Friday, November 18, 2005

Designer donates sneakers for border run

Argentine artist Judi Werthein displays a pair of Brinco shoes before handing them out to takers along the U.S.-Mexico border. Photo by Denis Poroy, AP

Too weird almost for words. According to this morning's SF Chronicle via AP the artist is trying to help:

The high-top sneakers cost $215 at a San Diego boutique, but the designer is giving them away to migrants before they cross to this side of the U.S.-Mexico border….

A compass and flashlight dangle from one shoelace. The pocket in the tongue is for money or pain relievers. A rough map of the border region is printed on a removable insole.

They are red, white and green, the colors of the Mexican flag. On the back ankle, a drawing of Mexico's patron saint of migrants.

On this side of the border, the shoes sit in art collections or the closets of well-heeled sneaker connoisseurs. On the other side, in Tijuana, it's a utilitarian affair: Immigrants to be are happy to have the sturdy, lightweight shoes for the hike — or dash — into the United States.

Sounds crazy, but Werthein did the research to make these actually useful to people coming across the border looking for work. A native Spanish-speaker, she "joined the Mexican government's Grupo Beta migrant-aid society on long border hikes" and interviewed migrants. She also found patrons who have funded the project to the tune of $40,000.

What to make of this? My immediate reaction was censorious and utilitarian. Doesn't such an art project make light of the sufferings of people driven by the need to eat who cross our fortified deserts? Couldn't the money in this project have been spent on advocating for immigration reforms that made dangerous, extra-legal border treks unnecessary? (Full disclosure: I am currently consulting with immigrant groups and reform advocates.)

But a little reflection backs me off the judgmental impulse. Just maybe this project can help loosen up some people's view of a situation on which attitudes seem frozen, polarized. Immigration policy is broken; most of the debates around it simply penalize the hungry and provide permanent employment for bureaucrats and various kinds of police. None of it focuses on the continuing human drama and cost. Maybe Judi Werthein has a clue how to do that.

1 comment:

sfmike said...

Glad to hear you're not feeling knee-jerk about the situation since everything about The Border is surreal.

Speaking of which, I finally just saw the early-80's Jack Nicholson/Harvey Keitel movie (the last thing that Tony Richardson directed) called "The Border." It's messy, but awfully good, and beautifully illustrates your point: "most of the debates around it simply penalize the hungry and provide permanent employment for bureaucrats and various kinds of police."

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