MACLOVIO ROJAS. social sculpture in Tijuana

This article was published in VARIANT magazine vol. 2, number 4, autumn 1997


Electricity was needed to operate an electric saw but there were no power points around, only the wires that ran along the ground at the edge of the dirt road ‘pirating’ electricity from nearby power lines. To Marc Antonio it was no problem. He located a taped over junction, uncoupled it and attached the wires to the leads for the saw. Water was needed but there were no water pipes, taps or standpipes. A water truck was called and a barrel filled up. There were no paved roads, drains or sewage system. This is Maclovio Rojas, an illegal squatter settlement of almost 1,000 households on a dusty hillside surrounded by treeless hills some seven miles east of the city centre of Tijuana, Mexico. I was spending five weeks working with members of the Border Arts Workshop/Taller Frontera Artes on a project in Maclovio funded by ‘IN-SITE’ an art biennial. IN-SITE is a bi-national collaborative project of art institutions in Mexico and the USA “focused on artistic investigation and activation of public space in the transnational context of Tijuana/San Diego. The heart of IN-SITE 97 is a probing of places of meeting and interchange in this unique juncture of two cities and two nations…through an exhibition of approximately 40 new works created during residencies in the region by artists (from) throughout the Americas and a sustained rhythm of community engagement programs spearheaded by artists from San Diego and Tijuana.” Laurie Anderson was to launch the biennale with a performance entitled ‘The Speed of Darkness’ and Vito Acconci, David Avalos, Judith Barry, Helen Escobedo and Allan Sekula were among the many other artists making work for it.

Maclovio is not an unusual place for Latin America and settlements like it are a well documented phenomenon. Barrios, favelas and colonias, built of the ubiquitous packing case, wooden pallets and corrugated iron, cluster around many cities as the poor, the unemployed and migrant workers strive to share in the scraps of urban consumer culture. Tijuana, one of the fastest growing Mexican cities and situated hard against the US border, has expanded explosively in the last ten years with numerous squatter settlements eventually becoming regulated suburban areas. Not so Maclovio where the government wants to clear the land so that the vast adjacent Hyundai container plant can expand. The elected leader of the community, Hortensia Mendoza, who has been imprisoned three times on account of her opposition to the government’s plans, says: “The only way I leave is dead.”

The plight of the people of Maclovio has attracted a lot of support from across the border in San Diego County. Sympathetic organisations, charities, trade unions, (including university and teaching unions), have raised funds and sent teams over to build a school and community centre. The Border Arts Workshop/Talle Frontera Artes (BAW/TAF), has been doing art projects around the biggest political issue in the area, that of the very border itself, since 1984. Every day at the US side of the border-crossing bus-loads of illegal Mexican immigrants can be seen being deported. But they will be back the next day determined to get into the US and some will die in the attempt. In the last ten years several hundred have died. In 1993 the US government decided on a huge increase in the Border Patrol Service and the construction of a border fence. For this they used the redundant metal landing strips from the Gulf War, placed on edge, and concreted into the ground. The fence goes ‘Christo-like’ right down the beach and into the Pacific Ocean. At this point it becomes a row of six-inch diameter steel columns set apart with just enough space for a child to squeeze through. When I visited it the US side of the beach was deserted apart from the four-wheel-drive vehicles of the Border Patrol and a ‘legal’ Mexican family picnicking up against the fence with relatives on the other side. On the Mexican side the beach is full of people enjoying the sun and the sea. It is a strange sight. The US is experimenting with new fence constructions with the aim of covering the whole stretch of the border with Mexico.

BAW/TAF has gained international recognition for its work including exhibiting at recent biennales in Venice and Sydney. Last year one of the members Manuel Mancillas came across a reference to Maclovio Rojas on the net. What interested him was that he knew of another place with the same name in another part of Baja California. It had been named after the 24 year-old local leader of the farm workers union who had been killed on a contract allegedly issued by local farm bosses. He and founding member of the BAW/TAF, Michael Schnorr, visited this new Maclovio Rojas and met the leaders of the community. A protest march to Mexicali, the state capital 120 miles away, was to take place and they offered to make a film of it. It was at this point that BAW/TAF decided to commit itself to working long term with the people of Maclovio.

BAW/TAF had exhibited in ‘IN-SITE 94’ and a submission for their Maclovio proposal had again been selected for funding. The title of the project, ‘Twin Plant: Forms of Resistance: Corridors of Power’ related the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by which multinationals can set up factories at the border as long as one is in the USA and one is in Mexico. In effect, while the US plant might employ 50 people the Mexican one employs several hundred. With wages in Mexico for factory workers running at a tenth of those in the US, the economic advantages are obvious. Samsung and Coca Cola sit alongside Hyundai and employ many people from Maclovio who are also fighting for union recognition, improved health and safety conditions in the maquiladoras (literally machine shops)and wage increases.

Householders across the USA, for security and convenience, are in the process of replacing their old wooden garage doors with automatic, aluminium ones. The discarded doors have become a major item in the construction of squatter homes. In January of this year, on one day’s trawl around builders’ yards in San Diego, we picked up eleven of them. More collections doors, re-cycled play equipment and other goods have been taken across the border as ‘art materials’ under the umbrella of IN-SITE, thus avoiding duty and the interest of an often difficult customs post. The doors, measuring 16′ x 8′ (this is the USA with its double garages) were to be at the core of the art project for they were to be used to construct buildings which, after the exhibitions, could be used by the community as it felt fit. As Josef Beuys would have described it, this was Social Sculpture in action. Any contribution to community development, to expanding facilities and developing the infrastructure of Maclovio, might just help to prevent the forcible eviction of the people. 1997 is the tenth year of their settlement of the land and, under the Mexican constitution, that would normally result in their being awarded ownership. The government counters that this will not be the case, so the stand-off continues.

The surfing on the net not only revealed the existence of Maclovio, but also its links to the Zapatista National Liberation Army and its charismatic and mysterious leader Sub-Commandante Marcos. Many of the people who live in Maclovio are from the southern states, including Chiapas, the centre of the insurgent activity. The seventy year hegemony in Mexico of the ruling PRI party is beginning to show some cracks with the success of the opposition PRD in this year’s elections and the winning the powerful mayorship of Mexico City. This has not been without a price. Four hundred members of the opposition party have been killed since 1989. Marcos also conducts his rebellion through the Internet and by fax attempting to complete the revolution begun by Zapata and Pancho Villa. In Maclovio streets are named after them. Their photographs and painted images along, inevitably, with that of Che Guevara, decorate the walls of the community centre. Marcos has exhorted every community in Mexico to build a cultural centre as a forum for democratic conventions “to discuss and agree on a civil, peaceful, popular and national organisation in the struggle for freedom and justice.” He has called these meeting places ‘Aguascalientes’ (hot springs) a reference also to the city which hosted Zapata’s first democratic convention. The construction of an ‘Aguascalientes’ became central to the project in Maclovio. Working with the elected leaders of the community a group of young people was formed to work on the planning and execution of the project. For this and other voluntary work for the community they would each receive in return a plot of land on which they could build their own houses. The project proposed to construct buildings to house exhibitions of installations, photography, video and audio work and to paint murals. In Mexico and in the Latin American and Afro-American neighbourhoods throughout the USA, political mural painting remains a thriving art practice. In my first visit to BAW, in 1984, I documented the murals of the Chicano people of Barrio Logan in San Diego. The construction of the great soaring Coronado Bridge across the bay had destroyed many Chicano homes and the city was planning to develop an industrial site on the land under the bridge. But the local people occupied the land and eventually succeeded in turning it into a park. Now it is well known as Chicano Park where every bridge support is painted with murals of Chicano history, symbols and imagery.

Getting involved in direct action and political art has been a common characteristic of my visits to the USA. I meet more deeply committed political artists there than I ever meet in the UK. I have often ruminated on why this should be so. On this visit my host had a pile of back issues of ‘The Nation’ a high quality, left-leaning, weekly magazine and reading through these I began to discern what could be the reasons for this. The US government, whether Democrat or Republican, is always essentially conservative. The level of government corruption seems high compared with which our own disgraced politicians have been guilty of mere peccadilloes. Business corruption and organised crime emasculate large sectors of life and work. The CIA and the FBI are regularly shown to have seriously contravened the basic principles of human rights. The history of US intervention in Latin America and other ill-fated places across the world is strewn with tragic consequences. In the face of this what can liberal Americans do about it? Artists and writers do what they can do best – make critical art about it and write for magazines like ‘The Nation’.

In Mexico, for obvious historical reasons, the mural remains the most common and popular public art form. And since it can involve large groups of people in its execution it was natural that it should be one of the means whereby the people of Maclovio could become involved in contributing to the buildings to be constructed. There were painting workshops involving people of all ages, including the very young and old. A Women’s Centre was built and murals were painted on the exterior walls. For the Aguascalientes a boundary fence was erected using garage doors which were then painted using themes relating to the community’s struggle for survival. At one end a large stage area was built and at the other a building to house studios and offices.

Three other members of BAW/TAF, Bernice Badillo and sisters Lorenza and Rebecca Rivero were impressive in their commitment to the project. Whether it was digging holes in the iron-hard ground for posts, mixing concrete for foundations, moving heavy loads, priming surfaces or drawing and painting murals, for eight to ten hours a day, they just got on and did it. In temperatures sometimes reaching 100 degrees and little shelter from the searing heat and hot wind that constantly blew, the conditions were, to say the least, trying. Several other artists visited for short periods leading and directing parts of the mural painting. Among these were Ken Wolverton and Chrissie Orr who live in New Mexico. They were well-known in Scotland in the 70s and 80s for their work with Edinburgh Theatre Workshop, on Arran and in France and Germany.

Much of the kind of work that is going on in Maclovio is familiar to many artists who have worked in similar projects here. The difference, I suppose, lies in the direct political action that is at the heart of the Maclovio project. Here there is a chance that art practice could contribute to social and political change. Here the ‘local’ is pre-eminent. In her recent, excellent book, ‘The Lure of the Local’, Lucy Lippard writes: “The potential of an activist art practice that raises about land, history, culture and place and is a catalyst for social change cannot be underestimated, even though this promise has yet to be fulfilled.” Here Lippard, whose writings often display an inspired optimism, is rightly cautious not to claim too much for activist art. No great, wide-ranging social or political change can be discerned from the activities of artists working in this field. However, at the point of the local, change can take place. The very engagement of people in collaborative art practice changes the perceptions of individuals to such an extent that their life can become transformed. This is a well-attested fact. It is happening in Maclovio right now. Last week the ‘US Mexico Fund for Culture’ awarded BAW/TAF a grant of $18,000 to continue its work in Maclovio.

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