The MONTARlaBestia exhibit by Colectivo de Artistas Contra la Discriminación (Artist Collective Against Discrimination) is now on display at the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley –– and proudly sponsored by Book Bank USA.
“La Bestia” is the train that carries up to half a million migrants every year along the treacherous route from Central America to the Mexican border with the U.S. With all the talk about a border wall, the deportation of undocumented immigrants, and of minors who fled poverty has been at the center of national and international news, this exhibit reminds us to humanize this controversial topic.
Through art and poetry, the stunning exhibit hopes to explore what it means to ride “La Bestia” and the stories of those who choose this dangerous path of coming to the United States. This exhibit is the creation of Mexican artists Demián Flores and Marco Barrera Bassols, and it is part of a larger project exploring the dynamics between Mexico and the United States coming to UC Berkeley.
Read these comments from Summer 2017:
Student Reflection #1: The MONTARIaBestia exhibit was the first art exhibition that has ever moved me to the point of tears. The art pieces displayed conveyed a deeper message, obviously of immigration, and that is a topic that holds close to me because of the stories that my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents passed on to me of their horrors crossing over to the dream that is the United States, or so they thought. The pieces ranged from abstract, to very explicit. The clockwise movement through the paintings told a story of all of the horrors that come with making the treacherous journey up to the border.
In the majority of the pieces, the dangers of immigrating were somehow depicted. For example, there was a painting created showing severed limbs on a train track. Immigrants from “El Sur” climb onto moving trains and climb up to the roof as a way of hitching a free ride to get close to the border. Moving on to a speeding train is extremely dangerous, accidents are inevitable, but these people risk that and more, because those cons outweigh the cons of living in their current conditions.
Other dangers undertaken by immigrants are far worse. Ultimately, it is their life that they are putting on the line. Abstract paintings of red splatters, calaveras, and the grim reaper painted over a scenery of the desert that they must pass through depict this reality. Other paintings depict the more humanistic aspect to their stories. Pieces of mementos, ancestor pictures, and olden times of their culture all represent the life and family that they leave behind. Ultimately, this whole exhibit revolves around bringing the humanity that is pain and death and sacrifice to light, since it is so often ignored by other people.
Conclusively, the exhibit only reinforced my feelings of extreme respect, compassion and understanding for issues of immigration. My own parents witnessed and experienced much of what was depicted in this exhibit but they are lucky to have survived it. The exhibit brought me to the verge of tears because of my position of privilege and the hatred/ignorance that is brewed in the United States against these immigrants. Often, the U.S has played a role in the conditions that these people flee from. It is angering, heartbreaking yet moving. The exhibit completely encompassed the whole experience and all of these feelings perfectly.
Student Reflection #2: The first floor is welcoming. The GSI, who let me in, led me to the exhibit. She gave me some instructions and answered a couple trivial questions. In the background, the soundtrack to the documentary showing on the west wall is playing. The panels are small. I first notice one of a youth. He is in several pieces scattered about a train rail. He fell from a car while riding. His expression does not show pain, fear, or in any way betray what his final thoughts may have been. His face is a child’s, asleep in bed. This was not the panel I came to see. It will find me. And upstairs, there it is.
Birds by Michel Pineda calls to me. It is of a morning sky. It is the desert sky outside of Yuma, Arizona. The red morning haze, a product of the light overcast and the Sun behind it, turns the migrating birds into silhouettes. It is March, monsoon season in the Southwest. The birds are heading north which means the panel faces the viewer to the northwest. I admired that sky every Spring for three years while living in Arizona. That is how I recognize it here at the Center.
Because I know where this is, I know the story which inspires this piece. That natural boundary, the desert, has claimed over a thousand lives. Migrants from Mexico and Latin America. They are economic and political refugees, would be pilgrims to the United States. All have lost their lives in this desert. Their ages range from infants to the elderly, some in their 70’s. They are on a journey north looking to make a better life for themselves and their families. This panel is the morning on the last day of their lives. Hope’s road ends with death. I know their stories; in 2014, we demonstrated to bring attention to this place. These stories. These people have names I know. A wound reopens, we failed, they still die, and I silently cry. The poem, “Migrants: Deceased Children of Central America” by Balam Rodrigo, below the boxcar reads: “Y en un abrir y cerrar de alas resucitarán los desaparecidos,/ y se erguirá sobre la furia la legion de los migrantes” (And in the blink of an eye the departed shall take wing,/ and the legion of migrants shall rise above the sound and the fury).
Student Reflection #3: The year was 1986. My home country, El Salvador, was suffering from a violent civil war. The atrocities and the unresolved conflicts of a corrupt government would cause major long-term effects for Salvadoran society for years to come. My parents watched the horrific violence and injustice engulfing their country, and lived through the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a key advocate for peace. Eventually they made the decision to immigrate to the US. It was a sad and difficult time for me; leaving my home, friends, and beloved pets was devastating. As frightening as it was to live amid such extreme violence, the thought of departing evoked a feeling of profound loss. On June 17, 1986, I arrived with my family in San Francisco. My maternal grandmother, a U.S. citizen, had lived in the United States since the mid 70’s; it was through her petition that we received our green cards.
Immigrant issues are close to my heart, for the past seven years I have worked at a local nonprofit in San Rafael providing services for undocumented immigrants who are mostly from Mexico and Central America. During the influx of unaccompanied children crossing the Mexico-U.S. border, I assisted many of their sponsors with the ORR (office of refugee) forms. The forms are sent to the shelter were a caseworker reviews them, and then the child is released to their sponsor.
The art exhibit was a reminder of the many stories shared by women, men, and children I have worked with. “The Bestia” still haunts many of these children at night, it’s a constant reminder of the price paid to reunite with their loved ones en el “Norte.” One particular piece of art that resonates with me is 31: “That, I’ll say, in the morning/When my child wakes up/ That a flood of fondness/isn’t enough if you love.” About three months ago, a woman walked into my office. She was crying, worried about her 12-year old daughter who had been caught at the border and held for 24-hours at la “hielera” in McAllen TX, and then transferred to a youth shelter facility in Arizona.
It had been 10-years since she had last seen her daughter. She had left Guatemala at dawn, at that time kissing her baby girl’s forehead, not knowing when she would ever see her again. She tells me how painful it was for her to leave her family in search for opportunity in the U.S. As the years passed, she found work and was able to send money back home. However, the gang violence in her hometown of Quetzaltenango was increasing. Beaten and abused by gang members, the girl became depressed and worried for her life. The family paid a “coyote” to get her across the border.
Once the ORR documents approved, the 12-year old reunited with her mother. Mother and daughter came to see me days after her release with some immigration documents they did not understand. As I filled out the forms to request a change of venue so the court could be changed from Tucson to San Francisco, the young girl shared with me her trajectory through the desert and aboard the infamous Bestia — she was very articulate for a young girl was. Her story was by no means easy to recount. She traveled about three hours on La Bestia before reaching Chiapas. The people on board warned her not to fall asleep for risking a fall and losing a limb. It was the beginner of summer and the heat was intense, all she could think during the strenuous ride was to be reunited with her mother. During the ride, she sat with about 30 other unaccompanied minors from Honduras and El Salvador. After many years apart, they too had dreams of seeing their loved ones.
She tells me that during those three hours on the train, she heard of a young boy falling off the train. She remembered hopping on with him but losing track as she found an uncomfortable small spot to sit on. It was sad to hear he was gone, that I too could have fallen off, she says with tears in her eyes. Most people on the train are very nice and they try to look out for one another, she says. The men become very protective of the women and children. During her journey she went hungry for days and had very little to drink — reaching the U.S-border was the happiest and scariest day of her life.
On one hand, crossing the border has become increasingly dangerous with many drug cartels terrorizing and killing immigrants. On the other hand, they take the risk of immigration deporting them back to their countries, yet they decide to make the treacherous journey in search of hope. The scarcity and violence from their home country is too much to endure, they rather take the chance than live a life of poverty and persecution.
I have recently seen a lot of state action on immigrant rights in response to the paralysis in Congress. I take comfort and feel a lot of pride living in a state that affirms the dignity and aspirations of immigrants. Since the election, immigration is once again becoming a very divisive issue and I am challenged to work even harder for immigrant rights. The exhibit is a wonderful way to share the story of many courageous people who ride La Bestia in hope of finding the American dream.