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Skywriting instead of fireworks: Artist coalition uses messages in the clouds as political art

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Americans often look to the skies on the Fourth of July. They gaze at flaring fireworks or sunbathe with their families at barbecues. But this Independence Day weekend, El Pasoans and many other Americans saw a different sight if they glanced upward.

Three locations in and near El Paso were points on #XMAP: In Plain Sight, a public art project created by an international coalition of 80 artists, where messages were scrawled in cloudy vapor above United States immigration detention facilities, border crossings, and other sites of historic immigration significance.

Margarita Cabrera, an El Paso-based artist, contributed to the #XMAP project by authoring skywriting that was supposed to gallop across the blue sky above the Bridge of the Americas in Central El Paso on Saturday. After delays due to weather, the El Paso skywriting flight took place at 9:45 a.m. Sunday.

Five planes release the vapor that will spell out messages in the sky on July 5 as a part of In Plain Sight’s national protest against the conditions in migrant detention centers. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Cabrera believes that public art projects like #XMAP are an important tool for recontextualizing and deepening community understanding of social and political issues, and that using the arts in that aim is more urgent now than ever.

“I believe that during this time of challenge, the pandemic times, we as artists have a special role. We have a responsibility to reflect what’s going on in our communities. We get used to seeing issues of death, violence, incarceration, shooting, feminicidios, over and over and over, and it’s just another day. Right? It just becomes another day in the news. Artists have the capacity to take those issues out of that context, to give new shape to them,” Cabrera said in an interview with El Paso Matters.

Cabrera’s message in the sky, “UPLIFT: NI UNX MAS,” references “Ni Una Mas” (not one more), a phrase popularized among protestors in Ciudad Juárez calling for justice for the victims of femicides. The spelling of “UNX” was modified in order to make it more gender-inclusive and to recognize “the inter-connectedness that exists between various dehumanizing and impunitive -violent structures affecting our border immigrant communities,” Cabrera said in a statement on the XMAP website. 

“What does the Fourth of July mean for people who are enslaved or are in detention?” asked artist Carolina Caycedo, who contributed skytext “#NO WALL #NO MURO” for the Ysleta Port of Entry in East El Paso. 

“Political messages are always accompanied by an image. These images can be oppressive, and we’re actually seeing how a lot of this imagery and symbols cause so much pain that they’re being torn down. In that sense I think, as an artist, my role in society is to counteract oppressive images. And that’s what In Plain Sight is doing,” Caycedo said. “On a very specifically chosen day, Fourth of July, where everyone is looking up to see celebrations of so-called independence, but independence for who?”

A third message flashed through the sky above the Otero County Processing Center, just outside El Paso in Chaparral, New Mexico, where 149 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19. 

“ESTOY AQUI: SOBREVIVIRE,” (I AM HERE: I WILL SURVIVE) is a way to pay heed to the conditions of immigrant detention, artist Carlos Motta said about the intention behind the text he wrote for the project. 

In a statement on the #XMAP website, Motta said “while the U.S. federal government has instituted poor measures to hold the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) accountable for the range of human rights violations that occur in detention centers, detained immigrants remind us of their strength to overcome and survive the cruel and inhumane treatment they endure.”

As a public art project, the hope of #XMAP is linked to community engagement.

“The success of this project will be defined by the response of the community. There’s an immediate response that can happen (among viewers of the skywritings) by capturing the messages, turning the lens to themselves, and giving a message of what they interpret as the project being,” Cabrera said of her hope for #XMAP in El Paso and broadly.

El Paso artist Margarita Cabrera is contributing to the #XMAP: In Plain Sight project. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

“What do the words in the sky mean to them? What do issues of detention centers mean to them? And then have them upload their message to a platform through the hashtag of #XMAP, so that communities can all hear what the voices are from the local areas that are reacting to this project. So that on a national and international level, we can learn about the issues that are (taking place) in individual communities such as El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.”

Cover photo: Supporters gather in Ponder Park to see planes write messages in the sky over the El Paso-Juárez region on July 5. The messages, sponsored by the organization In Plain Sight, protested migrant detentions. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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