Photographer M. Jenea Sánchez grew up in Douglas, Arizona, a city that shares a border with Mexico. She remembers crossing the border to and from Agua Prieta multiple times every day as a child – to go to school, to visit her cousins. The border itself was less a barrier and more a region of its own: a person is not “from” one side of the border or the other, but from the border itself.
Border life was normal life for her – those from the border are not American, not Mexican, but at once both and neither. “Diversity” – as it refers to people of color – wasn’t a buzzword or well-intended checkbox on a liberal values scoresheet, nor was it a source of bitter political discontent. It wasn’t until she moved to Phoenix to attend Arizona State University that she realized how very abnormal it actually was.
“Moving to Phoenix was a really big culture shock for me,” Sánchez says. “I felt like I lived in a bubble. I quickly learned there were some stigmas of women of color and all the generalizations of coming from ‘the border.’ It was a rude awakening for me; I was completely ignorant to that side of the world and those perspectives. I thought everyone was fine, everyone was okay with diversity and with brown people and with immigrants, but there was still work to be done. My work became about that: portraying the border and people of the border, emphasizing the binationality of the place, the beauty and the culture, and portraying women of power.”
In Phoenix she met her future husband, Robert Uribe, who was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in New York. Together they moved back to Douglas, where he is now the mayor – the youngest elected official and the first Afro-Latino in the office.
When he was elected in May of 2016, Sánchez says, “The whole idea of immigration, the idea of being left or right, liberal or conservative, those things didn’t come up through the election process. Now people are voicing opinions on social media; now people say, ‘If I would have known [about your liberal ideas] I wouldn’t have voted for you.”
“It’s just been a really crazy year getting more involved on the political level,” she continues. “You can imagine the stress [the new administration] has caused in our community. We’re a red state and a red county. Our more liberal views of diversity and multiculturalism are receiving a lot of pushback, even from people whose parents immigrated from Mexico 20 years ago. People literally have this amnesia of where they came from, where their parents came from, the precious laws that protect immigrants. To downright consider them illegitimate is something I’m grappling with as a person. As an artist I’m trying to negotiate and work around it, trying to find meaningful ways to portray it and our goals [in support of those ideas].”
Sánchez and Uribe recently formed their own arts organization in service of those goals, Border Arts Corridor. Through this organization, Sanchez says they are pushing the idea of revitalizing downtown Douglas and creating economic development through the experience of arts and culture and through the city’s binational connection to Mexico. They also work on organizing binational events.
“[We both] have a strong connection with Mexican people and we need to protect that community, especially those living in fear with this current administration. I was born in Douglas and very privileged in many ways. For me it’s important to be a voice for those who can’t be a voice for themselves. It’s horrifying at this moment. The majority of our community feels exactly like we do, they just can’t speak up. How do you mobilize a community and get them to show up, speak up, participate in political decisions, and make their voices heard when they’re used to not doing so? That’s something we’re trying to change and bring to the forefront, especially with the younger generation.”
“Our goal is to reach into rural communities and provide resources to professional artists. A really big focus for our organization is capacity-building, providing a new perspective on the arts and what is it like to be a working artist and presenting that to young and native artists.”
BAC has collaborated with the Bi-National Arts Institute, which produces the Concert Without Borders right on the fence separating Douglas from Sonora, Mexico. BAC organized an art walk to complement the concert. They have also worked with Casa de la Cultura (“House of Culture”) on a binational theatre performance.
“[BAC] is about bringing art and the border to the center stage and creating a safe space to talk about these things, and celebrating [the border] as well,” says Sánchez. “The border is not only a negative thing: it can be beautiful. We can choose how we view and capitalize on these things.”
“If shit goes down, where am I going to go? I’m going to go south with my friends in Mexico with this lush community garden in the middle of the desert with no potable water,” she says. “It’s an economically struggling community but they are so efficient in their way of survival – they raise animals, make clothes, have contraptions to collect rainwater to use for crops. They are multi-functional in their survival skills. This project is meant to honor them as strong female leaders in a community practicing sustainable ways of surviving.”
She photographed the women of the DouglaPrieta collective in their garden and made giant 48”x96” prints – itself a way of emphasizing their importance.
“It’s usually men who are printed as really big [art pieces],” Sánchez explains. “To have a brown female this big in size is meant to make a statement about her power and importance to our world.”
“They’re really taking control of their situation to assemble and to convene, to continue with their projects and organization,” says Sánchez.
She and Muñoz made screen prints of her photographs and put them on bricks they purchased, which were then used to build a “wall.”
But this wall was not a tall one – it was 26 feet long but only as high as a stepladder. “Trump had already been talking about a wall,” she explains. “Part of what these women do is they hold workshops and bring in other women to teach them something who in turn teach them something. They learn horizontally. [So the wall] is more of a stepping stool, which is our philosophy on power structures and making change.”
Her next step in this multi-phase project will be a book of photography of the same name. With the BAC, she is currently in the planning stages of a tri-national mural project that will include artists from the Dominican Republic as well as their border friends in Mexico. The BAC is also hosting environmental artist Lauren Strohacker in May, who will do an art installation and public presentation right on the border fence in response to a lone male jaguar (an endangered species) that roams the Santa Rita Mountains in Tucson. A wall on the border will be a deterrent for him to cross and find a mate. Strohacker will do educational outreach and project images of the jaguar on both sides of the fence as part of her project. Ultimately the statement is not just about this particular jaguar but other species as well, including the humans on each side of the border.
“It’s all going back to politics and Trump and the wall,” says Sánchez. “That will be another space to celebrate our beauty and unity, because if the wall really goes up we won’t be able to see our sister city through it. It’s not blatantly intended to be political, but it will of course be seen that way. These projects we place at the physical border are a nice way to bring in the community and create a space for that conversation. But how do we mobilize and go from there? Hopefully we find a better strategy.”
(1) How do you like to collaborate?
I like to collaborate in a way that is open, respectful, horizontal and without boundaries. Sharing ideas, production tasks and communication is a great way to work as a unit towards common goals.
(2) How do you a start a project?
I usually start a project when I discover something is missing from the visual fabric of our culture, or when something is misrepresented in the dominant narrative. My projects start with research and the gaining of a historical foundation. Then to the conceptualization of different mediums the idea could manifest in. I also enjoy brainstorming with my most trusted colleagues because they always help me see past the obvious and my research broadens into new areas of interest.
(3) How do you talk about your value?
My value is rooted in the continuum of the historical fight that has allowed me to be the position that I am. My indigenous roots and my place as a female surrounded by a history of patriarchy heighten my sense of value. I value that fight, therefore I value myself and continue the fight.
(4) How do you define/feel success?
Success should not be measured in numerical values but by one’s ability to awaken humans emotions.
(5) How do you fund your work? Editor’s note: Sánchez’s work receives support from organizations such as the Arizona Commission on the Arts.