Xavier Tavera’s Borderlands at Somerset Public Library

Mike R. Curran

Basketball court, Jacumba, CA, 2022. Courtesy of Xavier Tavera.

National conversations surrounding the southern border are always contorting. In the run-up to the forthcoming presidential election, criticisms of the Biden administration’s “open border policies” have moved beyond conservative talking points, with liberals now embracing tougher rhetoric. For his part, Donald Trump first won the presidency by stoking fear of an incursion from Mexico. He spouted his infamous “they’re not sending their best” speech in 2015, when apprehensions of migrants were at a near-historic low.

The same year of that infamous speech, Xavier Tavera began Borderlands. The in-progress photo series has been produced through several trips along the length of the United States-Mexico border, during which Tavera has sought to frame the border as both a physical line and an idea. While rhetoric has continued to shift, his commitment to documenting the region has remained constant.

Despite its topicality, photos from Borderlands haven’t been widely featured in the U.S. outside of three shows over the past six years that have presented excerpts from the series. But this spring, select photos have toured to various local libraries as part of Valley Reads, an annual literary program coordinated by the Stillwater, Minnesota-based ArtReach St. Croix, that this time is centered around Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel The House of Broken Angels. Valley Reads features author talks with Urrea and complementary events, including the Borderlands installation, which has toured to five libraries within the St. Croix Valley.

Installation image. Courtesy of the author.

I caught the exhibit in the middle of its tour at the public library in Somerset, Wisconsin. Stationed between the library’s help desk, computer lab, and stacks of fiction, this iteration of Borderlands displays five standard size photos on a three-paneled module; its concise text is thickly laminated, resembling the waterproof sleeves of nearby hardcovers.

The installation appears small in comparison to Tavera’s recent projects. With a commission from the inaugural Wakpa Triennial organized by Public Art St. Paul last year, for instance, Tavera created Evocation of a Latin Dance Club, a memorial to El Nuevo Rodeo—a haven for the Twin Cities’ Latine community that burned during the uprising of 2020—at the site of the former nightclub. Composed of a shipping container bolstered by ten-foot metal supports, the structure featured nine silhouettes representing those who frequented the club. Along the container’s undercarriage, Tavera subtly carved 53 pairs of shoes, standing in for the number of migrants who were found dead in San Antonio within a sweltering semi-trailer in their attempt to enter the U.S. in 2022.

Evocation of a Latin Dance Club, 2023. Courtesy of Xavier Tavera.

In addition to monumentalizing a beloved social space, Evocation of a Latin Dance Club tacitly closes the distance between Minnesota and the southern border, signifying that the cruelty of border imperialism cannot be dismissed as taking place elsewhere. Such an idea might have its origins in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, the feminist scholar’s seminal work which shares part of its title with Tavera’s series. In that book, she defines the southern border as “una herida abierta” (an open wound). The wound is geographic, running from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas; but Anzaldúa also locates this scar along her own body—and all those who inhabit this region. In his laminated statement for Borderlands, Tavera proposes something similar: “I really believe that this notion of ‘border’ has marked the Latinx community in a radical kind of way.”

Tavera, who grew up in Mexico City before relocating to the U.S. in 1996, understands this marking intimately. As he adds in his statement, he felt racialized for the first time upon migrating to the Midwest, suddenly becoming “Mexican” in a White world. That alienation has shaped his approach to photography ever since, through which he faithfully renders Latine communities in a wholeness that the logics of the southern border attempt to withhold: his Calle Lake (Lake Street) comprises bold, assertive portraits of the Minneapolis corridor’s residents; with Veteranos-Veteranas, he makes visible the oft-overlooked military service of Latine veterans.

Emphasizing vacuous landscapes rather than lively individuals, Borderlands would seem to depart from these earlier projects. But the series is better understood as a continuation, since the alienation that Tavera and many of his portrait subjects have experienced is predicated on this dividing line, regardless of whether they have crossed it themselves. By removing—for the most part—individual migrants from the frame, Borderlands makes plain the broader anxieties and fears that motivative brutal border policies.

Three of the five photographs on display at the Somerset Public Library were made in Eagle Pass, Texas, an area that has come to demonstrate how violent talking points can descend into tangible cruelty. News media has relayed images of the wrecking ball-sized buoys that the State of Texas has constructed in a section of the Rio Grande that the city abuts. The buoys hold a dual function, presenting a deadly obstacle while also conveying a clear message of exclusion with their bright orange sheen. Tavera’s photograph First Wall, composed last year, reveals the layer that succeeds the buoy chain: a mess of concertina wire climbing the river’s embankment that leads to a wall made not of sturdy steel bollards, but a makeshift configuration of mismatched shipping containers crowned with yet another level of wire. Here again is the shipping container. Whereas the silhouettes adorning the container of Evocation of a Latin Dance Club performed various archetypes of the Latine community—the pachuco shrouded in a zoot suit, the Brown Beret activist carrying a megaphone—First Wall reveals a different sort of performance: that of the state, and the lengths it will go to preserve a perception of safety.

First Wall, Eagle Pass, TX, 2023. Courtesy of Xavier Tavera.

As I circled the module in Somerset, I noticed how each landscape shares a similar horizon line. Whether an intentional choice by Tavera or not, the sequence’s ground-border-sky rhythm communicates another ambition of border infrastructure: that, in its occupation of the horizon, the border wall will suppress imagination. In the photograph entitled Basketball court, Tavera frames a concrete court foregrounding foothills. The wall interrupts this perspective and seems to stretch without end. But the court’s surface is clear of debris, and the hoop’s net is taut, suggesting that someone maintains this place. Without such evidence of caretaking, the photograph might solely appear mournful; instead Tavera delivers an image that emphasizes how life abounds in the borderlands nevertheless.

For all the ways Borderlands undermines dominant discourse surrounding the southern border, the series acknowledges the suffering of those traversing this space, too. The 2023 image Arrival shows at least eighteen migrants skirting stacks of razor wire as they wade through the Rio Grande; on the subsequent panel, Unknown migrants pictures an informal cemetery, with a row of white crosses that nearly equals the number of individuals in the previous image. The border is an invention, but here again are its consequences; the absurdity of border infrastructure that Tavera highlights elsewhere in this selection of photos only accentuates this cruelty.
Arrival, Eagle Pass, TX, 2023. Courtesy of Xavier Tavera.

Just as the site of Evocation of a Latin Dance Club signaled that the violence of border imperialism stretches to the Twin Cities, witnessing Borderlands in rural Wisconsin also begs the question of how “this notion of ‘border’” has marked those of us whose family histories have never intersected with this geography. Surely we are not exempt from the estrangement of this architecture, given that it is built and maintained in our name?

With five photographs in a library, Tavera manages to recognize the physical and immaterial impact of crossing and inhabiting the southern border, while also offering White Americans a view of what our relative sense of safety is predicated upon. However, within this near-decade long series, there are plenty more images that haven’t yet been exhibited which might allow all of us to better see how our lives are marked by this particular invention. It is incumbent on additional arts institutions and platforms to champion Borderlands so that we can grapple with this series’ ideas, and find new means of relating to the southern border. That is doubly true for those in Minnesota—its own sort of borderlands given the state’s proximity to Canada, though it is rarely conceived of as such. I believe Tavera would be able to help us understand why.


Mike R. Curran is an arts writer and curator living in Minneapolis. His essays and reviews have been featured in Art Papers, Public Parking, Mn Artists, MPLSART.COM, and St. Olaf College’s Flaten Art Museum. He has curated programming at artist-run galleries including Mirror Lab, Waiting Room, and Normal Residential Purposes. With his collaborator Tom Bierlein, he was awarded an Early-Career Artist Project Grant from Forecast Public Art, through which they organized Area of Concern—a public program at Crosby Farm Regional Park centered on ecological grief. He holds a B.A. in geography from Macalester College, and will begin a graduate program at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in fall 2024.

    1. Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, “Apprehensions of Mexican migrants at U.S. borders reach near-historic low,” Pew Research Center, April 14, 2016.

    2. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987).

The final stop of Art On Tour: Borderlands Photography by Xavier Tavera is the Chalmer DaVee Library on the University of Wisconsin - River Falls campus, where the exhibit will be on view until May 5. The program was organized by ArtReach St. Croix as part of Valley Reads 2024.