Who can say why Lisa Tan set out to paint the border wall?
Perhaps it was because her father used to roll up his car window to keep people from spitting on him.
Perhaps it was the stories of children torn from their parents, shivering under mylar blankets in detention centers.
Perhaps it was because as a Payson High School music teacher, she understood how art can transform your perception — and your life.
She crossed the border like a refugee — with a bag of paint and brushes.
But she found a surprise waited on the other side.
The title of the Presbyterian mission — “Art as Hope and Resistance” — caught her attention. She talked to Linda Wescott, a former Presbyterian minister and Dawn Proudfoot, the wife of former Payson Presbyterian minister Chuck Proudfoot, who both wanted to attend the sessions put on by border ministry founder Jerry Stacy. Tan and perhaps 30 others chose to attend a workshop that involved turning the border wall into art. Some in the Payson Presbyterian congregation had grave fears.
“Right before we went down, there was all this violence in the news. We were bombarded by the congregation asking, ‘Do you think we should go?’”
For Tan, the trip touched on her own family history.
“I am the first generation of my father’s family to be born in the U.S.,” she said. “My mother’s father came from Norway in a boat.”
Tan’s father came from China after World War II.
“My father came in 1952,” she said. “When he came over and married my mother it was illegal in some of the states because they were of different races.”
The two had to play a game to get an apartment.
Tan’s mother would go in alone and sign the lease, before saying, “Now I’m going to bring my husband in to sign the lease.” The landlord would try to break the lease, but couldn’t because she had already signed the lease.
The couple always rolled up their car windows at stoplights to stop people from spitting on them — a common practice.
Her father faced job discrimination and Lisa had to deal with name calling from teachers. “It was really awful. My chemistry teacher called me Ms. Chink. I didn’t understand it at the time,” she said.
So she felt called upon to go to the border.
“We are a nation of immigrants ... You can’t go back many generations without finding immigrants,” said Tan. “So whose culture are you talking about that you are trying to preserve?”
A surprise beyond the border
“It was an experience to be walking across the border ... I felt I was in exodus. I was on a big journey and carrying a big load. It was almost biblical.”
The trip confounded her expectations.
“The thing in Agua Prieta was love. The people were welcoming. The whole atmosphere was welcoming,” she said. “On the Mexican side (of the border wall), there are sidewalks and bus stops and art on it. It was a dichotomy. They are normalizing something unnatural. They are making it less menacing. Hope is really a significant word here. That is what I saw on the Mexican side.”
The U.S. side offered a stark contrast.
“The U.S. side of the border was no-man’s-land. There is a dirt road right on the other side of the border. All that goes across are border patrol agents. Then there is a huge cement filled ditch that is part of the security and then a chain-link fence. From there to the median in the road, that is the border. You can’t even touch the wall, while on the Mexican side it’s got works of art and walkways. It is really a stark difference.”
It made her wonder why anyone would attempt to immigrate to the U.S.
She learned what drives many immigrants.
One woman sought to escape domestic violence.
One man sought to escape gang violence, but an unscrupulous guide took his $3,000 down payment and left him stranded. “He was just escaping a really bad situation. He thought he was paying money to get across the border legally,” said Tan.
Mostly, economics drove the border crossers.
Project takes form
Tan and her fellow art lovers set to painting birds and flowers on the wall.
“We were shown these different flowers and birds that represent the national flowers and birds of the nations where the refugees come from,” she said. “These birds are taking flight and becoming free. There was so much symbolism.”
ASU artist in residence, Carolina Aranibar-Fernandez, created a piece that blew Tan away. The artist worked with the Mylar blankets given to immigrant children at detention centers. She wrapped the bars of the border fence in the blankets.
“The wall disappeared, just like the children did,” said Tan. “That wasn’t all ... she took the Mylar blankets and braided them because in the Bolivian culture, you braid your hair to deal with sorrow. It drapes onto the ground.”
“Everybody is the same everywhere,” she said. “You just cannot go and live ... there without absorbing some of their way of life.”
She hopes the U.S. can learn to be as understanding as the Mexicans were after World War II.
“I learned this ... the Mexicans took our Japanese refugees. We had those Japanese internment camps. When they closed them, they kicked them out and they went to Mexico. They took our refugees and now we won’t take theirs.”
She said Americans and Mexicans share a common humanity, but are separated by economics.
“When they are migrant farmers, they are very poor,” said Tan. “If they suddenly made thousands a year and were two generations away, they wouldn’t live that way. They’re wonderful people, but they can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet. Their sewage just can’t handle the toilet paper. It’s just amazing.”
Still, she and her fellow Payson travelers feared they would face judgment and hostility once they returned.
“Our mantra ended up being, ‘When we get back ... it would be disrespectful to the people of Mexico to say anything other than we had a really good time and they were really lovely people,” said Tan. “In fact, I went to Mexico and had a blast. I encountered nothing but love and friendliness.”
And in the process she found a whole new way to look at walls and Mylar blankets — all through the lens of art and hope.