“Dry those big brown eyes and smile, dear / Banish all those tears and please don’t sigh / Kiss me once again and hold me / Mexicali Rose goodbye.” In 1939, Gene Autry sang this lonsome ode in the film “Mexicali Rose.” Marco Vera, filmmaker and son of the capital of Baja California, knows the tropes that drive Westerns of that period: a corrupt politician, businessman, or general bad guy concocts a plot that will ruin the quaint and picturesque life in a Mexican border village, but a White male hero saves the day and gets the girl (and sings, probably). The title of this film and song, one of the few that references the desert border city on the brink of the United States and Mexico, has been appropriated by Vera, who founded Mexicali Rose Centro de Arte/Medios (Mexicali Rose Art/Media Center), a grassroots community space that hosts art and film making workshops, film screenings, and exhibitions of local and international works of art. Unlike the film and music that characterize the “rose” as a fragile delicate flower wilting in the desert waiting for an American messiah to rescue it, Mexicali Rose has been the community’s way of asserting itself, reclaiming the ability citizens have to transform their own communities, and turning the myth of the white savior on its head.
Mexicali Rose is located in Pueblo Nuevo, which lies adjacent to the US/Mexico border, and is one of the oldest and most historically significant communities in Mexicali. People who worked in the more affluent parts of the city, but could not afford to live in those areas organized to establish Pueblo Nuevo in 1915.
In 2007, inspired by the Echo Park Film Center during the years he lived and worked in L.A., Marco Vera returned home to Pueblo Nuevo with the hope of establishing a space where he and friends could facilitate film and media workshops. Initially, he looked for a space in Mexicali’s Downtown area because it would be accessible by public transportation to Mexicali youth, and also to people crossing the border. When that search did not yield any desirable spaces, he began to envision a house in Pueblo Nuevo owned by his uncle as the site for the project. The only problem: the house was occupied by human smugglers. They owed Vera’s uncle over a year in rent, but refused to leave the house. He and his uncle struck a deal that if he got the inhabitants of the house to leave he could rent the space and use it as an art center.
After months of tense encounters, his neighbors reluctantly left the house and Vera finally got a glimpse inside. “When we finally entered the space they were occupying, it was such a sad sight,” recalled Vera speaking of Mexicali Rose’s challenging beginnings. “There were fake passports and ID’s strewn all over the building, airplane tickets, anonymous letters, most of the migrants came from Michoacan, people would scribble their names and hometowns all over the walls. People were kept there against their will too. Some of the bars on the windows were sawed off in an effort to escape, there were gunshots on the windows. We thought it was going to take us 2-3 months to fix the place up, it wound up taking us almost a year. The whole project was done with our savings.”
Compatriots like curator and preparatory Israel Ortega have supported the space since its inception by assisting with the mounting of exhibitions and creating partnerships between Mexicali Rose and the Baja California State Center for the Arts — the Centro Estatal de las Artes (CEART). While Mexicali Rose is a self-sustaining organization, collaborations are part of its lifeblood, Vera explains that “Within months of opening up the space, artists started to flock to the space with the desire to show their work and the Mexicali Rose Community Gallery was born.” Now in it’s forth year of existence, the gallery has shown local and international work. “We’ve had shows featuring local artists such as Fernando Corona, Colectivo Nixtagraf, Odette Barajas, Marcela Perez Espinoza, Rafael Veytia Velarde, Julio Ruiz, erotic art, found objects and photography, art from prisons all over Baja California, anti-clerical and anti-establishment art, art that addresses homosexuality, transnational art show exchanges with Imperial Valley artists such as Bujwah, Daniel Gibson and the Viva El Valle annual art show, the Imperial Valley Artist Collective, and the Juanita Salazar Lowe Gallery at Imperial Valley College.” Besides providing a space for Mexicali Artists to show art, the space has also become integral the Imperial Valley art scene, since spaces to show work in the Imperial County are few and far between.
“We were very honored to be invited to co-curate a group show in NY at Artists Space, Vera continues, “a space with a tremendous history…of taking adventurous risks in its choices, displaying the work of up and coming, non-conventional artists in NYC… Through [Artists Space] we were incited to Art Berlin Contemporary, which was a great experience for us to display the Mexicali Rose project and produce a mural on site.”
Last April, Mexicali Rose also hosted the Sundance Institute’s Film Forward: Advancing Cultural Dialogue, an initiative that “promotes cultural dialogue through independent documentary and narrative film.” Film Forward brought with it films and filmmakers from all over the globe to provoke conversations about film, and media, in order to foster appreciation of other viewpoints and develop new audiences for independent films. In Febuary of 2013 Sundance will return to Mexicali Rose with more screenings workshops and director’s Q&As. Additionally, Mexicali Rose will partner with the Vincent Price Art Museum in Los Angeles to host the Mexicali Biennale from January 19-April 13 of 2013.
In addition to these visual art and film initiatives Mexicali Rose also supports local musicians hosting bands from Mexicali, Imperial Valley, Tijuana, L.A., Texas and all over the northwest of Mexico. As if all of this programming was not enough to keep Vera and his team incredibly occupied, they have also launched a radio project, with the help of Angelino collective KillRadio.org called http://www.radiopajarohombre.com. “Its been an exciting and surreal project, declares Vera, There are live DJ’s daily from 4-10pm, and the shows repeat throughout the next day, giving us 24 hour programming. There are shows that feature live music, sound and noise artists, political and cultural talk shows, and very excellent music. We’ve had a countless number of incredible guests and bands, even the city mayor came by with armed bodyguards to be on one of the shows.”
As Mexicali Rose looks to the future, they hope to begin taking workshops and interventions out into other parts of the community with limited public transport access to the space. The space hopes to become whatever the community needs it to be, and will continue to “evolve organically” as Vera says it always has.
Currently on view at Mexicali Rose is Homenaje a las Voces Pioneras de Mexicali/ Homage to the Pioneer Voices of Mexicali, an exhibition showcasing paintings by Jorge C. Brokalina. Brokalina who early in his career had hopes of becoming a singer, befriended living and working in Mexicali since the 1950s. The series of portraits are Brokalina’s homage to singers, artists and intellectuals living and working in Mexicali since the 1950s who have been important to the city’s creative development. Homenaje a las Voces Pioneras de Mexicali/ Homage to the Pioneer Voices of Mexicali will remain on view until January 11, 2013 at Mexicali Rose Sunday-Friday from 4pm-10pm. Mexicali Rose is located at Ave. Colima 1436, Colonia Pueblo Nuevo, Mexicali, Baja California, 21120 Mexico.