A Better way of Life

Las Cruces, NM


I was born in Las Cruces, thirty minutes from the Mexican border, which lies between El Paso and Juarez. As a child I remember visiting my grandmother in El Paso every Sunday for Menudo and Lucky Charms cereal. On occasion our family would venture into Juarez to purchase cheap liquor and easy-access pharmaceuticals. Having been born on the “right side” of the steel wall that separates two disparate cities, I never questioned its existence; it never affected my life.

Some walls are meant to keep people out and some to keep people in. It wasn’t until I came to know the Culturunners that I met those who have lived with both walls. I had traveled to the contested land “Israel” in 2000, but never met a Palestinian until I drove from New York to Detroit in the summer of 2015 with four other artists. I had never considered or imagined the life lived by those whose lives are dominated by walls.

When I heard the Culturunners current route would take them to El Paso, I extended an invitation to dinner with an “authentic” New Mexican family (mine) to enjoy the best part of Las Cruces: green chile. Minutes into my text exchange with Stephen I also suggested that the group do a visit and talk at the New Mexico State University Department of Art, where I am currently enrolled in a BA program. I connected him with Craig Cully, the head of the painting program and the university visit was made official.

I had seen photos from their recent visit to Tijuana, and read about the new crew of artists traveling with Stephen. There were two film makers working on a documentary about the Culturunners; Matteo Lonardi from Italy, and Joao Inada from Brazil, and a contemporary political artist, Khaled Jararr from Palestine. This photo would come to play a large part in a visit that went from dinner to art installation within the time span of a day.

Khaled Jarrar removing a portion of the border wall in Tijuana.

The tentative plan was set; a talk on Wednesday February 11th at 11:00 AM at the NMSU Department of Art, followed much later by dinner at 7:30pm. I met them at their hotel, where I was introduced to the new artists and then escorted them to the university.The plan changed from art talk, to art talk/workshop.

Transporting border wall pole.

Good art is emotional, and moving, but great art changes perspective, it unites, communicates from the inside, and this is the kind of art that Khaled Jarrar creates. Khaled was born under an occupation, where the Israelis held machine guns and his people had stones. His presentation of films he made had some of the students in tears. Here is a man who once threw rocks at his oppressors as a child, and now makes art that has a greater impact, not physical, but mental and emotional. His politically charged, humanitarian art work was well received (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffhd-Pw_qZw ) and after his presentation he invited the students to help him transform a part of the border wall (taken in the above photo) into something more uplifting.

Students collaborating on sculpture at NMSU

Ideas for the project included: a chair to rest on, a teeter-totter for children to play on, and Khaled’s idea to transform the rusted pole into a ladder. Once the workshop finished, they met with Rachel Stevens, the professor of sculpture who invited them on a field trip to the University of Texas El Paso. There they would meet up with other academics to discuss the possibility of where they might place this yet to be constructed ladder permanently.

We met up with the sculpture students in the school parking lot at 2:00pm to caravan to El Paso. Stephen had asked for a guide to ride in the RV who knew the borderlands well enough to scout possible sights for the project. When no one was able, I scurried around the building hoping to find one art student who lived in El Paso or Juarez and would know the area well. Lydia Abigail, a painter, offered to introduce us to her cousin Diana Ginez, who is a professor of art in Juarez specializing in border art.

With just a hint of a contact in Juarez, who I had to contact via Facebook, we were off to El Paso to see how to make this project happen by Friday. As we hit Interstate 10, the thick traffic soon turned into a crawl. After about a half hour of inching along, Rachel phoned Stephen to let him know that Khaled could use the equipment at the sculpture studio for one night only, that night, from 5pm to 9pm. The traffic was still, and as Stephen announced this to Khaled, a quick decision was made; skip El Paso and head back to Las Cruces to buy steel and make a ladder. Of course the highway was backed up, there was an accident ahead, and the next off ramp would take too long to reach before we could make it to the steel shop before it closed for business.Stephen took the thirty-four foot long RV over the bumpy highway median for a sketchy U-turn, and off we went to buy enough steel to construct a ladder and head back to the NMSU sculpture studio.

Khaled welding the ladder with the help of Dylan Schultz and Debbie McCurdy

Khaled worked on the ladder, Joao and Matteo filmed for their documentary, and Stephen and I enjoyed a lovely home cooked dinner. By 10PM that evening, we had a ladder, and Diana had agreed to help the crew with the installation in Juarez on Friday.

The ladder was fifteen feet high with two disparate sides. One side containing the original pole taken from Tijuana was rusted, deteriorated and weather beaten with a rough texture of corroded metal. It had stood as a deterrent, a sentinel against people who yearned for a better way of life. The other side smooth, glossy, with white paint added by Khaled, transformed from an object of oppression into an object of hope and optimism. Change does not happen from denial of the past, or present, it comes from embracing what is, and then moving forward. This ladder enmeshes the rust and ruin of its origin with a new shiny side. Together they form a new way of seeing: a possibility to bridge the old and the new, and creating unity.

ARTIST: Khaled Jarrar