Field Notes In Conversation
RAQUEL DE ANDA with Ethel Palacios Shipton
On the Border
Laredo, Texas sits on the border across from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. It has been a community for 265 years with a 95 percent Hispanic population and is the largest inland port in the United States. Everyday more than a billion dollars’ worth of goods move across the bridges between Laredo, TX and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. I grew up in Laredo, where my family goes back for seven generations. When I lived there the border was fluid: people crossed it daily to work and play and visit family members on both sides. US citizens who lived in Laredo had businesses and jobs in Nuevo Laredo, and Mexican citizens had businesses and jobs in Laredo. Crossing from one country to the other has become more and more difficult. In the early and mid-2000s there was growing drug violence on the Laredo border. Gunfire on the streets of Nuevo Laredo caused businesses to close down; restaurants that people from both sides once enjoyed were no longer safe. Such things destroyed some of the culture shared between the two cities. Now this wonderful binational/bicultural city is being threatened anew by the building of an unwanted border wall.
The federal government is suing the city of Laredo to use city land to build the wall, which will not only cut through the middle of downtown Laredo, but will slash through miles of private farm and ranch lands, city parks, and the Laredo community college, which serves three counties in the region.
I spoke to artist-organizer Raquel de Anda, who also comes from Laredo, and recently returned home from Brooklyn. De Anda’s day job is working with the US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC, www.usdac.us) a public coalition that gives voice to organizations and communities addressing issues like climate change and border walls. Raquel serves as the Minister of Bridge Building at the USDAC and recently worked with the No Border Wall Coalition in Laredo (https://noborderwallcoalition.com/) to realize a “DEFUND THE WALL” street mural, on Victoria Street in front of the federal court house, painted by an all-volunteer crew. The goal is to bring regional and national attention to what’s going on along the border, including the ruin of American cities, the toll on families, and the disruption of cross-border trade.
Soon after this interview, the Coalition and an offshoot, Veterans United to Stop the Border Wall, organized an event on September 12 that included repainting the DEFUND THE WALL message and closing off Victoria street to traffic. This was approved by city officials. September 12 happened to be the day a Trump Train cavalcade was to drive through the city of Laredo. Thousands traveled to this border town with the particular goal of driving over the mural. To their surprise, they were met by a group of veterans and their families re-painting the mural; the Trump Train was derailed.
Ethel Shipton (Rail): I'm very happy to talk to you. Could you tell me about how you got back to Laredo?
Raquel de Anda: I had recently opened an exhibition in Brooklyn, in partnership with the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Interference Archives—a two-part show that explored 50 years of climate justice in poster art. It was really exciting and fun and took a lot of energy. After the opening, in February, we decided to take a break. And so my husband and I came to Texas with our toddler to spend time with family. Then COVID-19 got really bad in New York. We decided that it wasn't safe for us to travel with our toddler and that we just needed to stay put. We were trying to take it day by day by day. And on one of those days, my father received a letter from the federal government, asking for a right of entry to our family property.
Rail: Let's back up a little bit! I'm sorry, I feel like I know you, even though I don't know you, because we're from the same town. If you could tell me a little bit about yourself, your activism, and how you define yourself as an artist, we can go from there.
Anda: Sure. I was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, outside the city limits on a plot of land that touches the river. My family has lived here for 50 years. For the last 15 years I’ve worked as a curator and arts producer, both within and outside the gallery space. I started my career at Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, which was the first place that represented Latinos in the country. While I've worked in cities all over the country, it wasn't really until 2014, when I was working with an arts team to run a 7,000 square foot space in Brooklyn for the People's Climate March1 that I really started to consider my role as that of a cultural organizer and an activist.
My focus in that particular situation was to how the climate justice movement is connected to movements about livable housing, immigration, Indigenous issues. We were connecting activists and artists to tell a new story of what the climate justice movement was. That was really a formative moment for me because I was able to move from a deep appreciation of art objects to understanding the importance of movements for social justice on the street. Not that I didn't understand them before! But this was the very first time I was actively producing for them. Now my practice fluctuates sort of seamlessly between exhibiting, showcasing exhibitions, making artwork within an exhibition context, and working as an activist, as a cultural organizer with movements for social justice. Institutions might not always term that “art.”
Rail: Well, I would. I would suggest that that's probably where artists do their best work. And that the art market world, however you would like to define it, is maybe getting redefined because of artists like you.
Anda: Well, thank you for saying that. I think that we're in a really interesting moment, since Occupy Wall Street. There have been so many movements for justice, from the Dreamer movement to Black Lives Matter, that have taken over the public consciousness and shown power in the street, making that power visible both in people and also through art. Visual things can begin to put new narratives out into the public consciousness and then also push new policy forward.
My part-time day job is working with the US Department of Arts and Culture, which is not a real government institution. We like to call ourselves a people-powered institution that comes up with big ideas, visions of what a real US government should be doing, to harness the power of art and culture to create a more vibrant, safer future for everybody who lives in this country. We have a network of about 26,000 people across the country—artists, community organizers, activist community members, and policy advocates who are all working for change.
Right now is actually a great moment to put forward ideas about how our society can get out of this extremely difficult place that we're in. The current system is not working. This is a moment to work at a hyper-local level because that happens quicker. So you're dealing with policy people and various levels of government all at the same time all the time, while also supporting uprisings and popular movements on the street. You're also pushing for large mass public rituals and street interventions and beautiful creative tactics that tell a story of who we are as people who live in this country.
Rail: Okay. You returned to Laredo, and…
Anda: My family received the letter from the federal government asking to survey our property. We realized things were escalating, because Trump was in a mad dash to start building the wall before November in order to rally his base before the election.
Rail: I know that they were not just trying to usurp lands from private owners but also to go through some wild habitats, raising environmental issues.
Anda: The federal administration has actually bypassed over 40 laws in this area to build the wall, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. They would like people to think that the wall is already in process, but it is not a done deal. The government doesn't own a single plot of land yet. Despite that, they've already issued contracts, valued at about $560 million. One of the latest contracts was awarded to Fisher Industries, the company affiliated with the We Build the Wall campaign, whose leader Steve Bannon was just indicted last month for money laundering. None of the contracts that are being issued go to firms from the immediate area.
Rail: Tell me more about the activists you worked with in Laredo. And how you took action and who in the city was supportive.
Anda: I reached out to Tricia Cortez, the executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, an organization that for many years has been working to protect the river, which is, you know, the birthright of everybody who lives in Laredo. It's our only source of drinking water in a community that's 95 percent Latino and where a third of the population lives under the poverty level. The city has been here for over 260 years and it's always had access to the river. The threat of the wall is the first time in the history of the city that we would be cut off from the river. The wall would cut through ranches, through public places, through an orphanage run by nuns, through a historic downtown area, through a community college, through four of our city's parks.
Our strategy is twofold: delay and cancel. Delay rests on gumming up the courts. We tell the many individual landowners that are affected, “they're coming to you with these rights-of-entry letters, they're going to tell you that the legal process is extremely expensive, but it's not. We have lawyers that can help you pro bono.” Like I said earlier, the government does not own any land yet. So if we can stall the process until after November, then hopefully Biden, if he’s elected, will keep his word that he won’t build the wall. That’s the cancel part.
Rail: I also grew up in Laredo, my family has been part of that community for seven generations. It's not just somebody who's bought some land and is moving on. These are generational properties and people hanging on to this property because it's part of their family, part of their heritage, right?
Anda: Exactly. And something else that we are trying to do is to connect to the Native communities from this area. The Carrizo Comecrudo and the Coahuiltecan are still very active and alive and invested in the protection of this land.
The wall is a huge undertaking that's going to devastate the landscape. It’s to be a 30-foot wall, twice the height of the Berlin Wall, with a 150-foot enforcement zone, as wide as a four-lane highway, high-powered security cameras and lights. Not only will it cut off animals from their drinking water and migratory patterns, but it's also going to really negatively affect the residents of this town. The rates of flooding will skyrocket—they're trying to build it in a flood plain. There's a potential for the pollution of the river, which is our only source of drinking water. And as I said, it cuts people off from their river. So this is an environmental justice issue.
What's being allowed to happen isn't just because of where we are, but it's because of who we are. It's because this is a Mexican-American population, right? We've had some conversations with different members of Black Lives Matter networks. We understand that our reality here is not the same as the Black experience. At the same time, the militarization that we're seeing here, the way that the US government is using political force on Mexican Americans, is very similar to the way in which an immense amount of money and military force is being used against communities of color across the country. There's no question that the wall is political propaganda. Racist monuments are coming down. We have the potential for one coming up, and it's clear that it's a monument to white supremacy.
Rail: How did the courthouse mural project work politically? How did you manage that?
Anda: My husband and I have had a lot of experience in doing creative direct action work. So part of our work with the coalition was mapping out the political landscape here in Laredo. Who are the decision-makers we need to be getting in contact with? How do we build public support? We had lots of conversations with the coalition about it. And one of the places that we decided on as a point of intervention was the federal courthouse. Because if you're a landowner and you got a right-of-entry letter and you contest it you go to the federal courthouse. It’s also where immigration cases go through. It's also in downtown Laredo. It's steps from the US-Mexico border. It’s really a key geographical point.
We decided that we really wanted to send a message to the federal government through this giant street mural, inspired by the Black Lives Matter street paintings. We utilized some of the same elements, like the yellow. The painting itself is 30 feet tall, the height of the proposed wall. And we included a yellow rose, the symbol of Texas.
We had been thinking, How are we going to do this? Do we do it in a private lot? Do we do it at the college? But really, we wanted to do it on the street. We had to go through City Council to get a permit. We pulled together a report showing the effects of the wall in other cities and its potential effects in our own. We rallied community members across the city to submit comments in defense of what we were trying to do. We produced a video. And we had a huge presence at the online City Council meeting. The vote passed unanimously, eight to zero.
Rail: They probably never had that many people there.
Anda: However, later we started getting calls contesting it from the city attorney. Federal people with an interest in this wall, the head of the Border Patrol union, for example, were very likely calling City Council members saying, “How dare you allow this to happen?” So it went up for a revote. Two city council members changed their votes but we still won.
Then we had to figure out how to do it. We were really fortunate to have a diverse, skilled team, with a lot of artists. One of them, Tony Briones, is a sign painter by trade. He's very skilled. Tony was, like, “This is basically just like a glorified sign. I can do this.”
It was a beautiful event. The energy that was on the street that weekend was really lovely. Really incredible. And it was done in such a professional way, so much so that the head of traffic has asked us to give him instructions on how this can be done in the future.
Rail: Congratulations. That's huge.
Anda: We thought it was successful. And as a result of all the organizing for that, we have all these different groups and coalitions popping up—like Veterans United to Stop the Border Wall and Mothers and Grandmothers Against the Wall—groups that are trying to find their own way to have their specific voices heard.
Rail: This is so exciting for me to hear because it takes me right back to the streets of Laredo. I feel as if I was there, and then a little jealous that I wasn't. But wouldn't it be great to do this on every border town, at least down to the Valley? Obviously, all the southern border cities are the ones that are being attacked. I have not heard any stories of walls on our northern border.
Anda: Yeah, exactly. Again because of who we are, right?
Rail: Yes, of course. Absolutely. Because of what we are.
Anda: The message put on the street is: defund the wall, fund our future! This is also the message the Black Lives Matter movement is pushing forward, when they say, divest from police and invest in community. Because we know that true community safety is equipping people with proper health care, with proper education. With just one mile of that wall you could fund the city's first trauma center. Now we have to airlift people out of the city in order to get them the proper care. With just one mile of the wall, $20 million, we could pay for hotspots and tablets for the entire school district. We know what this community needs, and it's not a wall.
One of the things I've really been invested in is learning who the artists, the cultural organizers, and activists are who are working along the border. And so through the No Border Wall Coalition we’ve been reaching out to people along the border from California to Texas. We’re in contact with people in Brownsville, Texas, who are working on immigration issues. For others, the issues might be more around mutual aid and detention centers. Everybody's using different tactics. For me, it's really important to stitch these communities together because we have the same interest when we talk about defunding the wall and funding our future.
Rail: Agreed. I would love to be a part of that. Some of us go away and come back, but there's a strong artist community all along that border that has been doing some things that have been amazing. What's next?
Anda: We have some ideas around border-wide initiatives. For instance, we're currently organizing a 2,000-mile, border-wide virtual GOTV concert—Rock the Border, Stop The Wall. We’re mobilizing across border communities for other creative actions that we have up our sleeve, from poster campaigns to car caravans. We have the people and we have the skills. It's just a matter of being able to fund it so that people are able to show up or be able to print things or get paid if they’re musicians.
Rail: Exactly. I tell people all the time that Laredo is a place that was one city until the Mexican Revolution and the US government decided what the line was. So we were all one city. Until one day you wake up and your brother is a Mexican and you're not. That was a government decision; this is the kind of thing that can't happen again.
Anda: I remember my mentor at the Galería de la Raza, Carolina Ponce de León and her husband at the time, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, said to me, “Your experience as somebody from the border is something that the rest of the world has no idea of.” The US-Mexican border is so rich historically, and what happens there now is such an important story. Of course, I was younger then, I was l ready to be out of where I grew up. I was exploring. I was in San Francisco and then moved on to live in Mexico City or New York or wherever. But I feel the truth of that comment now that I'm here—you know, a daughter, a mother on this land where I grew up. A steward of this land for future generations.
Rail: Absolutely. Because when you come from the border, whether you realize it or not, you carry that relationship that informs your whole life, whether you know it or not.
- See “Art and Activism”, Field Notes, Brooklyn Rail, May 2015: https://brooklynrail.org/2015/05/field-notes/peoples-climate-arts-with-nato-thompson [note added by editor].