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Along the fence line

A piece of plastic,
grass woven into the branches
for shade against the merciless sun,
a tuna can, toothbrush,
tortilla cloth, used bus ticket –
all part of your story,
your life lost in this desert.
            Delle McCormick

A single boot. A stuffed animal. A Spanish copy of Dr. Zhivago. A pair of blue jeans. A plastic comb with broken teeth. A Bible inscribed with hearts drawn in crayon. An empty shell from a rifle. A backpack with Blue’s Clues characters on it. A tuna can. A tire. A wallet with 70 pesos in it. A soccer ball. All these things have been found along a fence line. “They are not trash,” says Mexican composer Guillermo Galindo, “because of the context.” This context is the line dividing the United States and Mexico, a line where fences are being built.

Since 2006 the Department of Homeland Security in the U.S. began building more and more fences and barriers along the 3,000 km border. Today, about one third of the border features some sort of obstruction to reduce the flow of drugs and illegal migrants.

Photographer Richard Misrach has been spending time along this fence line. He photographs the objects he finds and then passes them on to Guillermo Galindo, who is turning them into musical instruments. Both Misrach and Galindo are asking us to see that these items represent someone’s life, someone’s story and, perhaps, someone’s tragedy.

The fence, which some estimate costs about $3 million per mile to build, has not stopped the flow of people or drugs. The fence can be climbed over, cut into, tunneled under, and, because it is not a continuous fence line, can be walked around. In 2007 an editorial cartoon circulated showing a 20-foot wall running through a border town. On the Mexican side was a business sign advertising “Jose’s 21-foot ladders.”

What do we do?
Opinions and emotions abound on the topic of illegal immigration. What do we do with the “other?” What does it mean to love your neighbour? What do you do when a Mexican drops over the fence into your backyard? Or when a boat filled with people from Sri Lanka pulls into a B.C. port? Do we send them back? Do we clamour for stronger laws and higher fences? Or do we create an instrument made from objects left behind?

Galindo created one of his instruments using a boot and a glove left by a migrant worker. By manipulating the instrument the boot and glove strike rawhide stretched over a tire – a tire that border patrols drag across the sand to make it easier to see migrant footprints. Galindo hopes that this instrument will create a connection between the person who lost the item and the person who now plays the instrument.

On CBC radio’s The Current, Galindo said, “We see a lot of numbers, we see a lot of statistics, but we don’t realize that each of these numbers is a human life and it’s as important as any human life.”
Marcello Di Cintio, author of Walls: Travels along the Barricades, takes a similar view to the items found along the fence line. “These objects have a resonance beyond mere trash. They are the jetsam of migration: the relics of otherwise invisible men and women the passerby can know no other way than by plastic combs and tuna cans.” The objects tell a story, a story of hope and also despair.

The fence, as with many things, looks different when viewed close up. In a National Geographic article from 2007 this iron law is stated: “The closer one gets to the line, the more rational the talk becomes because everyone has personal ties to people on the other side.” The number or statistic becomes a person. As Di Cintio walked along the fence line with a group of teenagers he noticed that they grew quiet. “The sight of the trash seemed to strike them into silence. Until then, the migrants were just ideas. Phantoms. Seeing what they left behind revealed them as living, moving beings with hair to comb and teeth to clean.”

Seeing what they left behind revealed them as living,
moving beings with hair to comb and teeth to clean.

Hearing the story
In 2014 Richard Misrach found a girl’s tweezers, a ball, two Bibles and a child’s tennis shoes. He only found items from children. He later learned that 52,000 unaccompanied children had recently come from Central America to enter the United States only to be apprehended by Border Patrol. The objects were sent to Galindo who then created instruments for a Micro Orchestra – an orchestra made up of tiny sounds, sounds that could only be heard by using a very strong microphone. He challenges us to hear the voices of the unheard by “forcing ourselves to listen to these very tiny sounds.” Sounds and objects tell a story.

What do we think when we hear stories about illegal migrants? Stories about people who die trying to cross the desert in Arizona or people crammed into containers on cargo ships headed to Vancouver? Do we consider them criminals? Do we believe they are here to steal jobs and education and healthcare from us? Do we think that building higher fences is the solution? National Geographic claims that the American wall “is designed to control the movement of people, but it faces the problems of all walls – rockets can go over it, tunnels can go under it. It offends people, it comforts people, it fails to deliver security. And it keeps expanding.” People living near the wall “realize the wall is a police solution to an economic problem.”

If the fence is not the solution, what is? In Galindo’s words, “We need to understand that these objects – things we use in our daily lives – belonged to someone who was suffering.” So when we hear the stories is it possible for us to see illegal migrants as people struggling to survive in a global economic world that often shows no mercy? Can we see them as people who play soccer and eat tuna? People who carry combs to fix their hair? People who read Dr. Zhivago? People who use crayons to draw hearts in their Bibles? People who are our neighbours?


  • Heidi Blokland lives in a rural community south of Ottawa, Ont. She teaches Kindergarten at the local Christian school and is a member of Community CRC in Dixon's Corners.

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