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A Cartography of Loss in the Borderlands

Mexicali’s "Colorado River Family Album" documents what is no more.

Concrete fills the landscape at Mexicali, Baja California’s Civic Center, just blocks south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Alongside the neo-brutalist building runs a six-lane boulevard, Calzada de los Presidentes. But on the other side of the calzada, where a dirt slope leads to a line of dilapidated homes, there’s something odd: Every lot has an old hand-built retaining wall. Some are made of stacks of tires, others of corrugated metal panels, wood and other debris.

The retaining walls were built back when the boulevard was a river, according to artist and researcher Jessica Sevilla, who remembers the river from her childhood. For decades, the New River collected Mexicali’s sewage and agricultural runoff and carried it north to the Salton Sea. It was one of North America’s most contaminated waterways. So, in 1998 and 1999, under pressure from the U.S., the city confined the river to a metal tube and paved its former bed, creating the boulevard. The retaining walls, no longer necessary, are gradually falling down.  

Throughout the Colorado River Basin and the arid West, communities are reckoning with loss: Reservoirs are dropping rapidly, rivers don’t flow like they used to, and bodies of water like the Salton Sea and the Great Salt Lake threaten to disappear altogether. These changes — these losses — are especially apparent in the Mexicali Valley, which lies between California’s Imperial Valley, with its thirsty alfalfa fields, and the desiccated Colorado River Delta.

Sevilla and two other local artists and curators, Rosela del Bosque and Mayté Miranda, have taken on the task of remembering the region’s departed waters. Since 2020, the women have overseen the Archivo Familiar del Río Colorado, or Colorado River Family Album, a project that brings together contemporary art, environmental education and historical research to document bodies of water that are disappearing or are already gone.

Mexicali was founded in 1903 to house the Mexican and Chinese workforce that developed California’s Imperial Valley, building its irrigation canals and tending its vast farm fields. After that, the city remained a migration destination, especially for job-seekers from elsewhere in Mexico.

“If you look at the history of this region, it’s a history of big projects by investors from the U.S.,” said Sevilla, “and our grandparents getting the idea that they should come be the workforce.” Mexicali was a place they could reinvent themselves; there was always work to be found.

Today, the city is home to 700,000 people, with an economy largely fueled by the many maquiladoras — assembly plants for U.S. companies — scattered throughout the metropolitan area.