Itzel Vizcarra squatted close to the wall, which has 32 metal panels drilled to it depicting scenes of an idealized village life.
Not many in her family have the talent of her great-uncle Alberto Morackis — one of the original painters of the mural — but Itzel definitely has the patience and interest.
The 10-year-old carefully colored in the green landscape, but despite her precision, she got bright green paint on her pink pants and pink polished fingernails. As she painted, cars rushed by on the busy thoroughfare near the border in Nogales, Sonora.
About two dozen people from both sides of the border got together Saturday to resurrect the mural “Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla,” or “Life and Dreams of the Perla Ravine.”
The mural, most commonly known as “El Mural de Taniperla,” was first painted in 1998 on the wall of a community center in Taniperla, Chiapas, by Tzetzal Indians. It showed women doing laundry, people bathing by the river, holding meetings. It showed their lives and dreams after declaring themselves an autonomous Zapatista revolutionary town.
The Mexican army destroyed it a day after it was completed.
In a sign of solidarity, artists from both sides of the border painted a replica on the landing-mat fence in Nogales in 2005, just as others were making replicas across the world from Argentina to Spain.
In 2011, the Nogales mural had to come down when a taller border fence was built. With the help of the Tucson Sierra Club and U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, artists salvaged most of the panels that make the 60-foot-long mural.
Local artists felt it was time to bring it back to life this year, and found a new location, along the Buenos Aíres thoroughfare a few minutes from the port of entry.
“We are working really hard to unite the community and we thought rescuing the mural would be a good way to bring the community together,” said Paulina Rojas, of the cooperative Taco de Perro.
The mural represents unity and peace, Rojas said in Spanish, and that’s universal.
“Seeing the mural on the border wall was a way to know we can have a world where we are all united,” she said.
People have always expressed their thoughts and feelings about the border through art.
“Sometimes it’s wonderful stories of shared experiences and sometimes of conflicts,” said Roberto Bedoya, director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council. “It’s part of the border aesthetics.”
Civilization tells its story through its art, he said.
It was no different when Southern Arizona became the busiest corridor in the country for people trying to cross the border illegally, after beefed-up enforcement in the El Paso and San Diego regions in the mid-1990s.
Painters, writers and musicians started to tell the stories of the hundreds of thousands of people crossing, and of those dying in the desert and of those living in the shadows.
Deborah McCullough, a mixed-media artist, moved from Maryland to Tucson in 1987.
Her work focused on issues of refugees until she learned about the fate of immigrants crossing the desert.
“I had looked at suffering from afar working with refugees, hearing their stories about what had happened to them in other countries far away,” she said. “Then it was the realization that it was happening here in our backyard. I couldn’t turn my back.”
The 63-year-old volunteer with the Tucson Samaritans uses the toothbrushes, worn shoes, tuna cans, dolls and many other objects she or other people find on the trails, left behind by the border crossers. She turns them into earrings, shrines, shadow boxes, angels and anything else that comes to mind.
“I try to create a bridge so people have an opportunity to see these objects, to help them recognize the human side of what’s happening and put a human face on the suffering,” she said.
Photographers have spent years capturing the journey from both sides of the border. Last year, a group of artists put together a multidisciplinary performance installation called “Dreams and Silhouettes,” which tells the story of women who are living in South Tucson illegally.
“Part of the function of artists is to be witness to our human condition,” Bedoya said. “Some of the art being produced is really grounded in an ethos of trying to create cross-cultural understanding so we can have a more humane society.”
John Stobbe, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, discovered his passion for immigration issues when he met his wife, Robin Reineke, who works trying to identify the immigrants who've died trying to cross the border. She also co-founded the Colibrí Center for Human Rights.
His most recent piece, “Walled In / Walled Out,” is on exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art through May 16. It memorializes and calls attention to the loss of life on the U.S.-Mexico border, Stobbe said.
On one side of the 10-foot-by-8-foot floating wall, he nailed about 2,500 orange toe tags with the identification number and name — when the person was identified — of all of the immigrants who have died while trying to cross through Southern Arizona since 1990.
The top two rows cover the first decade. The rest happened in the last 14 years.
On the other side, Stobbe individually framed what he called “misguided comments” he collected from articles written about border deaths and immigration.
“I called these people out and put it on display to make people recognize that something is wrong here,” said the 39-year-old visual artist, who moved to Arizona in 2000.
He doesn’t have a solution, he said, but he wants to start a dialogue.
The role of the artist is not necessarily to offer a strong critique, said Guadalupe Serrano , co-founder of the art cooperative Taller Yonke in Nogales, Sonora, and one of the original painters of “El Mural Taniperla.”
Serrano and Morackis became known for putting up artwork along the border fence. The goal of the cooperative, he said, is to give character to spaces and an identity to community.
More than send a message, he said in Spanish, “what we do is create a dialogue to see how these issues can be resolved, because human lives is what’s affected the most.”