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During the Second World War, with industrial resources bent toward the war effort, the US suffered a dangerous shortfall of farm and railroad workers. From 1942 to 1964, the federal government, in partnership with Mexico, oversaw one of the largest foreign worker programs in US history. It was called the “Bracero Program,” from the Spanish word for manual labor. Between 1951 and 1964, Rio Vista Farm, near El Paso, Texas, accepted more than 80,000 Mexican workers per year. The contractual time, wages, and transportation of workers were documented at these sites after they underwent medical and psychological examinations, which often included fumigation with DDT. Approximately 4.6 million braceros went through the system over a 22-year period.
Artist Adriana Corral, with assistance from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and historian David Romo, has spent several years preparing to erect a site-specific installation at the historic Rio Vista Farm, titled “Unearthed: Desenterrado.” The work, curated by Cortney Lane Stell and produced by the Denver-based traveling museum Black Cube, is composed of a 60- by 40- foot flag. On each side of its semi-translucent white cotton support, a single eagle is embroidered: the Mexican golden eagle on one side and the American bald eagle on the other, claws connecting. Artist Vincent Valdez, who collaborated on the idea and design, told Hyperallergic in an email:
The historic usage of the eagle as nationalistic and patriotic symbols are used to evoke power, aggression, invulnerability and triumph. In this case, two eagles caught dueling in mid-flight speak to the tangled love and hate relationship between the neighboring countries.
It symbolizes the monumental contributions made by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the US, and captures a neglected narrative in American history. Corral discussed the project with Hyperallergic.
Kealey Boyd: The Bracero program managed contractual immigrant labor in many ways — wages, transport, etc. — and at many locations. Why did you focus on the processing center at Rio Vista Farm?
Adriana Corral: The Rio Vista Farm is one of the only facilities still standing in the nation, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and it is currently in the process of being recognized as a National Historic Landmark. With this project, my aim is to bring about a public remembrance of the early history of border control in the United States, and specifically my hometown of El Paso.
Prior to my project at Rio Vista, I spent a year in Berlin researching the architecture and methods used on prisoners at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück during World War II. I examined the use of cyanide-based pesticides, which were also used on Mexican immigrant laborers as a delousing procedure. Mexicans, at that time — like many immigrants and people of color in the US —were stereotyped as threats for disease, STDs, lice, and other illnesses.
KB: What did your research process include?
AC: I researched recent interviews with braceros and processors. In one oral history, a man is describing the examination process to his son. It is very intimate, like a rite of passage: “This is what they are going to do, remove your garments, spray you, examine you.” Maybe it was the only time his son ever undressed in front of anyone and underwent an examination? This history stands out, because you’re hearing someone who went through it multiple times, and is now indoctrinating his son. Saying, “It’s ok, I made it through.”
I’ve always had an interest in human rights, architecture and the type of facilities that housed people, humane or not. The time I spent at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien residency in Germany exposed me to the complexities of history. When I saw the dilapidated buildings [at Rio Vista] they were hauntingly similar to the concentration camps.
KB: What was the visual trigger?
AC: Ravensbrück was a women’s labor camp. It looked like Rio Vista — the architecture, paint color, layout. David Romo’s book, Ringside Seat to a Revolution, presents a delousing facility at the Santa Fe Bridge between 1915 and 1917. He highlights a number of German scientists who were coming to El Paso to study architecture and pesticides. There is a transnational connection there. We all are very quick to point our finger a certain direction, but everyone is complicit, to a level.
KB: Is “Unearthed: Desenterrado” a cathartic act? If so, for whom?
AC: I think it’s a ringing of the bell. A call to attention. When I was invited to be an observer at UN human rights cases, there were so many nations representing a victim or a family, and so many of those cases were universal. They were different, but so similar: fighting for a person. What I’m hoping for is an acknowledgement that other communities were helping in this country. So many individuals still work relentlessly — like the woman who is making this flag, Lucy, at Dixie Flags and Banner Company. She also made all the flags at the White House for the inauguration. Do we see this woman in the flags?
KB: The flag will eventually travel to several museums. Why is it important that this site-specific work will travel?
AC: It will initially be installed in its specific site, and we will see the deterioration over a 3-month lifespan. Then we can have another conversation. We can enter spaces where people are feeling paranoia, or fear, or don’t know how to unpack it and share its history. My hope is that we will be able to have a deeper conversation.
KB: There are other artists who have made works about the border. Do you see your work in kinship with other creative interventions, or is it unique?
AC: Many years ago, I was in graduate school at University of Texas at Austin, and did independent study with the artist Michael Ray Charles. He told me that he wanted to play a song for me, and he told me I had to put on my earphones so he could play the song really loud. He put on Jimi Hendrix’s “Anthem,” from Woodstock in 1969 … really loud. He said, “You need your work to do that. To hit you in the core.”
KB: Is the contemporary conversation around immigration in America a factor for you with this work?
AC: This project emphasizes the importance of recognizing and confronting the absences within our American history. Currently, we are witnessing yet another wave of paranoia.
The decision to produce a flag from white cotton corresponds to its location. The Rio Vista Farm resides in the center of a cotton field. Mexican labors have been, and continue to be, a part of the very fabric of this country, along with others unrecognized. The many individuals who work to provide clothing and fabrics in the textile industry; food on the dinner tables; construct our cities; serve in our militaries; work in our factories; and serve as nannies raising American children.
As a welcome symbol to Mexican immigrants entering the Rio Vista processing center, during the 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. and Mexican flags flew side by side. The 60-foot flagpole I am installing will be located at the same place where the welcome flags once stood.
“Unearthed: Desenterrado” continues in Socorro, Texas until June 9. In spring 2019, it will travel to Staniar Gallery at Washington and Lee University, and in fall of 2019, it will travel to Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.