Arts Pair Makes Border Their Crossing to Bear
On a bright late-February afternoon, a bride from the United States exchanged vows with her handsome Mexican groom between the chain-link fence separating the United States from Mexico.
Wearing a white silk and lace wedding gown, she crossed into his country while he came over to hers. Concluding the ceremony, they walked arm in arm into the ocean as lapping waves hit the shore, symbolically leaving all borders behind.
The wedding, which took place at Border Field State Park, was more than the uniting of two individuals; it was a political statement and a marriage of two cultures. While Emily Hicks, a 36-year-old local artist and a San Diego State University English professor, and Guillermo Gomez-Pena, a 32-year-old Mexican performance artist, made their nuptial agreement, the couple’s friends, relatives and 100 spectators cheered them on.
The ceremony was only one of several performances in which the couple used the border as their stage. After meeting in 1986 in San Diego, the two artists began collaborating to create what they call “Border Art.”
“The border is a laboratory in which we can experiment,” Gomez-Pena said. “We are focusing regionally, but our purpose is to break down the borders that exist between people of all cultures.”
Gomez-Pena and Hicks have produced two performance pieces using the border as a stage. Segments from their most important work, “Documented/Undocumented,” a collection of border culture projects that they began working on in early 1987, have been performed all over the United States and Mexico.
The team will do their last piece from the interdisciplinary work Saturday at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and will then begin a new project.
The last piece of research done for “Documented/Undocumented” was done on the border during Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration, last Nov. 1. Hicks and Gomez-Pena, along with several other local artists, traipsed through Tijuana garbed in costume, and proceeded to cross through U.S. Customs in masquerade.
Hicks, dressed as a wrestler bride, shielded her face from Customs agents with a Mexican wrestling mask. She said she was strip-searched, but told the agents she was a famous wrestler whose reputation would be ruined if her true identity were revealed.
She said she was permitted to cross after one agent was allowed to compare her face with her photo identification.
Gomez-Pena, dressed as a blind man, was allowed to cross without showing a green card or identification.
“That was the first time I had ever crossed without being asked for my papers,” Gomez-Pena said. “As for Emily, if it hadn’t been the Day of the Dead, I think they would have given her more problems.”
Hicks said the objective of the project was to cross the border with fictitious identities and document the entire journey, which was done with audio equipment, cameras and video.
The two artists live a bicultural life style, they said. They reside in both the United States and Mexico, sharing a house in Imperial Beach and a studio apartment in Tijuana. Gomez-Pena and Hicks commute between homes, which are a 20-minute drive apart, so they can share the benefits of both cultures.
Both are bilingual and say they plan to raise their children with both languages.
While sitting in their studio on the west side of Tijuana, the newly married couple discussed the importance of their work.
“The kind of art we create takes place inside and outside of the art world,” Gomez-Pena said. “It is our responsibility to tell the world what our government officials won’t.”
The performance work helps to break down the stereotypes of border culture, Hicks explained. In addition to their performance art, the couple co-edit “The Broken Line,” an internationally distributed magazine dealing with border issues.
“We want to work with Mexican and North American relations on a local level,” Gomez-Pena said. “On an international level, we’re trying to figure out what the Tijuana chola artists have in common with the German punk artists. We’re studying the period to find the differences from culture to culture and what the political climate does to the art.”
Gomez-Pena was raised in Mexico City by a middle-class family. He became involved in the arts and politics in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. He moved to San Diego in 1983 after spending time in Europe and Los Angeles. Here, Gomez-Pena became involved with a performance troupe called Poyesis Genetica, which also dealt with border issues. The group was dissolved in 1985.
Hicks came to San Diego about the same time as Gomez-Pena after holding a one-year teaching position at USC. She was raised in San Diego and attended San Diego High School.
“It was there that I became border conscious,” Hicks said of the old downtown high school. “It was one of the first places I’d been where as an Anglo I was a minority.”
The two credit the border at San Ysidro for bringing them together.
“We have been in the same places at the same time,” Hicks said. “It wasn’t until we became involved with the San Diego Border workshop at the Centro Cultural de la Raza that we met.”
“The border becomes a metaphor for a coming together,” Gomez-Pena added. “We met here and we have made the border our life. The wedding was the ultimate statement of our dedication.”