On the Streets of El Paso and Juarez, “Sister Cities” Art Project Pays Tribute to Border Communities

Artists Ramon and Christian Cardenas. Photo: Itzel Martinez for Remezcla.

The river that runs between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez is a river that once ran wild. In late summer, after a deluge of monsoon rains, it used to flood the low neighborhoods of each city with around a foot of water, shifting its course and taking the border between the two countries along for the ride. Now since lined with cement, the waters of this river stay put, and the border between the US and Mexico lies as still as stone.

But before any cement was poured, the line between the US and Mexico was more fluid. Neighborhoods like Segundo Barrio, in El Paso, were places where migrant farmworkers from Mexico could buy from Mexican-American street vendors, and where a spiritual healer named Teresa Urrea, fleeing from revolutionary Mexico and shadowed by the US government, could attract crowds of indios, Mexicans, and even journalists from the major US newspapers. It wasn’t pretty (crime and poverty were rampant), but before the Chamizal Treaty was signed, it was certainly more fluid.

It’s here in the “heart of Mexican diaspora” on E. Father Rahm Ave., in Segundo Barrio, that Los Dos, a collaboration between the artists Ramon and Christian Cardenas, have wheat-pasted their tribute to the everyday people who live near the border. Titled “Sister Cities/Ciudades Hermanas,” the piece depicts two women with eyes the color of clay floating above a desert horizon, their abdomen a latticework of cactus, portrait, and flower. It’s one part of the husband and wife’s Make Shift project, a series of collaborative, community-supported street artworks that dot both cities.

Los Dos model their characters in this series after people they know: street vendors and musicians, or other artists, journalists, and friends. The influence of pre-Hispanic culture is just as prominent as Mexico’s Taller Gráfica Popular, and the end results are larger than life. Each character stands as a relief against a congested cityscape where advertising and pollution cloud the eyes. Many wear the mask of the jaguar, a mask worn by warriors in pre-Hispanic cultures, to update an ancient symbol of power. They are uplifting visions, even though apocalyptic, coming after much loss, destruction, and migratory floods that once moved rivers and shifted the culture of two cities.

We talked to the couple in El Paso, where they are based, about Make Shift. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Additional reporting and photos by Itzel Alejandra Martinez.

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How did each of you first get into the art world?
Christian: Since I was in kindergarten, I was painting. My mom pushed me toward art history to learn what various artists did, and I now have B.S. in Graphic Design and a minor in Drawing. I also went to school in Puebla and studied a couple of years in Textile Design. And at a community college here in El Paso, I studied Fashion Design.

Ramon: I’m not formally trained in art. I didn’t go to art school.

C: When I met him, he was deejaying.

R: Yeah, I was into a lot of art-oriented things. I would never called myself a good artist when I was young. It wasn’t until I got older —when street art came into the picture — that I found a voice and a place. I’m more self-taught and hands-on.

Christian, you started tagging when you were a kid.
C: Yes, all the kids around me were tagging in Juarez. The curious thing is that when I tried to do what they were doing — when I tried to put my name alongside all the other boys — I would get ratted out. Looking back, I know it was because I was a woman doing something that I wasn’t supposed to do. It suddenly became wrong when I did it even though all the other kids were doing it too.

What makes street art interesting to both of you? Why focus on the streets rather than a gallery or museum?
R: It’s a way to make art available to poor neighborhoods or people who don’t have the opportunity to go to the city museum.

C: Being exposed to art is a luxury. I think that’s where our street art bent comes from.

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Talk to me about the Make Shift project and the process of launching it. 
R: It’s the main project that we’ve been working on for the past year or so. We got a grant from El Paso Museum and Cultural Affairs Department.

C: It’s going through a process of applications, and it has pushed us to see how far we could go with it, see how the community can get involved. We’re working with Amor Por Juarez and trying to figure out what we have in the community. We’ve talked to downtown business owners who have buildings that we’d like to use and presented them with proposals and our ideas. We’ve shown them our art. And we’ve received support.

What about the content and vision behind the murals? 
R: Make Shift is work about normal people: workers, photographers, journalists, migrants, musicians, street vendors. It’s for people of the community. When they see these bigger than life works, it’s our hope they feel empowered. A lot of the murals that they’re used to seeing aren’t relatable to them.

C: Or they have religious undertones. We wanted to push what could be said. For example, “Sister Cities” is a straight-up political comment on the borderland. It’s about how these two cities have had to back each other up. And it’s important to have them be women, have symbols that are feminine because Juarez has been suffering for years. I mean, as a woman who grew up in Juarez, it’s been really hard to see how a political boundary can change how women are treated or how safe you are when walking down a street.

R: It’s also an homage. An homage to artisans and farmworkers, and it’s what we’re trying to do with Make Shift. The term itself is a play on words. People making do with what they have. Being ingenious. And also making a shift toward sustainability, for the person to be self-sustainable because a lot of their jobs — street vendors and musicians — are not going to be available in the next… how many years? What are they going to do? You can’t expect them to do whatever the government thinks the new jobs will be. They have the right to do whatever they want. To be sustainable by making art or playing music or being a farmer.

C: It’s important because it preserves our cultural heritage, preserves our music and art that developed slowly after Spanish conquest. It’s artwork about cultural identity. You use it to survive, to carry it wherever you go.

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There’s still not a lot of women in El Paso’s art scene, it’s still predominately male. How do you see yourself in that scene, Christian? How would encourage other women to get involved?
C: It is hard when I see male artists take each other more seriously. Bjork said it best when she said, “As a woman you’re going to have to say things five times in order for guys to hear you out once.” It’s true. It’s completely true. You’re trying to get your ideas across, and it always feels as though you’re bumping into a wall. You’re not taken seriously until they realize you actually know what you’re saying. It really takes a thick skin and a strong voice. And you can’t back down from your stance just because you’re in a macho environment, which street art is. Here, you’re going to get your comments. But you can’t be scared of voicing what you have inside you. You’ve got to tell people they’re wrong. You have to say, I’m a feminist, and they’re not going to get away with treating me like that.

Ramon, can you talk about being Filipino in the borderland?
R: I mean, it’s been hard for me because I’m a minority both in the US as a whole and also here in the borderland since I’m not Mexicano. Still, I relate to Mexico because it has a lot in common with the Philippines. You know, the Spanish influence. And also the little things: the cities themselves, the hand-painted signs. When you go to Juarez you get the feel of the Philippines. It feels like home. I definitely relate more to Mexico and its culture than I do to the US and El Paso, and Mexico is where we get a lot of our inspiration. We also tried to get in touch with the Philippines. My family are also migrants. The whole similarity between migrants, between those from Mexico and those from the Philippines. That’s a lot of what we’re trying to focus on.

You’re a collaborative. You work on both sides of the border. Why do it this way? Why not focus just on El Paso or Juarez?
C: It was out of necessity.

R: Exactly. We wanted do something in Juarez because we wanted to put work in the streets. And that’s exactly what Juarez and El Paso needs.

C: It’s also based on how the two cities rely on each other. And that’s important for us to show. For example, in our work the coyote becomes a symbol of an erasing border. If we were to do work solely on one side, it won’t be accessible to both sides because some people can’t move freely between the cities. You need a passport. So instead we’ll just do work on both sides. It’s the logical way for us to react as artists: to find a way to solve the problem creatively.

Sister Cities / Ciudades Hermanas
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