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Object Lessons: The US-Mexico Border River

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Art Journal, Volume 19 / Issue 1

Author: Cesar Lopez

Date: 2019


“The border between the United States and Mexico is more than a simple abstract line on a map. Instead, its physical forms are made of a series of dividing mechanisms. Stretches of fences, walls, and modules of closely spaced steel bars piece together a dividing line across landscapes and communities. However, not all forms of the border are man-made. Centuries before a US-Mexico border ever existed, the Rio Grande River naturally divided the region into northern and southern banks for its earliest settlers. This flood-prone river often shifted path with the passing season, producing a landscape of constant alteration. Meanwhile, closely tied communities, such as the borderland of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, often benefited from the illegibility of the Rio Grande River as they forged bonds through a shared culture and an integrated economy of trade and local commerce. 

That was then. Today, as it comes downstream from Colorado and intersects with the western tip of Texas, the natural river becomes a highly controlled infrastructural device, comprised of levees, dams, and concrete channels designed to serve as the US-Mexico border. Also marking this river-to-border transition are a series of fences, walls, barriers, and checkpoints, setting up a robust geopolitical infrastructure that is meant to restrict authorized access across it. What results is a decline in transborder foot traffic that has estranged border communities and strained local commerce, thus challenging the equilibrium this borderland has historically relied upon. The highly controlled state of the current Rio Grande River now parallels the condition of the surrounding community, equally constrained by the border.”

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