one of Chaa's large-scale pieces, a woven portrait of a nude woman with her back to the viewer. “This one is my favorite. Just look at it, see the shadow on her back?”
Conde will be a driving force behind getting the necessary permits and approval for removing the dolphins and mounting “La Mano de la Paz.” He's joined forces with Martina Montenegro, director of the arts nonprofit Casa de Cultura Playas, who's also a fan of the project.
“It's very important because it's related to hope, peace and fraternity between two countries,” Montenegro says. “The fence has a very negative impact, when you're talking about two countries that are supposed to be friends. This is not the way you treat your friends.”
Funding for the project will come through a Kickstarter campaign. The team is hoping to raise $50,000 through crowd-sourcing, offering small versions of the sculpture and things like T-shirts and hoodies in exchange for higher bids; they say they'll secure the rest of the funding through grants and private donations. If enough money is raised, Chaa, hernández and Chavez will begin work on the full-size version of the hand this summer. They hope to have the piece done and installed by the end of the year.
The biggest hurdle, though, could be figuring out who has jurisdiction in the park.
“That's a good question,” laughs Margarita Diaz, director of the nonprofit Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental. “The land is everyone's and no one's.”
Diaz, another supporter of “La Mano de la Paz,” says the land is being transferred from state to city property and that her nonprofit, which was selected by a dozen nonprofits to represent them, has submitted a formal request to have the land turned over to them. She says that since Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his wife came to visit Playas de Tijuana in 2010, demanding the region be redeveloped, the state stepped in and did a lot of quick construction—including adding the dolphin sculpture—without first checking with the community.
“It's a mess,” Diaz says. “And no one likes those dolphins. They're falling apart and dangerous. I want to rip them down with my bare hands.”
Getting the Instituto Municipal de Cultura y Arte (IMAC), the organization that oversees Tijuana's public-art program, on their side could be a challenge, too. Elsa Arnaiz Rosas, director of IMAC, says she enjoys the present art.
“I've seen the dolphins, and I know they do need maintenance, but I think they're lovely,” she says. “I wouldn't want to see the sculpture go.”
On the way back from touring Chaa's art show at the university, the “La Mano de la Paz” team is spread out in a big van. Conde slows the vehicle after it merges onto one of Tijuana's main highways and points toward two huge construction projects near El Trompo, Tijuana's children's museum.
“That's going to be the Human Rights Museum,” he says. “And that will be the Centro Estatal de Las Artes, a new art center.”
Chavez smiles and says that things in Mexico are starting to improve. He's seen his business drop by more than 80 percent since drug-war violence erupted a few years ago and tourism plummeted, but he hopes things will get better.
“How long do you think before Americans forget all this violence stuff and come back?” he asks. “I think one, maybe two years. I think ‘La Mano de la Paz' could help. Peace—we have a lot to learn here in Mexico, but this sculpture could be a start.”
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