Seeking cover from the sun beneath the overhang of a building locals refer to as La Concha (The Shell) on a sleepy Saturday afternoon, Amy Sanchez is hopeful. Having recently broken her foot, she's also in a wheelchair.
“You were really easy to spot from the crowd,” says Michael Ruiz, part of a handful of artists meeting up with Sanchez by a taxi depot, pointing at the chair. “You couldn't have planned it better.”
The destination is the nearby Mercado de Artesanías de la Línea—an oblong crafts market that separates the right and left sides of the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Patiently, Sanchez and partner Misael Diaz, whom she met while both were students at UCLA, wait for the remaining artists to show up and share their vision for what could turn the Mercado into a burgeoning cultural hub.
“Until now, it has only represented convenience because people flank it all the time, and the vendors' focus has solely been selling to passengers in cars—which translates to having a constant audience that could be exposed to different types of possibilities,” Diaz explains. “What we're trying to do is re-conceptualize the site as a meeting point, as a dynamic space that can emerge as a space for the exchange not just of merchandise, but also ideas and cultural proposals.”
It's with this out-of-the-box perspective that the twosome created Cognate Collective, an initiative that Sanchez says is out to “try to bridge gaps and create visual affinities between both sides of the border.”
“The word cognate itself means ‘of similar blood,'” she says, as her partner wheels her deep into the Mercado, over all the cracks and irregularly set tile. “The border is a region; it's not a line. It's this thing that sutures together these two distinct but very similar areas that are living symbiotically.”
In the fall of 2010, Cognate's first project was photographing different souvenirs available for purchase at the border crossing—more than 100 in all—and cataloging how their traditional shapes had evolved alongside the demise in tourism. Their next foray into curatorial kitsch was reFORM, a bilateral call to artists to reinvent the plaster piggybank.
Two pieces—a TV set and a plaster sack—were exhibited in Downtown San Diego's Periscope Project last month.
“We're messing with the notion of what an ‘artisan' object is, and how art itself can play a part in it,” Diaz, a master's student at UCSD, notes, his partner nodding her head.
Their current project, What Are You Bringing from Mexico?/ Qué Traes de México? involves breathing new life into the Mercado, taking over three of its abandoned storefronts and, for two days, transforming them into bona-fide art galleries housing border-specific photography, mixed-media and installation works in what Diaz dubs an “artistic intervention.”
It's no secret that Tijuana's tourism heyday has long passed. The decline started with the longer pedestrian and auto lines amid post-9/11 tightened security and got worse with the border town's ever-increasing narco-violence-related headlines and the gush of U.S. State Department warnings that followed.
The Mercado's coup de grace came last year when Tijuana municipal authorities decided to convert the traffic corridor immediately to the Mercado's right from a carpool lane to a special medical-services lane meant to briskly bring medical tourists back home. Merchants were left with no other choice but to acquiesce.
“If I had to describe the shift in one word, it would be ‘drastic,'” Francisco Nuño, president of the Mercado's merchant association, says as he minds his newsstand.
He says that of the 80 shops that fill the space, only 70 percent of them are occupied and most don't even operate as retail spaces anymore but, rather, pay-by-month storage units. Fewer than 30 operate as retail shops. The Mercado's main income source now is its public restroom, which costs four pesos (around 35 cents) to use.
“Circumstances have pushed us to operate differently than we did before,” says the 40-year-old, who's worked in the marketplace since his youth. He insists that projects like What Are You Bringing… could be the catalyst for the Mercado's renaissance.
Following a faded set of oversize yellow footprints painted in the concrete, which lead to the aforementioned loo, and resting on a bench deep inside the guts of the Mercado, the Cognate dyad is optimistic.
“This isn't a goal-oriented process as much as a process-oriented process,” Sanchez muses. “We would like to see what comes of this initiative and see if it helps the space be productive once again. Perhaps it's utopian, but I think we're being realistic in confronting Tijuana's issues consciously in a different way than the media is doing it, and also consciously expecting a more positive outcome. If we don't, they never will. We're not apologetic about that.”
What Are You Bringing from Mexico? / Qué Traes de México? will be on view Friday and Saturday, June 10 and 11, inside the Mercado de Artesanías de la Línea. cognatecollective.tumblr.com