Two University of Arizona School of Art faculty, Assistant Professor Nicole Antebi and Professor David Taylor, are members of collaborative teams that have been awarded major funding in support of projects which aim to facilitate vulnerable border populations in telling their own stories.
Digital Borderlands is a three-year grant project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and facilitated through the University of Arizona Libraries. The goal is to produce and disseminate new, open-access humanities scholarship about the U.S.-Mexico borderlands by integrating library services into a collaborative research process that emphasizes data-intensive, digital storytelling.
While the projects are vastly different, they both are intending to share the stories of people whose voices are often suppressed or erased. Leveraging the University’s resources and working in collaboration with advocacy groups and community organizers, these multidisciplinary projects will help to amplify the voices of the people at the center of complex borderlands issues.
Antebi of the Illustration + Design program is the Principal Investigator for “The Rarámuri Dressmakers of Chihuahua City,” an animated documentary produced in collaboration with Victoria Blanco, a nonfiction writer from the sister cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and Irene Baqué, a documentary filmmaker based in London. The team will work with direction from Amalia Holguin, who will guide the film. Holguin is a Rarámuri dressmaker, community leader, and mother who was raised in Oasis, a government-funded Indigenous compound situated within the Colonia Martín López neighborhood.
Oasis is home to 500 Rarámuris who fled the drought and drug growers in their ancestral homeland, the Sierra Madre mountains. Mineral depletion in the soil, caused by deforestation and prolonged droughts have made it impossible for Rarámuri people to depend on traditional subsistence farming.
Rarámuris in the Sierra often bet food during foot races, as a way to ensure that everyone has enough to eat. In the city, food scarcity is no longer the Rarámuris’ biggest threat. Instead, Rarámuri women create and redistribute traditional floor-length dresses as a way to discourage their people’s assimilation into mainstream Mexican society.
“My collaborators and I are thrilled to receive this generous Mellon Foundation grant in partnership with the Digital Borderlands team at the University of Arizona Library,” said Antebi. “Our objective is to create a documentary that narrates the ways in which Rarámuri women of Chihuahua uphold their sharing economy and preserve their people’s knowledge and identity through dressmaking.”
In addition to the documentary, the project will bring late 19th and early 20th century photographs of the Rarámuri from the University of Arizona archives to their descendants, where they will respond to the images, with words or by drawing on the photographs themselves.
“By inviting community members to interact with the photographs housed at the University of Arizona library, we put historical documents directly in the hands of the people whose ancestors were documented,” Antebi said. “This has the potential to prompt important and moving dialogue, and visual art, among the women about their history and their resistance — conversations that, with their permission, we want to document.”
Antebi will also be engaging Rarámuri youth by facilitating a series of stop-motion animation workshops. Giving the teens these tools and resources provides them with the agency to tell their own stories, with a 21st century spin.
Jen Nichols at CATalyst Studios will assist, connecting the teens directly to the University of Arizona Libraries, where the files will be converted into embroidered animations.
Through dressmaking, Rarámuri women have found ways to maintain their agency and resist assimilation into Mexican culture and upholding their sharing economy. While their story is one of cohesion and continuity, myriad people from across Mexico and Central and South America make the desperate decision to journey to the U.S. with hopes for a better future, only to find themselves incarcerated in immigrant detention centers.
Taylor of the Photography, Video and Imaging program, is collaborating on a project called, “DETAINED: Voices from the Migrant Incarceration System.”
“DETAINED is a collaboration between faculty in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Creative Writing, the School of Art, and the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project (FIRRP),” said Taylor. “The project is intended to create an archive of first-person testimony by those who have been incarcerated in privately operated ICE detention centers in Arizona.”
Students and faculty will document experiences of former detainees through a combination of multilingual written, visual, and audio forms.
The public facing archive will be located in Special Collections at the University of Arizona Libraries. The project is designed to extend the meaning and function of archives while serving as an artistic counter-memorial to the expansive landscape of immigrant incarceration — which is present in nearly every region of the United States.
Often the subject of contentious national debate, migrant incarceration operates mostly outside of public view. When information is released to the public, it comes in the form of polished press releases and carefully crafted responses to public inquiry or outcry. The voices of those most affected, the migrant detainees themselves, are largely absent from conversations about immigrant detention and the treatment they endure while incarcerated. DETAINED will operate as a platform for people to author their own history and create a durable record of their experiences.
Partnership with Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project (FIRRP) and its staff is essential as the project seeks to create a coequal relationship between the university and advocacy organizations. FIRRP staff will be critical to establishing trust with interviewees, and will also provide professional, legal guidance on what information to anonymize or redact for the safety of those who choose to participate.
Along with Taylor, the multidisciplinary group working on the project includes:
- Anita Huizar-Hernández, Principal Investigator and associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese
- Susan Briante, professor of Creative Writing in the Department of English
- Francisco Cantú, a writer, translator and UArizona alumnus
- Daniel Hernandez, Donor Communications Coordinator for FIRRP
- Greer Millard, Communications Manager for FIRRP
- Three graduate assistants
The project team will interview 25 former detainees to document their experiences in their own words. The interviews will be put into context in order to enhance understanding and contribute to broader conversations surrounding migrant incarceration in the U.S. The stories of the detainees will be accompanied by artwork they created while incarcerated, information about the history of for-profit detention, the history of border enforcement, and the increased criminalization of migration.
Project collaborators will publish work that draws upon detainee testimony through scholarly and public outlets, exposing a wide audience to the archive content. In addition, the archive will be accessible to the public through an open-source web publishing platform.
“We want the archive to be responsive, to function as an artistic and conceptual vehicle, and, above all else, to privilege the agency of those who it depicts,” said Taylor.