Friday, March 24, 2006 | "For long before there were borders, there were crossers. We are the proud sons and daughters of these crossers, and we hold that crossing is a basic human right."
Thus reads the Keep on Crossin' Manifesto.
Keep on Crossin' is hard to define. It's not really a political movement, nor is it really an organization. Indeed, Keep on Crossin' is more of a spoof on a movement, or even a spoof on an organization. But it does have a mascot. And an iron-on patch. And a Web site. And a manifesto.
Let me try to explain.
Visual artist Perry Vasquez and writer and film producer Victor Payan, the duo behind Keep on Crossin', have stated on the record that they do not support illegal immigration. That's a bit hard to swallow considering the wording of their manifesto, and their patch, which depicts a traditionally garbed Mexican striding across the Mexico-US border with a grin on his face.
Together, Payan and Vasquez have found a calling in provoking reaction.
It all began with an art project. Vasquez was working on a long-term project called Apollo13 Art. The space mission of the same name is only loosely represented in his project. The work's hidden meanings reference everything from pollo - which is Spanish for chicken and is also slang for secret border crossers from Mexico who cross with the aid of coyotes - to the god of fine arts, Apollo.
The R. Carumba patch (see picture), as he said, was something he and Vasquez wanted to create for the people they knew who crossed to do their art work, both students and cultural workers not looking to come as immigrants. The ever thinking duo even submitted it for the California quarter design back when submissions were being sought, but joked that "it was too radical for the quarter, but it wasn't radical enough for the peso."
Radical maybe, but the Keep on Crossin' art and poem made an appearance as an installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.
It may be just written words and a patch, but it sure is spreading. It is even heating up a frenzy with border watchers, but Payan and Vasquez couldn't care less.
Keep on Crossin' does not support rebellions. And, it is meant to spark discourse on crossing borders - both self-imposed and those which have been imposed, from linguistic, political, social, cultural, technological and economic borders.
"We thought that it would be fun to give those people a mascot so that in a way we could take that experience and put it in a framework of art. It has a very specific application so it's like 'here this is my badge for going through all of that everyday,'" Vasquez said.
"I can have people ask 'aren't you being racist by using stereotypes' and I thought maybe some people would, but Mexicanos really don't see it as condescending. They just see it as an image of themselves."
James Cooper, director of Proyecto Acceso, a program headquartered at the California Western School of Law welcomes the patches pranksterism roots.
"They are playing with a good dose of reality. It's not making light of crossing, it is putting it in a different context. Whether it's Smokey the Bear or Uncle Sam, you learn from art, it talks about the border in an unconventional way, it should be less about fences, barbed wired."
Vasquez said the patch represents the quintessential California experience by placing creative artists in the nexus of issues and allows Keep on Crossin' to reach people in a very swift and simple manner.
Andy Ramirez, chairman of the Friends of the Border Patrol, a non-profit whose members call themselves the "ultimate neighborhood watch," doesn't think the patch is humorous. Nor is he amused by the realities it raises for those who support it.
"I look at this as one issue, but what's the next issue? It's more than a cartoon; it's not funny to border agents, or other law enforcement agents or families," Ramirez said. "This patch is making humor of an issue of great danger to the border patrol agents who live on the border, those folks just trying to get across, and the smugglers who murder them."
Is a patch just a patch, or could it have greater universal impact. Like the swastika?
Students in a local English as a second language class found that the Keep on Crossin' manifesto's theme was about chasing the American dream.
"You keep coming and getting sent back and coming again until you make it because you have the want to come out ahead. An American won't go work in these places, they prefer to live off welfare before working as a maid in a house," Soledad Estrada said.
Another student said, "Whatever the border, it doesn't matter. This is saying to have the attitude to cross with attention and be alert."
Ramirez doesn't buy into the manifesto.
"To their thinking they can go to America and get a better life, but there is no intent to become part of American society and culture," he said. "We need to clean out the interior to find what jobs we can fill with Americans and then there will be room for discussion on immigrants. We need to gain operational control," he said.
Operational control is not what the patch is calling for, but it does speak of upholding human rights by giving people reigns of control, Payan said.
"People who are not like you still have families. They eat, they work, and they die, just like everybody else. If you deny them that part of your society, if you set up a system which disempowers one person or one group, you have set up a system that disempowers yourself," he said.
The founders of Keep on Crossin' stressed that there have been and always will be borders. However, laws have been artificially placed in the workplace and in education, that define people by which side of the border or issue they are on.
"The definition of who you are is being redefined. Are you a terrorist? Are you an illegal alien? Are you a good Mexican, a non-enemy combatant? You're just you, you don't change because definitions change," Payan said.
Having opinions on abortion, guns, immigration, and the war could essentially, as they described, put people in the position to cross.
Frequently asked if they are promoting illegal border crossing through their work, the duo said the truth is, "It's not about that, it's about promoting human expression. We can say it's one small patch for man, one giant patch for mankind, but if you're going to get hot and bothered over a patch, it's more."
Crossing is everywhere in terms of our experiences. I have crossed state borders, to find a new place to call home, legally with a pursuit, as many others have. In reality, no matter where you go - you're always crossing something.
For more information on Keep on Crossin' visit www.keeponcrossin.com
Betsy Lopez Fritscher is Voice's office manager and editorial assistant. Contact her directly at