How Two Professors and an Artist brought the Border into the Museum

How can one begin to describe the complexity of a border region? What is life like at the edges of a nation, and can it be explained in words, art, cinema? These questions were the starting point for us. We asked ourselves whether it was or is possible to produce a lens by which others can see, feel, and comprehend the intimate and varied experiences of living in the Borderlands region. How can we begin to understand the ways humans are classified, hierarchically arranged, and stratified based on birth certificates and other nation-state constructs and practices– and in the process, invite people to peek into their own world-views to see how discourses, narratives, laws, and policies about the Border have shaped their own understandings of themselves and others.

No doubt, the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands is a complex space that captures the imagination of many. Our goal with this exhibit, website, and blog is to bring you one step closer to understanding this space, but more so, closer to understanding yourself and the unconscious biases that reside within you that sometimes challenge or reflect biases within the collective “us.”

We are two professors at New Mexico State University (NMSU). After being raised in the Border region, both of us obtained our formal education in various parts of the U.S. and the world. Later, we both returned to see if we could explore the questions above and provide insight into what our lives were like growing up in the colonias and next to a fence—in order to be part of a collective movement to design new approaches to challenges in our region.

“Intersectionality,” “lateral violence,” “racial formation,” “decolonization,” “re-humanization” are just a few concepts we cover in our classes at NMSU. After consistent requests from community organizations asking for lectures and workshops focused on issues of race, identity, sexuality, and cultural history, Dr. Dulcinea Lara (Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies and exhibit co-creator) approached Dr. Nicholas Natividad (Ph.D. in Justice Studies and exhibit co-creator) to build a museum exhibit and curriculum that critically explores social justice issues impacting the region that could potentially move our communities toward collective understandings about damaging and divisive historical events, an openness to our lived complexity, and the eventual healing of intergenerational traumas inflicted by colonization, capitalism, and the militarization of our region.

Lara and Natividad teamed up with local artist Daniel Aguilera, a native of Los Angeles with existing roots in Ciudad Juárez on the El Paso, Texas border, to take concepts found in academic books, research, and university halls and translate them into an interactive, bilingual, and educational exhibit that addresses the most salient issues impacting the Border region today.

Pasos Ajenos: Social Justice and Inequalities in the Borderlands was created in 2017 as an art and cultural exhibit that displayed at the Branigan Cultural Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The original exhibit featured 12 educational installments that encouraged participants to consider themes of class inequities, gender inequality, human sexuality, religious persecution, environmental injustice, racial injustice, and other social justice topics. The exhibit was designed to appeal to a wide audience, ranging from school children to elders, and was tailored to examine regional issues of justice and inequality as they pertain to identity. The exhibit was a success with over 500 attending the opening reception and hundreds more attending during the course of three months it was on display. School field trips came through and special programming was provided for the Academy for Learning in Retirement.

We sought to show what life is like, to see up close the horrors of society in the suffering of migrants, the impact of border policies over time, environmental degradation to the region, and other dehumanizing and damaging practices that have challenged the spirit, economy, relationships and overall well-being of Borderlands residents. Additionally, and just as importantly, the exhibit also succeeded in illustrating to visitors that the Borderlands is a place of love, sacred being, resilience, and growth. Visitors remarked about the exhibit’s beauty, “femininity,” welcoming elements, and capacity to bring people together in conversation and memory. In survey comments, people remarked about the exhibit’s potential to foster healing and expression of previously repressed emotions. Multiple people shared that it was about time that these topics, in particular marginalized stories from communities of color, were made public. One visitor wrote, “This exhibit provoked images I carry as I did work in the fields in the Doña Ana area and it made me think of what my great grandparents and father experienced.” And another wrote, “Demasiado sentimientos [too many feelings] – need time to process- will return on my own. Great job!”

The exhibit, along with this website and blog are meant to unveil overlapping histories of the this region and create spaces for us to explore how these complex stories (and lack of stories) have created in each of us a worldview that at its core elevates dehumanizing practices. Yet the project is also meant to show the beauty that exists in understanding and seeing the crossroads of cultures, languages, and multiracial communities that the border represents as sources of strength for society so we can begin to repair the trauma that historical events have left in our psyches, our shared consciousness.

As writer, Gloria Anzaldúa described, “Yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet.”

This project has been created so others throughout the world may participate in this “new story” that connects this region to new understandings of love, compassion, humanity, and interrelatedness. We invite you to journey with us, as this is the first of several blogs that will challenge us/you to grow intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally as we and you traverse “foreign pathways and passageways” toward new understandings of yourself and the world.

From the creators of Pasos Ajenos, thank you for being interested in what this work offers.