Border Stories and Local Style: Triple Opening has a Little of Everything

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by Angela Marler

Esmeralda Felix is a woman with purpose. As she stood in artist Caleb Duarte’s performance piece on Friday, legs trapped in a slab of dirt and cement, she thought of her husband.

“I’m doing this for my husband,” she said with determination, fighting off tears in the Street Gallery. “We’ve tried everything, we’ve even tried a lawyer.We just want people to pay attention.”

Her husband has been seeking asylum in the United States but has been detained in San Diego for more than nine months. Duarte asked Felix to participate, sharing her experience with those who came to the opening of In Motion: Borders and Migrations at UMOCA.

In Motion, along with Melik Ohanian’s Welcome to Hanksville and 12×12, the work from this year’s Gala artists, opened last week to an enthusiastic crowd at the triple opening.

Gala artists and visitors mingled in the packed galleries, talking about their inspirations and artwork. For the first time the gala artwork is on display before the gala, and bidding is open to the public online.

Ohanian’s film drew in an audience with its slow, hypnotizing footage displayed on three screens. The piece examines a group of pseudo-scientists congregating in the Utah desert during the cosmological opposition of Mars to the Earth.

The energy of the night came from the “In Motion” exhibition, which explores alternative representations of the United States and Mexico border and included two performance pieces by Caleb Duarte.

Ella Mendoza, who emigrated from Peru when she was a little girl, participated with Felix in Duarte’s “Dirt Wall.” Mendoza and Felix stood in a floating slab of dirt, each facing a blank wall. The two women and their families are struggling with legal issues after moving to the United States.

“My story is a story of hope—that you can be young and undocumented and still have a future,” Mendoza said as she prepared to stand in the opening in the slab of dirt. “I’m coming out of the shadows. I just applied for a work permit and got a job.”

Ella’s job is teaching preschoolers, and she loves every minute of it. So do her pupils, one of which came to see her performance on Friday. The three-year-old talked excitedly to Ella, who stood separated from the girl by the cement and dirt around her legs.

“We don’t hear enough about people who are trying to work here, making a difference in people’s lives—my kid’s life,” said Corinna Gustafson, the girl’s mother. “The whole exhibition is very emotional.”