Seeing through the wall

When Terry Tempest Williams came out with her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World a few years ago, I was pretty sure she’d made it just for me. For as long as I can remember, that title has more or less been my life philosophy. I was raised hiking and backpacking in a loving family that showed me how many amazing things the world has to offer, and I’ve been fortunate to have friends throughout my life who have been supportive. But much of my life has also been spent looking for problems in the world, reading about war and starvation and violence and systematic inequalities.

It was with this in mind that I went to a concert on the border wall yesterday afternoon. Some churches in Douglas and Agua Prieta had organized a binational chorus to perform on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, just outside of town. Wearing orange shirts with the trickster god Kokopelli on them, a group of singers stood on each side of the wall. They traded verses back and forth, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish. People gathered on both sides to listen and watch. There were white people and Latin@s on both sides of the wall, Mexicans and Americans, and people of all races and nationalities speaking English, Spanish, and everything in between.

Chorus on the U.S. side of the wall.

My initial reaction upon seeing the border wall has always been a combination of rage and sadness. It’s monumental, terrifying in its scale, awesome in its cruelty. It’s a scar on the landscape, bisecting habitat, casting some as “other,” reminding the world of American military might. The scale of the wall compared to the assembled singers had its usual effect on me. I saw people sticking hands through the wall to take pictures, friends shaking hands through the fence posts. I reflected on the fact that, while I could freely move between the two sides, at least half of the people present didn’t have that privilege.

Looking down the border wall in Douglas, AZ.

In spite of the way injustice is written on the dusty ground, the people singing did so in celebration. The songs were sometimes somber, but the atmosphere was happy, almost celebratory. Friends smiled at each other. Every time the chorus on the U.S. side stopped singing, a man on the Mexican side would spin a giant homemade noisemaker, the crackle carrying far beyond our party. Border Patrol vans circled in the distance, but left us alone.

A woman on the U.S. side of the border.
Chorus on the Mexican side, as seen through the wall.

Realizing this, I thought back to my last time traveling through the deserts of the American West, almost two years ago. I recalled how no matter where we were, almost every night I could watch the sun set through a barbed wire fence Contemplating that scene, my mind would freeze the frame and see the aesthetic beauty, cattle grazing, beavers driven to extinction, disappearing sage grouse, American tradition, a struggling family and climate change captured together in a single image. And in spite of the imperfections writ large on the landscape, I always found beauty in the complications of that scene. I always found a way to appreciate the place while seeing its scars.

For as long as I’ve been seriously thinking about it, I’ve seen our border and immigration policies as evil, and the wall as the clearest manifestation of that. I still feel this way—there’s no amount of beautiful singing in the world that could make me feel differently. But yesterday’s concert was a good reminder that we can be happy in the midst of evil, celebrate even in the fact of injustice.

Now, my mind freezes the frame on the assembled orange t-shirts, the people singing their hearts out in the U.S. and Mexico. Looking at them, it’s clear they represent a single community. There’s resiliency in their insistence on ignoring the wall to the best of their ability, in their efforts to continue with life as normal in spite of the monstrous demonstration of military might standing in their way.

But more than that, their celebration is a parody. In choosing to be happy in spite of the fence, in choosing to play music no matter how impractical it may be, they’re showing the fence for what it really is. The electronic keyboards and bongo drums and prayer flags hung on the metal stakes make the wall look absurdly, ridiculously out of place. In the act of bringing something beautiful to this broken place, they’ve made the wound that much more visible. And they’ve reminded me that we can fight for things we care about without forgetting to smile, that we can hold love and rage in our hearts simultaneously. Because all over the world, in places where violence has taken hold, places the state sees strategically while everyone else forgets to look, there are people who will keep fighting and keep playing music, never forgetting that walls, turned on their side, are bridges.*

*This was a piece of graffiti on the border wall near Nogales, though it’s since been painted over. Written in Spanish, it said las paredes vueltas de lado son puentes.

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