This Photo Series Exposes the Marfa Instagram Won't Show You
The Marfa Dream; Border Patrol in the Instagram City “explores the juxtaposition of American blogger culture in heavily-monitored Border Patrol areas.” The project was created by Maria Oliveira, a formerly undocumented immigrant, and Karen Sabel Lewis, an Afro-Latina artist, during a road trip they took to Marfa, Texas. Naturally, it disturbed them that so many American bloggers use the area as a creative backdrop, yet never mention the Border Patrol Stations literally across the street from these insta-famous places.
Oliveira and Sabel Lewis endeavored to see what would happen if “two Latinx brown girls embodied a ‘blogger’ aesthetic and infiltrated this space.” They unexpectedly found that their “fashion-forward style and attitude diffused their Latin-hood and created a barrier between their identity and the way they were perceived.” A Border Patrol agent even insisted on taking their photo — he simply saw them as two cute girls taking in the sites on vacation. This encounter perfectly illustrated how subjectively immigration policy is enforced. The Marfa Dream “flips the audience’s gaze to show how the same space that is famous for being a dream world for young and creative Americans is simultaneously a very dangerous place for immigrants.”
We wanted to find out more about their experience in Marfa. Oliveira and Sabel Lewis kindly answered our questions and sent BTS photos of them prepping poses and planning for worst case scenario situations, including detainment.
Can you each describe your personal motivators for this project?
Karen: I've always been a person who notices microaggressions and the way many of the issues in our country are under wraps yet directly in your face (if you're paying attention). I've incorporated this type of critique in my work before — blending beauty and aesthetics with social criticism — and wanted to do something like it in Texas. I've always wanted to go to Marfa and follow in the steps of Solange, Beyoncé, and Oprah. But when Maria told me about how many Border Patrol stations were in tiny Marfa, we just couldn't stop talking about it. We decided to make this project and bring it to everyone's attention. We felt visiting Marfa was a very different experience for someone born in the US vs someone who immigrated here. While the art in Marfa was my main attraction to the area, I couldn't help but be overwhelmed by the nervousness Maria felt going there — I knew we had to talk about it in our work.
Maria: I remember being excited to go to Marfa, like anyone else, the first time I ever went. The one thing stood out to me, and I started to feel a little crazy about it because I felt like the only one noticing, was the constant patrolling of Border Patrol. When I came back to Austin and people would ask me about my trip, that was the first point I would bring up, and I felt like the only person who had ever noticed. It was a very strange feeling, and I felt so alone. Why was I the only one who was bringing this up? I was an undocumented immigrant for nine years and I can’t just glaze over and pretend I don’t see Border Patrol when I do. When Karen came to visit me, we had loose plans to collaborate on a project. As we planned a trip a Marfa, I knew that it was the perfect opportunity for us to explore this.
Maria, in the series there are a few photos of you in front of — even sitting on top of — the Border Patrol sign. Walk us through your emotional state in that moment.
Maria: Karen and I had come up with a script for how we would act if we were approached by Border Patrol in a hostile manner — actually that was all we had planned for. We had planned for that moment to be the test of our theories: would our appearance and the way we were planning on acting diffuse the situation? Those photos were meant to be test shots and we never expected that we would have the interaction that we did with the border agent who came up to us. When we were initially approached, we went on with our script and the interaction turned out to be very friendly, thus proving our point that our appearances had impacted the way we were perceived and approached.
Karen, how do you balance your racial and cultural identities, and how does navigating Marfa as an Afro-Latina compare to your experience in New York?
Karen: My friends and I have always joked that I fit every alternative category there is. I'm a Black Afro-Latina Woman who is also Queer. I'm used to identifying by all of my intersections and by default always having one piece of me that is misunderstood. I don't look like your typical anything, so identity and society's perception of my identity has always been a big theme in my life. In New York, however, everyone is an intricate mix of something. And living in Queens, the most diverse place in the US, I feel right at home. I'm weird, but so is everyone else. But in Marfa, I definitely stood out. At first, it made me nervous but then I realized my flamboyant style gave the illusion of being "a fashion person." Everyone was just intrigued by my presence, so that was really fun. I hadn't realized how different I must look while in the middle of Texas.
Were you relieved when you were seen by Border Patrol as two cute, fashion-forward girls on vacation? What other outcomes had you imagined could happen when you hatched this idea?
Karen: When the agent first pulled up, I got really nervous. My interactions with police enforcement in the past have never been friendly — I often end up being questioned and harassed. So when the agent pulled up, I just kept the camera rolling. I didn't want to make him upset but I did feel it was important to document this moment. When he offered to take our photo, I was immediately relieved yet a little upset. He went straight into flirting, and I wasn't really prepared to face that. I thought it was going to be a lot more tense and he would be suspicious of us taking pictures in front of the station. But to see how naive he became in front of two "pretty" girls, just made me upset at the hypocrisy and subjectivity of it all.
Maria: I was prepared to be detained, to be honest. I had made arrangements for that possibility and was ready for it. Last summer, I photographed and documented for Cosecha and Jolt, two nonprofit organizations, at a DACA sit-in that happened in Downtown Austin. Four DACAmented people were arrested and several allies were as well. Documenting those arrests had a deep and lasting effect on me — it showed me that sometimes you need to use provocation to get your point across. I also started to think a lot about how I could best use my resources and the communities I am a part of to bring further attention to immigration reform and policing, which are the issues that chose me. When I was seen as just a non-threatening fashion girl, I was actually happy because I know I can now keep using this “disguise” to gain access and further my cause.
What did you choose to wear and did you choose it as a type of camouflage for the day?
Karen: As the stylist behind the project, I really wanted to portray this image of a carefree and boisterous fashion blogger, so we chose pieces that were really bold and colorful. They were clothes that someone who was trying to be inconspicuous wouldn't dare wearing. We also wanted to give the illusion of wealth, so there were some vintage designer pieces in there. The red, white, and blue colorway was a subliminal message of what it means to be an American. We felt like the bolder we went, the easier the message would be portrayed.
How did the perception of wealth play into your interaction with Border Patrol? If you had worn something less “high-fashion,” do you think you would been perceived differently and felt less safe?
Karen: The perception of wealth immediately labeled us as less threatening. I think if we had worn "regular" less fashionable clothes, we would have looked more suspicious. The clothes gave the illusion that we were into superficial things and that our photos were simple narcissism. Had we been wearing jeans and shirts, I'm sure the reason of why we were in the Border Patrol station would had been less obvious and warranted some questioning. We live in a selfie culture, so when we showed that's all we were interested in, the threat simply vanished.
We’ve read that there is a kind of Wild West freedom to living in or visiting Marfa. Certain types of people — artists, bloggers, celebrities, tourists — are bestowed an excess of privilege while others are treated to an excess of force. In addition to being a creative backdrop, does this playground mindset present another stark contrast to the high security presence of Border Patrol? For example, once you were perceived as a non-threat, did you feel a strange sense of freedom in Marfa? Or did you see anyone doing anything wild that would not be tolerated, even in a place like Austin or New York?
Karen: New York is a wild place, so there's nothing I haven't seen, jajaja! But Marfa did have the feel of a ghost town that made me feel really free. Aside from the whole Instagram vibe, the city itself is beautiful and welcoming and you feel like you're walking around a movie set. I did feel way freer there than in New York where authority figures are everywhere and we are all seen as suspects. I do think our bold appearance did make us feel safer, like we drew so much attention that nothing was going to happen to us.
Maria: I think there is freedom to be found in Marfa if you find a way to blend in. Although we were dressed as fashion bloggers, I think that we stood out by the type of blogger we were impersonating. I walked around in super high furry heels and bright red tights — a look which might blend in somewhere like NYC, but in Marfa the contrast was extreme. If I had worn a more “minimalist” blogger wardrobe of beige and tan, I would’ve blended in and probably gone unnoticed.
It seems odd that the US government funds Border Patrol agents in a place mostly populated by tourists and transient artists — the permanent population is less than 2,000 people. Similar to installations like Prada Marfa, border agents create a faux economy in the region when they live, shop, and eat in local establishments, even as they represent additional “outsiders” in the town. In your estimation, does the relationship between the agents and the residents seem to be adversarial or symbiotic?
Karen: To be quite honest, I never saw the agents outside of the stations or their vehicles. It almost felt like a non-presence. I didn't really feel an interaction between the agents and the locals/tourists in the area, but we didn't stay long enough to make an observation. I'm sure given the number of stations and the size of Marfa, they make up a large part of the population but without their uniforms, they're just like you and me.
Maria: I’ll have to get back to you after my next project of which I plan to go undercover as a Border Patrol agent and live as they do to see what it’s like on the other side. Ha! It’s something I have thought about for a long time and I hope that I have the time to make this happen one day.
You mentioned that American bloggers used the area for their creative content yet don’t mention the Border Patrol Stations across the street. Would you trust influencers to serve as conduits for this important issue? If so, how can potential allies use their large platforms and considerable audiences to bring attention to immigrant and refugee stories? Is there anyone already working in this space between culture and activism you would like to bring attention to?
Karen: I think we live in a time where these issues cannot be ignored. Influencers have such a large platform that they should be using their reach for meaningful conversations. But that's how I feel about art and beauty in general — I feel they are both avenues for connection and therefore social change. I would respect them if they did speak upon these issues, but I know many don't because these are not easy conversations to have. Many influencers focus on reaching the most people possible, and topics like immigration and policing tend to alienate those who are unaffected by these issues. Financially, it wouldn't make sense for Instagram bloggers to be talking about this, unless that was their niche. But I think it's so important to do so.
Artists have a responsibility to push society forward and you do that by asking tough questions. I really hope this project pushes influencers to reach a little deeper and use beauty and aesthetics to break the ice and get deep about the state of the world. They already have the power of being seen and heard — I can only hope they take that responsibility seriously.
Give us your best resources, reads, and/or places to give money for immigration reform please!
Maria: I read Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America on the recommendation of my friend Cristina Tzintzun, who founded Jolt. I now recommend that book to everyone. I'm currently reading Open Veins of Latin America which was gifted to me by my friend mónica teresa ortiz, who is an incredible poet. I also focus on supporting Latinx women authors like Natalia Sylvester. Her latest work, Everyone Knows You Go Home, is the selection for my Book Club 2 Brown Girls. Natalia will be joining us to answer our questions! Everyone is welcome to our meet on April 19th.
Places to give money:
My DACA Fundraiser: I, along with two friends, are raising money to help fund DACA renewal applications which cost $495/each.
The Seed Project: they plan acts of resistance around DACA and fight for all immigrants.
Jolt is building the political power of Latinos in Texas. If we take Texas, we take the country.
Karen: I'm obsessed with intersectional social justice instagrammers like @guerillafeminism. I also think @arthoecollective does a great job of using the beauty of WOC to speak upon important subjects. @afropunk also has a cool mix of art and politics I enjoy.