Unlocking Undocumented Workers’ Realities

“Fear is the guardian of ignorance,” a message pronounces at the entrance of the Centro Cultural de la Raza. Fear that we might learn uncomfortable truths and, worse, that we might be held responsible for them, has lulled much of the local public into blissful complacency about the fate of undocumented workers.

“Lost Lives/ Vidas Perdidas ,” this year’s Border Art Workshop/ Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF) “Border Realities” exhibition, attempts to break that numbing spell by confronting its audience with bitter facts and undeniable sorrows. For five years, BAW/TAF has mined the border region’s cruel and beautiful ironies, translating its findings into a range of artistic media, from performance to installation, poetry, prose and video.

In the current show (in Balboa Park through Aug. 6), the collaborative examines the “spiritual and physical deaths” suffered by those who cross the border to work and live in the United States. Like most BAW/TAF projects, the show has the effect of a montage, in which concrete revelations mingle with amorphous impressions. The most gripping of the seven installations juxtapose the enticing dream of the north with the hard conditions of survival facing the undocumented worker once over the line.

Robert Sanchez’s poster, “Encinitas Gardens,” exposes the exploitative attitude that makes this contrast so extreme. In large, bold type, the poster issues a seductive plea to workers: “Gather the most beautiful flowers from endless fields of magnificent colors. Have it all--an open airy workplace, stunning white water views, warm fabulous sunsets, the surroundings of a rich contemporary life style.”


In smaller print between the lines, a more honest, though brutal, solicitation appears: “Needed: Laborers with documents (authentic or forged). We don’t care how you come, by foot, through tunnels, stacked in vans or trucks, just get here quick before our multimillion dollar flower industry dies in the dirt. . . . Above all serve us while we look the other way, ignore all your problems. . . . We need you to help raise our quality of life.”

Sanchez’s poster lays bare the hypocrisies upon which Southern California’s comfortable life style rests. Beneath this region’s taut, attractive skin is a festering wound that could be cured, but first must be acknowledged. “Fear is the guardian of ignorance” echoes again in this dark corridor lined with paper flowers.

Bertha Jottar’s adjacent installation, “High Risk/Low Risk,” focuses on the dangers posed to women through contact with the pesticides used in the flower-growing fields of North County. High-risk pregnancies, miscarriages and birth defects result from exposure to the chemicals used in cultivating sturdy and reliable “low-risk” roses. Jottar’s cluttered assemblage nearly smothers the poignant irony of this situation, but the message still comes through: the beauty and fragrance of the flower fields bear a high human cost.

In “Red Asphalt” (an installation by BAW/TAF members Michael Schnorr and Elizabeth Sisco, with Susan Yamagata and Deborah Small), lives also are lost in the name of the American dream. Adrenalin pulses through this room, a re-creation of a stretch of freeway north of the border on which many immigrants, crossing on foot, have been killed by cars.


Life-sized images of running figures hang in suspended motion across the simulated freeway, illuminated by the blink of headlights. The road they cross is paved with the names of others who have made the trek north and become American success stories. Consumer mecca--in the form of a K mart--looms on the drawn horizon ahead, further inspiration for this desperate dash toward security and opportunity.

An electronic message board emits a continuous stream of advertising rhetoric, tailored to mock the false promise--the shallow seduction of the United States--and to underline the absurdity of the amnesty program.

The message board’s subversive text (by Small), like the concise poster by Sanchez, focuses and intensifies the issues at the heart of this show. “Welcome to the Other Side,” by Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Sisco does the same in a series of couplets inspired by Small.

In “Chicanosauruz,” Victor Ochoa’s humorous, nostalgic portrait of the “presumed extinct” Chicano community, words again provide the key, the link between clever concept and meaningful communication. Gomez-Pena’s “bilingual pen sketches” provide an equally important, though ambiguous, companion to a series of black velvet portraits in “Fragment of Velvet Painting Hall of Fame.”


Richard Lou’s installation, “Familia Perdida (Lost Family),” attempts to evoke the loss incurred by driving an international boundary between family and friends. The opening installation by Emily Hicks, David Fobes and Rocio Weiss is meant to address an “invisible matriarchal power” in Mexico. However, both of these fail to convey the complexity of their subjects and, instead, function as stage sets for a dialogue that lives primarily on paper, in the recently published catalogue documenting BAW/TAF’s work.

Though punctuated with potent moments, “Lost Lives” lacks the consistent, visceral impact of last year’s BAW/TAF show, “Casa de Cambio.” It feels far less ambitious, and is only fractionally as fulfilling. As with all BAW/TAF projects, however, the show (recycled from an exhibition held earlier this year in New York) humanizes border issues and fuels an assessment of the historical, cultural, psychological, physical and economic factors that constitute the border.

Such a dialogue has limitless potential, as long as fear does not intrude. Gomez-Pena addresses this possibility when he writes, speaking from the south to the north, “You’d better not panic. We have a long bill to figure out. . . .”