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Members of the Mexican anti-refugee group “Somos el Muro” (“We Are the Wall”) disagree with President Donald Trump about needing to build a stronger fortification between the United States and Mexico — though not for expected reasons. Instead, the group wants to prevent Central American asylum-seekers from entering Mexico in the first place. In January 2018, the group released a video condemning the migrant “caravan” and pledging to stop refugees in their tracks. Online, Somos el Muro advertises its desire to “end the abuse of our generous system of asylum and refuge” by the “hundreds of thousands of Central American illegals.”
Millions have seen the organization’s video call-to-arms, which has been shared widely on social media and news outlets across Latin America. The twist? Somos el Muro is a complete hoax.
What began as a New York University-led project commenting on the Central American migrant crisis quickly devolved into an international controversy riffing off of Mexican racism and xenophobia in the face of the 5,000 refugees fleeing gang violence and drug cartels in countries like Honduras.
In 2017, NYU’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics brought over 30 artists and activists to Chiapas, Mexico for eight days to investigate how the region was dealing with its then-little publicized influx of refugees.
Marlène Ramirez-Cancio is an associate director of arts and media at the institute who worked closely with researchers on the Chiapas trip. She tells Hyperallergic that participants worked on two satirical projects: one group created a telethon called “Migratón” while the other built the now-infamous anti-migrant group called Somos el Muro.
Inspired by the Yes Men, a collective known for its large-scale political pranks against devious multinational companies, Ramirez-Cancio says that the project groups developed their work as a form of “laughtivisim,” meant to provoke public outrage and response by deploying provocative humor. For the project, NYU actually enlisted the help of Andy Bichlbaum, a Yes Men member who worked hard to co-create and appear in the Somos el Muro video.
Accordingly, Somos el Muro endeavored to expose hypocrisy in Mexico. Its creators believed that Mexicans, while critical of President Trump’s anti-immigrant sentiments, also resented the Central American refugees entering their own country.
After a delayed post-production schedule, the Somos el Muro video was released on social media in January 2018, but failed to gain much traction. However, the migrant caravan became topical again in autumn of this year when President Donald Trump began using it as a bogeyman to scare Republican voters to the November 2018 midterm election polls. Because of the reignited political chatter, Ramirez-Cancio decided to repost the video online, and subsequently found a captive audience for NYU’s satire.
In just two days, she estimates that 1.2 million people watched the Somos el Muro video. In 10 days, that number spiked to almost 2.8 million viewers.
Somos el Muro attracted considerably more outrage than most university projects typically garner. And it raised the question: Is a joke still funny even when its punchline gets lost in translation?
For many Hondurans, the video was a painful reminder of how their neighboring countries discriminate against their nation. Television newscasters ripped footage offline and played it on the air. Newspapers, magazines, and digital publications across Latin America reported about Somos el Muro as if it were real, even if the group’s website has a very clear page outing itself as satire. La Tribuna, a Honduran newspaper owned by the country’s former president Carlos Roberto Flores, even highlights a counter-movement in the country called “Somos Honduras,” endeavoring to strengthen national identity in the face of discrimination. Mexico’s La Prensa also posted the video on its website before later including a message from Somos el Muro denoting itself as satire.
“When we made the video, we didn’t think people would see it as real,” explains Ramirez-Cancio, who points to its sing-along ending that spoofs the 1985 Live Aid anthem, “We Are the World.” Maybe people didn’t watch all the way to the end, she suggests.
Ramirez-Cancio is aware of the criticism the institute’s project has received over the last few months. Even if “the racism is real,” as she notes, others have felt that Somos el Muro has merely stoked tensions in the region without a clear indication of humor. Because nuance is dead in the digital age, some people also feared that real radicals in Mexico would take up the phony group’s cause. But Ramirez-Cancio is not convinced. “People say that the internet is so open that all radical positions exist, so satire is always believed as a true position,” she observes, “but I disagree.”
“To say that artists should stay in their lane — we need it all. Satire is a way to reveal analysis. Satire is shareable. People will react against it.”