Art Without Borders
By Diana Spechler
Ms. Spechler is a writer who has lived in Mexico and Texas.April 8, 2021
EL PASO — Victor Casas sits on an overturned crate on his front porch, his long hair in a ponytail, his expression both probing and faraway, as if he’s simultaneously planted here on Earth and searching around among the stars. His little black puppy, Kujo, celebrates my visit by running wind sprints. I am here in this city on the Texas-Mexico border to learn more about its mural art scene.
Mr. Casas, a local mural artist, goes by the name Mask. “Everything is migration,” he tells me, a perspective shaped by his upbringing between the sister cities of El Paso and Juárez on the other side of the Rio Grande. His mother lives in El Paso. When he was alive, his father resided in Juárez, making a living renting out inner tubes so that migrants could clandestinely cross. “Even my mind migrates back and forth,” Mask says.
I see what he means about his migrating mind: Our conversation drifts from his paintings inspired by television static to all the drinking he did while in the U.S. Army in South Korea to how American Border Patrol agents back in the 1980s were actually friendly and even bought burritos from the Juarenses (people from Juárez). He tells me that he joined the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks, did four tours in eight years, including three in Iraq (“It’s just like Juárez,” he says), had a rough time readjusting to civilian life and eventually found solace in painting.
He has become one of the city’s boldest muralists, known for works like “Caution: Children Crossing” which depicts youngsters on the border playing “ICE agent,” and “Chinche al Agua” (“Water Bug”), named for a childhood game he remembers. In that mural, barrio kids pile on one another’s backs, playing by the border wall that went up in 2019.
As a muralist, Mask is immersed in migration as a theme, but migration is not so much a political issue in El Paso as it is the very fabric of the city. That may sound unlikely to those who know El Paso only from the news media: In the immigration discussions most of us are used to, “the border” is a political symbol, a problem. But to many of the 680,000 El Pasoans living at this key entry point for Mexican and Central American migrants, the border is an unconvincing symbol of disunity.
It’s not that “fronterizos” won’t abide by the border; it’s just that they’re not fooled by it. How can they be when their everyday lives prove its meaninglessness? As another local muralist, Christian Cardenas of the husband-and-wife muralist team Lxs Dos, who grew up in Juárez, explains it to me: “Economically you can see the disparity, but the two cities merge seamlessly. You cross from Juárez and you still hear Spanish. You still eat gorditas and tortas. It’s not just people flowing over the border. It’s the whole culture.”