31 August 2015

There and Back Again: The Image that Wouldn't Stop Traveling

San Ysidro, California is the last place to turn off before you drive into Mexico from the United States.

Interstate 5, a huge multi-lane freeway that runs from one end of the US to the other, is adorned with signs on the southbound side that warn you to turn around if you don't intend to drive into Mexico, that your last chance to turn back is three miles away, then two, then one.  And in the area, for years signs have borne an iconic image cautioning drivers to watch for people running across the freeway:
Photo courtesy: Russel Ray Photos

They're harder to find now, but everyone who grew up around here in the 1990s remembers this image.  It was created in 1990 by a graphic artist at Caltrans named John Hood, a Diné man from New Mexico who ended up in southern California, and it was made in response to an influx of people who had made it across the border and dashed into the freeway beyond.  Hood drew upon his own experiences fighting in Vietnam watching desperate families dash for cover, as well as stories he had heard from his own Navajo family about evading American soldiers, to create the image.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Mexico suffered crisis after crisis of destabilization: fraudulent elections gave way to state sponsored violence, lynchings and shooting showed up in the news, the peso, which had been pegged to the US dollar, suddenly collapsed and sparked a long, painful recession that affected every aspect of Mexican society.  Many people, beset on all sides by crushing economic pressures and bloody conflict erupting around them, left everything behind and fled north on foot.

The end result was a massive change in Mexico, creating the largest modern diaspora in the world. Many people got into the United States, at least before it clamped down on border security in response to surges of people seeking asylum, but some got through the border safely, only to be struck by cars on their way across the 5 immediately after crossing the border, dying sudden, violent,and bloody deaths in front of horrified friends and loved ones who had already trekked together across Baja California's badlands.

The signs that went up warned drivers to be wary of people crossing, and its image – a silhouette of a man and woman running, desperately yanking a pigtailed child along in their wake – was instantly recognizable.  It soon worked its way into the public imagination, becoming a local cultural touchstone on all sides of the immigration debate.  The image, which was in the public domain, soon showed up on t-shirts, coffee mugs, billboards.

Its meaning has become fraught with symbolism: for those who disagreed with the increasing militarization of the United States' southern border, it represented unnecessarily draconian immigration policies. For closed-border, anti-immigration proponents, it became a symbol of entire families disregarding border laws. For those who were trying to find a new place to call home, it was a sign of hope.  And for those with no particular leanings, the image was a funky, instantly recognizable picture that represented southern California.

The image's immediate import has faded as border highway deaths have waned.  The signs remain, here and there, although mostly in pop art and within activist circles.  Even Banksy added his own touch to the signs a few years ago.

But now, the images have taken on a new life in Europe, as weary families flee war, brutal violence, and crushing economic conditions in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries - and the European political rhetoric sharpens, and along exactly the same lines, just as the United States' did in the mid-1990s.

I was startled today to see a news photo of people in Germany holding up a banner that said “Refugees Welome” with an outline of that family, John Hood's silhouette family, stenciled on the front. (It's also the slogan of a Berlin-based project that aims to match families seeking shelter with flats and apartments.)


At first I was confused – did news outlets mix up their stock photos? – but when I looked into it further I found that yes, Hood's design has become an instantly recognizable international symbol of families fleeing untenable conditions, not just on the US-Mexico border, but all around the world.

Will this end up reframing the debate that the United States is currently having internally, here on the doorstep of the 2016 presidential election?  Will geopolitical powers in Europe and North America see the connection between their own ongoing destructive policies in other countries and the desperate people from those same countries who are now asking for help and hope? Only time will tell, I guess.

It's just deeply ironic (although “ironic” is probably not the word that families washing up at the shores of the US and Europe are using right now) that the full horrors of a humanitarian crisis - wherever in the world it might be - can evidently only be clearly seen from an entire ocean away.

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