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“Where are you from?”

A simple and innocent question. But for those with borderland genes in their blood, it may be a complex question that holds a confusing answer. Many will not understand when someone says they are from both Mexico and America, and often, they will be asked to answer with one country or the other.

In an attempt to give voice to this often misunderstood community, a project known as the Bi-National Arts Residency showcases what it means to be a borderland person through the arts. 

To understand the importance of this organization, the term “borderland gene” needs to be defined.

ASU Writer-in-Residence and award-winning narrative journalist Terry Greene Sterling has written extensively about the borderlands, including the narrative nonfiction book "Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone."

Sterling said her own borderland genes have shaped her as a writer.

"When I hear someone say they have 'borderland genes,' I think of a person who carries DNA from both sides of the border," she said. "When I think of the term metaphorically, it conjures a sensitivity to the borderlands and their particular beauty and sorrow."

One issue that is tied to borderland genes is immigration, Sterling said. 

"Immigration policy is often shaped by those far from the border, and is often grounded in fact-free, fear-based politics," she said. "If we could just add borderland genes to the congressional gene pool, I think our immigration policy would be more sensible."

Not only is the sensitivity of the borderland showcased through words, it is displayed through the human connection of art. In this case, theater allows the audience to imagine life through the life of others.

Participant in the Bi-National Arts Residency, artist Yadira De La Riva was raised in El Paso, Texas, where she was exposed to border issues on a daily basis. By using theater and storytelling, she was able to find out how border issues fit into history and how history affects the way families navigate these issues.

“Through theater, I have been able to bring in poetry, bring in music, bring in movement … things that I want to talk about," De La Riva said. "It’s like a range of many different forms or expression that is unlimited, and that’s why I love it.”

De La Riva said having family on both sides of the border can result in isolation. De La Riva said in recent times, more violence has erupted, along with a stricter and more expensive policy. People who once were able to cross the border with ease to attend important events such as a quinceañera, a wedding or a family emergency, now can’t because of the risks.

De La Riva called for the border to be de-militarized so people can cross without putting their lives at risk.

“I would love ... for this border to come down, first of all," she said. "I would love for the border to be de-militarized so our lives are not in danger. I feel if the border came down, some of the people wouldn’t have to cross even more dangerous terrain just to come to the United States. And as we know, a lot of people come to this country for an opportunity. It takes a lot for someone to leave their own home to come here. So it’s not like they're coming here for a bad reason."

De La Riva said without these obstacles, the Latino community would be safer and face fewer negative stigmas.

"Imagine a place without these things," she said. "Without a border, without the military surrounding it, without these detention centers, so that brown people, my people, anybody that is leaving their homes for survival wouldn’t be criminalized or even in greater danger. “

De La Riva said that in a sense, if the borderland and its people were better understood, the whole country would be more tolerant.

The message of the Bi-National Art Residency is that theater and other art forms can humanize the stories we hear and see every day. It forms an inter-connection with the audience, the performer and the surrounding environment.

Audience member Teresa Rocha Berumen said she crossed the border at the age of 13 and had to hide in a truck for hours in the heat. She said now, border policies are even stricter.

"When I was a kid, I could run around in the night without a care," she said. "But now that the border policies have gotten tougher, I now have to be careful about what we do."

In a final comment, De La Riva gave a message to any person looking to make a change in society:

“In terms of big change, like revolution for example, I feel like everyone plays a part," De La Riva said. "So if somebody can tell stories as a way of contributing to larger systematic change, then that’s their role. If someone can paint, then that’s their role. Somebody is, you know, is a journalist then they can uncover the truth of what is happening and so on and so forth. The organizers, the musicians, everybody plays a part. So it’s not like one entity is going to be the change-maker.”

For more information on De La Riva's work, check out her website.

Reach the reporter at or follow @LurissaCarbajal on Twitter.

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