Artist Blog



Thirty miles northeast of Nogales, on the two-lane backroad which is Arizona 83, the United States Border Patrol maintains a checkpoint, mostly for traffic headed north. If you're headed south as I was from Tucson this 100-plus-degree day in July, you don't have to stop. But I did, to ask the agent if I could walk into Mexico and come back to the US with only my driver's license. Passports are required these days, ever since 9-11 seventeen years ago, even to Canada; mine was back home, however, as this was an impromptu day-trip. "I wouldn't do it myself," the man in his green uniform replied. "No problem going into Mexico, but a problem coming back." I had heard contrary opinions, most recently from a family I'd met nearby, the parents originally from Mexico but the kids all born in the US. "Our daughter crosses all the time with no passport," the father told me. I pushed on. In a town down the road, Patagonia, the woman running the market said basically the same thing: no problem, even in these security-conscious, immigration-contested and wall-building days.

I had crossed the border in such a fashion last fall very briefly, from the easternmost spot possible in Maine (and thus in all of the US) to Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada. I had just wanted to walk across the bridge there so I could say I had gone to Canada that day, but I was careful to grill the US Border agent in his little traffic booth at the bottom of the bridge before going. He did say that he would have to make sure who I am when I came back, but led me to believe a DL would be adequate, adding "we cannot deny entry to a US citizen." So I walked over this bridge on a day when the wind was so strong the road crew doing repairs was having a hard time staying upright. To the Canadian booth on the other side where they entered my driver's license info into a computer, I took a photo of the maple leaf flag, and hiked back. I was probably the only "traffic" the US agent had seen in an hour or two, and after he did his computer entry of my ID and gave me the OK we chatted awhile, about artists in the area and trying to induce more to move up and take over old buildings- he worked for one such artist doing renovations in his spare time.

But that was Canada and a tiny outpost in Maine on a freezing-ass howling day in November. Today, on the other hand, was Nogales, a city of a quarter-million souls on the Mexican border, and a hot Saturday afternoon in July in the shadow of The Wall, the hotly-contested steel fence barrier put up long before the Trump administration turned it into an even hotter immigration issue by promising to build it along the entire length of the US-Mexican border. Tall up to thirty-feet high in places, and imposing in rusted steel not unlike a Richard Serra sculpture, it slithers up and down the tight hills with a cleared zone on the US side for the Border Patrol to cruise in its SUV's, and is easily visible from a mile away. I parked in a side street on the Arizona side, in the US city also named Nogales, and slowly debated whether I should just go across. I walked and felt as if pulled like a magnet, and there, someplace on the sidewalk outside of the huge concrete immigration building and traffic checkpoint built smack dab on the border, a blue-shirted Customs and Immigration agent was on his way into an unmarked doorway. I asked my question: "Can I walk across the border and come back with just a driver's license?" The answer was short and direct: "Sure, you're fine." Just to make sure, though, I asked another agent 10 seconds away, who paused to look at me close-up and right in the eyes and said "Technically, no. But you'll be OK." And thus I went, through the one-way turnstile-of-no-return.

No one on the Mexican side was there to ask who I might be, friend or foe, Republican, Democrat, wealthy, indigent, from Uganda, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, or Utah. Waiting, however, was an enormously long line of pedestrians facing me, patiently spending who knows how long before they could step into the US on this hot Saturday afternoon to what? go shopping? see relatives? flee persecution? start a new life? Everyone has a story, not least of which was the young man whose story was related in the New York Times last Sunday, having smuggled himself from El Salvador to Houston for a mere $13,500.

When the name of these words here, "The Wall - An Essay-in-Waiting," first floated through my head, I had thought I only wanted to signal that I was not prepared to describe my brief walk through Nogales that day, that I would have to go back for longer than this hour I spent so casually looking around Nogales within a mere half-mile of the crossing point. When writing I like to focus on visual descriptions and juxtapositions that are rich on any day, and this day was no exception. The jumble of dilapidated commercial buildings, their colorful and often hand-wrought signs, the street musicians, the men asking if you're looking for drugs, the other men handing out business cards for Mexican pharmacies; the cobblestone streets climbing hills with broken concrete stairs along one side (no railing- heaven help anyone in a wheelchair); the dripping swamp coolers, the shirtless skeleton of a man digging through a trash heap on a vacant lot; the taxis waiting to go wherever, the tight hills crowded with houses, and off in the distance The Wall.

Today, however, the essay-in-waiting becomes literally an essay about waiting- in that block-long line of pedestrians waiting to cross into the US. For me it took roughly an hour, along with hundreds of people administered to by ice-cream vendors and soda sellers and one man in particular, blind and in a suit with a photo ID affixed to his lapel, singing songs accompanied by a transistor radio; I stuff a buck in his cup, the only buck I happened to spend on my visit. This line moves slowly, since at the end waits the door into the US customs building whose face is in perfect alignment with The Wall as it swoops down from the hill across the street. You are in shade at least, but not in the US until you cross the threshold of that door, and the US agents inside only allow a few people to cross at a time. So except when you are moving up a foot or two, you stand in line there pondering the world, and I would have been happy to ponder in silence except right in front of me were three Americans, a man with two women, one in short short cutoff jeans who insisted on being the center of attention by standing in the handicapped aisle claiming she "didn't want to be boxed in," the other with a brash foghorn voice no English speaker could begin to ignore. I tried my best, until the latter mentioned to her friend that up around the curve of the line and inside the building would be a lobby with four immigration agents each at a little desk to look at your papers. "How often do you come through here?" I asked. "Oh, this is my first time," she responded, surprised perhaps that someone had overheard her. "Then how do you know what's inside?" I furthered. "Oh, I came through this morning." "Why would anybody choose to stand in a line like this twice on the same day?" I continued.

Turns out this woman is Canadian and came to renew her US work visa. Hers will expire in a year or so, but she had just taken a new hospital job in Phoenix and when you change your place of employment, she said, you have to get a new visa. And the only (or easiest) place to get one is at the US border. But you have to leave the country and come back in, so, working in Phoenix, she drove down here to Nogales this morning rather than head to San Diego, and now she had come back with her friends. I thought boy, if I am in the hospital I want you on my side, doctor, nurse or whatever- you get things done! And suddenly we had crossed the US threshold beneath the roll-down grate and were in the lobby, air-conditioned, not crowded, choosing which line to go into. She saw me try to insert my driver's license into an optical scanner designed to read passports and the new (I've read) frequent-crosser cards, to no avail; and she said jokingly "This guy obviously knows what he's doing." But then the agent called Next and in a voice about as booming and Chicago as you can get I said HELL-O as I walked up and handed her my license. No question "You don't have a passport?" No admonition "You are supposed to have a passport." One question "What were you doing in Mexico?" (Taking photos, walking around, my answer.) In ten seconds she had typed info from my license into a computer, handed it back and said "OK you're good to go," and I left, easy as pie. And as I walked back to my car, a brand new rental from the airport with white leather seats and GPS on the dash and all of which put me back a whopping eighteen bucks a day, I thought, God, we live like kings. And I have the golden key.

I drove back to Tucson via the route on which I'd come, amid rolling hills lush with mesquite and dotted with creosote, and off in the distance vistas of blue and purple mountains shadowed by the studded clouds of a late afternoon. At that Border Patrol checkpoint north of Sonoita the agent barely looks at me, it's all embedded in a quick glance- lone white older guy with glasses, greying hair, probably a Polack from Milwaukee or Omaha- he waves me on saying "you're fine," though I do see him do a quick scan of the empty back seat. He probably missed the yogurt cup on the floor, the one I'd bought back at the store again in Patagonia along with a bag of mixed nuts. "Nogales," I have since learned, is Spanish for "walnut trees."

But I don't speak more than a few words in Spanish, and one word I've learned in recent years is "Balas," my own last name. Spanish for "bullets," I was casually asked about it the other day in Tucson at the art museum, which is why I was in Tucson to begin with. I'd come to see a large group exhibition in which I have a painting, a larger-than-life-size portrait of a young Latino in a soccer shirt, holding not a soccer ball beneath his chin but the blue-and-white-marbled Earth from space. Titled "El Mundo Nuevo," I had hoped I was creating an optimistic symbol of sorts, not only in deference to the influx of Spanish-speakers in the United States, but also to a more inclusive (and non-bordered) world view everywhere. Sadly, tragically, the young man in the painting, Javier, an engineering student at the University of Arizona, had been shot and killed in his own apartment late on a Saturday night just three months ago, two years after I had painted the image, and so there the painting was at the art museum and there I was with Javier's family and college friends who came to see it, one of whom asked me where my name was from.



Jack Balas, 2016: EL MUNDO NUEVO; (#1321); watercolor, acrylic & ink on 2 paper panels, 45" x 30" overall
Permanent Collection, Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado. Purchase.


The young man who asked me could not quite picture where Slovakia is (the middle of Europe) and was not old enough to have linked the place to what is now the Czech Republic (thus the Czechoslovakia that had long ago been part of Austria-Hungary). I did tell him, though, that all of my grandparents had come from there and Poland and through Ellis Island in the middle of New York harbor about a hundred years ago. I did not go on to tell him my favorite part of that story, that one grandmother had come over by boat, alone, at the age of thirteen, and was soon on her way to Chicago from where her father had sent for her, and where she would wind up working in the saloon he had opened on the south side, serving up beer and sandwiches at lunchtime to workmen from the stockyards and meat packing plants. I did not tell this young man that when she saw the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor she cried, and that when she stepped off the boat she kissed the ground and she never (she told me many times) wanted to see Europe again. I did not tell him this part of the story, because in a sense I didn't need to. We may all have different details to fill in, but we all have this same story.

On several of many trips in and out of New York City in the early 1980's I took the ferry out to see that copper Statue before it had been repaired, and once went further out to Ellis Island to peer into its dilapidated and peeling rooms, nearly a ruin, long before the idea of restoration had grabbed hold, the idea that the country was going to reclaim this symbol of immigration as something to be proud of, to hold up to the rest of the world. Nowadays, in the shadow of The Wall, you have to wonder. Sure, there is the security issue in many people's minds when it comes to the border, but doesn't a tighter security create more desperation on the far side, an environment of exploitation and extortion? There is this type of adversarial security, fill the moat, raise the drawbridge, circle the wagons, protect our jobs and our own and issue no paddles to those still in the creek. But there is a welcoming security too, one that can, today, begin with meeting that person standing in front of you in line, understanding where she is coming from, and all of a sudden Mi Casa Es Su Casa, make yourself at home, give me your wretched, your poor, your tempest-tossed, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

I think of that line, that very long slow line back in Nogales, people waiting to cross, to get in, perhaps each one only a symbol for ten, for a hundred others. And I think of that yogurt cup behind me on the floor of the car. And I picture myself driving back to Nogales and walking up and down that line and spotting, for whatever reason, someone who would be the least likely candidate, tapping him or her on the shoulder and saying come with me. Here, stuff yourself into this yogurt cup. I want to take you with me into the land of milk and honey. And don't worry, it's safe. It's free. And, you see, you are our golden key.




Jack Balas

July, 2018