Best Keepers of the Gate 2016 | The Zanjeros | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

We're not here to praise Governor Doug Ducey's business leadership group, "Arizona Zanjeros," who, we suppose, are hoping to increase the flow of business opportunities into our state. No, we're talking about actual zanjeros: ditch riders, men and women, who control the flow of water through our city's system of canals by opening and closing the gates on canals and irrigation ditches across the Valley. These zanjeros helped make our desert way of life possible — and in some ways, continue to do so.

In spite of Ducey's group's recent cultural appropriation of the zanjero title, let's not forget: Historically, it was the labor and expertise of Latinos living in Phoenix who proved instrumental to the early irrigation operations. They helped with the physical construction of the canal system, and often served as zanjeros, covering hundreds of miles a day. Nine canals make up the Valley's complex canal system, largely constructed between 1870 and 1913. They were built upon the prehistoric irrigation canals of the Hohokam, which were feats of engineering genius in and of themselves. The Hohokam were present in Central Arizona for 1,500 years, producing one of the largest canal systems in the New World. That's a legacy to be proud of.

Today, being a zanjero is a trade that is disappearing, as farmland gives way to development.

Also known as the Changing America Desk, the Fronteras Desk is a collection of four public radio stations – including Phoenix's own KJZZ 91.5 FM – reporting on immigration, Native American, economic, and environmental news in the Southwest, reaching from Southern California to central Texas, i.e., the border of the United States and Mexico. Stories usually feature multilingual reporters broadcasting pieces like "Panama Canal Expansion: Challenge And Opportunity For Southwest Economy" and special reports like "Child Migrant Crisis At The Border." Fronteras Desk pieces have been featured on KJZZ scheduled shows like "Marketplace," PRI's "The World," and "Here and Now." This multimedia collaboration started in 2010 as a joint project between KBPS San Diego and KJZZ Phoenix. Listen up. You might learn something.

A couple of years back, ASU Art Museum exhibited the politically charged works of LA artist Eduardo Sarabia in a show titled "Moctezuma's Revenge." Delving into and sometimes turning on its head Mexican culture, Sarabia skewered narco machismo with an eye toward history — and style. Carved from Mexican canterra stone and reaching seven feet in height, Sarabia's Snake Skin Boots with Snake Head still stands tall outside the Tempe museum, embellished with smiling snake heads and a nod to the Aztec god of war. It's a heavy statement, both literally and figuratively, as the sculpture piece weighs in at an immobile 4,000 pounds.

It's impressive enough that Phoenix artist Annie Lopez is a fourth-generation Arizonan. But she's also a prolific art pioneer who first entered the local art scene in 1982, where she was part of a dynamic artist collective called MARS (Movimento Artístico del Río Salado). MARS Artspace, which operated in various Phoenix locations through the years, brought visibility to works by Chicano, Hispanic, and Native American artists. Today she's a nationally renowned cyanotype artist whose photographs, sometimes created on tamale wrapping paper and sewn into dresses, tell stories of her own experiences and those of her family. Many reference her Mexican roots — sometimes exploring the cultural stereotypes prevalent in contemporary society. Long before the border became a political topic du jour, Lopez was using her art to prompt reflection on the ways borders affect people's perspectives and actions — paving the way for more artists to incorporate themes of social justice into their art practice.

Day of the Dead festivals, inspired by the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, pop up around metro Phoenix every fall. Add in Cinco de Mayo, and you've got a whopping couple of days when Mexican culture seems to be on everyone's mind. Works by Phoenix artist Lalo Cota, who was born in Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico, pretty much assure that those who see them will have Mexico on the brain a lot more often. You can't drive far in downtown Phoenix without seeing a mural he's painted alone or with one of his many collaborators. Many feature skulls or other iconic Day of the Dead imagery, or cars that embody Chicano lowrider culture. He's got mural art inside the new Barrio Café Gran Reserva and outside Carly's Bistro — plus dozens of other places. Seeing walls painted with Cota's signature skull-faced characters reminds people of Phoenix's relative proximity to the border — and the fact that being close to Mexico is a good thing, worthy of celebrating with more than just a few days of partying.

Hundreds of families, nearly half of them Latino, converge on Tempe Center for the Arts when Childsplay and Cultural Coalition partner to present their El Puente Theatre Festival and Mask Procession. It's an annual festival-style event featuring free performances, art activities, and storytelling infused with Mexican culture that helps family members of all ages appreciate the value of diversity and learning about others' cultural heritage. There's mariachi music, folklorico dance, and even an exuberant parade, complete with musical instruments and giant puppets, across the Tempe Town Lake Bridge. Together, families from all different backgrounds experience the joy of celebrating Mexican culture together.

It's been more than a decade since Kathy Cano-Murillo, an artist and author who's built her own brand as the Crafty Chica, started the Phoenix Fridas art collective. The roster of artists — all Latina artists inspired by renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo — has changed through the years. Even so, it's remained a fierce group united by mutual respect and creativity despite varying art styles, ages, viewpoints, and personalities. Nowadays, it has nine members who exemplify the entrepreneurial spirit while supporting each other's artistic expression. And, of course, the group shares the Frida and crafting love through exhibits, craft boutiques, workshops, and its annual community celebration of Frida Kahlo's birthday each July.

Photographer Tom Kiefer spent more than a decade working part time as a janitor for a U.S. Border Patrol facility near Ajo, Arizona, where he used his camera to document the personal effects seized from migrants, then thrown away — including wallets, underwear, rosaries, soap, birth control pills, and more. He grouped objects by type before photographing them, then turned his photos into an exhibition meant to prompt reflection on the dehumanization at the heart of turning such personal objects into trash. Through this powerful body of work, Kiefer highlighted commonalities shared by people across cultures and reminded viewers that border-related policies have significant implications for real people.

 Amid popular culture saturated with the noise of nonsensical political rhetoric, ASU's Performance in the Borderlands fostered collaborations that created safe, yet challenging spaces for dialogue about some of the most pressing issues in contemporary American life — including immigration and racism. Working with Nia Witherspoon, it presented a lineup that included performances of Suzan-Lori Parks' America Play, which explores parallels between a young black man and President Abraham Lincoln. During an artist residency featuring Ana Teresa Fernández, whose work includes symbolically erasing parts of the U.S. and Mexico border by painting them blue to match the sky, it inspired reflections on ways to embrace rather than eschew people from diverse cultures.

While others talk of building walls, San Francisco artist Ana Teresa Fernández is working to erase them. She's done several installations combining visual with performance art at various points along the U.S.-Mexico border. Most recently, she coordinated painting at three different sites, using live streaming video to assure that those who couldn't make the trek to the border would still feel a part of the process. Each time, Fernández buys blue paint matching the particular sky overhead, then invites others to join her in painting blue the prison-like bars comprising the border fence. From a distance, it seems the border has been erased, giving rise to new perspectives on what might be possible without its looming presence.

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