Border Crossings and Migration in Latin American Art

In the context of Latin American art the concepts of border-crossing and migration can refer to many different things. These ideas may relate to Latin American artists crossing borders to study in Europe or America, or to art itself that has crossed borders to be exhibited abroad. This definition, however, will focus on art that incorporates ideas of migration and border crossing, and ways these concepts are defined and discussed in a Latin American artistic context. Themes of border crossing and migration are prominent in the history and contemporary events of Latin American countries, and are therefore ideas present in much of the artwork by artists within and from this region. The Mexico-United States border is steeped in cultural and social meaning, but the concept of border can be defined globally as well. The idea of border crossing has non-geographical meanings to many artists, and their art reflects this. Migrations of Latin American people from rural to urban areas are becoming very common, and depictions of migratory people are a reoccurring theme in the work of some artists.

Border crossing in a Latin American context cannot be discussed without considering the many meanings of the Mexico-United States border in art. The common definition of a border is the boundary between two countries, but this is only one of many ways to conceptualize the Mexico-United States border. The border can be defined as something carried with people, specifically with Mexican people as they cross into America. In this definition, the Mexican body is conceptualized as an illegal invading force, creating social and cultural tensions (Aguirre and Simmers 2008, 103). Performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña deals with this concept of border in his work. He explores ideas of the Mexico-United States border by suggesting a role reversal of Mexican and American people if the situation surrounding this border was reversed (1994, 63). Similarly, the border can be considered as something that crosses people, rather than the opposite, particularly in the perspective of Mexican people who have crossed the border (2002, 81). In both these definitions, the border is not a physical thing localized to any geographical area, but a broad concept and experience.

As well as being present at national boundaries, borders can occur on much larger and smaller scales. Gomez-Peña, in his performance art, refers to the border as global. His work labels the culture of the United States as being bordered itself, though instead of being focused on the Mexico-United States border specifically, he has a “global border consciousness” (1994, 62). He conceptualizes this kind of global bordering as being the result of many smaller borders, present not only on global or national levels but even within cities. These borders are between the poor and displaced people and the middle or upper-class people living in the city (1994, 61-64).

Border crossing can occur when a person learns to fully appreciate or even adapt artistic expression from another culture and relate it to their own life (Congdon, Delgado-Trunk and Lopez 1999, 328). In this way, art can be a medium for border crossing experiences, allowing people to cross borders of culture and ethnicity as well as many other kinds of borders. An example of this type of border crossing is the ofrenda1 workshops put on by Mexican artists Catalina Delgado-Trunk and Marva Lopez in the United States, to teach people about Mexican cultural practices (Delgado-Trunk and Lopez 1999, 313). By educating people about the cultural context and meanings of ofrendas, these artists helped others gain respect and understanding for Latin American cultural and artistic practices, thus using art to create border crossing experiences in workshop participants. Guillermo Gomez-Peña also believed that art has border crossing potential. He claimed that artists could foster political change because they could cross borders that political activists could not access (1994, 68). He took the idea of art as a means of border crossing to another level, saying that all people who read his work were crossing borders. Gomez-Peña declared that artists stand between two places “with one foot on each side of the border, and our art and thought reflects this condition” (1994, 64).

Migration, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is the movement of people from one  place to another (OED online 2011, migration). This may often involve crossing physical borders between countries, but in a Latin American context, refers as well to the large-scale demographic shift of people moving from rural areas and small farms to urban areas causing cities to rapidly expand (and Grau 2004, 1915). This migration causes severe social and environmental damages that are explored in Latin American art. Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado uses themes of migration and its impacts in his work. He credits the cause of migrations not to individual or national situations, but to changing global patterns. The value of work in the southern hemisphere is decreasing, and when large-scale industrial agriculture moves into countries like Brazil, small farmers cannot compete, and are forced to sell their land. These people who are displaced from their land must migrate to urban areas, where they no longer have steady work and may have to migrate further, to other countries such as the United States in search of it (2003, 2-4). This results in decreased labor in rural areas, the abandonment of marginalized land, and a population shift into cities, which is detrimental both to human and natural systems (and Grau 2004, 1915). These migrants, who frequent subjects in Salgado’s photojournalism, are migrating simply to find the bare essentials of life: employment, home, security, and dignity (Delgado 2003, 4). In Salgado’s book Terra: Struggle of the Landless, his photographs depict land takeovers, and the degradation and harsh living conditions of Brazilian people as a result of migrations from rural areas to cities. They also show the struggle of Brazilian people to claim land (2007). Salgado, however, presents solutions to this migration problem. He believes that we have to find a way of globalizing the world that is less harmful to people and the environment. To do this, people must “open [their] minds to discussion” (2003, 7) and we need “solidarity and community” (2003, 8), and Salgado believes that art is the way to achieve this.

Border crossing and migration in Latin American art are linked together very closely. The work of Sebastião Salgado is an excellent example of this. With his photographs of migratory people, Salgado strives to show others what he has seen, inform them, and ultimately provoke discussion  (2003, 12).  Another example is the work of Cornello Campos, whose art represents journeys of Mexico-United States migrations in an effort to bring the border closer to non-Latin American audiences (Palis and Reilly 2011, 287). In doing this, these artists are attempting to facilitate border crossing experiences in the viewers and readers of their work. In conclusion, Latin American migrations are causing social and environmental destruction, issues that are explored in artwork. In a Latin American context, borders can be within people, or occurring globally, and art can be used as a means of creating border-crossing experiences in artists and viewers.

Hannah Joy Falk


1   Ofrendas are memorial altars or shrines created in tribute to people who have died. They are an important part of Mexican cultural expression (Delgado-Trunk and Lopez 1999, 312).

Works Cited

OED Online. September 2011. “migration, n.”. Oxford University Press. 18 November 2011         <;.

Rushdie, Salman. 2002. “Step Across This Line” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values75-105. Delivered at Yale University Feb. 25 and 26 2002. Accessed October 18, 2011.

Valdivia, Gabriela, Joseph Palis, and Matthew Reilly. 2011. “Borders, Border-Crossing and Political Art in North Carolina” Southeast Geogr 512:287-306. Accessed October 18, 2011.   doi:.1353/sgo.2011.0016

This entry was posted in border crossing, Catalina Delgado-Trunk, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Marva Lopez, Mexico, Mexico-United States border in art, Migration, ofrendas. Bookmark the permalink.

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