We’re accustomed to thinking about the US-Mexico border as an abstraction. A new book tries to find intimacy in it.
Two Sides of the Border Reimagining the Region edited by Tatiana Bilbao, Ayesha S. Ghosh, and Nile Greenberg. Lars Müller Publishers, 488 pp., $35
What is the border? Line. Crossing. Wound. During the last four years—six if we count the run-up to the 2016 election—Donald Trump framed the US-Mexico border as a referendum on nationhood, with rhetoric so toxic and policies so brutal that other discourses, other lived experiences, were eclipsed by the shadow of the promised wall. And then on January 20, President Biden halted all work on Trump’s fortified fence while the new administration reviews construction contracts.
With that pause, which is neither truly benign nor pious, a temporary lightness allows us to see what has been wrought: new photos of partially built sections of the barrier in southern Arizona (commissioned by Insider magazine) show natural landscapes blasted and scarred. Yet it is in this lull that other outcomes seem, if not possible, then worth summoning. Two Sides of the Border: Reimagining the Region, recently published by Yale School of Architecture and Lars Müller Publishers, asks us to envision an alternative to the hardened US-Mexico boundary and its attendant violences, human and ecological.
“For me, it is imagining a place where the border doesn’t exist. Obviously, that is too much imagination,” says co-editor Tatiana Bilbao in a transcribed interview with two of her collaborators on the anthology, photographer Iwan Baan and co-editor Nile Greenberg (Ayesha S. Ghosh is the third co-editor). Too much imagination could read as Panglossian in the face of so much scarcity. But it is a risk Bilbao deems worth taking. In her architectural practice, she and her collaborators deploy more fantastical techniques of representation, such as collage, alongside critical research and analysis in order to challenge existing paradigms.
This speculative erasure of the border, however, fits within a growing body of work by designers and scholars. For example, in 2018, Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman exhibited MEXUS, a proposal for the US-Mexico borderlands based on a shared bi-national region and its interconnected watershed areas, at the US Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. And in her 2020 book On Borders: Territories, Legitimacy, and the Rights of Place, political scientist Paulina Ochoa Espejo imagines the watershed as a territory counter to existing political boundaries. “The Watershed Model presents borders not as the exclusionary limits of communities but as the interconnected edges of a complex whole, edges where institutions, people and animals, plants and objects create unique combinations,” she writes.
As a project, Two Sides of the Border launched in the spring of 2018 as a network of design studios taught across the United States and Mexico. Later, the student work was exhibited at Yale Architecture Gallery and accompanied by large-scale photographs by Baan. His images, included as color folios in the printed volume, are documentary—both aerial and intimate depictions of life in an expanded border region that stretches from hydroponic farms in Union, Ohio, to the elaborately constructed remittance houses in Puebla City, Mexico. Utopian visions largely play out in 129 projects developed as part of design studios at University of California, Berkeley, Cornell, Texas Tech, and Universidad Iberoamericana, among others. These are grouped together as an index and relegated to the back pages of the book—conceptual footnotes, perhaps, to the essays up front.
While dualities govern much border thinking, Two Sides of the Border is most instructive when it triangulates, bringing in histories, species, and atmospheres that defy cliched understandings.
In his foreword, Greenberg suggests that two-sidedness, that flicker between states, might operate not just between nations north and south, but also between states of presentation: the exhibition is also a reading room. Does this mean that the corollary—the book is an exhibition—also holds? Not necessarily. While dualities govern much border thinking, Two Sides of the Border is most instructive when it triangulates, bringing in histories, species, and atmospheres that defy cliched understandings. A bound volume and a gallery exhibition are not autonomous ends, but beginnings. Carlos Zedillo Velasco of Pienza Sostenible looks to bees as free agents of transnational connection. Operating at the border of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Stephen Mueller links dust particulate to military and security apparatuses, a correlation with dire reverberations rippling across the deserts of the American Southwest to those of the Middle East.
Los Angeles–based artist Beatriz Cortez often casts South-North migration as a futurity, the immigrant as a time traveler between both political states and states of being. While her work is not included in the anthology, her framing resonates with the understanding of the border as a trinity across time and space. As such, migration histories far afield from the actually crossing are as relevant as harrowing tales of coyotes and detention centers.
Minjae Kim’s illustrated essay, “Mukseoga,” unpacks the dark repercussions of transliteration. In 1905, more than 1,000 Koreans were recruited as laborers and boarded a ship bound to Mukseoga, a promised land advertised in Chinese characters that ultimately revealed itself to be the Yucatán Peninsula. On arrival, travelers found not freedom but indentured servitude alongside enslaved Mayans. Kim illustrates the cross-cultural adaptations along social, spatial, and culinary lines: interracial marriage between the male Korean workforce and Mayan women, hybrid hacienda architecture, and nopal kimchi.
Narratives included in Two Sides of the Border speak to uneven intensities or consequences between countries as well as between essays, maps, photographs, or student projects. These differentials could be seen as the weakness of a project trying very hard to anthologize a serious initiative while also laboring to open up sets of geo-spatial relationships to architectural inquiry. Yet the variances across the editorial selections do allow for—dare I say—intimacy. Such as the songs written by the immigrant school children from Mexico and Central America enrolled in Stephen Haff’s weekly reading class in Bushwick, Brooklyn, that are included in the volume. The last line of the chorus of “The Believing Song,” written as an interpretation of Don Quixote, reads Leyendo, imaginando y creyendo. Reading, imagining, and believing.
The words quietly echo the ambition of the overall Two Sides of the Border project: to read the social and political landscape, then imagine an alternative. It’s an approach that could be—and often is—criticized as gestural or symbolic, empty of activism. Just as Bilbao, Greenberg, and Ghosh don’t provide a handbook to demolish the violent boundary between the United States and Mexico, these texts and images don’t comprise a manifesto on a new border region. What they do offer, however, is evidence that such an imaginary is possible, indeed, invaluable.
Mimi Zeiger is a Los Angeles–based journalist, critic, and curator.