Weaving the WallDevotional Art Counters State Violence in the Borderlands

“Bordadoras” embroiders on the street of Nogales, Mexico, wait in front of a day center for Asylum seekers. (Photo credit: Robert Castagna/Courtesy of Valarie Lee James)

Barbara Sostaita is Bitch Media’s 2020 Sacred Writes Writing Fellow

When Bolivian artist Carolina Aranibar-Fernández first encountered the 1,954-mile–long wall that divides the United States and Mexico, all she could see were “metal slats that violently penetrate the land.” They towered above the desert floor, a hypermasculine violation of the desert’s sovereignty.

In her 2019 performance installation Trenzando, Aranibar-Fernández “softened” the landscape through the ancestral practice of braiding—an example of what feminist scholar Macarena Gómez-Barris calls “decolonial femme methodologies.” These methods awaken other ways of being and moving through the world—care, mutuality, relationality—that disrupt border militarization. Centering femme methods and the laboring female body, artists like Aranibar-Fernández make visible the physical and gendered impacts of border policies—how they disproportionately harm women, and how women’s ways of knowing offer ways to heal from state violence. I emphasize women’s and femme’s contributions not to essentialize these identities, but—drawing from performance artist and poet Alok Vaid-Menon—because our society teaches us to destroy the feminine parts of ourselves in order to survive.

It was a crisp November evening in Agua Prieta, Sonora, and the desert was teeming with life. Golden sacaton grasses carpeted the landscape and migratory birds circled overhead as Aranibar-Fernández and her collaborators Martha Lorena Rascon and Laura Alfonso Baron gathered to wrap the border wall’s steel bars in aluminum-lined “emergency blankets,” typically used to cover migrants in detention centers. Wearing black clothing as a sign of mourning, they wove the excess material into three braids dyed with coca leaves, copper, and crude oil—reminders of the extractive economies that displace communities and contribute to forced migration. Gas masks protected the women from these chemicals and paid tribute to workers in mines and maquilas. For hours, they parted, pulled, twisted, and interlaced the strands of fabric under the watchful eyes of green-striped Border Patrol pickups. The repetition made the performance ritualistic, devotional even. 

As the sun lowered in the sky, the 29-year-old artist and her collaborators knelt in the shadow of the wall, their presence both an offering and a conjuring of other worlds. Kneeling is, of course, a religious act—a gesture of humility and reverence and, in this case, a direct challenge to the bombacity of wall construction. Kneeling is a sign of respect, not for the state agents surveilling the performance, but rather for the land itself. As the “space blankets” enveloped the steel slats, the wall became an optical illusion: a portal to a borderless future and a mirror reflecting back on Aranibar-Fernández’s audience, heightening our complicity in borderization.

Though she only performed Trenzando once, Aranibar-Fernández is part of a tradition of border artists whose bodies merge the aesthetic and political. From Guillermo Gómez-Peña crucifying himself while dressed in mariachi regalia to protest border policies and Ana Teresa Fernández’s erasure of the San Diego’s border wall while wearing her “feminist tango dress and stilettos” to Boundless Across Borders’ communal hair-braiding on the day of President Trump’s inauguration, border artists center the body and the senses as sources of knowing. This, too, is a decolonial femme methodology: reclaiming expressive and embodied culture, or what is felt and performed alongside what is read and archived. 

The border wall is, after all, a performance. As Peter Andreas wrote in his 2000 book, Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, border enforcement is a “ceremonial practice, not only a means to an end but an end in itself.” Even as the wall fails to deter migrants or to stop unauthorized flows, it succeeds in its symbolic performance. It is an “abjection machine,” to draw from feminist geographer Mary Pat Brady’s remarkable 2002 book, Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies: Chicana Literature and the Urgency of Space, transforming “people into ‘aliens,’ ‘illegals,’ ‘wetbacks,’ or ‘undocumented,’ and thereby renders them unintelligible and (unintelligent), ontologically impossible, outside the real and the human.” Brady teaches us that the southern border is a state-sponsored aesthetic project; its stadium lighting, towering fences, and military technologies create a way of (un)seeing those who inhabit and cross the borderlands. They depend on the repetition of estrangement between us and them, insider and outsider, citizen and interloper. Braiding, on the other hand, connects and repairs. It is an act of intimate exchange. When I sat down with Aranibar-Fernández, she explained that in many Indigenous cultures, braiding the hair prevents pain from travelling to the rest of the body. Trenzando is an attempt to contain the ongoing injury and trauma of colonization and border militarization.

Valarie Lee James, a longtime border artist and a Benedictine Oblate whose mixed-media art is deeply informed by her faith, also draws on decolonial femme practices—pinning and stitching, braiding and weaving—to form intimacies across borders. As a “devotional artist,” James believes that embroidering heals the spirit and the land, stitch by stitch. The need to heal the land is central to James’s practice and shaped by her experiences living in Amado, Arizona—an “occupied” community straddling the southern border and crawling with Border Patrol agents and monitored with the latest surveillance technologies. James began rescuing mantas in 2004 as migrants were forced to leave behind these embroideries while they crossed her backyard in the militarized desert. Hand stitched with personalized messages that resemble prayers—“Contigo en la Distancia” (With You Far Away), “Duerme Amor Mio” (Sleep My Love)—mantas are traditionally used to swaddle foodstuffs and often passed down generationally. In recovering objects traditionally associated with domesticity and women’s work, James challenges the devaluation of a fiber arts tradition that uniquely speaks to feminine knowledge and history. According to Mariah Gruner, a scholar of gender and craft, this lineage extends as far back as the abolitionist movement in the mid-1800s, when selling embroideries and other weavings at antislavery bazaars gave women the opportunity to see themselves as political actors.

Recovering objects traditionally associated with domesticity and women’s work challenges the devaluation of a fiber-arts tradition that uniquely speaks to feminine knowledge and history.

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Haunted by migrants who abandoned the embroideries, James “vowed to find a way to bring attention and respect to the makers.” Her initiative, Artisans Beyond Borders, coordinates the sale of mantas made by asylum seekers stranded at the Nogales port of entry and “actively supports the artisans to create original Heritage arts.” These families live for months on end in overcrowded Mexican shelters and makeshift refugee camps while awaiting hearings in the United States, a result of Trump’s Stay in Mexico program. The funds they receive from embroidering are often their only source of income. Yet, notably, James refuses to embrace a narrative of saviorism, instead insisting, “We facilitate. We bring materials. We’re not there to teach. We have a lot to learn.” Until coronavirus restrictions took effect, every two weeks James and her team of volunteers brought embroidery hoops and needles, along with spools of pearl cotton and woven fabrics, to Sonora.

They set up plastic folding tables and chairs in migrant shelters and outside Grupos Beta—the Mexican government’s immigration agency—and provide the tools for women to create art and practice self-determination. Inspired by her training in art therapy and the spiritual practice of visio divina—deep contemplation—James explains that this initiative is rooted in “the healing arts. The basic goals of trauma-informed arts and activities is to provide a little calm in the storm. To have a safe and elegant way to express your feelings.” Embroidering also offers choices to women who are often at the whim of immigration officials and state agents. When it comes to mantas, artisans choose their own colors, designs, and composition. Embroidery is a practice of agency. It is also “uniquely contemplative.” The slow and meditative nature of the art form eases the indefinite state of waiting, a temporary escape from the violences of the present.

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Hiking the desert with Alvaro Enciso, a Colombian artist who makes and plants crosses for deceased migrants, fiber artist Maxie Adler also began finding tattered clothing and weathered backpacks left behind by migrants. When I met her at Exo, an industrial-style coffeehouse littered with pro-immigrant flyers, Adler explained that encountering these artifacts led to a “mixture of feelings, like I was walking into a crime scene or something, but also like I was entering these people’s homes.” Born in Tucson, Arizona, Adler has spent much of her life exploring the Sonoran Desert and enjoying its lush landscapes. But in recent months, she has witnessed the desecration of sacred sites, the destruction of wildlife refuges, and the extraction of millions of gallons of precious groundwater to mix concrete for the border wall. As she explains, “The border wall has always, amongst many things, symbolized destruction and a heaviness, the complete severing of communities.” Adler’s ongoing “Weaving the Wall” project repurposes these items—traces of a person’s “sacred migratory journey”—to repair what the border wall destroys.

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woven artwork by Maxie Adler hung in protest on the U.S./Mexico border wall

Woven artwork hung in protest on the U.S.-Mexico border wall (Photo credit: Maxie Adler)

Realizing the objects would remain anonymous in the most remote parts of the Sonoran Desert, Adler collects what she can carry home. She washes the materials and cleanses them of scorpions and cholla cacti—forming a relationship with the people who left them behind. Using collected scraps, Adler takes part in a tradition of feminist artists who challenge distinctions between textiles and fine art, embracing techniques that are devalued because of their association with women, the working class, and people of color. Every several weeks, she drives to the border wall with her dog, sets up a foldable lawn chair, and weaves these fabrics while attached to the metal slats. Her backstrap loom creates tension between her body and the wall while honoring a precolonial weaving practice. “I weave sometimes attached to trees—I could even weave attached to you! Together, we create that tension, but it’s the movement of my body that creates the ability to weave,” Adler remarks.

This emphasis on relationality and human connection is crucial given Mary Pat Brady’s description of the border as an “abjection machine” that turns the migrant into the wholly other. Her performatic protest is a tribute to the migrants, humanitarian workers, and border dwellers who imagine and perform other worlds—refusing estrangement and separation. Border enforcement is especially deadly in southern Arizona, where the Medical Examiner’s office reports about 150 migrant deaths per year. Yet, as Adler poignantly notes, if we only pay attention to violence, “we might miss all of these incredible people that are actively working to weave things back together and, you know, to deepen our relationships, strengthen our communities, and care for one another in the face of death, disappearance, and destruction.”

Weaving and braiding are attempts to put things back together, to salvage and protect what has been discarded. They are also acts of sacralization—of landscapes, bodies, and communities. Through their gestures and movements—bowing to the land, recovering discarded mantas, creating tension with the wall—these artists summon the sacred and repair what has been broken. As Arinabar-Fernández shared during our conversation, her practice begins with “asking permission from the land and the water before touching them. They’re also beings and we’re part of them. That’s what decolonial femme does. It doesn’t just aggressively resist, but it also cares and heals.” 

Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza writer Gloria Anzaldua famously described the U.S.-Mexico border as “una herida abierta (an open wound) where the Third World rubs up against the first world and bleeds.” Exposed and hemorrhaging from centuries of violence, the land continues to suffer from ecological destruction and militarized violence. Communities that live on and cross the border are scarred by occupation and colonization, their daily lives disrupted by checkpoints, inspection stations, and surveillance towers. The decolonial praxis of Carolina Aranibar-Fernández, Valarie Lee James, and Maxie Adler tries to stitch this wound back together—even while knowing it will never fully heal.

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Barbara Sostaita, a Latinx woman with short, brown hair, smiles at the camera while standing in a green field
by Barbara Sostaita
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Barbara Sostaita is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she researches migration and religion. She’s currently obsessing over poems written by diaspora kids and anything Bad Bunny posts on Instagram.