They call it "La Bestia-The Beast." It’s a cargo train that starts at the southern end of the Mexico and ends on the US-Mexico border. For more than a decade, "La Bestia" has been the main transportation for Central American migrants, coming to the U.S. “MONTARlaBestia,” or “To Climb the Beast,” a new exhibit at USC’s Fisher Museum addresses the plight of the migrants, through visual art and poetry.
Mexican poet Mardonio Carballo wrote a poem for the exhibit of the same name, "Montar la Bestia" (Mounting the Beast):
In Oaxaca a leg was left behind, Its owner is in Veracruz.
His bleeding stump bites, It’s not the scab that bites
But the leg rotting by the side of the tracks, taking one of the many beasts passing through...
MONTARlaBestia was created in Mexico City by a collective called "Artists Against Discrimination." Carballo says the main goal of the artist collective is to fight against discrimination in Mexico. First, it was a fight against indigenous language discrimination, through a successful lawsuit against the Mexican government. Now, the Artist Collective is defending immigrants.
“We thought about it and it seems to us, all the blame is put on those who arrive, the one who is different, the one who comes from another place," says Carballo. "So we wanted to do a reflection from an art point of view, about this theme."
That’s how MONTARlaBestia was born.
The collective is made up of about a hundred visual artists and poets from across Mexico. Carballo reached out to poets and his colleague, painter Demián Flores invited visual artists.
“I think art raises questions," Flores explains, "not give answers, and what we’re trying to do with this exhibition is to open up the questions, and from these questions get people to reflect upon this conflict that exists."
The visual pieces of MONTARlaBestia run connected from wall to wall, like cars on a train. The paintings are enhanced by poetry in Spanish and several indigenous languages, installed under each piece. There are images of desolation in the desert, trains covered with U.S. dollar bills, and scenes of violence.
Selma Holo is the director of the USC Fisher Museum of Art. She learned about the exhibition when she was in Mexico City giving a talk, six months ago. She was convinced it should be seen in Los Angeles.
“This train is so dangerous, it’s such a risk to go on it," Holo says. "Most people get hurt in some way on it. They lose a leg, they get robbed, they get raped, terrible things happen to them, as they struggle to get up here."
She continues, "For me, the whole reason for doing MONTARlaBestia is to try to create a sense of empathy in the people who see MONTARlaBestia, to try to understand that these are human beings who simply are trying to improve their lives and for us to see them as fellow human beings.”
Many of those who make the journey on “La Bestia” are children fleeing violence in Central America.
“And if they're lucky enough to survive that trip, what a lot of people don’t know is they find themselves in immigration court defending themselves without the help of a lawyer, trying to make the argument that they have a right to stay," says Hector Villagra, executive director of Southern California’s ACLU. "And the United Nations has actually estimated that maybe 40 or 50 percent of these kids could have a right to some relief, but there’s no way that these kids will ever be able to make that case without the assistance of a lawyer.”
Curator Marco Barrera says it’s especially meaningful for the Artists Collective showing the exhibit for the first time in the US, here in Los Angeles.
“It’s a gesture of gratitude to a city like Los Angeles that is learning how to be a sanctuary of something that at one point it rejected, immigration, and is now finally accepting and understanding the importance of immigration and of Latinos that helped to build and contribute to this state, the seventh power in the world. California would not be what it is without immigrants,” Barrera says.
Museum director Selma Holo is helping to place the exhibition in other cities across the U.S., including Washington D.C.
“My hope is that it does have a trail and that we will be able to follow behind it, and that it will lead us forward into a deeper and more profound humanity,” Holo says.
MONTARlaBestia runs thru April 8th at the USC Fisher Museum of Art. Proceeds from the sale of the art catalog benefit organizations that help migrants along the route of the cargo train, also known as the "Train of Death."