The Aesthetics of a Moveable Border: Muralism and Control of Space in the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands

David TooheyNagoya University
doi: 10.18278/aia.4.3.2

David Toohey, Ph.D., is a designated associate professor at the Institute for Liberal Arts and Sciences at Nagoya University who researches how land loss impacts people in the U.S. Southwest who trace their ancestry from or immigrated from Mexico and Central America. This research focuses on both rural and urban environments. His book, Borderlands Media: Cinema and Literature as Opposition to the Oppression of Immigrants (Lexington Books: 2012), explored their transformation of film as a medium of stereotypes into anti-racist cinema.


Borders are not simply located in their physical locations, but exist in other macro-political iterations of power within nation-states (Sassen 2006), are difficult to define physically, being “between” nation-states and in motion (Nail 2016) and their enforcement has moved to sending countries (Frelick and Kysel 2016) or nearby areas within nation-states (Nevins 2001). Less defined borders have existed in differing amounts, cultural, socially, and economically speaking in both macro-political and micro-political terms (Anzaldua 1987) but when walled show a division between globalized ideals and nationalist reality (Brown 2010). Indeed, the U.S.–Mexico border has shifted and extended its enforcement within the United States. Within this context, this paper asks what role protest art about borders and sovereignty can play in: (a) fighting racism; and (b) spatially opposing the material aspects of land loss due to primitive accumulation, which is a cause of immigration? This paper will analyse visual culture in Latina/o murals and art installations from the U.S. Southwest to look at them not just as cultural artefacts, but possibly assertions of material space that form “time images” (Deleuze 1989) that bring up violent pasts and futures to disrupt a false safety in the present to create protest.

Keywords: U.S.-Mexico borderlands; borders; murals; installations; land-loss; time-images



This paper asks how muralism and other forms of visual art act as micro-political interventions against macro-political violence against immigrants. In particular, this paper examines how content in murals and artistic sites in the U.S. Southwest not only help people remember persistent violent land loss in the U.S. Southwest, Mexico, and Central America but also create “time-images” (Deleuze 1989) which diminish the distance between safe times and dangerous times. Since these murals are about land loss for an oppressed ethnic group, this imagery lies at the intersection between ethnic identity and political economy. To avoid prioritizing memory over political protest, this paper explores if imagery can create material spaces of resistance rather than just imagined ones. This paper argues that protest art in the form of murals can comment on racist bordering practices and partially reverse land loss that accompanies such practices. Evidence comes from sites which are somewhat removed from the U.S.–Mexico border, physically speaking, but nonetheless oppose it.

This paper does not attempt an exhaustive representative account of border art in the U.S. Southwest since it is too large and has too long a history for this. Moreover, border art is ever-evolving and a representative account could nostalgically privilege border art that fits canonical ideals rather than newer art that responds to contemporary problems.

This paper analyses land loss not as loss of individual property, but of commons. Commons are defined broadly here to include traditional ways of land use, plus what Davis (2001) refers to as the urban commons of Latina/os that includes public space and extended family networks as well as a variety of practices such as ecology, knowledge, etc. (see Linebaugh 2011:16–23). Primitive accumulation refers to violent land loss processes like: (1) the expulsion of Mexican-Americans from hereditary and common land in New Mexico after 1848, (2) expulsion of (often indigenous) Mexicans (often indigenous) from common lands in Mexico after N.A.F.T.A. in the 1990s and arguably led to much of the immigration from Mexico to the United States, (3) the violent expulsion of Central Americans in the 1980s due to U.S. support of right-wing governments; and (4) the expulsion of Mexican-Americans, and others, for highway construction, or other urban renewal projects. Land loss during primitive accumulation is significant beyond property ownership because it stops traditional, often ecological knowledge (Toohey 2017:63–64). Primitive accumulation occurred outside of Europe. It is not a past-only event. The European primitive accumulation that Marx focused on succeeded through extreme violence against the European working class, the rise of slavery and colonialism (where it was repeated) (Linebaugh 2008) and terrorizing women in Europe and European colonies (Federici 2004).

When situating the above mentioned concepts of land loss in the singularities of land loss in the U.S. Southwest, it is wrong to assume that internal migration or immigration to U.S. cities remedied primitive accumulation. “[T]he conquest of the northern half of México must be framed within the historical context of nineteenth-century capital expansion through colonialism. Colonialism has involved not just the conquest of foreign lands and peoples but a conquest of agricultural and subsistence producers and the accompanying appropriation of their lands, resources and labour” (Dunbar-Ortiz 2007:103–104). Yet, this colonialism does not seem to get better with the passage of time and modernization. Instead, the loss of land created a persistent wish to regain land for Mexicans-Americans whose ancestors were in the United States before 1848 and dashed hopes for Mexicans that immigrated seeking a better life, thus “[t]he modern Mexican and Mexican-American experience of the Southwest was one of repeated loss and dispossession” (Berelowitz 2005:326).


Historical Context

The U.S. Southwest was part of Mexico before the end of the U.S.–Mexico War in 1848. There was a variety of property arrangements ranging from hereditary to common lands that differed from U.S. concepts of private property that could be bought and sold. This property contained obligations for ecologically sound land use. Land was supposed to be usable for multiple generations. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was supposed to honour these, as happened with Florida and the Louisiana territories. California dealt with the issue more efficiently than New Mexico. Many people who lived on land grants in New Mexico lost their ability to live in or farm land and became migratory labourers in the U.S. Southwest. These issues became prominent in a regional context with the Chicano movement in the mid-1960s, an aggressive Latina/o movement based on the idea that the U.S. Southwest was Aztlán, the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, which belonged to Mexican descent peoples, not the United States. This vision later changed to a psychological vision of a homeland and the movement partially collapsed under its inability to properly include women, LGBTQ, and others in Chicana/o identity (Dernersesian 1993 paraphrased in Berelowitz 2005:330).

Despite the official territorial surrender of land to the United States in 1848, Mexico impacted Chicano Park (a highly influential U.S. Southwest Chicana/o mural site) in three distinct ways. First of all, after the Mexican Revolution, many Mexican immigrants settled in California, thus altering the demographics of San Diego; secondly, the Mexican revolution used murals to communicate ideology, especially afterwards. The Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco, Diego Riviera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, a.k.a. the Three Giants, directly influenced Mexican-American muralism in Chicano Park. Thirdly, murals in Chicano Park include images Mexican history, broadly speaking from pre-Columbian mythology to the Mexican Revolution, to Twentieth Century emigration to the United States.

Murals in the U.S. Southwest and Mexico have often been politically motivated rather than to resize canvas-sized painting to fit on walls. Mexican murals aimed to sustain revolutionary spirit and solidify the Mexican nation-state after the Mexican revolution and in the 1920s (the ideal period of Mexican muralism, not the authoritarian governance afterwards) and to be seen by and interact with the public in plain ways (Coffey 2002:18). However, 1920s revolutionary muralists failed to instruct the public about how to interpret their mural’s visual discourse (Vaughan 1982 quoted in Coffey 2002:18). In the mid-1950s, murals were being painted in public spaces such as hospitals (Soto Laveaga 2015), thus somewhat expanding their accessibility. Whatever the political shortcomings were of muralism in Mexico, Mexican muralists created murals with Marxist themes in the United States during the 1930s. Examples that influenced Chicana/o muralists include: (1) José Clemente Orozco Prometheus (Pomona College) (1930), (2) Diego Rivera’s California School of Fine Arts mural in San Francisco (1930); (3) David Alfaro Siqueiros’s’ Portrait of Present Day Mexico (1932) [in Santa Monica originally]; and (4) Siqueiros’s La America Tropicana / Tropical America (1932) in Olvera Street, Los Angeles (Latorre 2008:9–10).

In the 1950s and 1960s, light industry sought to take over Logan Heights, San Diego (where Chicano Park now is), and subsequent highway construction caused massive destruction of homes (Amer 2011), much like freeway construction in New York City which decimated entire neighbourhoods by dividing them from more prosperous ones (Caro 1975:20). In compensation, a park under the Coronado Bridge was promised; however, the California Highway Patrol began building a parking lot there and in 1970, Chicana/os responded by physically occupied this land which was owned by the U.S. government. Initial plans for Chicano Park included a nation-state with relevant community infrastructure that would extend to the San Diego Bay (see Berelowitz 2005). Instead, only a separate park on the San Diego Bay was built in 1990. Chicano Park has hosted community events. It became a U.S. national park in 2017.

Other more recent mural projects include the Lincoln Park murals in El Paso, Texas, begun in 1980; in San Francisco’s Mission District, the Balmey Alley, created by Pricita Eyes, an N.G.O. founded by women in 1977 and Clarion Alley, created in 1992; in Los Angeles, the Espalda Courts housing project; and the recent Calle Arts Mural in Phoenix Arizona. In contrast to other mural sites explored in this paper, Muralism in the Mission District had far more public support against the wishes of a white middle class that preferred gentrification (Cordova 2006:359–360). A private business owner created the Calle 16 mural project. Thus, there have been a variety of relations with municipal governance and political–economic objectives of mural creation despite similar imagery.

Chicano Park, and other mural projects, were created at a time when there were many attempts to create common lands and living experiences in the United States. Nineteen sixties counterculture communes combined community service with artwork (Doyle 2012:22). It is hard to determine whether such communal living in California influenced Chicano Park or vice versa. White counterculture communes were influenced by the communal sharing of Latino, Native American, and African American communities (Lustig 2012:36; Drew 2012:50), so it is possible that the communal aspect of Chicano Park came directly from the Mexican-American community. Nonetheless, the occupying federal land in Chicano Park parallels the Native American occupation of Alcatraz that aimed to revitalize Native American culture and community after decades of eradication by the U.S. government (see Stone 2012).


Theoretical Approach

Borders do not exist only in their physical locations. Borders can extend deep into nation-states (Sassen 2006). Indeed, as Thomas Nail (2016) explains, “…the border is precisely ‘between’ states…so the border is a division, is not entirely contained by the territory, state, law, or economy that divides” (2) and the border moves not just with people and things moving across it, but because of decay of border infrastructure and because “the border is also moved by others…” (5–6). Thus, borders cannot be reduced to physical locations because their activities extend far beyond their location. This is not a singularly contemporary issue:

In delimiting the border, U.S. and Mexican officials imagined that they could easily separate sovereign space. Along with defining national membership, the ability to establish the territorial boundaries of the nation and state sovereignty was considered a fundamental function of the nation-state. In Washington, D.C., and Mexico City, politicians controlled this process, but on the ground it rested in the hands of men like Bartlett and García Conde, whose struggles suggested that neither nation-state actually controlled the territory that they claimed (St. John 2012:14).

While this may seem an anecdote from an era of lawless frontiers, the national politicians’ claims of control and the actual functioning of the U.S.–Mexico border have contemporary echoes. Donald Trump’s plans to create a large border wall to stop undocumented immigration even though undocumented immigrants more frequently overstay visas than walk across the U.S.–Mexico border (Warren and Kerwin 2017).

Secondly, the enforcement of the border does not limit itself to the border area, checkpoints, walls, fences, customs enforcement. As Frelick and Kysel (2016) receiving countries have chosen to do enforcement in sending countries, e.g. stopping undocumented immigrants before they get anywhere near the U.S.–Mexico border. Or, the desert areas within a country—the United States, or even a sending country like Mexico—are used as deterrence by subjecting immigrants to fatal dehydration or heat stroke (Nevins 2001) or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) making frequent raids on undocumented immigrants. Thus, the border is not so much just a physical barrier to immigration, but rather a legal entity that can move outside and within nation-states when governments choose more stringent immigration measures.

The U.S.–Mexico border in previous times has been more porous and hence a site of greater cultural ambiguity (Anzaldua 1987). This ambiguity shows that borders do not cleanly divide nations (as Nail (2016) might say) but rather as borderlands divide the border area from both nations. In other words, people from South Texas felt divided from most of U.S. citizens because of their ties to Mexico and people from Northern Mexico may feel similar distance from Mexico City and proximity to the United States (Martínez 1994). However, this is not simply cultural, but ethical because the division that Nail (2016) mentions is not simply conceptual or legal, but inscribed through violence upon the bodies and psyches of borderlands residents. This, according to Anzaldua (1987), occurs through state violence—such as police brutality—and other means, and makes the border rather like an open wound between U.S. and Mexican people. According to Bosniak (2006:1–4), there is a divide in nation-states between the violent policing of immigration and the relative acceptance available for some immigrants. This somewhat parallels Brown’s (2010) reading of Carl Schmidt where people within a nation can expect to be treated well whereas anything goes for those outside, especially colonized people. Thus, whether situated in democracy or fascism, borders divide privileged sectors of the population from the violence that their nation-state inflict on others.

As borders become actual walls, they reveal “paradoxes” between democratic wishes and nationalist reality: “one featuring simultaneous opening and blocking, one featuring universalization, and one featuring networked and virtual power met by physical barricades” (Brown 2010:20). “What is also striking about these new barriers is that even as the limn or attempt to define nation-state boundaries, they are not built as defences against potential attacks by sovereigns, as fortress against invading armies, or even as shields against weapons launched in interstate wars” (Brown 2010:21).

Deleuze’s theory of the time-image (1989) can illuminate how borders, as divisions, obscure reality. Deleuze’s theories mostly focused on issues other than borders; however, he specifically looked at how time creates safe zones and dangerous zones. Deleuze’s explanation of time as spatial and visible as “sheets of time” is applicable not just to cinema, but also to the two-dimensional space of murals. The reason is that time can be mixed up in ways that are visible in a two-dimensional sense, rather than as an abstract concept (Deleuze 1989:123). While Deleuze thought that film was the most effective medium to accomplish this, he also thought that it was possible in other mediums too. Deleuze hesitated to apply the time-image to other mediums because he thought they focused too much on “recollection” whereas time-image film mixes the past into the present and future, rather than simply remembering it as a completed event (1989:124). This is a point where Deleuze may have overgeneralized other mediums or simply not focused on non-Western mediums that take history more seriously. The murals analysed here do not use past as a traumatic or nostalgic memory, but rather as a guide and catalyst for the present and future. Their images mix times up, rather than relying on words to explain. Therefore, the time-image can be applied to two-dimensional artwork like Chicana/o murals. Yet, what do we gain from analysing murals as time-images?

One of the many recognizable forms of a cinematic time-image was its ability to mix different temporal zones. In other words, illusions about wars being over, for now, could be shown to be false by a cinematic sequence that mixed safe, tranquil present-tense time with dangerous pasts (such as World War II) and dangerous futures (e.g. World War III and an anticipated nuclear holocaust). The implications of this for borders can be better understood by situating the time-image within the temporality of borders, replacing a tranquil present with a dangerous past (previous violence against undocumented immigrants or legalized theft of Latina/o land in the U.S. Southwest) with a violent future (deportations of citizens, incarceration of undocumented immigrants). Geographical zones can be merged within a painting, for example, a mural in an affluent city like San Francisco that depicts violence in Central America (a dangerous past) and tranquil relations to the land (a better future). Another example is murals in San Diego that show an Aztec past. This type of image will be explored.

The time-image does not only rearrange time and space within a cognitive space of creative media never to be realized in real life. Violence expressed in these artworks is not simply about the past or the future, but has serious, persistent material implications for Latina/os emerging from the after-shocks of continuous primitive accumulation that began in 1848. How can these images challenge primitive accumulation? One way is the physical presence. Chicano Park in San Diego was a land takeover that took back space usurped from Chicana/os and still attempts to extend this space. While not entirely successful, it was granted National Park status thus hopefully protecting communal land.

A few considerations for analysing data flows from the abovementioned theoretical considerations. First, the sites of borders, and relative commentary on borders, need not be physically located at the boundaries of nation-states. Consequently, a search for border art does not have to look to border walls per se. The subsequent priority is not just to see this as (Amoore and Hall 2010) explain. Rather, the assumptions for collecting data must assume that locations other than the border, but related to the border, may figure into protests about the border.

Second, this research is not only about protest at an aesthetic level as in the formation of pure thought within an individual viewer—as in an orthodox reading of Deleuze. Rather, this research analyses art that physically occupies space, temporally or permanently. Within this context, this paper asks what role protest art about borders and sovereignty can play in: (a) fighting racism; and (b) spatially opposing the material aspects of land loss due to primitive accumulation, which is a cause of immigration?

Third, this approach to collecting and analysing art attempts to supplement I.R. theory, Marxist theory, and Deleuzian theory with voices of artists, be they visual or written. This is “interference” and rests upon the assumption of a radical change of thought based on exposure to an alternative set of texts—here visual artwork—which would not have been possible through written academic texts (Deleuze 1989; Toohey 2012). This approach is an attempt to be mindful of the power imbalances of academic scholarship and visual texts and creators by not just seeking new points of view for the intellectual mixture—which might simply be a case study—but being realizing that artists and community leaders have something to give that transforms, and at times improves the theories here. Indeed, especially with post-Marxist aesthetic theories, which are in part based on non-academic thought—e.g. film, literature, art, etc.—there is a debt to others outside of academia.


Murals that Fight Racism

Art about the border fights racism in a few different ways. It sometimes directly depicts racist incidents at the border. It may also refer to land loss, which is an assault on communities of Mexican ancestry; their practices of land use were seen as unsophisticated by whites (Sunseri 1973). In a less obvious challenge to racism, the actual acts of racism may not be directly referenced; rather border art may affirm the relevance of Mexican-American culture by using pre-Columbian and Mexican symbolism. This is anti-racist because prior to the 1960s, art, monuments, and naming affirmed white culture and history only. As Latorre (2008:13) explains this occurred through complex cultural appropriation: “The resurgence of Indigenist thought and aesthetics allowed Chicana/os to build a nation without government sponsorship and on the fringes of the mainstream establishment. But, ultimately, the use of Mexican Indigenism signified for Chicana/os the reclaiming of a culture and a history traditionally commodified by Western powers of colonization.” Since border art fights racism in both obvious and not so obvious ways, research about borders should not only focus on depictions of obvious racism.

San Diego’s Chicano Park enacts anti-racism. The actions there fight racial oppression of Chicana/os. The imagery in the murals affirms the culture of a group of people who have been consistently treated as inferior by whites in the United States. The fact that the murals and the park are embedded in fighting racial oppression and affirming Mexican-American culture is not a matter of interpretation or an accidental coincidence caused by random juxtaposition. The muralists’ intent is clearly explained:

It is the history of the Chicano Mexicano people struggling to reclaim our heritage and our right to self-determination. The Park is where our history is enshrined in monumental murals. It is where we keep making history as we fight to preserve and defend a small piece of Aztlán known as Chicano Park in Barrio Logan, San Diego.
(Anguiano N.D.)

Aztlán, the mythical homeland of Chicana/os in what is now the U.S. Southwest, has been a consistent theme in the Chicana/o movement since 1965 as a territorial unifying principle of Chicana/o identity. Chicano Park fights racism by preserving this. However, the Chicano Park’s founders intended to change the actual land in Logan Heights, San Diego, to realize Aztlán. This differs from nostalgia or fantasy.

By taking Chicano Park, the “myth” of Aztlán metamorphosed to reality. Aztlán—the southwestern United States was the ancestral land of the Aztecs. These ancient people migrated to the Valley of Mexico and founded an empire whose capital was Tenochitlan, now Mexico City. By claiming Chicano Park, the descendants of the Aztecs the Chicano Mexicano people begin a project of historical reclamation. We have returned to Aztlán—our home.
(Anguiano N.D.).

This echoes ideas that Mexican immigrants to the United States—who in the idea of Aztlán trace their ancestral origins to an area near Colorado Springs, Colorado—are returnees to their ancestral homeland, not immigrants (as expressed in Mexico-born Chicana/o leader, Alberto Baltazar Urista’s, El Plan Espirtual de Aztlan (The Spiritual Plan of Aztlan) which was presented at the 1969 Chicano Youth Conference in Denver Colorado (Anaya and Lomeli 1989:1 quoted in Berelowitz 2005:327).

Historical claims about Mexican-American art’s significance were also made about Lincoln Park in El Paso, Texas, that began in 1981:

Local artist Lupe Casillas, who has painted murals for the Ysleta Independent School District, says that the area and the history of the center, which includes the murals, are a reflection of Mexican American history. “This was the first place Mexican-American artists could showcase their art,” she says. “If they tear this center and area down, it would be a tragedy for our history.” Casillas also says that such action would send a message that El Paso does not respect its history.
(Montes 2014)

The clearest affirmations of this in Chicano Park and Lincoln Park are murals that depict Aztec and other pre-Columbian Gods as well as natural elements of maize cultivation.

The abovementioned mixture of indigenous time and contemporary time is continued in this time in a different context, an art show, “100 Years of Print Making in San Antonio: Michael Menchacha,” which showed from October 18, 2018, through January 6, 2019, at The McNay in San Antonio, Texas. At this show, the Texas Chicano artist Michael Menchacha displayed time juxtapositions about issues such as immigration (see Romo 2018), which were similar in aim to those in Chicano Park in their use of indigenous and Spanish colonial imagery in a modern context to communicate contemporary issues. Thus, though not done in a common land setting, his work re-juxtaposes time and space. Thus, an echo of indigenous themes in Chicano Park reverberates outside of mural spaces and installations.

From October 9 to 12, 2015, Cristóbal Martínez, Raven Chacon, and Kade L. Twist (a.k.a. Postcommodity) displayed an installation called Repellent Fence that was made of 26, 10 feet in diameter balloons tethered to the ground floating 100 feet in the air across the U.S.– Mexico border from Agua Prieta in Sonora, Mexico, to Douglas, Arizona, in the United States. The balloons mimicked bird repellent that did not work and used traditional indigenous colours to critique the oppressive divisions caused by the U.S.–Mexico border, especially how indigenous people (Postcommodity N.D.). According to Twist, who belongs to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, this was partially a critique of how when the media, artists, and “thinkers” discusses the U.S.–Mexico borderlands, they do not understand that border crossers are indigenous people (a point that is important because indigenous people lived in the area long before the U.S.–Mexico border existed) (Argesta 2017).

The Calle 16 project mural was created by Latina/os in Phoenix, Arizona, in response to the anti-immigrant bill SB1070 and had similar aims. Mural artist Gennaro Garcia’s objective is to paint Aztec imagery to express what he loves about Mexico, the country he was born in and the United States where he immigrated (Kondo 2011). An organization, Calle Diez y Seis, has evolved to direct murals and revitalizations of the 16th Street area in Phoenix (Arizona PBS 2011). Silvana Salcido Esparza, a female Latina chef, started the project to counter many American’s negative images of Phoenix caused by the SB 1040 law (ibid). The project is in a Mexican-American neighbourhood, though it eschews connection to Latina/o or Chicana/o movements and politics in general but—like other murals mentioned—seeks to build community by involving local residents in artistic creation (ibid).

A recent mural project affirms the interlinkage of Mexico and the United States all the while prioritizing culture over commodified urban land use. On October 22, 2019, four muralists, Marisa Latigo and Santos Villareal from Matamoros, Tamaulipus, and Marcilina Gonzalez a University of Texas at Brownsville alumni, and Robert Ruiz from Brownsville Texas, were chosen by the Brownsville Beautification Committee’s Murals Without Borders committee to paint murals about a borderless world near The Casa Nylon building, a municipal building in Brownsville, Texas. Discussion of the project, while not intentionally Marxist, implies working to the side, if not beyond, the system of capitalism.[1] Brownsville, Texas Director of Government and Community affairs director, Ramiro Gonzalez, said:

It was the idea between two cities in trying to work together… a lot of the times, we always focus on working together on economic development or business and that kind of stuff.…The culture kind of goes by the way side, and we are starting to work on some of these smaller projects, smaller initiatives to bring both communities together and get them excited around a certain topic. Both communities got together, and you can see the results now. It is just generally trying to use the art as a convener.
(Martinez, Laura October 25, 2019)

Gonzalez thus frames the murals not as a boost as creating cultural and community unity. This wording potentially pushes urban governance away from arts-based property development. The types of reasons given for this murals project are similar to the non-commodified use of art in mural sites such as Chicano Park in San Diego, albeit emanating from official government sources such as the City of Matamoros, the City of Brownsville, Texas, the Mexican Consulate in Brownsville, Texas, and the U.S. Consulate General in Matamoros, Texas.

U.S. Southwest muralism effaces the power of both the U.S.–Mexico border and bordering within the United States. Price (2000) conceptualizes Chicana/o tattoos and muralism as a simultaneous resistance to borders and bordering. Likewise, Sheren (2016:10) sees Chicana/o murals as a reverse bordering—I have paraphrased this into I.R. terminology—of Chicana/os against the rest of San Diego to establish community in Chicano Park. This is somewhat problematic in a more long-term view, given the survival of the park as a functioning community space. In both the sense of the U.S.–Mexico border as well as the appropriation and resistance to bordering is by painting murals on walls and pylons in Chicano Park. Brown (2010) explains that border walls lack any hope of being complete, since they are more fictitious (or theological) because they cannot solve the problem they create. Likewise, urban bordering could not be complete because Chicana/os spatially resisted it. Yet, the anti-bordering latent in these murals remains incomplete in a few dimensions. The first is the amount of land it could occupy. The second is that it was never meant to be art only, but to: (1) retake all of Aztlán, (2) create Aztlán as a nation-state in Logan Heights connected to international countries (Berelowitz 2005:331–332), and (3) to also extend to the San Diego Bay and include a ball park, a university, a no-charge hospital, a market, and a port to welcome immigrants from Central and Latin America (from the Community Master Plan of Barrio Logan (Berlowitz 2003:150 paraphrased in Berelowitz 2005:332).

Western modernist philosophy sometimes lends a theological aspect to enclosure. For Carl Schmidt and John Locke, enclosing property was the genesis of sovereignty and state (Brown 2010) for Schmidt, there cannot be a people without enclosure (Brown 2010). Similarly, the United States creates itself by creating borders. Similarly, to a certain extent, the Chicana/o community recreated itself by enclosing white property in Chicano Park. Enclosure in the Western tradition has been literally and metaphorically a theological process, e.g. it first starts around shrines but enclosure through border walls in the United States has become a method of self-protection of people (at least their goal in perceiving the border wall this way) (Brown 2010). Chicano Park ironically seems to affirm this on a micro-political level; however, enclosure may not quite be what was occurring. Brown’s use of “early modern” theory creates a dependence for her on the erasure, e.g. enclosure freed people when it actually was based on forcing them into industrial work and slavery and genocide for African Americans and Native Americans, and increasing land loss and racism against Mexican-Americans. Analysing Chicano Park and other mural sites through Marxist histories and theories, which Brown (2010) did not consider, illuminates how walls of freeways enclosed and took away neighbourhood commons. Yet, how does race play into this?

Racially, different imagery was likely necessary for Chicano Park. White people displaced from their land because of the construction of Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah Valley National Park in Virginia wrote letters to government officials in accepted discourses to legitimate their community (Powell 2007). This response to primitive accumulation may have been more effective for whites in the 1930s, who could potentially situate themselves in middle-class whiteness by obtaining a good job. Mexican-Americans tried to mainstream by self-identifying as Spanish, i.e. European not Mexican, and conforming to expected stereotypes of a culture that hated Mexicans but ironically enjoyed Spanish Mission culture (Forbes 1973:119) and by using the term Mexican-American, thus evading overt identification with Mexico. By the 1960s, still oppressed young Mexican-Americans instead legitimated themselves through Mexican imagery, which, if it appealed to whiteness at all, appealed to white-hippy’s infatuation with the exotic and psychedelic. Just substitute India or Japan for Mexican culture. In some ways then, Chicano Park could be seen as a competition to be similar to Other culture’s exalted by the Beat Generation and counter culture, but one appropriated not by people from outside of this cultural group, but by people more or less from the inside.[2] Yet, how might a reaction to primitive accumulation look like that neither accepted mainstream discourses nor mainstream land ownership dispute tactics?


Spatially Opposing the Material Aspects of Land Loss Due to Primitive Accumulation Which Is the Cause of Immigration

Chicano Park was created in an area where families were driven off their land because of the construction of a highway. “According to Victor Ochoa, a Chicano Park mural coordinator from 1974 through 1979, ‘They threw Interstate 5 in the barrio, taking something like 5000 families out of the barrio’” (Anguiano N.D.). Since these families were Chicana/o, i.e. Mexican-American, rather than white families, the California Transit Authority and San Diego carried out primitive accumulation in a racialized way, because power was exercised over an oppressed group in a way that this oppressed group thought was because of their race.

Chicano Park was also spatial response to primitive accumulation. An orthodox reading of Marx’s (1976) primitive accumulation may make it seem as if its victims migrated to cities and became proletariat, or in Nail’s reading, was only about losing land (2016). However, Federici (2004) and Linebaugh (2008) expose a long-term process of land dispossession. Chicano Park thus can be situated in a history of non-passive reactions to primitive accumulation. As Marco Anguiano puts it:

Unlike other parks, Brown Berets fired raised shotguns in militant salute while a Mexican flag was raised and waved defiantly during Chicano Park Day ceremonies. And unlike other parks, Chicano Park was taken by militant force by a community angered by decades of neglect, ignorance and racism.
(Anguiano N.D.)

Thus, Chicano Park fits into anti-land seizure struggle and does so in a way that, irrespective of its visual images, elicits a Mexican political stance and was physically taken, not bought or regained through litigation. Not using litigation differs from land grant heirs in New Mexico who unsuccessfully used land occupation techniques and later turned to litigation (see Correia 2012). Chicano Park became a legally recognized national park 47 years after it was physically, and illegally, occupied. Yet, how might this be visually depicted?

If we return to the theological aspect of walls and sovereignty mentioned in the previous section, and see Chicano Park as unfinished, then a combination of redressing primitive accumulation’s spatial division and imposing pre-Columbian imagery in U.S. space, seems more effective to analysing murals that uses such imagery to imagine how to heal the freeway’s destruction of Longan Heights. On a pylon under the highway towards the Coronado Bridge, there is a mural with a protestor amidst a blood-red (e.g. dangerous) San Diego Bay, and an Aztec man in a reclaimed San Diego Bay. “All the Way to the Bay” is written in large, legible letters on this mural. The significance of this is described as “The ‘All the Way to the Bay’ (1970–88) campaign spearheaded by Ronnie Trujillo of the CPSC asserted the right of Barrio Logan residents to have the only access to the bay and to extend Chicano Park all the way to the waterfront. Activists challenged the San Diego Port District and other agencies from San Diego to Sacramento. Ground was broken for the bay park in 1987 and the park completed in 1990” (Anguiano N.D).

Other U.S. Southwest murals explore primitive accumulation. The People’s History of El Norte in Las Vegas, New Mexico, uses the Mexican-immigrant labour movement symbolism of United Farm Workers’ stepped eagle (painted in red in the upper left-hand corner) and Reyes Lopez Tijerna’s 1960s movement to reassert Mexican-American rights to land grants. The loss of land grants was an aspect of primitive accumulation following the U.S.-Mexico war (see Dunbar-Ortiz 2007). Similarly, the placement in Las Vegas, New Mexico, is significant, since according to Gunn (2016), this was a site of the loss of communal land, i.e. commons and, therefore, is accurately portrayed by the term primitive accumulation. Similarly, the murals in Lincoln Park in El Paso, Texas, in an incident that almost happened in Chicano Park San Diego, were slated for demolition. As Smith (2007) notes the destruction of land for highways, and other forms of eminent domain, is a contemporary form of primitive accumulation. The Women’s Building (created in 1979) in the Mission District of San Francisco, California, has murals of Central American and Mexican women’s themes painted on it and provides community services. It is thus a form of commoning that fights urban primitive accumulation. The mural, “La Cultura Contiene la Sevilla de Resistancia que Resplendor de la Flor del Liberacion/Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance, Which Blossons into the Flower of Liberation” by Miranda Bergman and O’Brien Thielein, painted in 1984 and 2014 in Balmey Alley in the Mission District, speaks to the expulsion from land created by the U.S. involvement in Latin America. Outside of the U.S. Southwest, Casa Aztlan in Chicago, Illinois, used both murals with Mexican-American themes painted on the building and an online list of demands for the community to create a communal space (Pilsen Alliance 2017). (See Lulay (2017) about the creation of murals, there to affirm Mexican-American cultural identity in the 1970s and its recent destruction.)

In Texas, visual interventions have challenged land loss caused by U.S. anti-immigration policy and emphasized environmental temporal rhythms. For example, Carlos Parra’s “Nomadic Border/La Frontera Nomada” includes photographic and written mixtures of ecological and immigrant issues about the United States. This echoes changes in environmentalism to reflect the ecological viewpoints and needs of Latina/os and other non-white people. Mexico borderlands on the northern side of Tamaulipus, Mexico. According to Parra: “Although the Río Grande has its human-caused dangers, its cultural and natural history is much, much deeper than what is often presented in the news. Currently much of this quiet riverine forest is in danger of being destroyed by the U.S.’s border wall project” (Parra 2019). Another critique of border enforcement-led ecological destruction that uses art to occupy a physical space is the “Welcome Wall” at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas (across the border from Tamaulipus), which will lose wildlife habitat land if U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s planned border wall is built. On April 26, 2019, the “Welcome Wall” was begun by a multiethnic group of street artists. “The colorfully irreverent wall is designed to be a conceptual message board for an ongoing discussion about the border, wall, wildlife and immigration issues” (Moyer 2019).

Four installations situate immigration experience in international (Indigenous, Mexican, and Central American), not United States, time and space. The Cross Project planted crosses in different areas to remember undocumented immigrants killed by the United States’ Operation Gatekeeper policy. Photos of crosses with “no identification” written on them placed on the U.S.–Mexico border reveal the border’s brutality. Since photos in the folder have both the English text on the crosses and Spanish text in street signs in the background, it is not clear which side of the U.S.–Mexico border it is on (MSS 760, Box 27, Folder 9). Yet, given the international aspect of immigration, clearly representing either side may be unnecessary. Photos of the installation placed on the bucolic green lawns of Southwest College in 1998 blur the lines between border death commemoration and graves that could belong to anyone in the United States (MSS 760, Box 27, Folder 14). In one photo of the cross-installation in Chicano Park, there are both unidentified crosses and victim’s names (MS 760 Box 30, Folders 7–10 and 13–15). Another picture is of the crosses with a mural with pre-Columbian imagery behind it (ibid), thus blurring the time–space between Mexico before colonialism, the present violence against Mexico emanating from the United States, and a past–present–future of Aztlán.

Maclovio Rojas is a squatters’ community in Tijuana, Mexico, run by women. The Border Arts/Taller de Arte Fronterizo organization in San Diego helped them when they heard about illegal denial of services by the Mexican government—in an attempt to expand industry into the area—and helped with art installations and buildings (Aguiñiga 2012). Most residents came from Chiapas and Oaxaca (ibid). This is, therefore, an example of using art to halt primitive accumulation and common an area. One installation in the area, the plans for Jardin de Emigrantes Muertos (The Garden of Dead Emigrants) (MSS 760 Box 34 Folder 2) have a slight written shift from the word immigrant to emigrant. Along with its placement in northern Mexico, fairly close to the U.S.–Mexico border, this slight change of wording enables a large change in meaning and use. It decentre the issue from the U.S. progressive understanding of deaths of undocumented immigrants as a sad event or commentary on the decline of U.S. democracy to a memorial for use by people from Central American and Mexico who may have lost a loved one to the U.S. nation-states’ violence.

In Texas, contemporary installations—started by people not from the Latina/o community—along the U.S.–Mexico border have provided alternative imageries to the U.S. government’s xenophobia. In 2017, German artist Doerte Weber placed Mexican-style woven panels on the U.S.–Mexico border fence at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. In 2017, an expanded version was displayed as an installation called “Checkpoint,” at Artpace in San Antonio, Texas, as an echo of graffiti on the Berlin Wall to critique humanity’s lack of lessons learned from history (Argesta 2017). Another installation has incorporated civil disobedience against anti-immigrant policing. In the Rio Grande River between Tamaulipus, Mexico, and Texas in the United States, Susan Harbage collaborated with artists from Matamoros and Brownsville to create the 2009 Crossing Over: A Floating Installation which consisted of a bridge of inner-tubes tied together across the U.S.–Mexico border and trophies which were given to immigrants crossing the border (Harbage 2019). This installation thus challenges both militarized border policing and the deployment of xenophobic attitudes as a logic of deterrence against undocumented immigrants.

These examples illuminate how borders are not completely communicatively effective at primitive accumulation. “The technique of border circulation only have the strength that society gives them” (Nail 2016:8). Chicano Park is an example of this, e.g. not accepting the borders imposed by the city, i.e. the highway onramps and pylons, or the nefariously planned Highway Patrol parking lot in what is now Chicano Park. While murals and installations may not stop land dispossession north or south of the U.S.–Mexico border they oppose the border’s communicative power of continuously bordering.

Neither these murals and installations, nor the artists that created them, may remain revolutionary. One pertinent example of this is the career of the British muralist Frank Brangwyn (1867–1956). He initially painted socialist murals, e.g. in the Old Cuyahoga County Courthouse in Cleveland, Ohio, with socialist themed depictions of the signing of The Magna Carta, but finished the left-wing Mexican muralist, Diego Riviera’s murals at the Rockefeller Centre in kitsch terms based on red-scare politics after World War II (Linebaugh 2008:224–225). In other words, the revolutionary, international aspects of both socialism and Mexican muralism that pointed towards the commons were snuffed out by the end of World War I. Given the militant anti-communism of the post-World War II McCarthy era America, the choice to use Mexican mural styles by Chicana/o muralists were revolutionary and like commoning, even if not directly inspired by Marxist thought.

Though there is little evidence that the muralists at Chicano Park were Marxists, their choice of subject matter—Pre-Columbian culture—pertains to the loss of common lands wrought by international colonialism. In particular, the establishment of Spanish colonies in Peru and Mexico brought about the loss of common lands and subsequent severe loss of population of indigenous peoples (Frank 1978:43–49). However, this is not simply a romantic, retro-theme. Some Pre-Columbian indigenous practices remain in Latin America. Moreover, according to Acuna (2014), the purpose of referencing Mexican and pre-Columbian history is explained by Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems theory, i.e. the Aztec—Mexican governance structure once was and therefore might again be dominant. Moreover, many indigenous women in Peru, rather than being executed as witches for their indigenous knowledge of the land, absconded to remote villages, thus partially preserving ancient indigenous knowledge—though at the expense of communal practice (Federici 2004:231). Thus, by promoting Pre-Columbian imagery, Chicano Park muralists promoted a sustained, albeit underground, pre-colonial, pre-capitalist idea of communal land in opposition to global capital.


Concluding Thoughts: Murals as Time-Images

While the images do not suggest Mexican identity as a random result of juxtaposition, or free play of imagery, their imagery does not communicate as directly as written words on websites. Images in Chicano Park, for example, juxtapose different times—Twentieth Century America and pre-Columbian Mexico—and different places and ways of using space—ecology and freeways. Maybe this is more apparent while walking around the park, where one might encounter homeless people, community activists giving food to homeless people, skateboarders, students researching the park, rather than viewing mediated visions of the mural on the Internet. Park users also may choose to walk by or use the park’s sports facilities rather than considering the murals. Suffice to say, there is something both within and without the images that can elicit meaning and reaction. Thus, these murals disorder time and space as much as they explain, albeit in a way that aims to direct the viewer towards Aztlán, a semi-historical plane of existence but also present and future possibility given the park’s incomplete project. This is cinematic in a Deleuzian (1989) sense, because these murals not only tell, but also seek to make the viewer think.

Yet, Deleuze’s thought, which responded to World War II’s urban destruction, better explains primitive accumulation when combined with contemporary theories of borders. Borders do not cleanly divide people or nation-states as in theories of “extensive division,” but rather are intensive division: “adds a new path to the existing one like a fork or a bifurcation producing a qualitative change of the whole continuous system. The bifurcation diverges from itself while still being the ‘same’ pathway” (Nail 2016:3). Different people will experience the border differently (Nail 2016:3). Imagery in Chicano Park, and elsewhere, accordingly illuminates how freeway construction partially failed to create clear urban borders. The imagery moreover amplifies how people experience borders differently on ethnic, racial, and class registers—the border of the freeway is at once liberating freedom for many San Diego residents allowing automotive motion at the expense of Chicana/o residents, but also a possibility to affirm Chicana/o identity in the moonscape ruins of primitive accumulation. This affirmation suggests not just showing dangerous times to elicit fear or protest, but also the simultaneous use of pre-Columbian art to affirm both Chicana/o identity and a positive identity.

Other artists, while not speaking so politically, have claimed that their art should be open to interpretation based on the viewer’s own thoughts:

According to Gaytan, the murals are stories, ideas and carry many symbols that viewers need to consider to understand the work. “That’s what I try to teach people, see the whole picture, then make your own decision,” he says. One of his murals depicts a heart with its arteries extending all throughout the mural and below the heart it says: “Lincoln Park/El Corazon de El Paso/Chicano Park.” Gaytan says that the extended arteries represent the lanes on the freeway and highway and how they all lead to the center.
(Montes 2014)

Similarly, Baca (2017) describes her Memoria de Nuestra Tierra (2007) mural:

In a sense this is an excavation of the Chicano/Chicana’s complexity as indigenous people, and of their multiple identities as mixed Spaniards, Africans, and Asians, living among newly immigrated Irish, Greek and Italian people. This is an excavation and a remembering of their histories. By revealing what is hidden, through pictorial iconography in the land, this mural is a kind of Mayan map not really intended to guide your path, but instead to tell you about the road.

Rather than post-modern, anything goes thought these statements reveal a directed form of thought that juxtaposes viewer’s individual interpretations of the murals with specific Mexican-American symbolism.

These murals help explore Deleuze’s thought outside of film or movies. They show a reordering of space and time—the core of Deleuze’s cinematic thought. Moreover, these encounters may radicalize people’s thought. These encounters also correct some limitations of Deleuze’s theories, such as: (a) his Eurocentric focus (Martin-Jones 2011) which these murals show to be ahistorical, and (b) his individualistic focus, meaning that while viewers can interpret murals in multiple ways, interpretations must politically focus on Mexican-American experience.



This project was supported by funding from JSPS Kakenhi Grant #16K21087 Immigrant Media in Relation to Environmental Issues in the U.S. Southwest, 2016–2018.


[1] This approach echoes Félix Guattari’s idea of socialism operating within spaces of a still intact capitalist economy (Guattari 2009:117).

[2] This, however, is somewhat problematic because Chicano Park and other Chicana/o imagery not only celebrated Mexican culture, but also indigenous culture to explore dispossession from land which may have been too backwards looking and thus contradictory to “revolutionary” ideals of the Chicano movement (Berelowitz 2005:330). Using Native American culture for revolution seems to me similar to the Beat Generations and 1960s countercultures appropriation of Asian and Native American cultures. However, Berelowitz’s critique seems steeped in a teleological Marxist viewpoint, which cannot account for the importance of traditional practices in commoning, though the critique of cultural misappropriation still holds.


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Archival Data

MSS 760, Box 27, Folder 9. A Kilometre of Crosses Installation, 1998. Michael Schnorr Collection of Border Art Workshop: Taller de Arte Fronterizo Records. U.C. California San Diego Library Special Collections & Archives.

MSS 760, Box 27, Folder 14. Crosses, Southwest College, 1998. Michael Schnorr Collection of Border Art Workshop: Taller de Arte Fronterizo Records. U.C. California San Diego Library Special Collections & Archives.

MSS 760, Box 30, Folders 7–10 and 13–15. Chicano Park, Undated. Michael Schnorr Collection of Border Art Workshop: Taller de Arte Fronterizo Records. U.C. California San Diego Library Special Collections & Archives.

MSS 760, Box 34, Folder 2. Maclovio Rojas: Panteon 2004. Michael Schnorr Collection of Border Art Workshop: Taller de Arte Fronterizo Records. U.C. California San Diego Library Special Collections & Archives.