For a long time, Carolina Valdez has wanted to visit the United States-Mexico border.
Over the years, she has talked to her mother — who crossed the border about 30 years ago at the age of 20 — about visiting but it has just never happened.
But in recent weeks, Valdez has been giving the trip more serious thought after attending an opening reception for “Border Doors: Unmasking Zones of Meaning,” an exhibit at Centro Cultural Mexicano (CCM) in Redmond on Jan. 11.
“Border Doors” is an exhibit of painted and mixed-media collage doors that reflect on the lived experiences of Mexican and Central American immigrants crossing the United States-Mexico border. It will be on display at the center through mid February.
Valdez has been on the center’s board since August 2019 and is also the vice president of the associated student government at Bellevue College (BC). The Kirkland resident brought a group of fellow BC students to the reception and said the exhibit prompted them to speak about the issues surrounding immigration that are highlighted by the doors.
From Southwest to Northwest
The doors were created by high school seniors from Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who visited the border as part of a border studies class, taught by Claudio Pérez.
Before “Border Doors” came to Redmond, the exhibit was shown in 2017 at Cascadia College in Bothell. It made its way from the Southwest to the Pacific Northwest after it was displayed at the University of New Mexico. From that first exhibit came an online catalog of the doors that were displayed. After that, Pérez reached out to his brother Jesús Pérez, who is a professor of Latin American history and global studies at Cascadia, to see if the school would be interested in showing the exhibit.
Jesús consulted with Chris Gildow, who is the director of the Mobius Art Gallery at Cascadia, and the two of them began lobbying to get the school to support them economically in bringing the doors to the campus.
They were able to bring “Border Doors” to Cascadia during the school’s Human Rights Awareness Week, a former annual event that no longer runs due to a lack of funding.
An inspirational trip
Claudio said the doors that are currently on display in Redmond were created about four years ago but new doors are created every year as he brings students — about 14-15 — down to the border each year and has been doing so for five or six years. It takes about four hours to get from Albuquerque to the border at El Paso, Texas and once they’re there, Claudio said they stay for three days and two nights.
While down there, the students speak to various people, ranging from social workers, politicians and lawyers, to border patrol guards and people hoping to cross the border into the United States.
“They’re really impacted,” Claudio said about his students’ experiences and how visiting the border puts faces to the stories they read in class prior to the trip.
Claudio said the students use the trip as inspiration to create the doors to represent what is happening down at the border. Each year, the class focuses on a different theme related to immigration. During the 2018-19 school year, he said their theme was “kids in cages,” and this year, following the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart in August 2019 that killed 22 people, they are focusing on discrimination and violence.
Bringing community together
While “Border Doors” focuses on specific immigration issues at the country’s southern border, CCM executive director Carlos Jiminez said the exhibit sends a strong message about the struggles of the immigrant community as a whole. And while the doors may reflect stories of injustice, oppression and other hardships, he said they also reflect faith and hope.
Angie Yusuf, director of CCM, said when the Pérez brothers and Gildow approached them about bringing “Border Doors” to the center, it was an opportunity for them to inform the greater community on immigration issues. She said experiencing something through art causes a more visceral reaction, compared to experiencing it through other mediums such as reading about it or seeing something on the news.
The exhibit’s opening reception brought a wide range of community members to CCM. During the event, Claudio spoke about the project’s background at Sandia. Jesús spoke about the doors and their cultural context, touching on nativism and the anti-immigrant attitudes some people in this country have. Gildow spoke on the doors’ aesthetic.
“They were so strong visually,” Gildow said about his initial reaction to seeing the doors up close when they first arrived at Cascadia three years ago.
Jiminez and Yusuf said they saw people of all cultural backgrounds as well as a wide range of ages. Jiminez said the community was out in full force.
“This is what this space is about,” he said about CCM bringing the community together.
‘These are people’ Jiminez and Yusuf also noted the large number of young people — ranging from high school to college aged — who attended the event as well as those who have come by to check out the exhibit since it opened.
In addition to the reception, CCM also held a Cafe y Pan Dulce event the following day. This was a round-table discussion that included the Pérez brothers and Gildow and was an opportunity for people to process what they saw and experienced the night before as well as share their own personal experiences.
Yusuf said this event also had many students in attendance, noting that the young people were active participants in the conversation. She said the youth were thankful to be there, saying they are rarely asked to be part of such conversations. And while not all of them could speak about an immigrant experience, Yusuf said the young people related to others’ experiences by sharing some of their own fears as students such as school shootings.
“We can build empathy just by sharing those experiences…and acknowledge each other,” she said, adding that when a community has a voice, it is powerful and meaningful.
Valdez said after seeing the doors up close, her views and thoughts on immigration and what’s happening at the border changed.
“It definitely changed because we live in Washington,” Valdez said. “We’re very far from the [southern] border.”
She added that the doors are a reminder that “these are people” escaping serious situations. Comparing her mother’s experience crossing the border, Valdez said while it’s never been safe to cross the country’s southern border, the situation is even less safe now.
Valdez said for young people — specifically young people of color — a large part of the impact the doors have on them is seeing part of themselves in art as it can be hard to find representation of people who look like them in the media. She said it’s all about storytelling and having their stories told and “Border Doors” is young people telling others the stories of people trying to cross the border.
And after the three presenters spoke, attendees were given an opportunity to speak if they wished. Valdez gave an impromptu speech expressing her gratitude for the project. She said she feels the exhibit is getting people to talk about the issues it highlights.
“I think when art does that, it’s doing its job,” Valdez said.
Centro Cultural Mexicano is located at 7945 Gilman St. in Redmond. The center is open from 12:30-7 p.m., Monday through Saturday and by appointment on Sunday. For more information, email carlos@centro culturalmexicano.org or call 425-896-7067.