Las Madres: Art, Faith & Community on the Border:
Published in She Magazine, 2012
C. Valarie Lee James
“H…el…p…” Sounded kind of like a woman keening, high and breathless… but
it could have been just the wind whistling through wire.
The dogs led me that night to the chain link fence at the end of the property.
Beyond the fence lay thousands of acres of desert, too dark to see. For a long time, I
leaned my forehead against the metal links, held my breath and listened. Nothing.
Days later, I learned what the dogs had sensed. Pulling out of the driveway, on
her way to her midnight shift, my neighbor damn near ran over the small body of a
young girl, her face in the dirt. The headlights caught the girl lifting her head just
inches from the front bumper. She had bellied up out of the desert and collapsed at
the end of their driveway, just a few feet from my fence. She looked to be about 12
years of age, maybe 13.
That’s the way it is in my neighborhood: an interstitial strip of dirt halfway between
Tucson and the U.S. / MX Border. Every time you hear of another human being
collapsing so close to food, water, and shelter it feels like a scorpion bite ripping through
your veins, jamming your heart.
The only thing that saves me and many other border dwellers from a thickening
despair - besides prayer and basic humanitarian aid – proves to be the radical act of
creativity. The politics of death and destruction do not hold a candle to the light of
creation. You create for you and you create for them, seizing the life force and wrestling
it back, or you risk your own humanity splintering like Jane Doe’s flinty bones, rock-
ribbed, and scattered on the clay flats.
Our project: Las Madres; No Mas Lagrimas: No More Tears began in 2004 as an
instinctual response by a handful of artists. We shaped the powerlessness we felt into
relational form: life size Madres, arms folded in prayer, waiting for their beloved. We
made cast cotton rag from migrant fiber (every thread in denim jeans gored by barbed
wire and cacti: the DNA of the Journey) mixed with yucca, desert grasses, prickly pear,
plaster and steel. We then dipped and sealed the cloth in an encaustic made from plant
resin and beeswax. Tucson’s first memorial to the fallen - 3000 at that time, more now –
was erected in an uncultivated field, considered “Sacred Ground” by the landscapers at
Pima Community College in Tucson.
Honeybees were the first to show, waggle dancing around the mothers, lusting in the
scent of natural beeswax, foraging for purchase… then the rattlesnakes, three of them,
came as if called, coiled around the feet of each sculpture, and resting against their cool
The installation took a full year in the studio to complete. By the time we were done,
more artists had joined in and so did our neighbors, white and brown working together.
Our rural community expanded and expanded some more, rippling outward like a stone’s
throw into a cow pond, the water silty red and stirred up.
Though Fiber Sculpture designed for outdoor installation was untried and untested, we
were carried along by a crazy kind of faith that it could work, one step in front of the
other not unlike the crossers who must rely on instinct and “dead reckoning,” trusting the
stars as they follow the dry arroyos they hope will lead them to their destiny.
A year after they were installed, the mothers began to weep great tears as their
waxy fluids rose to the surface in the early summer heat. We worried that they would
torch like giant candles in the merciless sun, like our own fragile bodies when exposed to
relentless heat. That was the point of course. In their tenth year now, the mother
sculptures have become shrouds of their former selves, backs ripped and features lost
(fingers, toes, and noses) to the elements. Mercifully, though they weep to this day, they
stand tall. The memorial remains powerfully animistic, articulating the community’s
grief in ways we could only imagine at the time.
The student body, a rotating community of thousands, made the spot into a
contemplative zone surrounded by benches where Anglo and Mexican students alike can
sit quietly and feel their feelings – an enduring gift of still visual art –no polemics, just
the stirrings of the heart, the natural authority of the mother, & a determined hope for a
future without fear. Their children, the dreamers, have grown old enough now to tell their
own stories. Sustained by the strength and the prayers of their mothers, they stand tall.
From a book of essays about Art and Faith on the Border by
Artist, Writer & Benedictine Oblate Valarie Lee James
Las Madres Project video:YouTube.com