The Border Wall in Tijuana. Photographic Prints of the Art Oblations/Interventions in Memory of the Dead Migrants 1999-2021

Receipt: December 17, 2021

Acceptance: February 4, 2022


Post-ethnography pursues “micro-occurrences” and visual findings that have taken place in Tijuana in the past 28 years. These photographs show an iconography of white crosses, skulls, empty water jugs and cempasúchil flowers. Postphotography helps redimension this ethnographic evidence. Thus, the photo-essay speaks of sociocultural and artistic guerrillas against the strategic oblivion promoted by the governments of the U.S. and Mexico towards the deaths of migrants and the border walls as necro-artefacts in which art, solidarity and memory meet.

Keywords: , , , ,

the border wall in tijuana. photographic prints of the art oblations/interventions in memory of the dead migrants 1999-2021

Post-ethnography pursues "micro-occurrences" and visual findings that have taken place in Tijuana in the past 28 years. These photographs show an iconography of white crosses, skulls, empty water jugs and cempasúchil flowers. Postphotography helps redimension this ethnographic evidence. Thus, the photo-essay speaks of sociocultural and artistic guerrillas against the strategic oblivion promoted by the governments of the U.S. and Mexico towards the deaths of migrants and the border walls as necro-artefacts in which art, solidarity and memory meet.

Keywords: Dead migrants, post-ethnography, postphotography, necro-esthetics, street art.

In a recent interview (Zabalbeascoa, 2021), the photographer Annie Leibovitz dropped three sentences that synthesize a masterful wisdom about photographic practice: [A] everyone sees from what they are, [B] photographs change depending on when they are looked at and with what knowledge they are read, and [C] sometimes it is very difficult to change the image that a photograph freezes. Because of findings such as these, I have preferred to make a photographic essay interpreted from post-ethnographic and post-photographic postulates, whose totemic animal that best symbolizes it is a "winged blue unicorn", for what it has of alchemical experiment (mixture) by making images obtained in field trips of an urgent ethnographic rescue project coexist.

Click here to access the photo essay.

That is to say, this essay does not show the conclusions of a research sustained in time. It is the seed of an investigation that is beginning or, if you prefer, it is the justification of an investigation in which I am committing myself to rescue some facts that deserve to be remembered. I took the photographs because my intention was to document the impact of the wall on the clandestine mobility of migrants in the border area. But, time and again, they showed me the powerful imprint of activism, offerings or art installations developed in Tijuana between 1999 and 2022. A desperate wake-up call to the migration tragedy and the deaths that continue to this day. And in the last decade activism against deportations, another tragedy, joined in.

The photographs, with their minimalist captions, speak for themselves and aspire to circulate freely as symbols of memory and denunciation of the tragedies of irregular migrants, undocumented because they do not carry passports and visas, clandestine because they have to hide from authorities insensitive to injustice. The images also show examples of street and urban art, condemned by nature to the elements, which degrades it and makes it ephemeral, to keep alive the memory of the migrants who died at the border. The repeated denunciation is: how many more, how many more deaths, how many more dead migrants are needed to find a solution?


Alfonso Reyes said that the essay is "the centaur" of literary genres and Juan Villoro that the chronicle is the "platypus", and, following this game of metaphorical images, perhaps the photo-essay is the "unicorn", and the photographic essay marked by post-ethnography and post-photography is the "winged blue unicorn" (W.B. Yeats and Silvio Rodríguez) of the genres of representation, or a visual-conceptual cyborg (Haraway, 2016). A mixed, not hybrid, procedure. A mixture that only makes sense insofar as it needs to recreate, innovate, experiment, play; it is a genre. trans and even queerwhere the photographic image that resists a fixed identity, where the word or the concept only gives sub-photographic information, takes precedence.

The logos that weaves the text aspires to chronicle processes and give a context, to establish a background as a framework, but by dancing with photography, the writing that is inscribed with strokes of light,1 The cyborg intertwining of the field trip, participant observation and ethnographic practice in this earthly and virtual-digital world of the 21st century. xxinext to the photo machine.

This intersection between the ethnographic gaze, visualizable reality and photographic-images, on the one hand, and ethnological approaches and perspectives, as well as the interweaving of descriptive and analytical categories that help to discern, on the other hand, constitutes an epistemological and methodological necessity. Otherwise it would be impossible to account, always partially or incompletely, for the cultural phenomena of a world densely interconnected by "digitaltronic" structures through which tsunamis of images circulate. Avalanches of photographic representations of an ungraspable world. "Photography no longer teaches how the world was, but how it was when it was still believed possible to possess it in pictures" (Belting, 2007: 266).

This current world modeled by globalizing forces, where the project of cultural modernity, economic capitalism and political neoliberalism, with their toxic and atrocious hybridizations, are juxtaposed and confused, is the most photographed and visualized. Where peripheries, social margins or rural-natural enclaves project counter-hegemonic images. The avalanches of images constantly account for changes that overflow our capacity for observation, registration, analysis and explanation. Nothing new under the sun, except that we now have detailed images and audiovisual records. When Lévi-Strauss (1988) at the end of Sad tropics In 1955, he exclaimed goodbye, savages, goodbye, travels, because something was radically changing. He announced a new era that encrypts an intellectual challenge that is, at the same time, metatheoretical, poetic or artistic and existential, and interferes since then in any anthropological or ethnological project that dares to experiment with texts, images or sounds.

Precisely, this essay seeks to make synthetically explicit some epistemic, theoretical-methodological and aesthetic issues that cross the corpus of photographs. The central theme of these are the interventions and performances artistic (street art and border art included) that were taken on the border wall erected in front of Tijuana to commemorate and denounce the death of migrants crossing the border. The photographs were taken between 1999 and 2022. For this purpose I articulated the essay with different leitmotiv such as post-ethnography, the photographic image in times of post-photography or the border walls artistically intervened to denounce the death of migrants.

From ethnography to post-ethnography

The notion of post-ethnography, in this work, does not imply the overcoming of traditional ethnography that operates on fieldwork and participant observation to end up in a monograph, much less its liquidation. Nor does it imply the denaturalization of ethnography as a text of description and cultural analysis. Even less so when 2022 will mark the centenary of Malinowski's publication (1975). The Argonauts of the Western Pacificwhich inaugurated the canonical way of doing ethnography in Anthropology. I am also aware of the bad reputation of notions and categories constructed with the prefix post, I am aware that this is not the first time it is proposed, but options such as neo-ethnography or trans-ethnography seem to me pretentious or imprecise. I also know that photography entered ethnographies more than a century ago.

Evidently, here, post-ethnography does not announce the inauguration of a world in the sense in which the Enlightenment inaugurated a post-religious world, nor the end of a discipline without a raison d'être like the post-philosophical horizon into which Rorty (1998) entered. It is not indebted to Lyotard's post-modernity. It has more to do with what Badiou (2003) said of Samuel Beckett, that he is the first postmodern literary author because he managed to assemble prose, poetry and theater; or with Fontcuberta's (2011) manifesto of post-photography, where he sets out guidelines for a radical change in photography in its relationship with the author, art and the complex situations of a globalized and interconnected world with digital devices and social networks in the wake of the Internet.

The post-ethnographic, therefore, assumes the legacy of classical ethnographies -with their gnoseological virtues and colonial miseries- to enter without formal ties into a scenario of ethnographic experimentation, recording, representation, analysis, interpretation of cultural artifacts and their writing. The post-ethnographic practice pursues a text that knows it is indebted to the omnipresent images and avalanches of information that circulate on the Internet, and assumes its condition as a provisional account of a human world that is diluted at every step. It is an attempt to resituate these challenges in space and time in the sense advocated by multisituated ethnography (Marcus, 1995; 2001) and netnography (Hine, 2008).

Against this metaphorically apocalyptic backdrop, post-ethnography has something of the reconstruction of a ship after the shipwreck from the wreckage salvaged by a beachcomber that depends on what the waves throw on the beach. It has something of Japanese Kintsugi art that reconstructs broken ceramics, of translation supported on a mutilated Rosetta stone, of transgender text due to the transdisciplinary readings that interfere indisciplinarily without paying attention to disciplinary dogmatisms; of transcultural text where different dialects, languages, converge, argots and heterogeneous ideas found in academic barter stores, cultural tianguis and countercultural dens. In this sense, transculturation (Ortiz, 2003) is the opposite of hybridization, a parasitic or "zombie" category (Beck, 2000). Hybridization applied to the cultural, another fetish-concept or keyword with many likes.

This intersection of disciplinary practices, traditions of thought and popular knowledge condensed in post-ethnography responds to a process of transdisciplinary mixing and crossbreeding; I insist: it is a creative process of transculturation (Ortiz, 2003), not of taxidermied academic hybridization. I insist on this because it has to do with Hannah Arendt's denunciation of "pseudo-knowledge" or false findings, which can be extended to the social sciences as they are practiced today.

The incessant and senseless demand for original knowledge in many fields where only scholarship is now possible has led either to pure irrelevance, the famous knowing more and more about less and less, or to the development of a pseudo-knowledge that actually destroys its object (2005: 46).

In summary, this post-ethnography assumes that it has captured "micro-events" that have occurred in Tijuana over the past 28 years, a collage of movements and visual findings in which it is believed to discover something where the city and the society meet (Delgado, 2019), Tijuana and the border, the USA and Mexico or the ethnographer with local practices.

From the images of death to the death of photography

Belting (2007) defends the image as a symbolic meaning and the importance of the irruption of profane images that grow outside museums understood as the sacrosanct temples of Art. Museums that in the contemporary world must face the questioning of alternative images, the creation of images in the social space such as street art, urban muralism, graffiti and other interventions and performances. Because "the symbolic unity we call image" is inseparable from "the guidelines of life" and because "we live with images and we understand the world in images" (Belting, 2007: 14).

On the other hand, Susan Buck-Morss argues that "the image is frozen perception" (2009: 37), rather than the representation of an object, a definition that is complemented by Belting's proposal, who conceived photography as "a fragment of the flow of life that will never be repeated" (2007: 29). It is from this tradition that Buck-Morss understands that we can find in the image different objects, "a trace-image" with an unstable or evanescent meaning, since it cannot be imposed as a fixed coating of an image. One of the consequences is that "a new kind of global community becomes possible, and also a new kind of hatred" (Buck-Morss, 2009: 37), where anesthetizing hegemonic images circulate on the Internet (Buck-Morss, 2009: 42).

The critical overview proposed by Buck-Morss to evaluate the potential of contemporary visual image studies with their destabilizing power are a theoretical background that allows us to understand the emergence of the post-photographic field proposed by Fontcuberta (2011). Belting points out that "we are witnesses to the self-destruction of photography" (2007: 230). However, Fontcuberta proposes another reading. Post-photography responds to the digital technological revolution that produces continuous cataclysms and events, such as the irruption of the new citizen-photographer and the omnipresent cameras, and this evolution reached a point of no return when the resources became cheaper, more sophisticated and popularized, creating a new mediasphere. Our adaptation to it reflects a "technological Darwinism" (Fontcuberta, 2011).

The need for an urgent and timely image, in Fontcuberta's words, killed the qualities of a professional image. Moreover, "this immerses us in a world saturated with images: we live in the image, and the image lives us and makes us live" (Fontcuberta, 2011). The paradigm envisioned by this theoretician-photographer is revealing: post-photography is nothing more than photography adapted to our lives. online. Post-photography is the evidence that there is a post-artistic sphere animated by new codes, practices and visions. Or, in other words, "post-photography is what remains of photography" (Fontcuberta, 2011). Belting had already announced the disappearance of images of death and "the death of images, which once exercised the ancient fascination of the symbolic" (2007: 177). This photographic essay, I believe, is crossed by all these factors and ideas; it breathes the current debates.

The construction of the border fence in front of Tijuana

The U.S.-Mexico border, the southwest border (southwest) of the USAThe San Diego Border Patrol, began a radical transformation in the management and policing of its borders at the same time that the Berlin Wall was being torn down. In late 1989, groups of civilians, retirees and veterans angered by the immigration chaos at the San Diego border prompted a campaign called "Lights up the Border" translated as "Luces altas [in front of the border]" or "Illuminate the Border". These civilian border guards and their performance patriotic protest no longer feared the communist danger of a ussr The Mexican government was not the only one that was collapsing, but the enemy that was "invading" them: Mexican migrants. They were a decade ahead of Huntington (2000) and his Mexicanophobic thesis. The action had media repercussions and it was decided to build a wall (fence) metal to contain migratory flows, an old idea quite widespread internationally nowadays (Wilson, 2014; Saddiki, 2017), and which only succeeded in diverting them to the outskirts of the city or to deserts and mountains.

The Bush Administration senior in 1991began to erect a steel fence in front of Tijuana, between the beach and the San Ysidro border crossing (steel fence), at the border. That "wall of lights" of lighted automobiles became a physical wall. This first wall ran from the beaches parallel to Tijuana's International Avenue and materialized Winston Churchill's metaphor of the iron curtain; of the isolation of the ussr was moved to the isolation of the United States. For its construction, 2.4-meter-high metal plates arranged vertically were used; they were old and rusty platforms for portable heliports and "roads" that were assembled on the ground horizontally, used in the Vietnam War until 1975 (Lerner, 2004; Alonso, 2013).

With Clinton in office, on September 19, 1993, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (ins) and the Border Patrol in the El Paso sector have launched the Operation Blockade, called "Blockade" in Mexico, in front of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. Subsequently, in response to protests from Mexico, it was renamed the "Blockade" in Mexico. Operation Hold-the-line. One year later, on October 1, 1994, the ins launched an operation in the San Diego, California, sector of the Gatekeeper (translated as Guardian). It focused on a 5-mile (8 km) problem area between the sea and the sentry box (Port of Entry) at San Ysidro, across from Tijuana, a small area where 30% of all irregular border crossings took place. The second phase of Gatekeeper began in October 1996 and the more than 20-kilometer fence was installed in front of the airport and continued to the nearby Otay Mountains. It was precisely in 1996 that protests grew in Tijuana over the deaths of migrants who, diverted by the fence, entered dangerous areas and produced a trickle that soon turned into a hemorrhage of deaths.

The new hot and dangerous areas were from 1996 in Texas and from 1998 in Arizona. Between October 1994 and September 2000, 8,844,476 arrests were accumulated on the border with Mexico; 1.6 million were made in fiscal year 2000 alone, of which 600,000 were in Arizona. In 2001 the terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia inaugurated a new era in border surveillance. Human rights violations and migrant deaths continued to increase (Smith, 2000, 2001; Alonso, 2003). If 9,000 migrants may have died in the border region during the period 1993-2013 (Eschbach, 2000, 2001; Alonso, 2003). et al, 1999; Alonso, 2013), by 2021 the figure could be around 11 500 deaths in the last 28 years.

The majority died from four main causes: heatstroke-hyperthermia, drowning in rivers and irrigation canals, traffic accidents involving the vehicle transporting them, and hypothermia. The sectors of the Border patrol where most deaths occurred between 1993 and 2002 were El Centro, Yuma and Tucson, which correspond to the counties of San Diego, Imperial, Yuma, Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise, all in the deserts of southern California and Arizona, without forgetting the Del Rio, Laredo and McAllen river axis. 70% of those deaths accumulated between April and September, the hottest months, while cases of death from cold and even freezing occur both in mountains in winter and at night in the desert (Alonso, 2013).

In this sense, the majority of deaths in the last three decades are due to a combination of factors, basically related to the rise of temperatures up to 45° Celsius or more, the continuous effort in an irregular desert terrain and not having enough water. These factors make this scenario the most lethal of all due to the brutality and speed with which heat and dehydration act on the human organism.

The wall redefined as a space of memory and denunciation

The use of the border fence in front of Tijuana for religious offerings and artistic installations promoted by human rights groups, where lay and Catholic Church actors converged, is believed to have begun in 1996, and among these promoters were also ngo and artists from San Diego. The first relevant action was "El Viacrucis del Migrante", which ended on the popularly known as the boulevard or road to the Tijuana airport, at the Otay Mesa, a march sponsored by the Coalición Pro Defensa del Migrante de Baja California (Coalition for the Defense of the Migrant of Baja California). There, the crosses representing the death of migrants were installed on the metal wall, and the names of those who had been identified were placed on the crosses.

The Coalición Pro Defensa del Migrante de Baja California emerged from the confluence of a group of civil, religious and even governmental organizations located on both sides of the border, which gives it a binational presence in the region. It was established in 1996 by six organizations that had been receiving migrants or advising them on human rights for years. The Subprocuraduría de los Derechos Humanos y Protección Ciudadana de Baja California was a governmental institution. There was also the Casa Madre Assunta for Migrant Women, directed by Mary Galván, or the Casa del Migrante de Tijuana, directed by Father Luiz Kendzierski, the casa ymca The San Diego side was represented by Claudia Smith and the Califonia Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (crlaf).

Claudia Smith is credited with the idea - or catalyzing and shaping the idea - of funding and placing crosses with names on the wall that flanked the airport boulevard or straightaway, in memory of the migrants who died crossing the border. The idea was that the dead migrants should not be forgotten; and if possible, they should be identified. Neither their death nor their name should be forgotten. As it is said in The OdysseyNo one should be left without a grave or a cry. "When someone dies, his family carries a cross with his name on it to the grave" (Smith, 2001). The crosses were part of events and celebrations such as the Posadas del Migrante and the Via Crucis Migrante (Christmas and Holy Week), and before being placed they were blessed by a priest, more than once by Father Kendzierski; and on those that could not be named, the legend "Unidentified" was placed. Every year new ones were placed, according to the count, and their wake grew along the border wall in front of the airport, where thousands of travelers and Tijuanans passed by and saw them daily.

Claudia Smith also invited San Diego artists to collaborate, such as Michael Schnoor, co-founder of the baw/taf (Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo) at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego in the 1980s, Susan Yamagata and Todd Stands, all three of whom are also associated with the murals in San Diego's Chicano Park/Parque Chicano in Barrio Logan, both painting and restoring them after xenophobic attacks. In this way, the artistic intervention collaborated with religious, moral and political demands; perhaps because art has much to do with birth and un-occultation (Heidegger, 2001).

It was from this collaboration and this project between social actors from Mexico and the United States that the subject matter recorded in the photos of this essay was configured and, in that sense, they record and illustrate the consequences of an "anti-immigrant necropolitics".2 In this way, their counterparts in the form of necroethics and necroesthetics, which have something of cult and homage to some dead victims of an unjust border security, give meaning to the artistic offerings, whom we should not forget because the construction of a society and institutions founded on values and not interests is at stake.

Over the years, the original wall made of scrap metal from the Vietnam War was transformed into a concentration camp or gulag infrastructure (Alonso, 2014). And the side facing south, facing Mexico, has become an artistic canvas on which the most unusual artistic interventions and graffiti are painted, with its own dynamics that differentiate it from the art painted on the Berlin Wall. Thierry Noir would have been the first artist to paint on the Berlin Wall in 1984. It could be said that the late Michael Schnoor, Susan Yamagata and Todd Stands, supported in logistics by their collaborators from Tijuana, were the first to artistically intervene the wall in a thematically coherent and consistent way over the years.

Likewise, if Sebastião Salgado (2000) was the first internationally renowned photographer to photograph the wall in its early stages, linked to human migrations for his work collected in ExodusLocal photographers such as Roberto Córdova at the beginning and in the last two decades Alfonso Caraveo, among others, recorded at different times the development of the wall and scenes connected with it. In fact, Córdova has photographs of the first religious acts on the wall and of the placement of the crosses. In turn, Rascón (2009) was among the first to systematically photograph southern Arizona when migrant deaths increased there.

Post-ethnography not only assumes multisite fieldwork in space, but also in different periods over decades; it constructs a cultural object or intellectual artifact in multiple spaces and temporalities, where the passage of time brings degradation, disappearance and oblivion. These photographs reflect a struggle of sociocultural and artistic guerrillas against the strategic oblivion promoted by the governments of USA and Mexico, certainly for different reasons. Nowadays, the death of migrants or the protests against border walls are two topics that have become part of the current media and political debates. But it was those organizations, activists and artists who with their persistent work in Tijuana placed the problem on the ethical, aesthetic and political agenda. The photos tell us that the border and the wall in Tijuana were once like that; that just as the flowers in the ofrendas wither, the steel walls also wither, rust and pulverize.

Finally, in the midst of those events, an iconography flourished based on the symbolism of the crosses with names and blessed crosses, the "calacas" (both skulls and skeletons symbolizing death), empty plastic gallon jugs of water, symbolizing death in the deserts, and the yellow-orange cempasúchil flower (light and memory), an emblematic offering of the Day of the Dead throughout Mexico (Baron, 1994). And, together with the coffins that were also positioned in the iconography, these elements made it evident that the wall was a necro-artefact among the devices with lethal effects deployed by a strategy that comes dangerously close to a necropolitics (Mbembe, 2011) of an anti-immigrant, rather than anti-immigrant, nature.


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Guillermo Alonso Meneses is a cultural anthropologist, he received his PhD from the Department of Social Anthropology, History of America and Africa at the University of Barcelona in 1995. Since 1999 he has been a researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Tijuana, and his thematic interests focus on the anthropology of the contemporary world.


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EncartesVol. 7, No. 13, March 2024-September 2024, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: March 25, 2024.