The American Way

A Chinese painter explores the US-Mexico border and discovers the reality of the border crisis.

Alice Driver | Longreads | March 2019 | 20 minutes (5,502 words)

Dusk is closing in. As we drive along the border in El Paso, Texas, ShiQian, a sound engineer from Beijing, sings, “Where the road is dark and the seed is sowed / Where the gun is cocked and the bullet’s cold,” as he plays his guitar sitting in the back seat of our rented van. Liu Xiaodong, the Chinese painter who has organized this eight-day 1,530-mile border trip in conjunction with Dallas Contemporary museum, sits in the passenger seat, looking out at the border wall and wondering out loud in Chinese, which his assistant for this trip, Marco Betelli, who is from Italy but lives in China, translates into English: “Is this the wall Trump says he is building?” I explain that the 18-foot-high metal fence we are viewing that separates El Paso from Juárez was built in 2008. Yang Bo, a Chinese filmmaker, documents all Xiaodong’s international projects on migration. He sits in the back seat next to ShiQian filming everything as Flavio del Monte, an Italian who serves as Xiaodong’s artist liaison at Massimo De Carlo Gallery, drives. From the back seat, ShiQian’s voice rings out with warmth, “Now I been out in the desert, just doin’ my time / Searchin’ through the dust, lookin’ for a sign / If there’s a light up ahead well brother I don’t know,” as we hug close to the border, to a wall that exists in some places and is absent in others and to the Río Bravo — the “fierce river” — which is little more than a trickle running down a concrete channel.

Xiaodong, 55, is known for his role among the Chinese neo-realist painters of the 1990s. He decided that he wanted to paint what he had seen with his own eyes, that he wanted to be able to draw on the emotions of meeting his subjects and getting to know their lives and the places they live. His process has evolved to include photography, sketching, journaling, and also creating a short documentary about each of his traveling projects. Xiaodong has a long-term interest in internal displacement and migration: In 2006 he completed “Three Gorges Project,” a piece based on time he spent at the Three Gorges Dam in China; in 2013 he spent time traveling in Israel and Palestine to create a series of paintings titled “In Between Israel and Palestine,”; and in 2016 he spent time in Florence, Italy, with Chinese migrants living and working there on a project titled “Migration.” In each case, just as with our U.S.-Mexico border trip, he spent days or weeks traveling the geographical area he would paint, interviewing people he met, and identifying portrait subjects along the way. He wanted his paintings to capture the sensory experience of each place and its people, and so he gathered them to fuel his work.

He wanted his paintings to capture the sensory experience of each place and its people, and so he gathered them to fuel his work.

As I discover on the second day of our U.S.-Mexico border trip, “Further On (Up the Road),” which was originally written and performed by Bruce Springsteen, is ShiQian’s favorite Johnny Cash song. That morning as we cross the Bridge of the Americas into Juárez, Mexico, I ask if ShiQian if he will sing the song where the virgins are trimming their wicks, “The Man Comes Around.” In one of the three hardcover books of his paintings that Xiaodong mailed me before our trip, he talks about his artistic process and writes in a journal, “predictable and overly planned things are uninteresting.”

My job is to provide some structure to the trip by identifying potential interviews and sites of interest, but to leave plenty of time essentially flexible so that Xiaodong can discover the border and make choices based on his discoveries. Xiaodong hopes to find the people he’ll paint large-scale portraits of and to identify landscapes he wants to paint for the exhibition at Dallas Contemporary, a task that will require him to return to the U.S.-Mexico border in February 2020 to paint his subjects in person. Initially Xiaodong wanted to drive from Juárez to Reynosa on the Mexico side of the border, but due to security concerns, we decided to drive and stay the night on the U.S. side of the border, only visiting cities like Juárez, Piedras Negras, and Nuevo Laredo during the day.

predictable and overly planned things are uninteresting.

In Juárez, we drive to one of the locations of La Nueva Central, a restaurant that opened in 1958 and a meeting place for locals. We drive past a mural of a young Juan Gabriel, a Mexican singer affectionately known as Juanga, as ShiQian sings, “There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names / And he decides who to free and who to blame / Everybody won’t be treated all the same.” Outside La Nueva Central, near the life-size red letters JRZ with a heart over the J, we meet up with Juárez photojournalist Julián Cardona. Cardona informs Xiaodong that the owner of La Nueva Central is Chinese, and Xiaodong orders chop suey with shrimp for breakfast. After eating, Caronda walks with us to the Paso del Norte bridge, past the famous Kentucky Club where, the bar claims, the margarita was invented, past the giant pink cross full of nails, each nail representing the murder of one woman in the city, that stands at the entry to the bridge and down to the concrete channel built to control the Río Bravo depending on water needs on both sides of the border. Xiaodong walks down a concrete ramp to get closer to the river, which at that time was little more than a stream. He stands on the wide, flat expanse of concrete with Cardona, Yang Bo, who wears square glasses and is constantly filming, even when we eat or Xiaodong takes a smoke break, follows with a camera. ShiQian follows with a boom mic. Cardona talks about the history of the city, the period from 2008 to 2012 when it was one of the most violent cities in the world. He assures Xiaodong that where we are near the international bridge is safe, and Xiaodong, who was updated on the security situation before his trip, seems more curious about the city than anything else. In the distance, a truck kicks up dust as it moves full speed toward the concrete expanse lining the river. Xiaodong wonders if it is border control, coming to ask us what we are doing so near the border. But as the truck roars past, the driver doesn’t give us a second glance.


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From the river, we drive past the giant red sculpture known as “The X” that you can see from almost anywhere in Juárez and to the migrant shelter run by Father Javier Calvillo Salazar. Upon entering the shelter, we see migrant families resting in the courtyard, a group of children playing soccer and just seconds after we arrive a group of 12 LGBTQ migrants enter the gates. Blanca, who works at the shelter and who I know from the time I lived in the shelter in 2017 for a story I wrote, reminds me that when I was in the shelter there were perhaps 20 migrants and now there are 520. Even though border crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border have been declining for years and, in 2017, were down to their lowest point since 1971, a combination of factors have made migrants more visible. I have traveled with some of the migrant caravans, including the one that President Trump devoted much of his attention to criminalizing, and the simplest explanation I can provide is that migrants are smart, and they don’t want to suffer violence, so they have begun to organize and travel in groups known as caravans. While the caravans are more visible, and apprehension rates have recently gone up, statistically speaking this doesn’t mean more migrants are crossing into the United States. President Trump has used multiple tactics, including family separation, to either limit asylum requests or deter migrants from requesting asylum. He created the “Remain in Mexico” policy, in which those applying for asylum at certain areas along the border now must remain in Mexico for the duration of an asylum process that can often last a year or more. All of these issues contribute to a situation in which migrants are more visible on the border, which is favorable to Trump, who has referred to the 2018 migrant caravan as an “invasion.”

 

Standing in the courtyard in front of the shelter, Xiaodong strikes up a conversation with Violeta, 28, who wears deep-purple lipstick. She is surrounded by the 11 LGBTQ friends she traveled with. They left San Salvador together and traveled 23 days to reach Juárez. Violeta, a trans woman, tells Xiaodong that “in some places they shouted at us. And in the shelter in Mexico City I went to the woman’s bathroom and the woman said, ‘This bathroom is for women, not fags.’” A young man in a gray hoodie, a member of the LGBTQ group, steps into the circle to take his place beside Violet, and he greets Xiaodong in Chinese. He says a series of things that make Xiaodong laugh in surprise and exclaim that he never imagined that a migrant from El Salvador would greet him in Chinese. The migrant says that he studied literature at the university in El Salvador, and he mentions his favorite Chinese author who happens to be a good friend of Xiaodong’s. Blanca offers the LGBTQ group the building that is usually reserved for prayer, because that way they will have their own space to sleep and will be less likely to suffer harassment. Inside, there are rows of bunk beds, and a trans woman in black sequined leggings claims a bed while another trans woman who has a black scarf wrapped around her head, caresses the head of a trans woman wearing knee-high black socks and a skirt. As we wish them luck and walk out to the courtyard, a group of a dozen Cuban women begins to tell us of their journey through the Darién Gap. The guide they paid left them after one day, and they only had two days’ worth of food to make it through six days of jungle trekking, including crossing a river where migrants often drown. A volley of voices adds information: “They will assault you in the jungle.” “They are armed.” “They put a gun to your head.” “They rape women.” And one young woman with long blond hair and yellow nails adds, “I was assaulted twice, once with a gun and another time with a machete.” Some of them saw dead bodies being pulled out of the river after they crossed it and arrived at the Panama border. Nobody wanted me to use their names for fear that it could affect their cases when they requested political asylum.

The migrant says that he studied literature at the university in El Salvador, and he mentions his favorite Chinese author who happens to be a good friend of Xiaodong’s.

 

After leaving the migrant shelter, we stop for lunch at El Tragadero, a local restaurant famous for cuts of meat and decorated with bullfighting memorabilia. Xiaodong, reflecting on what he has seen of the border so far says, “I honestly thought the wall was made up of cement and not this kind of fences. I thought it was something like the wall between Israel and Palestine that you cannot see through on the other side.” After taking a few bites of steak, grilled onion, and baked potato, he adds, “I still think that it wasn’t designed very well and it is pretty easy to get over. It looks more like land art than an actual real wall.”

 

That evening we meet with Juárez photographer Itzel Aguilera who introduces us to a local family, a young woman, Karla, who we meet at her home where her toddler twins, a boy and a girl, are playing with her older son. The twins are U.S. citizens, but the older son is not. Xiaodong sits at the dinner table with Karla, asking her about life in Juárez and her work in El Paso. He is surprised to find out how binational daily life is, the fact that she crosses the border daily for work, that she and her husband are fully bilingual and were educated in institutions on both sides of the border. By the time we drive back to El Paso, the stars are out, points of light scattered like hope.

 

The next day, we pack into the van, ShiQian with guitar in hand and Flavio in the driver’s seat listening to the GPS in Italian. Xiaodong, Yang Bo, and ShiQian chat in Chinese, which Marco sometimes translates for me. And Marco and Flavio, who speak to each other in a mix of Italian and English, sometimes throw a phrase of basic Spanish my way. In the confusion of all the languages, sometimes I ask Xiaodong a question in Spanish. Xiaodong wants to go to Tornillo to see the site where the migrant children were held in a tent camp, so once out of El Paso we head across a dusty expanse of territory punctuated by old trailers and abandoned buildings. I show Xiaodong photos of the migrant caravan I traveled with in 2018, and I share a picture that I can imagine him painting that features a migrant holding his pet iguana Diana. I tell Xiaodong the story of how the migrant said he knew nobody would love Diana like him, which is why he decided to migrate with her. Xiaodong encourages me to join WeChat, which is the app that everyone in China uses to communicate given that Facebook and many other social media sites are not allowed, so I can share more photos there. As soon as I download it, Xiaodong adds me to a group he has named “No Country for Youth,” where ShiQian sends me a welcome message in Chinese.

Arriving in Tornillo, we look for signs of a tent camp, but there are none. The children are gone, but for us, the memory of them remains. We wonder where they all are now. We park on the side of the road and Xiaodong walks out into a field, the sky stretching out wide above him and making him look tiny. Xiaodong wants to find a bar where he can ask locals how they feel about the tent camp for migrant children, so we get back in the car and drive along the road past some trailer homes and a few buildings with peeling paint. Before we realize it, we are out of town, and we are disappointed that we didn’t find a bar. Down the road, we reach Fort Hancock and stop along a metal section of the fence that is more imposing than the fence in El Paso. There is a small border patrol station at the border crossing, and Flavio and I walk inside the gated area to talk to an officer, a woman who immediately tells me to step back. We ask if we can drive or walk along the fence, and she says that it is fine. The fence itself looks like it leads to nowhere, but it curves around, a solitary piece of ironwork standing in a desolate landscape.

The fence itself looks like it leads to nowhere, but it curves around, a solitary piece of ironwork standing in a desolate landscape.

 

Back on the road, we head to Valentine, Texas, eyes on the sky, a vast, constantly shifting purple-blue hue, the mountains seeming ever farther away. Once in Valentine, we remember that it is Valentine’s Day, and we stop to see the famous Prada Marfa, a sculpture by Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset in the middle of the desert that can be seen as both a criticism and a celebration of consumerism. As we head toward the town of , famous both for its land art and its oasis of quirky wealthy people, we spot a giant balloon that looks like a whale in the sky. We pull over to look at it and marvel that it doesn’t move at all despite the wind. In Marfa, Xiaodong wants to find cactus, which he has become obsessed with painting, so we stop in the part of town dotted with trailer homes, pet some dogs, and wander around. Then we head to Alpine, where we will stay the night. Locals point us toward the Ritchey Wine Saloon and Beer Garden, where we can get a beer while having tacos delivered from a place next door. We walk in to find the bar decorated by a bucket full of roses, and everyone inside is dressed in boots and old-timey Western wear. The bartender and owner, who introduces herself as Mattie Matthaei, 50, looks us over and says, “I only see one lady here,” and hands me a rose. She was born and raised in Austin and San Antonio, but has lived along the border for years, once as close as 300 feet from the dividing line. Talking about recent news coming from Washington about the crisis on the border, Matthaei says, “We are kind of stuck with this far-off place that has some mythical idea of the wild, wild West. This is as wild, wild West as it gets. We all drink champagne and get giddy while eating tarts.” She then passes me a slice of chocolate caramel pie and adds, “Once you decide that you have to have militarism and you decide that you are going to bankroll that with billions and billions of dollars, now you’ve got to create some fictitious reason for doing that in the first place.”

 

The next morning, Xiaodong remains obsessed by the idea of a landscape full of cactus, so we drive to Sanderson, the cactus capital of Texas. We all pile out of the car into the midday heat and follow Xiaodong as he wanders down a sloping ravine that ends in a flat, dry expanse of cactus and weeds punctuated by a tuft of black-and-white fur. Marco points and asks, “What is that?” To which, even from a distance, I know because of the smell — a skunk. Xiaodong wants to paint both portraits and landscapes for his exhibition, and he is drawn to the cactus in Sanderson. After an hour or so of wandering, we all meet back at the van, which is parked on the side of the road next to a colorful sign that advertises, THE CACTUS CAPITAL OF TEXAS. A pickup truck with double tires pulls off the road, and a muscular man in his early 30s wearing a cowboy hat sticks his head out the window and shouts, “Y’all OK? Just wanted to see if you had any car trouble.” Xiaodong explains that we are just there to look at the cactus, and as the guy drives away, Xiaodong says, smiling, “That’s the American way.”

 

Back on the road and headed to Eagle Pass, Texas, Flavio looks at the news on his phone and informs us that President Trump has declared a national emergency on the border. I have a hunch that Xiaodong will want to meet Maverick County Sheriff Schmerber, who I interviewed in 2018 for National Geographic, but the Sheriff hasn’t responded to my email, so I call his secretary, who says that if we can arrive at the police station before 5 p.m., he will see us. Marco, who has taken over driving and loves it, hauls ass to get us there by 5:15 p.m. When we walk into the office and announce ourselves, just as I remember him, Sheriff Schmerber walks through the doorway, a cowboy hat tipped over his eyes, boots shining, as he welcomes us in a booming voice and leads us to his office. He offers us all a seat, sits at his expansive desk, and allows everyone time to admire the guns framed above and around his desk, which is flanked by the Texas and American flags. He offers each of us a pen with his name and title on it before launching into the story of his family history, how his mother is Mexican and his father is of German heritage, and how he is proudly bilingual. Xiaodong asks him questions eagerly, and he laughs when the sheriff offers to show us the jail, which is attached to the police station. We follow the sheriff down the hall, and as he unlocks a series of doors, we see the teal walls of the jail, and are led past the jail library, the exercise room, and a series of cells where first men and then women sit either playing cards, sleeping, or laying down alone if they are in solitary confinement. Xiaodong remarks that nobody in China would ever let him get near a jail, much less inside.

 

The next morning, Diana, a friend of mine from Eagle Pass, picks us up at the hotel and we pile into her suburban. Piedras Negras, which is across from Eagle Pass, has high homicide rates and often unexpected outbreaks of violence like gun battles, so we wanted to travel with a local. The Zetas drug cartel has long controlled the territory and, in 2011, as reported by Ginger Thompson, they massacred citizens of Allende, which is only 35 miles from Piedras Negras. In 2013, U.S. officials closed two international bridges to Piedras Negras after a gun battle broke out between drug cartels and the Mexican military.

We have heard that some 1,700 migrants, a caravan that had left San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in early February, had been shut up inside an abandoned factory in Piedras Negras. Xiaodong wants to see the situation for himself. As we drive across International Bridge II, we see that the golf course along the U.S. side of the river is lined with border patrol vehicles. Driving through the narrow streets of Piedras Negras, Xiaodong comments that the city seems peaceful. However, the abandoned factory is ringed by members of the Army, the state police, and the municipal police, and helicopters hum overhead. Xiaodong walks past the police and up to the chain-link fence where migrants, mostly mothers and children, are hanging out. He walks over to a boy, perhaps 8, who is hanging onto the fence, and looks him straight in the eyes.They have a silent conversation. Xiaodong motions that he would like to take a photo — from these photos he will later decide which subjects to paint. The boy nods and is still as Xiaodong takes the photo, his muddy green eyes transmitting emotion even though he is silent. Via Marco, Xiaodong asks a group of mothers standing nearby how long they have been inside the factory. “Fifteen days,” they respond, noting that they haven’t been allowed to leave, not even to exercise their legal right to request asylum.

The boy nods and is still as Xiaodong takes the photo, his muddy green eyes transmitting emotion even though he is silent.

Leaving the factory, we drive to the banks of the Rio Grande. Xiaodong hopes we will find families and children swimming there, but the banks are lined by Mexican police cars and nobody is around. Xiaodong walks along the river for a bit, and before the sun sets, we drive to the poor neighborhood Colonia Presidentes III because Xiaodong would like to find a local family for a portrait. On a street that includes a mix of informal housing in construction and small, brightly painted homes, Xiaodong spots six family members sitting in the sunshine outside a small house marked by one concrete pillar painted turquoise. He walks up to them and introduces himself and they do the same: Juana Martínez López, the matriarch, stands beside her husband, Pedro Martínez Méndez, who rests on the seat of his walker. Nearby is their daughter, Clara Estela Castillo Martínez; their son, Juan Martín Martinez Mendoza; their daughter-in-law, Blanca Isenia Martinez Camarillo; and her baby Herlinda Martínez Martínez, who is awakened from a nap by our presence and none too pleased. After talking to the family, Xiaodong hands the matriarch a red tin of tea from China, and she invites us into her home, the walls of which are made of plywood. The interior is dark and the floor is partially concrete, partially packed earth. Xiaodong tells the family that he would like to paint them and asks them if they will go stand in the sunshine so he can take photos, which he will use to create sketches when he is back in his studio in Beijing. Because the neighborhood where we are in Piedras Negras is dangerous, we don’t stay long and everything feels a bit rushed. But Xiaodong lets the family know he plans to return in 2020 to paint them in person. As the sun sets, we kiss everyone on the cheek, then get in the car and Diana drives us back to Eagle Pass.

 

The next day we drive to Laredo to meet with Sister Rosemary Welsh, who has been a Sister of Mercy for more than half her life and who runs Casa de Misericordia, a domestic violence shelter. On the road, we get stopped at an internal border patrol checkpoint, and Xiaodong wants to know why there are border checkpoints that aren’t on or near the border. The border patrol officer, a woman, asks us to roll down the car windows. She asks where we are from and when I say, “I’m American” and reach for my passport, she waves me off and says, “You’re good.” She then asks where everyone else is from, questions why the Chinese are visiting the border, and looks over everyone’s passports except mine. As we drive away, Xiaodong turns around, looks at me and says, “You’re good.”

 

Sister Rosemary is a tall, lean, commanding presence and has short-cropped white hair and wears a turquoise shirt and black slacks. To help Xiaodong understand how the dynamics of the border and citizenship affect women, she has brought together three women who were victims of domestic violence. After staying at the shelter, they eventually became members of the shelter’s board of directors. At the time that the three women experienced violence, all of them were undocumented, and their partners threatened to either have them deported or to take their children away or both to keep them silent. “Many of the individuals who we are privileged to journey with, many of them do not have papers. Many of them do not have legal status in our country. So that’s another way that the batterer can keep them in a domestic violence relationship.” As she gives us a tour of the classrooms where they provide English lessons and other workshops to women, she talks about volunteering at a local detention center. She speaks a mile a minute, clearly passionate about her work and wanting to transmit all the details to Xiaodong. When she walks us out to the van to bid us goodbye, ShiQian opens the trunk, pulls out his guitar, and begins singing “Hallelujah, hallelujah,” and Sister Rosemary, her eyes gleaming, joins in. We sing until we are all in unison, our voices ringing out in the empty street.

 

That evening at dinner, Xiaodong talks about things that have surprised him about the border and things that he didn’t understand. He wonders why Sister Rosemary didn’t wear her “nun outfit,” and I realize that he is referring to the black-and-white habit and begin laughing. “She is a modern nun,” I tell him. Then he says via Marco, his translator, “I don’t understand what the emergency status was. I thought it was the emergency status — there is going to be a war. And then you told us that it was about the president freezing money that was originally intended for something else to get money to do whatever the president wanted. I thought that we wouldn’t be able to go to Mexico.” Then he digs into his steak — if one thing is certain it is that he loves his meat — and picks up his glass of red wine to toast our motley crew.

 

The next morning, Sunday, we meet my friend Luis, a journalist from Nuevo Laredo, and we drive from Nuevo Laredo to the Río Bravo to see if we can find families swimming. On the drive, Xiaodong mentions that he wants to return to Eagle Pass to have dinner with the sheriff and see his house. He wants to paint Sheriff Schmerber. He explains, “Because I love him! I think his family is very special memory I think. Family together. I paint them together. Spend ten days. BBQ. Whiskey.” He says that it was never something he planned — to paint a sheriff or a policeman — but that in China “human relationships between Chinese people and the police force cannot get to the point where I already got with fifteen minutes with Tom. You don’t hug, you don’t joke around. It is a very detached and cool relationship. This is of course something that I never thought about and it just happened. … I loved the idea and I liked the guy the very first time I met him and I try not to overthink these things.” By the time we arrive at the river, we have hatched a plan and called the sheriff to invite him to dinner. As we exit the car, we smell barbecue and see families fishing, grilling meat, and swimming. A guy with a Hecho in Mexico (“Made in Mexico”) tattoo on his shaved head stands in the shallow part of the river and explains to Xiaodong that yes, some people want to swim across the river and go to the U.S., but they are clearly desperate. To illustrate his point, he says, “Look, here in Mexico we have delicious barbecue chicken and in the U.S. you only have frozen chicken and canned beans.” As we walk along the river, a family invites Flavio and me to play bingo, so we sit down and they get a kick out of hearing Flavio’s very Italian Spanish. The mother of the family explains that she and her children live in San Antonio, but that her husband isn’t a U.S. citizen, so they spend every weekend with him in Nuevo Laredo. Flavio wins two bingo games, then we wander over to find Xiaodong, who has borrowed a fishing pole from a local and clearly doesn’t want to walk away without catching a fish. Xiaodong says, “This is paradise,” then he looks out over the river, which gleams golden blue under the midday light.

We then go to the migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo where we are greeted by Saúl García, 23. He’s from Piedras Negras and is the shelter administrator. The sunlit patio is full of parents and children, most of whom are from Honduras. García lets us know that there are 75 migrants at the shelter, of which 22 are children. Xiaodong spots a small black dog, and as he walks over to talk to a group of children, he finds they are gathered around a large white rabbit. I translate for him as he talks to Osmar Palma, 50, from Colón, Honduras. Palma’s 2-year-old daughter squats nearby petting the rabbit, which has snuggled beside the black dog in the dirt. Palma traveled with his wife and daughter for a month to reach Nuevo Laredo, and he says that they hoped to request asylum in the U.S. Before leaving the shelter, I ask García about the rabbit, wondering if the shelter got it for the kids. “A migrant traveled with the rabbit from Honduras, and another traveled with the dog from Chihuahua. They couldn’t take their pets across the border so now the dog and the rabbit live here. They are migrants too,” he explains.

“A migrant traveled with the rabbit from Honduras, and another traveled with the dog from Chihuahua. They couldn’t take their pets across the border so now the dog and the rabbit live here. They are migrants too,” he explains.

The next to last day of our trip, we drive back to Eagle Pass to meet Sheriff Schmerber at his house. Xiaodong would like to request to return to visit the sheriff and paint a portrait of him and his family in February 2020 for his exhibition. When we arrive, the sheriff hugs Xiaodong and ushers us into his house, the hallway of which is decorated with framed photos of his wife and daughter, including one life-size photo of his daughter in a sparkly white quinceañera dress. In the kitchen, we are greeted by his one-eyed dog as the sheriff pulls out a bottle of tequila and proposes a toast. After everyone drinks, Xiaodong asks if he can paint Tom and his family, to which Tom not only replies yes but also suggests that Xiaodong stay in his guest room. After we walk into the sheriff’s backyard, which has a tree full of ripe oranges. By the end of the night, the sheriff has gifted Xiaodong an honorary sheriff’s badge.

That night, as we drive back to Laredo, Xiaodong talks about the iguana, the rabbit and the dog — about the tenderness they represent, about how the things we carry with us define us. Migrants carry babies, pets, the weight of fear, the worry that they might not survive the journey. And yet they go. Back in his studio in Beijing, Xiaodong would begin to wrestle with how to capture that reality in paint.

* * *

Alice Driver is a longform journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She covers borders and migration, and she is the author of More or Less Dead. You can find her work at National Geographic, California Sunday, Time, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact-checker: Samantha Schuyler
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