Climate Migration, Anthropology, Human Rights

saúl hernández-vargas

¿y cómo era el desierto? como una inmensa mancha de color marrón y una máquina enmohecida y un punto en una línea

and what was the desert like? it was like a large brownish mess and a rusty machine and a dot in a line

September 24, 2022 - April 2, 2023

HCJM Contributors: Aaron Ambroso, Sarah Davidson, Noura Jabir, and Tiffany Jin

John Doe

Aug 17

Usually imagined as an empty, lifeless, space, the desert is quite the opposite: it is a space inhabited and crossed by multiple agents, from a great variety of birds that search its skies to a wide range of mammals, insects, and bacteria. But in the case of the "border desert," legal apparatuses disrupt it - transforming parts into a fence and hostile territory. The border desert becomes littered with traces of migrants as they are forced into crossing the most treacherous areas that stretch across the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.

For And what was the desert like? It was like a large brownish mess and a rusty machine and a dot in a line, visual artist and writer Saúl Hernández-Vargas gathers a series of videos, sculptures, and performative gestures that invoke the ghosts and the specters of the borderlands, and that listen carefully, attentively, even furiously to the echoes, the breath, and the resonances of their voices. This series troubles and jolts the narratives that naturalize border territories (desert, rivers, oceans) as infrastructures of the Nation-State. It also highlights the convergence of climate change-fueled drought and NAFTA policies that have made displacement and migration issues of even graver concern.

This body of work was supported by the Matakyev Research Residency from the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands from Arizona State University, and the Interdisciplinary Practices & Emerging Forms from the School of Art at the University of Houston.

About the artist

Saúl Hernández-Vargas works at the crossroads between art, literature and academic research, and explores cracks and fissures in the narratives of the Nation-State. He has served as an editor for numerous publications in México and founded Yagular Magazine and sur+ Ediciones. He recently completed his PhD in Hispanic Studies and Art History at the University of Houston and also holds a masters degree in Visual Arts from the University of California, San Diego. He is currently an artist-in-residence in the Core Fellowship Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Installation view of the Saúl Hernández-Vargas’ exhibit ‘and what was the desert like?’
Photograph by Jasmine Cogan

Installation view of the exhibit ‘and what was the desert like?’
Photograph by Jasmine Cogan
A fossilized oyster, brought by Will Godwin, Sam Houston State University Collections. “Brought a gift to Aaron A. Cretaceous oyster Exogyra ponderosa. From Texas: Lamar Co Highway 19 x N. Sulphur RW. Approximately 100 Million years old.”
A small black velvet purse with a sequin red rose, brought by Chanté Davis. Chanté wrote: “This purse has survived Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. The rose emblem on the front signifies the growth under chaotic circumstances.”
A comic written and illustrated by Felipe Sanchez, an organizer with Sunrise Houston. Felipe writes, “There are studies that show how microplastics are disrupting bodily functions in humans and animals. I made a comic to make the topic more approachable and help people come to terms with the reality we live in”
Brought by Tiffany Jin. She writes: “Burst pipes removed after winter storm Uri.”
Brought by Aaron Ambroso, a small piece of white asbestos. “This is a piece of asbestos (white) in chrysotile form. Asbestos was once considered a miracle material - it is incredibly strong, but flexible. It’s fire resistant, and a great insulator; it was used to make blankets and insulate international shipping containers. The discovery that asbestos causes a form of cancer, mesothelioma, was an unintended consequence of industrial production. Downplayed and fought by companies for years, asbestos is now highly regulated but not completely banned.”
Item from Isaac Phillips." The Best of Mississippi John Hurt. Vinyl damaged during Hurricane Gustav in Baton Rouge, LA. Part of collection of southern folk/rock/blues albums damaged by flooding in a home during the storm."

Behind me was the desert: migration, borders, and the struggle for land

Saúl Hernández-Vargas in conversation

with Marina Azahua and Eddie Canales

Saturday, September 24, 2022

6:00 - 8:30 PM

at the Houston Climate Justice Museum

3308 Garrow St. Houston, TX  77003

“In its strategic planning process, the Border Patrol accepted that absolute sealing of the border is unrealistic.
Through the strategic planning process, however, the planners found legitimate reason to believe that the border
can be brought under control.”

—Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond

The opening of the exhibit featured the artist in conversation with Eddie Canales of the South Texas Human Rights Center as well as anthropologist Marina Azahua, whose research attempts to understand what it means to find a murdered body in Mexico today, and what it means for it to become evidence. The audio recording from the conversation can be played below or through this soundcloud link.

John Doe

Aug 17

About the panelists

Marina Azahua is an essayist, editor, and PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at Columbia University. Building on anthropological scholarship on bureaucracy and forensic evidence, her doctoral dissertation project examines the encounters of communities searching for the disappeared and state authorities. She is also the author of Involuntary Portrait: The photographic act as a form of violence.

Eddie Canales is the founder of the South Texas Human Rights Center: a community-based organization in Falfurrias, Texas dedicated to the promotion, protection, defense and exercise of human rights and dignity in South Texas. Their mission is to prevent the deaths and suffering of migrants on the Texas/Mexico border through community initiatives like their Water Station Project whose 144 stations service an area of 1200 sq. miles.