By Carlos Jackson March 23, 2017
To witness revolutionary futurity—the belief that social transformation is possible, and begins with a transcendence of the self—in a public space that fosters genuine politics, drive up San Francisco’s 24th Street from Potrero Avenue toward Bryant Street, and you will be presented with a vivid example: artist Gilda Posada’s large-scale billboard installation, ABOLISH BORDERS. Galería de la Raza’s “Liberated Billboard,” has been the site of oppositional murals for 45 years. In 1972, Galería de la Raza began a battle with the billboard advertisement company, Foster and Kleiser, who owned the billboard attached to the outside wall of the venue. Over a period of three years, Galería artists painted over the billboard’s commercial advertising images with their own artistic political messages. Eventually, in 1975, the billboard owners sent over a truck and a worker to disassemble the billboard. The Galería staff inquired with the worker about acquiring the dissembled pieces and then led the effort to reconstruct the billboard.1 Since, the billboard has been a platform for artists to protest such events and moments as the International Hotel’s eviction efforts in the 1970s, the police brutality and killing of Danny Terviño in the 1970s, and to visualize the Undocuqueer movement in 2013. Through its programming, exhibitions, and billboard mural projects, Galería de la Raza has maintained a space where subjectivity and community self-determination can be produced and upheld—now exemplified by Posada’s piece.
Posada’s billboard—predominately pink, and covered side to side with monochromatic graphics and three rows of white text—utilizes a pattern that references both indigenous textiles and contemporary digital printmaking, two qualities that stand in opposition to each other, yet together create a striking communication. The billboard sits a foot off the ground and is attached to the exterior of Galería de la Raza, which is housed in a mixed-use commercial apartment building with Mission Revival style architecture, and is painted a deep reddish-brown. Because of the building’s color, and the muted grays of the sidewalk’s faded asphalt, the brightly colored billboard catches the eye quickly, demanding attention and an adjustment of perception.
The visual power of ABOLISH BORDERS lies within this mixture of pattern and text—distinct cultural signifiers represented both linguistically and graphically—which is presented on the city street, accessible to all. In clear, stark lettering, the first row states in English: “ABOLISH BORDERS.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “abolish” as “to put an end to; to do away with (an institution, custom, or practice)."2 The OED offers an alternative definition, as well: “to destroy the power of (a person).” With this, in its first proclamation, ABOLISH BORDERS calls for doing away with institutions of racist and nationalist exclusion, and even a call to destroy racism altogether. At first, one might easily assume that since there are three lines of text and each line is a different language, that the second and third lines are direct translations of “abolish borders,” yet, more nuance is necessary here. The second line of the billboard states, in Spanish, “DERRUMBAN LAS FRONTERAS,” which translates to “collapsing borders.” To “collapse” is to “break down, give way, fall in, cave in; to shrink suddenly into a smaller volume, contract.” “Derrumban las fronteras,” thereby describes the process by which border abolitionism can be attained: to put forward enough force so that the idea of borders will “shrink suddenly into a smaller volume.” To collapse a border implies an action more powerful than simply, and vaguely, “destroying” one; to collapse a border is to challenge, interrogate, minimize, and ultimately eliminate the root idea that informs their very formation.
Lastly, the third row of text, the first part in Arabic and and the second in Persian, states “Muslims are welcome here/Refugees welcome.” This line of text is a direct statement to anyone who reads Arabic or Persian in San Francisco’s Mission District, or encounters a reproduction of this billboard online. However, even without knowing each line’s translation, the billboard shapes a space for a limitless community, signaling that racist and xenophobic logic and actions, such as the Muslim Ban, currently expressed within the U.S. federal administration will not be allowed here. The first line, “ABOLISH BORDERS” establishes an ideological foundation for action, the second line, “DERRUBAN LAS FRONTERAS” is a direct call that specifies the action, and the third line, “اهلا وسهلا بالمسلمين هنا/ پناهندگان خوش آمدي” (Muslims are welcome here/Refugees welcome), is an invitation for inclusivity. Despite its textual nature, the billboard creates and imagines a generous form of community through its expression of revolutionary futurity, a political engagement that relies on the collective to form a world without violence.
In my position as a Chicanx cultural worker, I am often at a loss for words, let alone answers, to the problems we face today. Yet, I do have a direct answer to what art can do during times of social and political turmoil: art can create space that fosters revolutionary futurity. In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire describes “revolutionary futurity” as
Prophetic….It affirms women and men as beings who transcend themselves, who move forward and look ahead, for whom immobility represents a fatal threat, for whom looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they are so that they can more wisely build the future.3
Within the Chicano Movement that arose in the 1960s to support community self-determination and social justice, artistic practice was the central tool. Chicanx art practices created methodologies that facilitated community formation, praxis, and representation. These methodologies have manifest as artistic practice in a seemingly infinite number of ways; from decolonial healing circles, to online digital printmaking, to spaces of pedagogical engagement, these methodologies are proliferating, signaling that the Chicanx Movement continues to materialize. ABOLISH BORDERS, installed on February 14, 2017, is revolutionary futurity in practice. It is a visual representation of the central Chicanx claim, “sin fronteras,” which has been at the fore of decades of writing and visual art. Revolutionary futurity is the vision behind “praxis,” the process of “becoming—as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality."4 ABOLISH BORDERS does not seek negotiation of nationalistic forces with fascist tendencies, rather, it demands vision and corresponding action to transform and enact these visions.
For decades, the idea of border abolition and “sin fronteras” was a utopian speculation, yet now it is becoming a necessary response to the fascist turn in U.S. domestic policy. On February 22, 2017, Guadalupe Olives Valencia committed suicide moments after being deported back to Mexico. National and international news outlets covered the suicide, and its coincidence with the U.S. President’s initiation of a mass militarized deportation effort. Valencia’s suicide reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s—a German Jewish Marxist philosopher and member of the Frankfurt School, who in 1940 committed suicide rather than be repatriated to Nazi controlled France. Valencia’s story and context is very different than Benjamin’s, yet both highlight what happens when people’s lives and livelihoods are limited by fascist ideologies of exclusion and persecution on the basis of race, nationality, and/or religion. In the face of these tragic events, it is important to provide even more specificity to what “art can do” in “times of social and political turmoil” because, for many communities affected, the ability to speak and act during these times becomes a matter of life and death.
The 2016 election signaled support for a nationalist agenda centered around deporting millions of undocumented peoples, while simultaneously building a 1,989 mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican immigrants were targeted during the campaign as inherently violent, and were scapegoated as the reason why White working class U.S. citizens have lost economic opportunities. During the campaign, a large number of people I encountered did not take the Republican campaign seriously, as the possibility of building a 2,000 mile wall and deporting 11 million people seemed ludicrous, beyond racist, and largely illegal. It was only a few days into the new presidential administration that we saw that none of this was political posturing. Memos have circulated that the National Guard could be called in to round up immigrants, making clear that those within the Chicanx/Latinx community are possibly confronting a racially motivated, militarized deportation campaign. This is followed by a racist proposal of a Muslim Registry and an executive order, signed January 27, 2017, that bans entry into the U.S. by anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days.5As an educator who serves a broad group of college-going students, many who are either undocumented or have at least one family member who is, I say without exaggeration that, although there is a movement to resist these fascist policies, the discourse around their implementation has created terror that these students, families, and community members are embodying. Just the other day, a student sought me out for advice as to how she’d be able to continue her studies while taking custody of her three younger siblings, as her parents plan for deportation. How many are confronting these realities or worse? These stories are, while not overtly obvious to the viewer, embedded within Posada’s ABOLISH BORDERS.
The pattern in the background of Posada's mural is called Romy the Last Mujxr, and references the culture of Posada’s family, composed of undocumented and documented folks.6 These patterns were developed through Posada’s larger series of screen prints, titled Nepantla Pattern: Decolonizing Hxstory.7 To create these patterns, Posada engages family and community members in an ongoing dialogue, developing a new pattern based upon each story shared. She often amalgamates various symbols and signs to represent “marks of existence, experience, survival, collective narrative, new identity formation, and, above all, liberation."8 This series of works, twenty in total to date, was recently installed and exhibited at the 6th Chicana/o Biennial at MACLA (Movimiento de arte y Cultura Latino Americana) in San Jose. Romy Last Mujxr, which serves as the base for ABOLISH BORDERS, references the Huichol people from the Nayarit/Jalisco region of Mexico. Working from the narrative of her cousin, Posada developed this pattern based upon “El Ojo de Dios” (Eye of God), which is a textile pattern made to provide protection for children. Romy Last Mujxr, along with each individual pattern in Posada's series, weaves complex symbolic representations of colonization and various decolonial resistant efforts.
The border has been naturalized within American consciousness, but as ABOLISH BORDERS visually proclaims, the Chicanx community has always contested it; borders and borderlands have long been the foundation for political action and subject formation. Chicanx scholar Clarissa Rojas defines borders as walls that:
Are assembled to disunite, to dissuade, and to disappear resistant subaltern subjectivities. The nation-building project becomes a modality of sanctioned forgetting that makes it possible for borderland communities, many of which live with military occupation, to forego resistance, because when the state kills people on the border, it is doing so under law, making such killing (inhumanely) tolerable.9
Rojas argues that the border is a site that, when naturalized, develops as “post-political”—a condition characterized by a limiting of opportunities for transformation, where negotiation with oppressive forces is the only option, and where neoliberal globalization becomes the “undisputable state of the situation."10 Today, borderland communities are required to negotiate fascist and racist policies as if there were no other option. The threats my students and their families face are real, and are emblematic of the conditions in the borderlands that Rojas describes. In our discussions, we are quickly lead to questions of tolerance, diversity, and inclusion. Yet, as contemporary psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek states:
Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, not as problems of inequality, exploitation, injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, not emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle? The immediate answer is the liberal multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation: the culturalization of politics that positions difference as something merely to be tolerated, never overcome.11
If “post-political” thinking is the process of negotiations that foreclose the possibilities for a future embodied by social justice, “genuine politics” demands and makes the impossible possible.
ABOLISH BORDERS is informed by the abolitionism of the Chicano and Black Power Movements of the 1960s, where revolutionary futurity and genuine politics are combined. The Black Power Movement ultimately expressed abolitionism of the prison industrial complex to challenge state racialized violence,12 and The Chicano Movement focused on border abolitionism to challenge the manifestation of racialized violence. Stokely Carmichael famously used Black Power as a movement slogan in his 1966 speech in Greenwood, Mississippi, where he declared, “this is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested and I ain’t goin to jail no more! The only way we gonna stop the white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. What we gonna start sayin’ now is Black Power."13 Here Carmichael links state racialized violence with the need for Black Power. Chicano Power emerged within a similar context, but organized for land rights, and by extension, indigeneity. The border was a signifier for the state violence that had displaced a broad Chicano/Latino community from full citizenship, and from their identity as de-tribalized peoples. In both movements, feminist activists, cultural workers, and writers, and in particular, Angela Davis14 and Gloria Anzaldua most clearly articulated what was at the core of each: abolitionism of borders for Chicanxs/Latinxs, and abolitionism of the prison industrial complex for the Black community.
For Chicanxs “the border” has been a physical site of intergenerational trauma, violence, displacement, and dislocation. It serves as a reminder of colonial and neocolonial processes that have created reduced life-chances in Mexico, and a first world/third world dichotomy across the hemisphere. In her book, Naturalizing Mexican Immigrants, Martha Menchaca outlines how the U.S.-Mexico border has employed a racialized construct from its inception, immediately after the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe in the mid-1800s. For over 165 years, the U.S.-Mexico border has been aligned with racial exclusion enacted through immigration policy.15 This history is the context for Gloria Anzaldua’s written interventions, where the border is a site to be transgressed so as to subvert economic and racial oppression: “those who make it past the check points of the border patrol find themselves in the midst of 150 years of racism in Chicano barrios in the Southwest and in big northern cities."16 Border abolitionism in Anzaldua’s key text, Borderlands/La Frontera, is a call to move beyond the “subject-object duality,” where borders manifest and lock people into a perpetual cycle of violence, which Anzaldua calls a “counterstance” of “oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat, like the cop and criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence."17 In order to “bring us to an end of rape, of violence, of war” it is necessary to develop a new consciousness that eliminates this duality, and establishes a “third element” or a space whose “energy comes from continual creative motion that keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of every new paradigm."18 Border abolitionism is a call not just to challenge colonial nation-building projects, but rather is a methodology to transform and transcend violence—and the binary that enacts it—altogether.
Posada’s ABOLISH BORDERS takes Anzaldua’s call for an end to violence and evokes a move beyond the counterstance into a new third space. This new third space, which requires collaborative action from people of myriad ethnicities and races, is a “wholly new and separate territory” where “the possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react."19 ABOLISH BORDERS is more than a response to the current presidential administration’s central campaign promise, it is more than a desperate plea for a negotiated agreement with fascists who wish to exclude and degenerate. ABOLISH BORDERS is genuine politics, in that it demands the impossible, which is no more impossible than the idea that exists in opposition to it: a militarized 2,000 mile wall backed by racial and religious exclusion. ABOLISH BORDERS, challenges U.S. immigration policy as “natural,” and creates a site for community encounter with the ideas of border abolitionism. It stands as a sign that the impossible is possible if we can continue imagining that another world is achievable.
Holding and fostering space is the first necessity for revolutionary futurity and genuine politics. Chicanx cultural spaces, such as Galería de la Raza, have long been “an integral element of the interruption of the ‘natural’ (or better yet, naturalized) order of domination through the constitution of a place of encounter by those that have no part in that order."20At the core of these spaces, and the larger Chicanx Art Movement, is the desire to transform and transcend violence, and establish community-based methodologies that challenge the legacies of colonialism. Rosa Linda Fregoso has gone so far as to define “Chicano” not as a descriptor of personal identity or ethnicity, but instead the word for a “space where subjectivity is produced."21 In this thinking, the forces of the Chincanx Art movement are truly distinct from the forces of late capitalism, neoliberalism, fascism, and gentrification, which centralize the desires of the individual. The Chincanx Art Movement, of which ABOLISH BORDERS is a direct manifestation, centralizes space for community self-determination. ABOLISH BORDERS calls for the formation of a community that is generous, asking us to exert our imaginations to their limits so that we can revolutionize our reality and foster greater equity, justice, and opportunity for all.
- Alicia Arrizon, Queering Mestizaje: Transculturation and Performance (Triangulations: Lesbian/Gay/Queer Theater/Drama/Performance) (University of Michigan Press, 2006), 180.
- Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. 20 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). Also available at http://www.oed.com/.
- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 1993), 84.
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/12/21/trump-on-the-future-of-proposed-muslim-ban-registry-you-know-my-plans/?utm_term=.cddc8657ee09 & http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2017/01/donald_trump_s_executive_orders_on_immigration_are_a_bad_sign_for_muslims.html.
- Interview with the Artist, February, 22, 2017.
- Interview with the Artist, February, 22, 2017.
- Clarissa Rojas, “We Morph War into Magic: The Story of the Border Fence Mural, a Community Art Project in Calexico-Mexicali,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 38, no. 1 (2013): 144.
- Erik Swyngedouw, “The Post-Political City.”
- Slavoj Zizek, “Tolerance as an Ideological Category,” Critical Inquiry 34, no. 4 (2008): 660.
- On November 2, 2016, Sampada Aranke gave a talk at the California College of the Arts Visual Critical Studies Forum series. In her talk, she outlined the inextricable link between the emergence of “Black Power” as a slogan and abolition of state violence, repression, and the prison industrial complex.
- Martha Menchaca, Naturalizing Mexican Immigrants: A Texas History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011).
- Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands-La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987), 12.
- Ibid., 78.
- Ibid., 80.
- Ibid., 79.
- Mustafa Dikec, “Space, Politics, and the Political,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23, no. 2 (2005): 172.
- Rosa Linda Fregoso, The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), xix.