Art as Resistance: Murals at the U.S. – Mexico Border

By Ivana Wijedasa, class of ‘22

During my senior year spring break, I visited a beach not part of a resort in Cancún filled with stressed college students in need of a vacation, but one lined by a wall – the U.S. – Mexico border wall. Although it would be my last college spring break, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to physically see the borderlands instead of solely reading about them in academic courses. Thus, I decided to spend the week on an educational trip to visit the border in San Diego and Tijuana as part of a course titled “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Borderlands and Human Mobility” taught by Professor Olayo-Méndez. The trip centered on utilizing different disciplines such as biology and theology to analyze and address issues at the border. In the case of art, the trip focused on paintings and murals, and how artists can use them as a tool of resistance against discriminatory migration policies at the border.

A place in San Diego that featured art from Chicanos—Mexican-Americans—in response to harsh migration policies and dehumanizing rhetoric towards migrants is Chicano Park. Immediately, the complexity and number of murals throughout the park overwhelmed me, and I stood in front of each mural for several minutes, admiring the mix of faces and phrases. A central theme of the murals focused on the injustice of migration policies, and I felt both sadness and frustration at the lack of humanity ascribed to migrants as I walked around the park. In the mural with many crosses, phrases such as “Love has no borders!” and “No border wall” are visible. The mural draws connections between religion and migrant rights. The presence of several crosses signifies how Christianity promotes a love for one’s neighbor, which the U.S. government obstructed with the construction of a border wall.

Photo from Chicano Park of a mural saying “Love has no borders!” and “No Border Wall” painted on a bridge pillar

In another mural photographed below, one artist painted on a pier under a bridge with the phrase “La tierra es de quien la trabaja con sus propias manos,” which roughly translates as “The land belongs to those who work it with their own hands.” There are images of migrant workers in the same mural, which illustrates how jobs tilling and farming the ground in America are often done by migrants who cross the border and should be allowed to remain on the land they work. Lastly, another mural in the park pictured below contains the phrase “Ningun ser humano es ilegal,” meaning “No human being is illegal.” The mural addresses the rhetoric surrounding Hispanic migrants at the border that describes them as “illegals” to dehumanize them and justify cruel migration policies. In addition to the murals in San Diego, more paintings and murals are featured across the border in Tijuana, addressing similar issues of dehumanization and injustice.

Photo on the left from Chicano Park of a mural featuring migrant workers painted on a pier. Photo on the right of a mural from Chicano Park saying “Ningun ser humano es ilegal.”

When we crossed the border to Tijuana, the colorful and mural-filled border wall on the Tijuana side surprised me. A wall that is a barrier to pursuing a better life and is constructed from racist and nationalist ideologies has become a form of art. In addition to the murals painted on it, the location of the wall also surprised me. In the photos below, the wall sits alongside a beach, where people frequently visit to spend leisure time under the rays of the sun. The wall is part of everyday life for the people of Tijuana, who cannot escape its presence even when trying to enjoy the beach. The dehumanizing wall is covered by paintings and phrases that advocate for migrants and address the injustice of the wall’s existence. For example, in the photo below, an upside-down American flag is painted alongside the phrase “Repatriate” as a reference to the deported veterans who served in the American military. The upside-down flag represents the hypocrisy of the U.S. government that permits undocumented migrants to serve in the military but not to live in the country.

Photo from Tijuana of the border wall on the beach in Friendship Park
Photo of the mural on the border wall with an upside-down American flag and the word “Repatriate”

Another feature of the border wall pictured below is the blue door with the word “love” painted in yellow within a red heart. Surrounding the door are phrases such as “mural de la hermandad” or “brotherhood wall,” as well as words including “love,” “peace,” and “liberty.” The door itself, which the government rarely opens, allows families who have been torn apart by the immigration system to meet for a few minutes and for some to hug each other for the first time. The remainder of the wall meeting the ocean features portraits of deported migrants as a way to humanize and put a face to people often characterized by numbers. The border wall art and the art at Chicano Park serve as reminders of the humanity of migrants and the injustice they face due to U.S. migration policies.  

Photo of the Love door in the border wall in Tijuana

Although we often view art as a pastime or something enjoyed for leisure, art is also a powerful tool of social change. The murals at Chicano Park and on the border wall in Tijuana provide us with important examples and serve as a reminder of the humanity of migrants and the discriminatory policies that we need to combat to ensure migrants’ humanity is recognized. Art is a tool of resistance, and hopefully, more artists and people will begin to realize that.

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