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Bridging US-Mexico Divide Through the Performing Arts: Arizona Between Nosotros Festival Kicks Off

Literary titan Carlos Fuentes called it "the illusory crystal divider, the glass membrane between Mexico and the U.S." Next week in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, a ground-breaking festival featuring leading performance artists will attempt to shatter the stereotypes along that 1,950-mile crystal divide, and open a new dialogue among artists in the US and Mexico on the vexing cultural issues and political realities that often separate our neighboring countries. Founded by borderland American artists in response to the fallout over Arizona's infamous SB 1070 "papers please" legislation, Arizona Between Nosotros festival kicks off in Nogales, Sonora on June 30th, and then hopscotches the border to Tucson and Phoenix on July 1st and 8th, in a remarkable showcase of performance and video art, and follow-up panel discussions. The festival couldn't be more timely -- and needed. On the heels of Sen. John McCain's latest rants about Mexican immigrants and the border, and the nightmare headlines of Mexico's unrelenting drug war, Arizona Between Nosotros is one of those rare artistic initiatives that not only transcends the media-driven stereotypes from both sides of the border, but also allows a diverse group of artists from across Mexico to hold up the mirror and present artistic visions of their own country and the United States -- on Arizona stages. I spoke with festival co-organizer and Arizona poet and performance artist Logan Phillips about Arizona Between Nosotros, the role of artists and writers in bridging the divide between the US and Mexico, and the festival's upcoming events.
2011-06-24-Picture1.pngFestival performance artist Gabriela Leon, photo courtesy of Arizona Between Nosotros
JB: Give us a little background on your own work in the US and Mexico. LP: I was born and raised near the Arizona/Mexico border in Cochise County, after graduating from Northern Arizona University in 2005 I moved to Cuernavaca, Morelos and later Mexico City where I co-founded the multimedia performance art group Verbo•bala Spoken Video with video artists Moisés Regla and Adam Cooper-Terán. Both with Verbo•bala and solo, my work as a bilingual poet and performer has always touched on borders: social, political and personal. JB: Describe how you see Arizona artists like yourself in overcoming outside perceptions of the border as the great divide, and Mexico as a threat. LP: Touring and traveling throughout the US and Mexico, it is obvious that our commonalities far outnumber our differences. For governments, borders divide; but our communities extend across both sides. Borders are divisive, but borders also unite us -- they are points of exchange, interaction and creativity. Artists have the chance to communicate what statistics and politicians can't, by touching on the variety of human senses beyond the intellect. Sure, in Washington or Mexico DF we can have hyperbolic debates for years about immigration, but it's all theory unless those involved in the debating have met people from Mexico, have traveled in that country, have spent time on the border. Because of the fear-mongering, few are willing to do that. In the context of Arizona 2011, it is the responsibility of artists on both sides of the border to explore the lesser-recognized nuance, to expose visceral subtleties that are lost in the political debate. We must learn to tell our own stories -- and listen to stories from the other side, person-to-person. Performance art and video art are two very effective ways to do that. Internalizing the stereotypes created by opportunistic and hateful state legislators serves absolutely no one except those politicians. JB: As we discussed, I'm concerned American artists have ceded the cultural terrain in Arizona, allowing the media and outside portraits to focus more on the state's rightwing xenophobia than the long-time movements in the Latino and progressive movements for social justice. Do you feel your work is attempting to shift this focus -- or simply provide a different perspective? LP: We believe that the first step of shifting the focus from xenophobic legislation to the more positive histories and current movements in Arizona is to showcase different perspectives. Our goal is to open spaces for artists living and working in Mexico to express themselves in Arizona, about Arizona. When combining an open space for expression with an open-minded audience, almost anything can happen -- we hope the experience of Arizona Between Nosotros will stay with people, and make them less likely to be manipulated by petty politicians who trade in hate. JB: How did Arizona Between Nosotros emerge and who all is involved? LP: The genesis of Arizona Between Nosotros was a performance organized by Heather Wodrich and Laura Milkins in Mexico City last summer, where they together with Paco Velez gave performances relating to Arizona. SB1070 unexpectedly passed in the state legislature just before the show, and in Mexico suddenly the word Arizona had become shorthand for racism. The show received wide press attention in light of 1070, and the artists involved were forced to adapt to the new context. Late last fall after they had returned, the idea of inviting Mexican performance and video artists to Arizona emerged, as a way of continuing the artistic conversation that had started around the polemic legislation. Arizona Between Nosotros is being organized by Arizonan artists, all of whom have a connection to Mexico -- video artists Heather Wodrich and Adam Cooper-Terán, painter Paco Velez, performance artists Laura Milkins and Michéle Ceballos Michot, and myself. Our work is supported by numerous volunteers and over 100 individual financial donors who pledged in our online fundraising drive. We're also working with a wide variety of organizations in Nogales, Tucson and Phoenix, such as MOCA (Museum of Modern Art) and the YWCA Racial Justice program in Tucson, the City of Nogales, Sonora and ALAC (Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center). Some of our partner organizations have never before been involved in a collaborative project together -- we hope that Arizona Between Nosotros will also break down the borders that exist in our own state, opening the door for further collaboration and cooperation.
2011-06-24-Picture3.pngFestival performance artist Niña Yhared, photo courtesy of Arizona Between Nosotros
JB: Last week, Mexican poet Javier Sicilia led the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity to the US border -- do you see your work as part of Silicia's movement? LP: Though we aren't officially connected in any way, I feel that both Sicilia's movement and Arizona Between Nosotros have grown out of the immense frustration that people in both countries feel with the status quo of border policy. The Caravan has focused on the militarization of the war on drugs in Mexico, and Arizona Between Nosotros is a form of response to the criminalization of migrants in the US -- in both cases our countries are inescapably linked, and the solution will come from both sides of the border, not just one. JB: And the festival's mission? LP: Arizona Between Nosotros will help us all to move beyond the stereotypes that define our culture's view of Mexico; the performance and video art scene in Mexico is a young, dynamic and articulate. Many of the performers participating in ABN will be performing in the US for the first time, while others already have artistic roots in our state. Nothing like this festival has ever happened in Arizona -- we hope as many people get to experience it as possible. More information: