You walk up to a tall cardboard wall. Large quotes welcome your gaze. “I don’t know how this happened,” one of them says. You can see pictures of a desert divided by a large metal fence. Of people crossing it, of patrols guarding it. If you venture to open them, you create a window into the other side of the wall where you can see other people reading something on the opposite wall. You try to cross, but a guard stops you, speaking in Spanish. He welcomes you into Mexico and asks you to fill out a border form and put it up on the wall. You answer what you think the U.S. is guilty and responsible for. On the other side, multiple quotes in Spanish and a wall filled with border forms like yours say things like, “This wall means a revolution for our country, and it’s necessary” and “Let’s dare to get to know each other.”
Robert Duffley and Pablo Hernandez Basulto in Crossing Borders | Source: Grant Terzakis
This was Crossing Borders, a performance piece and art installation created at Northeastern University in December of 2016. This piece was the latest effort in a series of works in which I, a Mexican theatre-maker living in the U.S., look to create stories or experiences that acknowledged the complex relationship between my home country and my adopted one. Even more, I was obsessed with testing the ability of my work to provoke much-needed change. Working with dramaturg Robert Duffley, with whom I had worked earlier this year on Anna Deavere Smith‘s Notes from the Field at A.R.T., I asked what theatre can contribute to issues with deep roots on either side of the border. The first step in finding an answer, I discovered, was acknowledging my own flawed assumptions: pieces about statistics and figures aimed at educating and raising awareness were not enough.
[For] those of us looking for solutions, the game is no longer about guilt and who is oppressing who, but about forming alliances that acknowledge that the larger structural injustice exists on both sides of the border.
It is a fact that Mexico and the U.S. are interconnected by drug-trafficking and its consequences. Drug cartels make billions from selling illegal drugs to Americans, and most of the weapons used by drug cartels to kill thousands come from the U.S. Many people may feel something when confronted with these statistics, but that feeling is often guilt, rather than responsibility — often the experience of being moved, rather than the experience of moving. Looking for solutions, people blame someone or something that they believe has the sole power to fix this; meaning the problem will remain until the denounced guilty ones choose or are forced to change. Unfortunately, guilt often only addresses crimes of the past but does nothing to repair the structure onwards. The Mexican government, hard-drug users, or drug cartels are all guilty of crimes, but not solely responsible for the injustices related to drug violence. Clearly, a growing number of deaths and captures of Mexican drug lords did not stop others from taking over the business; a staggering number of prisoners jailed for non-violent drug-related offenses has not stopped the growing demand for illegal drugs. To acknowledge the causes produced by many individuals that permit corruption, demand for illegal drugs, racism, and other structural injustices to occur, we require more than statistics.
Instead of focusing on numbers, we started focusing on people. We were looking for a shared experience that would help Americans empathize with Mexicans and understand this is not an “us vs. them” problem. So Robert and I shared our experiences with drugs. When I was 12 years old, my teacher told me that buying any illegal drug was helping the bad guys create the violence that surrounded me. Robert, on the other hand, remembered drugs such as marijuana being talked about as a natural part of growing up — even a positive rebellion against an intolerant establishment.
As we progressed, this deeper dive into a flowing river of questions came to a sudden stop when Donald Trump was elected president. The project was completely transformed afterward. I had overestimated my assumptions of what people would empathize with. I realized many of my expectations of what Americans felt and thought about drugs and Mexico were merely superficial and did not address how the people around me actually felt.
When I first created my own work in the U.S., I was faced with a new realization of what it meant to be Mexican in this country.
In order to better understand the questions and thoughts people had, I organized two focus groups: one at the voice-training institute CEUVOZ in Mexico City, and another at Northeastern University in Boston. Students were asked to reflect on Mexican-American relations in two ways: the guilt or responsibility that their neighboring country holds, and what they would ask or say to someone from the opposite country. After personal reflection, students engaged in discussion about their answers.
Focus group participants in Northeastern University | Source: Fabrizio Pulido
Focus group participants were left with more questions than answers, riled up by an exercise that had no clear moral result. That said, I did have the unique experience of listening to both conversations and finding in each a broad diversity of opinions. What I heard in Mexico could have been said in Boston; no one side stuck to a specific agenda. On both sides, an undocumented immigrant was equated to someone looking for an easy, or “lazy,” way out. On both sides, people acknowledged that they didn’t know enough about the other country, and wanted to learn more. On both sides, nationalistic comments asked each respective government to prioritize its own people beyond any care for the others. On both sides, people said this problem went beyond the 2016 election.
In order to find a cure, we require a fair amount of listening to understand the causes.
In the story of Mexico and America, forget about which side is the villain. Whether you want to build a wall or a bridge, literally or metaphorically, there is someone who agrees with you on the other side of the Rio Bravo. Therefore, for those of us looking for solutions, the game is no longer about guilt and who is oppressing who, but about forming alliances that acknowledge that the larger structural injustice exists on both sides of the border. For weeks, Robert and I had talked about potentially creating a fake wall to physically demonstrate the problems with the infamous border wall. However, now it was evident that we wanted to create a border crossing, not a wall; this project needed to occur in the manifestation of where these two nations could interact, not assigning the blame on a single division.
Robert Duffley in Crossing Borders | Source: Grant Terzakis
And so, in December of 2016, we created a fake border crossing in a hallway of Northeastern University. On either side, written on fake border forms, the questions and thoughts of these students covered the wall together with pictures of the actual U.S.-Mexico border. At the gap, Robert and I played two border patrol officers, each from our own home country, asking visitors to fill out a border form and place it on the wall as they crossed. Participants had very varied reactions: some of them marveled and were curious, and some were left unbothered and unchallenged.
In retrospect, this form of the project lacked a cohesive method for obtaining data from audience members. Acknowledging the varying impact which the performance had on the people who passed through, however, I must also note the piece’s profound impact on me. My own path through this project was personal, directly influencing the way I see my country and my self.
Chester Domoracki and Ari Shvartsman in The Guilty Ones | Source: Grant Terzakis
Even though it took 4 months to develop, the objective to creatively engage with Mexican-American relations has obsessively engulfed the entirety of my young artistic career. The first iteration was a short image piece that lacked information about the actual problems surrounding drug-trafficking. The second was a series of monologues detailing the history of drug-trafficking in Mexico, but it lacked a bridge to take those statistics and stories and put them into perspective. The third was a short play called The Guilty Ones, about two brothers, one an illegal-drug consumer and another a victim of drug-related violence; with its specificity, it lacked a sense of the magnitude of the issue.
When I first created my own work in the U.S., I was faced with a new realization of what it meant to be Mexican in this country. By simply being a Mexican in the U.S., I was making a political statement. My clothes, my accent (or lack of it), the color of my skin, my knowledge of what home looked like, of the violence my family and neighbors endured — it was all politicized. The word “Mexican” had a different flavor in my mouth than “Mexicano.” The English version carried a sense of the baggage and assumptions that have been justly and unjustly placed on that word. I felt a responsibility to address it as an unofficial ambassador, nearly knocking door by door to improve our bilateral relationship from the grassroots, carrying my flag like a soldier in battle.
Pablo Hernandez Basulto in Crossing Borders | Source: Grant Terzakis
With this project, I discovered that being Mexican did not exclude me from engaging with this topic with curiosity. The consequences of drug-related violence, on both sides of the border, are not battles in a war, but symptoms of a disease. In order to find a cure, we require a fair amount of listening to understand the causes. The pride I gained and discovered is valuable, but it stops being helpful when it blocks me from seeing the people around me. As I move forward, continuously wondering what I can do to help, I will stop seeing my work as a static reflection of who I am and what I think, and instead as an opportunity for debate and change.