US/Mexico Biodiversity Border Project: Engaging the Nature Culture Divide with Participatory Art

March 13, 2019

By Alejandra Rueda and Juniper Harrower

Species migrations don’t know why are we building one?

papel picado with endangered animals on it

Printed flag banners featuring red diamond rattlesnakes

Immigration politics are one of the most controversial themes in the news today, but we hear little about the environmental impact a wall between the United States and Mexico border can cause and existing barriers already have caused. While most people are focused on the socio-political aspects of the walls, very few people realize the number of species and area of habitat that will also be impacted. Given that President Trump made building a U.S.-Mexico border wall a top priority and recently declared a national emergency to try to get funding, the issue is pressing. The Trump administration asked for almost $6 billion dollars to build more than 234 miles of walls and fences spanning the length of the U.S- Mexico border.  

Like us, nature has its routines and patterns - animals have their homes and habits. Imagine you are on your way home when suddenly, you encounter an impassable roadblock on the same route you always take. This may be the reality for many animals living in the U.S.-Mexico border. With a wall in place, the many organisms that cross back and forth freely between the two countries in order to feed and reproduce will be suddenly blocked.

silk screening
Students silk-screening

During summer 2018, I enrolled in a Natural History Art class taught by PhD student Juniper Harrower – an ecologist, artist, and Graduate Fellow at the UC Santa Cruz Norris Center for Natural History. I enthusiastically joined an art and science project that she had started to raise awareness about the current socio-political and ecological border relations. The goal of this project is to use art as a form of communication in order to demonstrate the impacts that a US/Mexico border wall would cause on biodiversity. With the guidance of Juniper, the guidance of recent MFA graduate Ann Altstatt, the assistance from printmaker Ry Faraola, and the support from the Norris Center for Natural History, I created  eight silk-screen prints of potentially impacted organisms from the US/Mexico border. Art students in Juniper’s class created the original illustrations, which I enhanced and prepared for silkscreen printing. I modified the original illustrations with digital tools to ensure that all images have a unified aesthetic, and then had the images burned onto silkscreens for printmaking.

Aly presenting papel picado to the US Poet Laureate :-O

Alejandra presenting U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera,

 and book artist Felicia Rice with flags

at the Museum of Art and History

The project will take form in three media. First, we will create flags inspired by the design and cultural history of Mexican celebration “papel picado” flags for use during our public participatory art events. The flags are a symbol of unification (uniting us as opposed to dividing us) and also represent a passable barrier rather than a solid wall. We will send flags to schools and centers on both sides of the Mexican border to express our solidarity. Second, at those art-making events, we will share information about the impacts that a wall would have on biodiversity. We will also engage in discourse with attendees to reflect on the socio-political impacts of the wall, making space for personal stories and community building through knowledge and culture sharing. Lastly, we will share this work through the Norris Center and online platforms, showcasing all images alongside key ecological information.

All are invited to our participatory art project presentations and discussions at the following events:

  • Open house at the Sesnon Gallery, April 11, 2019, from 4-7 PM.
  • “One with Nature” hosted by Services for Transfer and Re-entry Students (STARS), April 26, 2019.
  • Alumni Open House hosted by UC Santa Cruz Norris Center, April 27, 2019 from 1:00 pm - 3:00 pm
  • “US/Mexican Border Project”  at the Santa Cruz HUB for Sustainable Living, date TBD

With the knowledge I gained from the Natural History Art class, my courses, the contributed illustrations from Juniper’s students, and the help of the community, I hope to build a greater understanding of the threatened habitats at the borderlands and how we may unify as a community to protect these species.

Check out all of the biodiversity images here, with descriptions.