This article originally ran at Capital & Main, an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues.
For almost an hour, Laura, Moises, and I drove through the dusty neighborhoods of Tecate, looking for Kikito. Tecate is a small border city in the dry hills of Baja California. It’s famous for a huge brewery, although today most workers find jobs in local maquiladoras.
When we asked for directions, a couple of people had heard of Kikito, but couldn’t tell us where he was. Most didn't know who we were talking about.
We figured that if we kept driving along the border fence, we’d find him. In these neighborhoods, the second stories of large comfortable homes, mostly built in the 1940s and 1950s, rise above adobe walls enclosing their courtyards. But unlike downtown, with its colorful bustle, there was no street life on the hot streets here, hardly anyone on the sidewalk.
Finally, we passed the one man who could surely tell us how to find Kikito—the cable guy. He even volunteered to lead us in his van part of the way. Using his directions, we bumped along a dirt road next to the border fence, up and down a couple of hills where the city fades into scrubland. Then we found Kikito.
He was much larger than I’d imagined.
Kikito is an enormous photograph of a 1-year-old child, pasted onto plywood sheets. The assemblage is mounted on a huge, complex metal scaffold, 65 feet high, much like what painters erect to embrace the buildings they work on. Kikito’s scaffolding, however, doesn’t embrace anything. Instead, it pushes the enormous photograph toward, and above, the border wall’s severe vertical iron bars.
The "Kikito" art installation at the U.S.-Mexico border wall, created by French artist JR. Laura Velasco stands on a little hill near the structure, giving an idea of its huge size.
The structure is so big that to bring the photo into position, part of the hillside had to be excavated, and a hole dug deep into the ravine at the bottom. I felt like Dorothy going behind the curtain to confront the Wizard as he manically pulls levers to present his fierce, disembodied face to the world. Like the Wizard’s, you can only see Kikito’s visage the right way from the other side of the curtain—in this case, the metal fence separating Tecate from the United States.
Viewed from the U.S. side, Kikito becomes a giant black-and-white toddler, his chubby hands appearing to grip the top of the border wall as he looks over it, into the mysterious United States. He has a slight smile.
If we’d been on the U.S. side, driving east from San Diego, we could have followed the directions that Kikito’s creator, the French artist JR, posted on his website. There you can even see JR’s photograph of two U.S. Border Patrol agents staring at the baby. Apparently, they often help visitors find the right spot.
At this spot along the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., Border Patrol agents fired through the wall and killed Ramsés Barron-Torrés. His portrait and a cross are on the wall of the building in Mexico below, where he fell. Agents say they were justified in shooting because people were throwing stones at them, but the street is far below and there is little danger that a stone could even pass through the iron bars at such a distance.
We now have 20,000 Border Patrol agents, whose parked vans dot the desert all along the border wall from California to Texas, as they wait to grab someone trying to cross. Helping visitors find Kikito must provide a welcome break in the tedium of watching and waiting, and sweating in vans on shadeless hills, where the temperature climbs to 105 degrees and above.
It’s obvious that Kikito’s audience is located in the United States. “The piece is best viewed from the U.S. side of the border,” JR’s website explains. In fact, the optical effect can only be seen from that side—Mexicans standing in Tecate, where it’s actually located, can’t see it the right way. JR says Kikito is looking “playfully,” but then admits, “Kikito and his family cannot cross the border to see the artwork from the ideal vantage point.”
I took a photo of Laura on a nearby hummock, just to give an idea of the structure’s immense scale. She seems diminutive next to it. In her classes at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) in Tijuana, and in her books and research about the migration of Mexico’s indigenous people to Baja California and eventually to the United States, Laura Velasco is hardly dispassionate. She advocates for migrants, and has no love for the wall and its unsubtle messages of “Keep Out!” and “Stay in Mexico!”
That’s one reason she liked Kikito. “He shows us to be human beings,” she said, looking up at his half smile. “That’s a good message for people in the U.S. And he does it without shouting, just by being who he is.” If people in Mexico can’t see him properly, she thinks, they’re not the ones who need to get the message anyway.
WHEN THE INSTALLATION went up, President Trump had just issued his threat to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, withdrawing the legal status of 800,000 young people brought by their parents to the United States without visas as children. Many of those youth—the Dreamers—saw a baby looking over the border wall as a symbol of their own humanity in the face of fear and possible deportation.
Migrants found dead on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in the area of the Imperial Valley and Colorado River, are buried in a potters field graveyard in Holtville. The identities of many are not known, and are buried as "John Doe" or "Jane Doe." Immigrant-rights and religious activists have made crosses for many of the graves, most of which say "No Olvidados," or "Not Forgotten."
Yet my visceral reaction, as I looked down the hillside at this immense toddler, was more skeptical. In a desert where hundreds of people die every year of thirst and exhaustion, trying to dodge Border Patrol agents, trekking on foot across the wall in the intense heat, is it enough to simply say, “Immigrants are human beings”? Why such a soft message in such a harsh context?
The wall, and the border militarization of which it is a part, is exacting a terrible cost. It’s paid by uprooted Oaxacan farmers needing work and money to send home, by parents and children desperate to reunite families fractured by earlier migrations, by Honduran refugees fleeing violence. When many die crossing the desert (232 in the first seven months of 2017), they’re buried in the Holtville cemetery, 89 miles east of Kikito in the Imperial Valley.
Successive U.S. administrations have beefed up the Border Patrol’s numbers, built multiple walls, handed out contracts for high-tech surveillance devices, detained hundreds of thousands of people in for-profit detention centers and then deported them. It’s a big media story, and produces a fascination with the border among U.S. photographers and artists, who then create photodocumentaries and art projects currently popular in the mainstream media. The border sells, in other words. Kikito is part of a growing genre.
Luisa, a homeless woman, collects cans and plastic from garbage dumpsters, near the Tijuana River, in downtown Tijuana, just south of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Richard Misrach, a well-known photographer, produced a large book of photographs, Border Cantos, which shows the absurdity of a wall of iron bars that suddenly stops at a golf course, allowing real-estate agents to play through. He communicates an atmosphere of violence in images of spent shells on the range where Border Patrol agents practice shooting, and the possibility of death from thirst in images of flags signaling the water cans left by immigration activists and Good Samaritans along the migrant trails. But like Kikito, his audience is in the United States. The photographs, almost all without people, look at the border wall from the northern side.
Some projects are less documentary. In The New Yorker, writer Jonathan Blitzer recounts how Magnum photographer Carolyn Drake “set out for the U.S.-Mexico border just after Donald Trump won the Presidency.”
“Where is Drake taking us?” Blitzer asks. “This is an American project, she told me. She’s less concerned with who’s crossing to or from Mexico than she is with who’s already on the American side, living alongside the border as though wedged between two worlds.”
The New Yorker labeled Drake’s work “Haunted Photographs of America’s Borderlands,” a phrase that signals that we’re only looking at the border from the U.S. side. “Our obsession with the border has a lot of fantasy involved,” Drake explained to Blitzer. “You’re searching for something, but it’s not really there.” Her 22 photographs on the magazine’s website are all taken in the United States—Mexicans only exist once they’ve arrived in the north.
A memorial at the border fence for those who have died trying to cross.
“When did this contemporary diaspora become a ‘fantasy’?” asks Don Bartletti, who in his years at the Los Angeles Times probably took more photographs of the border than any other U.S. photographer. “The border is certainly clearly defined for millions of people searching for something better on the other side.”
Another New Yorker writer, Alexandra Schwartz, calls JR “a magician who conjures people onto walls.” She notes that he’s done other photographic projects on the same scale, pasting black-and-white portraits of immigrants onto buildings and walls in Europe and elsewhere. He too got his impetus from Trump. “When Trump started to talk a lot about a wall along the Mexican border, one day I woke up and I saw a kid looking over the wall,” JR told Schwartz. “We know that a 1-year-old doesn’t have a political vision, or any political point of view. He doesn’t see walls as we see them.”
I’m sure JR doesn’t see Mexicans as 1-year-olds. But the way the border is objectified and used can make people in Mexico suspicious about how people on the other side of the wall see them, when they see them at all.
“The subject of the border is profitable for artists,” Enrique Botello, a photographer in Ensenada and founder of Galería 184, told me. “I think most U.S. photographers don’t understand the price we’re paying on the border, in terms of the number of people dying. They’re motivated mainly by self-interest because the subject of the border is easy to sell. A lot of photographers only want to come and take pictures without being very critical—just exploit the subject.”
A worker is deported back into Mexico at the border gate in Mexicali, under the stare of a Border Patrol agent.
AFTER LOOKING AT KIKITO, we drove over to Tecate’s new municipal art center for the presentation of a book about California farmworkers, published jointly by COLEF in Tijuana and the University of California Press in Oakland. Afterward, we went to drink wine at a local restaurant with friends—poets and artists.
“Kikito means nothing to me,” announced Francisco Morales, Baja California’s celebrated poet and activist. (See his poems that follow this article.) His partner, Rocio Hoffmann Silva, is a portrait painter. Between them, they live project to project, book to book, and often have a hard time putting together the income to pay the bills. “I look at the resources needed to create Kikito, and think about what we could use them for here,” she said. “There’s so much available in the U.S. When we want to create art that looks at our lives here, support is hard to find.”
Oscar Contreras, a sociologist at COLEF born in Tecate, thought Kikito didn’t have to make an overt political statement. “It can exist in its own right,” he argued, “and we can appreciate it or not based on how well it communicates its aesthetic ideas.” Kikito, however, and photographs of the wall and the “borderlands” are created as social documents, not just art abstracted from reality. That’s the basis for their media popularity—why photographers and artists get the funding needed to create them. “If they’re measured against social reality, I think that’s fair,” he added. “After all, can Kikito exist without the wall?”
Juan Manuel Barragan Corona, left, and his friend are homeless men who live in the Tijuana River flood control channel. Many deported homeless people live in the concrete river bed.
Morales isn’t angry at Kikito in particular, but like many of his colleagues believes Tijuana’s vibrant culture is ignored in U.S. media coverage of the border. Mexican artists create their own art about the migration experience, because it is such a fundamental aspect of Mexican life. Virtually every family has a member or friend who’s crossed to the United States, where more than 9 percent of the country’s population now lives. One famous work mounted crosses on the border wall’s metal plates, where it runs along the road past the Tijuana airport. Gallon jugs symbolizing the water carried by border crossers were stacked against it, each with the name of someone whose body had been found in the desert.
At the ironically named Friendship Park (Parque de la Amistad) in Playas de Tijuana, the graffiti on the wall’s bars is itself an art project. The wall, both there and on the fence leading to Mexicali’s crossing gate, has become a venue for photographers and artists. Their art is sharp, critiquing mass deportations and the hard lives of migrants on the other side. And these works can only be shown on the Mexican side—the Border Patrol will not allow art installations on the side they control.
Much of the Mexican art about the border focuses on the wall and its human cost, but photographers like Botello also insist that the coverage has to include the roots of migration. “The problem of the border is bilateral,” he says. “U.S. policy toward the border is becoming very radicalized, causing the death of so many migrants. But the problem of the border is also that of the countries exporting those migrants.”
TO ENRIQUE BOTELLO, the problem of Kikito is that he is too distant, both from the deaths at the border and from the reasons people risk it—what they are migrating from. “JR says that he has no political position!” he exclaims. “His interest isn’t in making a commitment, just in his art.”
Bartletti is angrier. “Many photographers who parachute in to the U.S.-Mexico border portray its cultural anthropology as simple theater,” he argues. “‘The Border’ has become a convenient stage, with little documentary evidence of the causes and consequences of migration for survival. But it’s probably good for their bottom line.”
Art or photography can help change the world, if it arises from the political commitment and involvement of the artist and photographer. “We should strengthen solidarity on all the borders of the world,” Botello urges, “so that that someday all those borders will disappear.” Therefore, photography projects, he believes, should be produced in cooperation across the border, in active solidarity.
A man on the Mexican side of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. looks through the bars, where the wall runs into the Pacific Ocean.
While there are few examples of this today, it is an idea with historical precedent. In the 1930s and 1940s, Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco came to the United States and created radical murals that were cultural weapons of that era in movements for social change. They inspired a generation of radical U.S. painters in the process. Rivera’s Rockefeller Center mural, “Man at the Crossroads,” was viewed as so dangerous that its patron, Nelson Rockefeller, had it demolished. Tina Modotti, born in Italy and raised in San Francisco, and Mariana Yampolsky, born in Chicago, created photographs that became part of the revolutionary cultural upsurge in Mexico from the 1920s to the 1950s.
In making Kikito, a Mexican child visible to the United States, JR has created a border-focused project. But if part of its purpose was to make the invisible visible, other subjects carry a sharper critical edge, and pose deeper questions about the reality people experience on the border. What happens, for instance, to those pushed back through the gate in the border wall, once they’re deported from the United States?
Today, scores of young people live in the concrete channel built to contain the floods of the Tijuana River, which runs through the middle of the city near the border between Mexico and the United States. Like the Los Angeles River channel, it is mostly a featureless cement expanse, but in Tijuana it is filled with deportees with no money and no homes.
Juan Manuel Barragan Corona, recently expelled from the United States and living in the river bottom, has a wife and two teenage children in Las Vegas. “We are the invisible people,” he says. “In this life, no one counts for less than a deported Mexican.”
Two poems from San Ysidro Zone, by Francisco Morales
Translated by Iliana Hernández Partida
words had left me dry
the hate helicopter flies again
looking for migrants through the wired.
at the crackling corner of hunger
a patched tunnel
fears and mastiffs are after feeble dogs.
The coffee and the chipping bowl got cold
Ah, these men! :
How many fences they build!
how much misery
for so many nomadic skeletons!
More common than shadows and noise
a wall rises upon us.
That humidity scented wall
does not scream nor crackles
no groans come from it.
It cuts maliciously
the Psalms history that we traced
our elucubrations fiercely built
like a coastline without sowings
or a private lilies swamp.
The silence wall.
The seed growing missing a life seed
along the sunset working as a watchman
and the stubborn eyes browsing
from the chiaroscuro grid.
The seven vigils bitch
giving birth to new sarcasms.