Khaled's Ladder

El Paso, TX - JUAREZ, Mexico


As I commenced my sly walk away from the Mexican visa office, I renounced my status as a tourist and became that most rare of American visitors to Mexico: an illegal alien. Being no stranger to a Mexican jail - an overflowing outhouse is a less nauseating facility - the thought of capture and confinement by officers who were soon to notice my absence left me nervous and hesitant. But circumstance, poor judgment and my mission compelled me to dodge Mexican security and enter the country against orders.

The lead up to my illegal visit to Cuidad Juarez, the recent former murder capital of the world, began two weeks earlier when I joined the CULTURUNNERS entourage in Tijuana. There, the Palestinian artist, Khaled Jarrar, set out to create a commentary about the border fence that separates the United States from Mexico in a similar way that the Israeli wall separates Palestine from Israel.

Astonishingly enough, he managed to do so by levering away a random section of the fence and hauling it off to the RV. Later, at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, he welded it together with other squared metal tubing to create a tall ladder to be somehow rejoined with the jail like bars of the border fence, this time in 730 miles away in Cuidad Juarez.

Guided by a local from Juarez, Deana Ginez, we crossed the border from El Paso uneventfully and worked our way west, following the banks of the Rio Grande river as it demarcates the line between the United States and Mexico. I followed behind the RV in another car watching the ungainly RV sway and bounce as it navigated the dips and potholes of the unpaved road. With no clear end in sight, I caught up and asked when we would stop - only to learn that Khaled was looking for a spot where the border fence could be directly accessed so that the ladder could be leaned against it as a defiant gesture.

At that point, I interjected that we’d have to drive many miles to get around the river and that the border with the US was not a right at wall as it was in Tijuana, but instead the center of the river serve as the border. Any attempt by our gang to cross the listless but shallow Rio Grande would result in arrest by the border patrol. Leaning the ladder against the fence was out. Instead, our adaptable crew temporarily raised it in defiance as the nearby US border patrol no doubt surveilled us with a mixture of confusion and amusement.

The next day Khaled departed El Paso, our temporary base, for New York leaving our crew of four to tote the unwieldy ladder atop the RV. With Khaled out of the picture, we tossed around ideas for what to do with it. Stephen, our Culture Runner’s leader, suggested we plant it on a nearby mountaintop. Felicia, our Las Cruces point of contact, offered to let us store it at her home. I suggested that we install it on the Mexican side of the border in such a way it appeared to lean against the US fence but was actually some distance away.

My idea approved by the group, we planned our return to Juarez for the installation. We arranged for a couple of trabajadores (workers) to help us dig out the hole. After a quick trip to Home Depot for concrete and a two by four, we would set to work and have the ladder permanently installed in no time. Of course, our best laid plans failed upon first contact with Mexico.

Crossing the Bridge of the Americas into Juarez, we astutely followed the signs for the truck lane. Where autos may easily cross into the country, RV’s are subjected to search and X-ray scanning by a huge machine. No sooner did we triumphantly reach the head of the line than we were informed that we could not enter via this crossing but instead we had to head five miles west to the next border crossing over. (A sign would have been nice.) At this point, a dozen semi’s pulling trailers had backed up behind us - and we had to back out.

I buried my head in embarrassment as the line of pissed off truckers clunked their big rigs into reverse and made way for us to back up into the US. Actually, the border official inserted us back into the long tedious line of cars making their way back into the US. After about an hour of waiting plus an inquisition by border patrol, a drug sniffing dog check and a full electronic scan of the RV, we made our way to the other border crossing as directed.

Finally, after another RV search just to leave the UC, we set off across the bridge to Mexico where we were again met with more questions and the third RV search of the day. Once the search was completed, we were lead off to the nearby visa office. There the uniformed official informed me that, because I had an expired tourist visa card from a recent trip to Tijuana, I was required to pay a 390 peso fine.

This circumstance clearly constituted a scam. In typical gringo fashion, my voice grew louder as my anger and frustration increased in the face of this unfairness. Stephen, seeing that things were not going to end well in this face off, quickly scurried off to attend to the motorhome. Finally, in disgust, I ripped up my tourist card and tossed it on the floor. Given that destroying documents in the face of of a bureaucrat is the equivalent of waving a flag at an angered bull, this was not a wise move on my part.

The visa officer picked up scattered bits of paper and taped them back together. Patience withered, he admonished “me no fine, no entry.” Realizing that winning this war of wills was not in my future, I acceded and paid the money. Of course, my previous antics had not endeared me to the custom officials so they, using what laws and logic I know not, informed me that I was not allowed entry into the country for the next two hours. “I just paid and now you tell me this!” I exclaimed in as calm a fashion as as I could muster in the face of the realization that I’d been checkmated by these vengeful bureaucrats.

Walking out the doors of the visa office, I looked around to notice that no one had followed me out. With some trepidation and peering over my shoulders, I scooted to the exit and out onto the streets of Cuidad Juarez. Hiding out in a nearby parking structure, I texted my companions and jumped into the moving RV as it passed alongside. A quick t-shirt change and off we went into the city, me an unlawful immigrant and price on my head (so I imagined).

Because the pope was coming to town in two days hence, the streets were filled with machine gun mounted trucks and assault rifle clad Federales. Though they were ostensibly present for our safety, because of my new status as an wanted man, their presence sent me scurrying from the passenger seat to hide out of view in the back.

Many hours after we’d planned, we finally arrived alongside the dusty banks of the Rio Grande and set about to install the ladder. The sun seemed to set in haste as our workers raced to dig a hole in the tough clay soil. Just as the sun dipped below the nearby hill, we set the ladder in place and secured it to the earth with quick drying concrete.

A group of local kids came by eager to play on the tilted ladder. Told to wait, they instead tied fabric from Egypt on it at Stephen’s direction. Finally, just as the sun’s rays began to fade from the hills behind the border fence, all was ready and I began to document the scene.

Once installed, the metal sculpture rose above the menacing border fence situated just beyond the river, apparently offering a bridge over the otherwise discouraging obstacle. What the fence divides, the ladder reunites.

Viewed from another angle, this appearance of unity disappears. When viewed from the side, the sculpture appears as a slim strand of steal leaning against nothing but air, the border fence a long ways off. From this perspective, Khaled’s ladder stands as a metaphor for the division between US and Mexico. America is so close but yet painfully a world away.

Long after the sun had set, we crossed the border again for the last time. Again customs agents questioned us and searched and scanned our vehicle. After the day’s adventure, the delays didn’t seem to matter. We’d installed our art and our comfortable hotel in America, my home, awaited us.

Watch The Guardian video as part of CULTURUNNERS Crossing The Line series... Khaled's Ladder

ARTIST: Khaled Jarrar


DATE: 18 February 2016