At first, it seems sad that the Colibrí Center for Human Rights’s beautiful new mural in Phoenix is caged by chain link fencing and razor wire.
But then the poetry of the painting’s story sinks in. This mural – honoring the thousands of people who’ve lost their lives crossing the border – has been rootless, rejected, and deemed illegal. It remains semi-invisible, separated from the community by “security.” Yet it is infused with family, connectedness, and love.
This mural is figuratively – and literally – a migrant.
A collaboration between Colibrí, New York artist Mata Ruda, and about a dozen Arizona artists, the controversial mural was approved and then blocked at five successive sites, migrating all the way from a museum in New York to a highrise on Washington Street in Phoenix.
Work began on the Washington Street site on July 16 to coincide with the 10th annual Netroots Nation, a conference for progressives that this year was held in Phoenix and spotlighted immigration issues.
But the artists were soon forced to abandon the site. The building’s owner, presumably gun-shy after an anti-Joe Arpaio rally marched past, thought the mural’s message – “Migrant lives matter” – was too contentious and threatened legal action.
“People who demonstrate acts of welcome, vulnerability and love make us more safe than walls, fencing or surveillance drones.”
Colibrí and the artists frantically searched for a new wall. Meanwhile, on the Netroots Nation stage a few blocks away, Colibrí’s director, Robin Reineke, was speaking about walls.
“There are no walls for the wealthy,” she told the crowd, showing a photo of the U.S.-Mexico border wall. “There are no walls for corporations. Walls present themselves to the world’s poor, especially those who are brown or black. Walls are what the artist Mata Ruda calls ‘an architecture of fear’.”
Hours after the Washington Street wall was abandoned, local business owner Monique Mochacha Sanderson Mata offered the artists her wall on Grand Avenue and Fillmore Street.
The muralists – Karlito Miller Espinosa (Mata Ruda); justseeds artists Jess X. Chen, Thea Gahr and Chip Thomas (Jetsonorama); and Phoenix artists Lucinda Yrene, Lalo Cota, Jeff Slim and Julius Badoni – worked day and night on the 100-foot wall.
But this is not a wall of fear. It is a wall of love.
The artists painted two migratory hummingbirds – Colibrí’s symbol and, in indigenous lore, a messenger between the living and the dead. One bird is bright blue. The other is a skeleton made of wheat paste, which over time will flake and fall to reveal the image underneath: “a human carrying her child driven by an undefeatable love that drives her to transcend borders,” wrote artist Chip Thomas.
They painted a mother holding a photograph of her missing migrant daughter. The image is based on a real woman who sought help from Colibrí to find her daughter’s body. But the women are not identified so they can represent all the “brave souls who have lost their lives in our borderlands and their families who show us the power of love every day,” Colibrí announced.
They painted thousands of stars and red map markers to represent the more than 6,000 lives lost crossing the border between 1998 and 2013. “Real, irreplaceable human lives,” Reineke stresses.
But each of those stars also represents an act of love.
“Love saves lives, love brings us back to life.”
As Reineke stood on the Netroots Nation stage, she told the story of Estella, who died from heat stroke while bringing her 5-year-old son to the U.S. She described how their fellow migrants had to pull the boy away from his mother and take him to safety. She recounted how Estella’s sister said to her, “Love is strong. It makes you capable of crossing borders, crossing mountains, crossing seas with nothing in your hands. Love saves lives, love brings us back to life.”
Reineke introduced Mike Wilson, a Tohono O’odham man who breaks the law to leave water on migrant trails, to save people’s lives. She described how migrants made a stretcher out of sticks to carry a sick woman, then turned themselves in to Border Patrol rather than abandon her.
“People who demonstrate acts of welcome, vulnerability and love make us more safe than walls, fencing or surveillance drones,” Reineke said.
So to look at the mural Colibrí and the artists created that week is to be reminded of those acts. It is to be reminded that if you peer behind the fences, the razor wire, and the architecture of fear, you’ll see semi-invisible stories of love.