Guadalupe Maravilla’s I crossed the border
For many years, the artist Guadalupe Maravilla (he/they) has focused on the potential of art to create healing rituals and communities of care for vulnerable groups while also raising awareness about the inequities the groups confront. Last year the Museum acquired Maravilla’s I crossed the border (2021). In this piece, made during the COVID-19 pandemic, Maravilla reflects on their Mestizo heritage, combining Mesoamerican imagery, Catholic iconography, and healing practices from multiple spiritual and shamanic traditions they studied while undergoing treatment for colon cancer. I crossed the border employs the Catholic tradition of retablo painting, a popular form of votive left at the altars of Catholic churches and pilgrimage sites. These devotional paintings memorialize the miraculous transcendence of hardship or offer thanks for divine aid. Maravilla creates works that include retablos in celebration of significant events, such as stages of cancer treatment and the realization of artistic projects. The artist sculpts organic forms from corn husks and glue to frame the paintings, incorporating maize, a material sacred to Indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica, into the work.
In 1984, at eight years old, Maravilla entered the United States alone after a perilous journey, becoming one of the first in a wave of unaccompanied children who arrived from Central America fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. In 2011 they performed a ritual to commemorate crossing the border. Wearing an elaborate headdress topped by a solar reflector—like those often seen propped inside car windshields—Maravilla referenced the mirrors and reflective materials used in Mesoamerican art to symbolize characteristics of the sun, such as radiance, resplendence, and spiritual energy. During the event, Maravilla and their audience were confronted by US Border Patrol agents, who left when informed it was an art piece.
I crossed the border celebrates both Maravilla’s journey and the performance through a painted scene and text panel. In the painting, the heat from the artist’s headdress melts blocks of ice (an allusion to the ICE agents who detain and deport people who cross the border) as a drone circles overhead. The coyotes that howl at the ice refer both to the trickster figure common in Indigenous stories and to the colloquial term for individuals who smuggle immigrants over the border. In his form as a trickster god, the coyote is often an ambiguous figure who may provide aid but might also prove dangerous as he employs deception to enrich himself. These howling animals also pun on the name of the town near where the performance occurred—Ruidosa, which means “noisy” or “loud.”
Maravilla composed the scene and text, then commissioned Daniel Vilchis, a fourth-generation retablo artist based in Mexico City, to paint the piece on a tin panel. Collaborations with artists based in Latin America are part of Maravilla’s participatory artistic practice and reflect his desire to create economic, communal, and ritual exchanges as opportunities for healing and reparative justice across the US-Mexico border. “I’m hoping to create micro-economies with the money that I receive from institutions or galleries,” Maravilla explains. “I hire undocumented workers in the United States or Latin American residents with certain skills to help me make my work. That’s become more important during the pandemic—the market where Vilchis sells his paintings, for example, has been closed, but I’ve stayed super busy and have been able to pay him. More recently, I’ve started to make retablo paintings that tell the healing stories of undocumented people in my community too.”1
After entering cancer remission in 2016, Maravilla renamed themselves to connect more fully with their familial history and their place within a wider community of Latin American immigrants who were forced to flee their homes and live undocumented in the United States. Maravilla took on the first name Guadalupe in honor of their mother, who had wished to name her child after the Virgin of Guadalupe, considered a benefactor and divine intercessor by many Catholics in Latin America. The artist chose the last name Maravilla—which loosely translates to “wonder” or “miracle”—in solidarity with their father, who is undocumented and uses this last name as an alias. Maravilla explains, “As someone that has experienced—and is healing from—the trauma of my border crossing, I relate to the anxieties often experienced by undocumented immigrants. I explore these neurological consequences of migration through performance and object-making.”2
1 Guadalupe Maravilla, in “Guadalupe Maravilla on Devotional Paintings and Creating Micro Economies,” told to Emily Watlington, Art in America, October 13, 2021, https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/interviews/guadalupe-maravilla-retablo-interview-1234606863/.
2 Guadalupe Maravilla, in Katy Donoghue, “Guadalupe Maravilla Is Healing Generational Trauma through Art and Sound,” Whitewall, March 19, 2021, https://whitewall.art/art/guadalupe-maravilla-is-healing-generational-trauma-through-art-and-sound.