El Paso, Texas-based Juntos Art Association tackles the power of place and the who-is-heard component of storytelling in its multi-faceted project, Icons and Symbols of the Borderland.
EL PASO, TX AND CARLSBAD, NM—The borderlands are historical and politically-charged zones that continue attracting significant national focus. It’s within these spaces that members of the El Paso, Texas-based Juntos Art Association live and work. Artists in the collective are located throughout the Southwest, including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Mexico.
Juntos (meaning “together”) began in the 1980s with what the collective calls the first United States/Mexico binational exhibition in the El Paso region—early members included Paul Henry Ramírez, Luis Jiménez Jr., and Gaspar Enríquez, who is still active in the collective. Throughout the years, Juntos has organized various exhibitions and mural and literary conferences. Under the current leadership of creative director Diana Molina, membership has expanded. In addition, the group’s collaborative practice includes a traveling exhibition, programming, and award-winning book all under the name Icons and Symbols of the Borderland: Art from the US-Mexico Crossroads.
For Molina, an internationally-exhibited collage artist and photographer who has been Juntos’ creative director since 2012, there is power in place. She has lived for long periods at the Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre, as well as Texas, Amsterdam, and now a rural area between El Paso and Las Cruces.
It’s here in the desert mesa that Molina has set her sights on the next phase of collaboration with Juntos artists. “I was able to reflect on meaningful expansion of our projects, connecting to the literal land we inhabit,” she says. “We are motivated to continue with a multi-layer project with the cross-border community: Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua.”
Juntos’ current endeavor, Icons and Symbols of the Borderland, is cemented in concepts of place, collaboration, and mutual respect. Molina first organized the project into an exhibition during the 2016 election season; it eventually materialized into a book that won the 2020 Independent Publisher Book Awards’ Benjamin Franklin Award.
The Carlsbad Museum in southeastern New Mexico hosted the show in 2021, and I had the opportunity to see exhibited works by powerhouse artists such as Benito Huerta, Victoria Suescum, and Roberto Salas. The show offered a cultural touchstone through the variety of material and voices at hand—it’s difficult to offer an experience of a culture, place, or group because nothing is monolithic, but this exhibition delivered in so many ways, both materially and conceptually. It was striking, almost shocking, to see the love, nostalgia, and pointed rage the exhibiting artists felt for the borderlands.
Juntos member Alejandro Macías, an artist and assistant professor at the University of Arizona School of Art in Tucson, says one of the thematic exhibition prompts—Comida y Bebida (Foodways)—encouraged him to experiment in a new art-making style. His self-portrait drawing, In South Texas, Tacos Best at 2:00 AM, deviated from his typical realist style with exaggerated facial features.
Macías explains that the exhibition also allowed for a deep level of camaraderie among the participating artists. “We are working from the same place, shared identities, joy, humor, pain… and knowledge,” says Macías.
Anthony, New Mexico-raised Angel Cabrales also participated in Icons and Symbols of the Borderland. He says that the exhibition allowed him to address the who is heard component of storytelling.
“[I want] to show people outside of this area how we perceive it living here as opposed to [what] political pundits and media say it’s like,” says Cabrales, an assistant professor in sculpture at the University of Texas at El Paso. “For them, it’s all about drama and revenue. It dehumanizes people, and allows viewers to disassociate their feelings for them, their empathy.”
Cabrales and Macías concentrate on similar themes of the assimilation process, with the latter exploring personal identity and the issue of “Americanization.” Landscape plays a large role in Macías’ work as both literal and figurative impediments for the immigrant. “Places have natural obstacles for migrants seeking asylum,” says Macías. “The border protections are one, but then you have the desert terrain where people literally disappear.”
Juntos’ creative director Molina is focusing the next phase of Icons and Symbols into something that would “connect to the communities along Highway 28 [which connects El Paso to Las Cruces, New Mexico], essentially reframing the Camino Real story of conquest, answering who the borderlands communities are today,” she explains. “With a coalition of organizations… the project will connect to this rural, historically underserved population and area through virtual programs, in-person workshops, and public events.” The Las Cruces Museum of Art will host the next iteration of Icons and Symbols of the Borderland from August 5 through October 15, 2022.
Molina, Cabrales, and Macías continue to collaborate beyond Juntos, and are founding team members of the Crossroads Art and Ecology Lab, a grassroots initiative set upon ten acres in the Chihuahuan Desert of southern New Mexico.
A common conversational thread between the three artists was the response to the question: “If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?” Each said that they were already successful with the people they enjoyed working alongside, whether in Juntos, Crossroads Art and Ecology Lab, or beyond.
For Cabrales, who opens a solo show at The Mac in Dallas this weekend in addition to current exhibitions in Pittsburgh, Houston, and Albuquerque, it’s an upcoming trip to Mexico City to study at the Teotihuacán Research Laboratory.
For Macías, it’s his upcoming exhibition in November 2022 at San Antonio’s Presa House with his University of Arizona colleague, printmaker Aaron Coleman. Macías’ work can currently be seen at Fresh Eye Gallery in Minneapolis and Step Gallery in Phoenix.
And for Molina, working together with artist César Martínez, her partner of seventeen years, has “been rewarding, a great privilege.” She says that in her experience, collaboration on the whole is immensely gratifying.
“Working with Juntos has built bridges, not walls,” Molina states. As Cabrales, Macías, and Molina all stated in their own ways: there is power in the collective voice of the borderlands. Juntos, indeed.