Public Art Connects Neighborhoods Across The Border
Five buildings along San Ysidro Blvd are part of a new cross-border mural project spearheaded by The Front Arte and Cultura gallery in San Ysidro, with three additional murals on the walls of the Instituto Municipal de Arte y Cultura de Tijuana (IMAC).
The project, called "Walls/Muros," came about during the pandemic, and was intended to be a way to share art when venues, studios and stages were closed.
Francisco Morales, who directs the Front gallery, said they quickly shifted their art to online platforms early in the pandemic, but still wanted something more. "After a while — though it helps a lot — it's not enough, and it's not what we want to do," Morales said of digital platforms.
The Front, which is a program of the nonprofit Casa Familiar, collaborated with IMAC and envisioned a swap: Mexico-based artists would adorn the streets of San Ysidro with their work, and San Diegans would do the same in Tijuana. However, COVID travel restrictions complicated that part of the plan, so they decided to keep the artists local.
In Tijuana, Ariana Escudero, Paulo Villamil and Javier Farrera created three works on buildings through IMAC. In San Ysidro, Fifí Martínez, Jorge Mendoza, Juan Carlos Galindo, Michelle Guerrero and Mary Jhun painted works directly on walls or on facades of buildings — some are currently unoccupied or in the process of being renovated.
Artist Fifí Martínez knows the border well. "I am Mexican-American and I grew up in San Diego," Martínez said. "I have been living in San Ysidro on and off since I was 14, so it’s a community and a neighborhood that I know very well."
She hopes her work will reach youth in particular, and according to Morales, the median age in San Ysidro is just 30 years old.
"San Ysidro's a very densely populated area in terms of youth," said Martínez. "I think it could be really inspirational, especially when these kids see this weird, alternative, abstract, manga mural — if they like it, they’ll find out who I am and they'll see that I'm a Chicana, a working class Chicana from that neighborhood."
Morales described Martínez's style as an "emotional cartoonist" — she has taught comic workshops at The Front in the past, and focuses on the merger of the alternative art form with mental health, love, sexuality and emotional wellbeing. Martínez's mural, which is unnamed, features three portraits of the same figure, in a progression. The character, a woman, transforms from pensive to blissful, with a central panel featuring angelic fairy-type beings releasing a divine spell on her. It's a reflection on hope, and on how Martínez, in the depths of despair during the pandemic, started seeing magic and patterns everywhere. It gave her a sense of beauty in an otherwise dismal time, and she aimed to share that.
"I wanted to bring something beautiful or divine to the neighborhood of San Ysidro," Martínez said.
Michelle Guerrero (known as Mrbbaby) painted a quetzalcoatl creature and her signature character Chucho flying towards the moon on the side of El Rincon, a restaurant at the southern end of the block — the restaurant owner requested the moon. It took Guerrero just three days to complete the mural, but then it was tagged a week later with graffiti. The group touched up the spot, but other than that, Morales said the reception from the community has been respectful.
Just one exit north of the border, San Ysidro Blvd runs parallel to the highway. The storefronts surrounding The Front gallery — some active businesses or restaurants but many vacant facades — form a sort of hub, and even before the vivid murals, the area invited walking, stopping and visiting. Buses stream up and down the main drag, and from there, the road runs straight to the port of entry.
The taqueria next door to the gallery was recently featured in a magazine, and now attracts foodies, Morales said. And when art galleries open and art is shared, the success and vitality could easily turn on the very people creating it.
Gentrification is not something Morales and Casa Familiar take lightly, and Morales said that organizations like Casa Familiar are working against gentrifying. And in the case of San Ysidro in 2020, any development has felt fragile. "San Ysidro was changing," Morales said. "But the pandemic set it back."
Morales has worked with the gallery for the past several years. The Front is one of many community-based projects Casa Familiar runs — most of which provide necessary services and assistance. Art is part of that mission.
"Our goal is to create a cultural corridor where arts and culture thrive. We want the community of San Ysidro to have access to exhibits, art and events for the generations to come," said Lisa Cuestas, CEO of Casa Familiar.
When planning the murals project, the group spoke with neighbors and several offered their walls. Many were owned by the same San Ysidro-based developer, and Morales said it feels like the entire project is rooted in the community — not just by border artists and storefronts, but specifically for the border communities, taking into consideration the demographics and socio-economic needs of the people living there.
"The cool thing about outdoor art or murals is they’re in a public space and accessible to everyone," said Martínez. "So you can bring a certain style of art to a community or demographic that wouldn’t have access to it otherwise."
In addition to the "Walls/Muros" project, a companion solo exhibition of smaller-scale art works by muralist Juan Carlos Galindo (known as GRVR) is currently on display inside The Front, viewable by appointment. Galindo's mural is also installed inside the gallery space, but is viewable through the windows.