For some animals who call the U.S.-Mexico borderlands home, habitat destruction and displacement threaten the continuation of their species. The raising of a wall across the entire U.S.-Mexico border could be the straw to break the camel’s back — or in this case the Mexican gray wolf’s.
UC Santa Cruz doctoral candidate in environmental studies Juniper Harrower wants everyone to understand the severity of the situation. This led to her starting the “U.S./Mexico Border Biodiversity Project” with Alejandra Rueda, a second-year transfer student studying ecology and evolutionary biology.
“You’re on your way home and you find this roadblock, and now you can’t get home; what do you do?” Rueda asked. “If you put yourself into that perspective, into that situation, you’re going to experience what [endangered species] will in the future if the wall were to be built.”
The border biodiversity project grounds activism and art in environmental science. Because it can be difficult to engage wider audiences through dry statistics on species reproduction, Harrower wanted to use an artistic approach to appeal to the masses. Harrower and Rueda achieved this by hosting events where participants can screen print images of at-risk species, such as the Mexican gray wolf and the Peninsular bighorn sheep.
Through these screen printing events, the pair hopes to encourage dialogue among the local and campus communities about conservation and immigration. Their project echoes the discussions held in the Natural History Illustration class Harrower teaches.
“My students could talk about [border politics] and think about it and consider how they could be utilizing art as a way to generate discourse about this important issue,” Harrower said.
Harrower’s students drew organisms threatened by the wall that interested them. Doing this, the students bridged the gap between art and science in a conversation around social and political issues.
“It would be a shame to not use a skill like [artmaking] to advocate for a more perfect world, a more equitable, just world,” said Ry Faraolo, a political poster and graphic maker who worked on converting the art for screen printing. “Art often has a way of distilling more complex, political ideals into a concrete visual that is a lot more palatable to anyone walking by.”
Besides wanting to create a hands-on and engaging community activist effort, the decision to screen print the animals was also culturally informed. The screen printing is done in the style of “papel picado,” flags used in Mexican cultural events such as Día de los Muertos.
Through Harrower’s class, Alejandra Rueda blended her passions for art and science and discovered the important role humans play in the protection of wildlife. As part of a family that emigrated from Mexico, Rueda identified similarities between her experiences and the challenges facing animal species at the border now.
“I had to learn the language in order to communicate, in order to have a voice,” Rueda said. “But these animals — we are their voice, and it’s only through us that things will change. We’re giving them the voice that they don’t have through the little things that we do, such as this type of activism.”
According to the BioScience article that inspired the project, the wall would harm indigenous plant life, kill animals directly or through habitat destruction, disconnect environments from one another and change where and how water moves.
With habitat destruction and species isolation already major problems, a wall further restricting the movements of shrinking populations could eradicate species that already have fewer than 500 individuals. Besides conservation, authors of the article said congressional and legislative changes need to be enacted to protect these animals.
The “U.S./Mexico Border Biodiversity Project” is an activist statement, art-making campaign, scientific inquiry, conservationist education and political action all rolled into one.
“Art is also a really powerful form of communication that really […] connects with people and speaks to people,” Harrower said. “With the magnitude and severity of the environmental issues we have on our planet right now, we need to get everybody tapped in and paying attention, and you’ve got to do that in any way that you can.”