27 August 2010

The Other Side of the Fence; A Love Song for Mexico

I am grateful for this opportunity to share a window to the other side of the border and share a few stories with you published today in Flagstaff's local art/news paper FlagLIVE:Cover Story;The Other Side of the Fence Written by Penelope Bass

I hope to continue fostering a creative dialogue to help inspire change and raise awareness and alternative solutions to address the complex issues we are being confronted with and show our shared cultural connections as well as examples of bi national cooperation of what is possible in these dark and complex times. I hope to reflect the great humanity and history that has been my inspiration and motivation to learn about our shared connections to each other and the land called the Americas. Please join me on the visual odyssey and cross over to the other side.

For more information on Casas Grandes,Chihuahua please visit:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” –Martin Luther King Jr.

In a land where cultural connections run like roadmaps—where German Mennonites live alongside Mexican farmers, where archaeological ruins mirror those in our own back yard, where chocolate and turquoise crossed paths—our most basic connection, a shared humanity, is suffering, severed by political borders.

For the last three years, local photographer Raechel Running has been living and traveling throughout the borderlands of Mexico. With the new exhibit “Sueños de Aztlan: Journey of the Plumed Serpent,” Running is sharing her experiences and her photos from a community and a people who have shown her warmth, kindness and a shared history.

Life in the Borderlands

A section of chain link fence covers the large front window at the Flagstaff Photography Center, the cold, gray metal contrasted against several red roses woven through the links. Inside, a collection of photos—selected from thousands that were taken— represents the traditions, compassion and joyfulness of a culture whose people are rarely depicted as anything other than drug smugglers, human traffickers and illegal immigrants in the media lately.

“The hospitality and the kindness and the diversity and the richness of the culture is what has really inspired me,” Running explains. “I find that everyday is like a field trip or an opportunity to learn something I have never known.”

Running originally traveled to Mexico to work on a piece for a magazine about master potter Juan Quezada. The story fell through, but Running was invited to stay as an artist-in-residence by her hosts and friends Spencer and Emi MacCallum, who have been instrumental in reviving the arts in areas of Mexico. Running stays in a home in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, about two and a half hours south of the border on Highway 89. What was supposed to be a three-month stint turned into three years as Running found herself pulled deeper into the culture and its history.

“Usually when we learn history we never get the stories, we just get the facts. But by living in Mexico, you get the stories,” Running says. “The place where I live is the place where the first battle of the Mexican Revolution began. Up the road there is a field where much of the produce that comes to America is grown. Within 930 miles there are all these connections.”
The more stories she learned, the more connections she discovered —between Mexican communities and the Mormon settlements, between ancient agricultural practices and current organic farming, between the ruins at Wupatki and those at Paquimé. She studied ranching, farming and conservation efforts. She found herself riding horseback across ancient trade routes. She communicated wordlessly with a small community of Mennonites.

“It’s sort of the project that keeps leading me; you could describe it as peeling an onion,” gushes Running in a nearly non-stop stream of consciousness. “It’s almost like an outline that I keep following in different directions, and it’s been over three years and I still feel that even if I do another 40 years of work I’ll barely have scratched the surface.”

She continues, “It’s been really fascinating to see the story. And part of my work is to tell these stories and to help other people learn that there are these stories. I really feel that we need to look at where we come from and what our history is and what really happened in this landscape thousands of years ago as we are looking at the problems that we’re facing now. The fear and the hate and the racism that is happening right now—I just feel that if people could learn and be inspired to look beyond and get re- educated and re-acknowledge the history of the greater Southwest, that that could make a change.

“When people say things like ‘Go back to where you come from,’ they don’t realize that they’re actually on old, indigenous Mexican lands; that the borders are manmade, but that hasn’t changed people’s relationship to the land.”

Making the connection

When SB 1070 was introduced and signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer, outrage spread rapidly across the state and the country. Many hailed it for finally taking action on long-neglected immigration policies while others decried it for being blatantly racist and furthering an environment of fear and hatred. Living down in Mexico, Running was afforded a unique perspective on the controversial issue.

“The show is kind of to address the SB 1070 not through hate, but by showing what
is on the other side of the fence; what is on the other side of hate, on the other side of fear,” Running explains. “We’re inundated with this negative viewpoint and I don’t think it’s helping the dialogue at all. What I’ve chosen to photograph is also what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen. I just felt like this was my responsibility, that this is how I could perhaps bring understanding to our community and also be a representative of the people I’ve met … they can’t come here and speak, and part of my responsibility is to help people see these other people—to see our humanity. The hardest part for me, recently with the passing of SB 1070 is that the everyday people from my community, they ask, ‘Why do the Americans hate us?’ And these are older people, and they just don’t understand what the racism is because they feel that they are part of this America.”

The inclusive nature of Running’s exhibit, which includes not only her photographs and photo collages but also Mata Ortiz pottery and Mennonite quilts, is an example of the connections she discovered and what her mentor Spencer MacCallum refers to as “artistic fluorescence.”

“These activities create beauty and functionality, and those are things that bring the community together and help us to dialogue and learn about each other,” says Running. “Most people don’t know anything about the people living on the other side of the fence.”

Ultimately, Running says she hopes that people will use her exhibit as an opportunity to look beyond borders, both political and those within us. “This disaster and this hate is an opportunity for us to become re-educated and to open our hearts to learn how to become more human,” she says. “If you get that personal experience, it might change your world view. Each of these photographs has an aspect of the story. It’s about being open to each other’s stories or to learn the story, because that’s when the story becomes universal.”

Because politics is a slow-moving beast, Running says she has seen the most positive results in across-the-border cooperation through smaller community groups and projects to promote education, cultural arts, health care, housing and community gardens. Most recently, Running has been working with two ongoing projects: Rancho Feliz, which helps to create community relationships and to increase the availability of health care and education, and Somos La Semilla, which is working to find community food solutions.

“Walls don’t work. What works is providing people the opportunities necessary for them to live and raise their families with dignity in their own country,” says Gil Gillenwater, founder of Rancho Feliz.

“The work is hopeful and brings people together to create human solutions overcoming the politics and fear,” adds Running. She says that understanding can come through a reconnection of our humanity, and while her show does coincide with a political issue, the real story is about people.

“Initially, I think I envisioned it being a little more political, but then this is what it evolved to. It is more like a love song. It’s from this place of people being in between, like an unrequited love. And people wanting to connect; I think there is an aspect of humanity that wants to connect. We’re not really taught how to do that, and less and less so. When people find it, it’s like water. It’s quenches something within them and lets something else grow.”

“Sueños de Aztlan” is on display at the Flagstaff Photography Center, 107 N. San Francisco, until Fri, Sept. 17. For more info, call 774-2544 or visit
www.flagstaffph otographycenter.com. For more about Raechel Running, or to see more examples of her work, visit her Web site at www.raechelrunning.com.

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