Marfa Dialogues

by Theresa Bembnister September 27, 2010

For many travelers, the most convenient way to get to Marfa involves flying to El Paso and then driving three hours east.

The short trip from the El Paso International Airport down Airway Boulevard brings you to Interstate 10, lined on either side with discount boot stores, gas stations, fast-food drive-throughs and big-box retail outlets. The strip-mall parking lots just north of the interstate offer incredible views of a metro sprawling toward the south. Somewhere, off in that distance, El Paso becomes Juárez.

Marfa Dialogues opening reception...Aurora Tang, 2010. All images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

September 17-19, Ballroom Marfa presented Marfa Dialogues/Diálogos En Marfa: Politics and Culture of the Border. Most of the discussion focused on the line between the United States and Mexico – and on the border cities of El Paso and Juárez in particular. Described by Ballroom as “an initiative to bring together voices reflective of the many perspectives of our diverse community,” the Dialogues invited journalists, political scientists, musicians, a filmmaker, a photographer and a poet to share their knowledge, expertise and artwork. (Of the eight events listed on the brochure, I attended only five. I skipped the poetry reading, the concert and the free brunch.)

The weekend kicked off Friday night with Laura Flanders’ conversation with Charles Bowden, author of Murder City: Cuidad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. The amusing, self-deprecating Bowden talked about Juarez as though he were Captain Ahab and the city his Moby Dick—he’s been writing about the place since the mid-1990s. When he wrote Down By the River, a book detailing a 1995 drug-related murder in El Paso, there were 250 to 300 slayings a year in Juárez. “There’s been 2,500 murders so far this year,” Bowden said. “I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it.”

Laura Flanders and Charles Bowden...Aurora Tang, 2010. All images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The words Bowden did have in Friday night’s conversation tended toward hyperbole (demonstrated also by the phrase killing fields in the title of his book). He presented solid information on the roots of violence in Juárez—poverty caused by low wages for Mexican workers following NAFTA, the United States’ failed war on drugs, and generations of schoolchildren who can’t afford to pay for education or find a job. He also suggested how Americans might make things better—chiefly by refusing to purchase products made by slave-wage laborers and renegotiating NAFTA. But overall, Bowden left the impression that the citizens of Juárez live in a war zone and have little agency over their own lives.

It was evident from the start of Saturday morning’s panel discussion that the participants were working to dispel Bowden’s portrait of Juarez. Kathleen Staudt, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a poet who also teaches at UTEP, and Cecilia Ballí, a journalist and professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, included in their opening remarks personal stories of students, friends and loved ones in Juárez. They used phrases and words such as “neighbors,” “generosity,” “energy of the city” and “normality amid the abnormality.”

Robert Halpern, journalist and owner of The Big Bend Sentinel and The International Presidio, provided a local viewpoint, speaking mostly about Ojinaga, the Mexican border town about an hour’s drive south of Marfa. Throughout the course of the panel, participants echoed many of the points Bowden had raised the night before—poverty as the primary cause of migration, issues brought about by the United States’ military-industrial complex, demonization of the “other” by American politicians and media.

Robert Halpern, Cecilia Ballí, Dahr Jamail, Kathleen Staudt and Benjamin Alire Sáenz...Aurora Tang, 2010. All images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

As panel participants, Ballí and Staudt stood out, speaking eloquently and intelligently on their areas of expertise, the military in Ballí’s case and femicide and the war on drugs for Staudt. Ballí focused on human-rights violations enacted by the Mexican military under the premise of thwarting citizen-led violence. Of all the Dialogues speakers, Staudt made the strongest call to action, advocating for the legalization of marijuana to prevent American consumers of illegal drugs from continuing to fuel cartels. She also made the case for increasing the translation of academic writing from Spanish to English and vice versa, in order to bring the work of Spanish-writing scholars into major U.S. thinking.

One panel member, Juárez-based journalist Sandra Rodríguez Nieto, was unable to attend the symposium. Two photography interns who worked for her newspaper, El Diario de Juárez, were slain the night before the symposium began.

The Marfa Dialogues presentations that reflected diverse viewpoints most successfully were those that documented the day-to-day reality of living near the border. David Taylor’s slideshow of photographs taken along the length of the U.S.-Mexico border, and filmmaker Luis Carlos Davis’ documentary 389 Miles, offered a plurality of perspectives from people on both sides of the border — and of the law.

Luis Carlos Davis...Aurora Tang, 2010. All images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Davis describes his upbringing in the border town of Nogales as his inspiration for 389 Miles, in which the filmmaker travels the length of the Arizona-Mexico border and records conversations with the people he encounters. Perhaps this lifelong balancing act helped Davis elicit such frank and heartfelt responses from people describing vastly different experiences of the border: a border patrol officer, migrants waiting to cross to the United States, a storeowner in a Mexican border town frustrated by a recent downturn in business.

Taylor established an unusual working relationship with the U.S. Border Patrol after winning a commission to shoot a series of photographs for display in the Van Horn patrol station. This allowed the artist behind-the-scenes access to Border Patrol operations, including agents and captured migrants as well as the facilities where these people work or are incarcerated. The artist described his encounters with drug smugglers, migrants and law-enforcement officers during his process of photographing border scenes.

Remaining unbiased wasn’t easy for the artist. “I had to distance myself,” Taylor said. “I’m a knee-jerk liberal. I was seeing something that didn’t fit my preconceived notions. That’s what you are supposed to do as a documentarian.”

Did the Marfa Dialogues manage to go beyond the preconceived notions of the U.S.-Mexico border held by the largely white, middle-aged audience? I don’t have an answer to that question, and I don’t want to criticize Ballroom for the type of audience this event failed to attract. (I’ve been in Marfa long enough to know that the only cultural events that attract a truly diverse crowd are the family-friendly showcases and exhibitions of work made by kids. The only exception might be Grupo Exito’s concerts at Padre’s.) But there were some glaring oversights in the viewpoints represented by this weekend’s lineup. For an event held in a community with such an undeniable Border Patrol presence, it was disappointing that the institution was represented only through Taylor’s photographs. Mexican citizens were also underrepresented among panelists and presenters.

Still, with the Marfa Dialogues, Ballroom got the conversation started. And it’s hard to imagine a time when there will be more to discuss about the politics and the culture of the border.


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