Dreaming of Our Abuelitos: “YLA 23” at Mexic-Arte Museum Explores Border Identity


Growing up on the border of any two countries leads to early political awareness. That’s what the artists in the newest iteration of the annual “Young Latinx Artists” show at Mexic-Arte Museum would tell you.

Now in its 23rd season, YLA gathers a group of emerging Latinx artists at the helm of a guest curator to unpack a theme relevant to Latinx experience. This year’s show, “Beyond Walls, Between Gates, Under Bridges,” features 11 artists who hail from both the U.S. and Mexico sides of the border, a wholly hybrid environment that engenders an acute understanding of the differences between each side that make it — physically and perceptually — difficult to breach.

The imperative of this show creates a groundbreaking ethnography: There’s a multitude of identities and attitudes surrounding border life.

Some accounts are highly personal. Jose Villanueva presents a vignette of his family life in the installation and video piece, “Wake.” He situates a rummage-sale floral couch in front of squat square television monitors looping clips of family gatherings on Catholic holidays. With lace doilies draped over particle board cabinets, it’s the vision of anyone’s grandmother’s house, yet the framed photos of Villanueva’s own relatives remind the gallery visitor that they are the guest in this home.

As I sat and sank into the sofa (with permission), I recalled being transfixed as a child in front of my grandparents’ TV while adults talked about adult things. Perhaps that’s the memory Villanueva is evoking. He was smuggled across the border into the U.S. at age three. “Wake” feels like a child’s way of clinging to memories of family and Mexico, while adapting to an eked-out existence in an entirely new place.

Another of the show’s installation pieces, “Three Hail Marys, Two Our Fathers” by Lisette Chavez, is a later adolescent’s take on Catholic culture in Texas/Mexico. The interior walls of a rudimentary shrine, painted a shocking hot pink, exude the angst of someone wronged by the older generation’s blind devotion to tradition. Railing against those norms in tiny cynical epitaphs and bedazzled busts of Jesus is a form of sacred sacrilege.

Much of the work in this show utilizes satire to prod the underlying sense of marginalization that comes with growing up on the fringes of mainstream American culture. Guest curator Gil Rocha-Rochelli in his statement about the exhibition says, “Embedded into our beings are the dreams of our parents and abuelitos. We are their living aspirations, their yearning hours of devotion for a creative opportunity.” These young artists are simultaneously aware that their parents’ sacrifices allow for their stability that supports their creative practices but are also not beholden to submit to the powers that produced those hardships in the first place.

In “Home Is Where My Papers Are,” Natalia Rocafuerte constructs a similar environment to Villanueva’s “Wake.” The basic trimmings of a home office, each piece of furniture stamped with photocopied images of Rocafuerte’s U.S. residency documentation. This home is filled with reminders that Rocafuerte’s sense of security and contentment is not up to her. Someone else is in control.

Rocha-Rochelli, an artist himself from Laredo, participated this year in the “Transborder Biennial,” a collaborative exhibition held between El Paso Museum of Art and Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juárez, which comparably showcases contemporary artists from both sides of the border. As an artist and as a curator, Rocha-Rochelli thinks beyond a physical boundary of land affected by goings-on at the border. In curating “YLA” he selected artists who have had the border loom large at one point in their lives, though they may not live or work in that setting now. Villanueva, for example, grew up in Dallas, but crossed the border at a young age.

Raul Gonzalez, “Push It,” acrylic, house paint, inkjet photo, graphite, concrete, 2017. Photo: Courtesy the artist.

Raul Gonzalez was born and raised in inner city Houston, miles away from what one would characteristically consider border country. Yet, his work deals with the effects of generational poverty and the roles Mexican-Americans are allowed to play in society as a result of their crossing.

Some references to the act of crossing are confrontational and purely political. Abel Saucedo, in “Tunnel Runner,” assumes an activist’s and documentarian’s perspective by mounting on the wall battered shoes he traded with migrants at the border in exchange for new ones. Each pair of shoes represents a person’s unsuccessful attempt to cross, and the broken dreams for a better future that went along with them.

A piece like “Tunnel Runner” is almost expected in an exhibition about the border, because it garners sympathy. If you can’t relate to the fear of leaving your home country or the anxiety of being surveilled as an immigrant, then here are the artifacts of that process for you to reflect upon.

Amidst the hyperfocus on the past and family and struggle, the show makes clear that there are attempts here to forge new traditions. Reserved until the end of the visitor’s journey through the galleries are several works by artists from immigrant families who don’t explicitly touch on what that experience is like.

Instead, they experiment with the forms and ideas of contemporary art in a global sense: Andrew Ordonez’s brutalist and conceptual concrete sculpture, for example, and Evelyn Contreras’ wall installation made of LED lights and 3-D printed elements.

This isn’t to say that this is the point to which artists should be evolving but the inclusion of these works rounds out the picture.

The story of growing up on the border, as the child of immigrants, isn’t completely sad, or completely joyful. It’s nuanced. Reckoning with that past leaves room for future development.

Lindsey Reynolds
Lindsey Reynolds
Lindsey Reynolds is an Art History PhD candidate at Southern Methodist University specializing in contemporary art of Latin America and the Middle East. She earned her BA from the University of Texas at Austin (2018) and her MA from the University of Houston (2021).

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