January 17, 2008, - 2:18 pm
By Debbie Schlussel
This is hilarious.
Some aging hippy-dippy artist chick has invented a strange new high-brow mode of respect for illegal aliens. Their discarded wrappers, gloves, ripped jeans, and other trash is no longer “trash,” except maybe to you lowly, the lumpenproletariat, who is too unsophisticated to understand that a used condom covered in desert sand and who-knows-what-communicable-disease is actually advanced, brilliant art. These are “pilgrims” on a “journey,” after all.
AMADO, Ariz. — Valarie James looks for art in the desert. On a recent evening stroll with her three dogs, she gathered up a soiled bandage, a discolored hand-stitched cloth and ripped jeans.
She recognized it all as items abandoned by people sneaking into the U.S. on foot.
“For most everybody, this is trash,” says Ms. James, a 53-year-old artist who maintains a collection of migrant artifacts, mostly belongings discarded by illegal border crossers here. “You can see the migrant’s journey in these jeans,” she says, pointing to the holes made in them by cactus needles in the Sonoran desert.
Ms. James, an art teacher, collects all sorts of stuff on her desert treks. She treats with care the Tweety Bird backpacks, tattered hand-embroidered cloths and faded photographs she finds half-buried in dry creek beds or hanging stiffly on trees. Some discards are literary; for example, an anthology of Shakespeare plays and the “Diary of Anne Frank,” both in Spanish. Other things, ranging from bandages to binoculars, are more ordinary. “It’s like the pilgrims’ journey,” Ms. James says. [DS: Insert finger down throat.]
Litter left by illegal immigrants has long been a nuisance, but lately it has become a particular burden for Arizona. . . . The Bureau of Land Management estimates that each migrant dumps eight pounds of trash. In 2006, the agency and its partners in southern Arizona collected more than 300,000 pounds of migrant refuse in the 100 miles north of the border.
Immigration was already an emotional issue in Arizona. Litter is making things worse. Ranchers, hikers and environmentalists all bemoan the “migrant trash,” as an eyesore and a threat to desert wildlife and vegetation.
So-called staging areas, where migrants change into clean clothes and wait for rides at the end of their crossing, become “hazardous-waste zones,” says Roger DiRosa, manager of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
For Arizona residents as far as 30 miles north of the Mexican border, migrant trash is a daily annoyance. “I can’t stand the mess,” says Dick Riester, who typically returns home from his mountain hikes hauling a 40-pound garbage bag stuffed with plastic water bottles, backpacks and other things he finds on migrant trails.
Ms. James first encountered migrant trash in 2004, on the open range across the road from her ranch. As she was walking her dogs, she tripped on an abandoned bag. In it, she found two infant dresses, a little girl’s birth certificate and a Johnson & Johnson “No M?°s L?°grimas” (“No More Tears”) shampoo bottle. Next to the bag was a set of women’s clothing.
“What happened to this woman and her child?” she wonders. “Did they stagger to the nearby road? Were they picked up by the border patrol? Or, are they living somewhere in the U.S.?” She made a candle-lit shrine to the unknown mother and child in an unused building on her spread. [DS: Oh, how touching.]
As she encountered more castaway items, her collection grew. Neighbors and friends started giving her things, too, including a tiny crocheted baby mitten stuck with cactus needles. [DS: Awwww.]
Today, a makeshift gallery on Ms. James’s ranch holds her large collection. In the middle of the room sits a pile of 30 rolled-up blankets. In one corner, Ms. James keeps dozens of children’s backpacks — most of them with familiar logos — Scooby-Doo, Barbie, Batman. A medicine table features acetaminophen tablets, tubes of antiseptic cream and rubbing alcohol. Most of the labels are in Spanish, including one for an herbal remedy to treat snakebite. Among the display of shoes, sneakers and boots, a man’s black leather loafer stands out. Tucked inside are several pages from “Hamlet,” in which Shakespeare’s tragic hero ponders his own mortality.
“Was he a teacher?” Ms. James wonders.
A work by Valarie James called ‘Winter in the Sonoran Desert’.
Ms. James has washed and restored many items, including fine embroidered cloths. But she has left many items exactly as she encountered them, including a stiff, rolled-up child’s leather jacket.
Bibles and other books abound. Birth certificates and ID cards adorn a wall. There are airline and bus tickets, and deportation documents. Inside one wallet is a bundle of Florida business cards, job contacts, she figures. A message in Spanish — “Give it all you got so you can return quickly” — was written on the back of a family photo. A child’s drawing depicts the journey many illegal immigrants expect, starting at a hostel on the Mexican border and ending at a perfect little house with a well-tended lawn.
Ms. James has encountered migrants themselves, often on the verge of collapse or hobbling along on blistered feet. “For those of us who live close to the border, the humanitarian crisis is not an abstraction,” says the artist. Each year, hundreds of migrants perish in the desert. In 2005, a migrant woman died of dehydration in the arms of her son less than half a mile from Ms. James’s house.
Ms. James was inspired to make three life-size sculptures of mothers to honor the dead migrants. In collaboration with sculptors Antonia Gallegos and Deb McCullough, she created, “Las Madres: No M?°s L?°grimas,” which have been on display for more than a year at Pima Community College outside Tucson, where Ms. James teaches. Each sculpture is made from jeans and other articles found in the desert. Each mother’s arms are crossed over her heart and the eyes are closed in contemplation.
A separate exhibition of Ms. James’s art features a series of open wooden boxes, or “assemblages of the journey,” which incorporate items left behind by migrants. Ms. James curated the show at El Ojito Springs Center for Creativity in Tucson and it also includes mixed-media installations and photographs by other border artists.
Many people react strongly — and not all positively — to the assemblage of “junk” art. Gallery owner Randy Ford says the exhibit hasn’t been as well attended as he had expected. He believes area residents are tired of the immigration issue.
One visitor, Ursula Hollis, said migrants have ruined the pristine mountains near her home in Sierra Vista. “When somebody told me they see hopes and dreams in there, I laughed. To me trash is trash.” [DS: Right on, sister!]
Later, however, Ms. Hollis recalled that she had saved some immigrant trash herself — pictures and letters from children to their migrant father, which she had found in the desert and stashed in a drawer. “This young man and his children touched my heart,” says Mrs. Hollis. She mailed the belongings to Ms. James.
Of course, they touch her heart. They never took her job, lowered her wages, took her Medicaid, raped her daughter, killed her son, etc. . . . That, they did to other people.
Notice the “Diary of Anne Frank” reference. Do you really believe she found that in the desert? Do you really believe drug smugglers and illegal aliens from Mexico and Arabia sneaking in through our Southern border are reading “The Diary of Anne Frank”? Hello . . .?
When I saw some of this “art,” it reminded me–as is her obvious purpose–of the collections of belongings on exhibit at Auschwitz. But these are illegal alien lawbreakers who are lowering wages and bringing a crime wave upon our nation, not innocents rounded up by the Third Reich and destined for ovens and lampshades. The obviously intended comparison is nauseating.
Oh, and by the way, there actually is no art exhibit of illegal aliens’ used condoms. I made that up. That and an exhibit of discarded shell casings from illegal aliens guns and weaponry don’t make Ms. James’ “art”. Because that would remind us of what’s really going on. These are criminals, not Auschwitz death camp inmates.
Tags: acetaminophen, airline, AMADO, Anne Frank, Antonia Gallegos, Arizona, art teacher, artist, Bureau of Land Management, Deb McCullough, Debbie Schlussel, dehydration, Dick Riester, El Ojito Springs Center for Creativity, Florida, Gallery owner, Johnson & Johnson, manager of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Mexico, Microsoft Vista, mixed-media installations, Pima Community College, Randy Ford, Rockefeller Center Ice Skating Rink, Roger DiRosa, Sierra Vista, Sonoran desert, Southern Border, teacher, The Diary of Anne Frank, United States, Ursula Hollis, Valarie James