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Brownsville, Texas is the largest city in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Matamoros, Mexico, second largest city in Tamaulipas, sits across the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande from Brownsville. These twin cities are inextricably linked by history and culture. Art now links them again.

Behold the South Texas Art Exhibit, Brownsville Art Museum.* This eclectic, exhilarating exhibition premiered June 11, 2016, remaining open until September 1st. Artists and art lovers from the U.S. and Mexico met in profusion. Love of art and culture prevailed; but another common theme portrayed by the art was guns, violence and death.

The appreciative crowd seemed to rise above it; indeed, they found in the resplendent art new ways to see things—a gift art often offers. They were able to contemplate causes, meanings, even solutions. Artists included: Cande Aguilar; Mark Clark; Jesus de la Rosa; David Freeman; Veronica Jaeger; Nancy Moyer; Jorge Puron; Mauricio Saenz.

These artists maintain physical and intellectual links between their cities and cultures. Most of them have shown professionally, both nationally and many internationally. Here, in this southernmost spot of the United States, they bonded and, once again, revealed to art lovers their talents, indeed, their hearts, minds, even their souls.

Their unique part of the world is full of dramatic history. Brownsville, named for General Jacob Brown, Texas War of Independence, boasts a rich heritage. But it is one often filled with violence— U.S.-Mexican War, U.S. Civil War, and current cartel vs government wars on the other side of the river. It is no mystery why so many of the paintings at the museum referred to danger and violence.

Memories of the past century include confrontations among Hispanic and Anglo residents, such as Juan Cortina fighting for Hispanic land rights. Brownsville native and University of Texas Professor, Américo Paredes, recorded that drama in his famous “With His Pistol in His Hand.” Friends and foes at that time were multi-lingual and of different religions, often tied by inter-marriage.

On the south side of the river, fusion was the operative word. Matamoros, named for War of Independence (from Spain) hero, Mariano Matamoros, is the second largest city in the state (1/2 million). It is fast growing because of international trade. Together the twin cities have become a proud example of bi-national friendship (“Charro Days,” “Mr. Amigo” and, now, bi-national artists).

Until recently, the area was also “ground zero for drug wars” (John Burnett, April 1st, 2015, NPR). Despite random cartel violence, tourists (the braver ones) still cross over to Garcia’s restaurant near the international bridge for a margarita and fine lunch. (Many of us remember the great dancing and dining at the famous “Drive-Inn”). Visitors may not linger, often due to U.S. Department of State warnings, but life goes on for many. Hands continue to be held out across the border, from both sides.

Mexican philanthropists help support vanishing species at the famous Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville. They attend Maestro Juan Burgos’ Bellas Artes ballets, often filled with dancers from Mexico. The Mexican National Anthem was premiered In the Opera House of Matamoros. Both sides hope for a renaissance one day soon. Art helps that wish come true.

About the exhibit in Brownsville: where to begin? How does an observer (I won’t presume to call myself an art critic) do justice to all? I can’t. I won’t try. At almost every turn, the patron is reminded of the pride felt for Indigenous and Hispanic roots. I won’t cover each artist (my apologies). My thrust will be more a sociopolitical, general analysis. What impressed me were the ways in which selected artists “took on” difficult subjects.

These include: dilemmas of defining multi-cultural roots; exasperation about societal encroachments onto personal space; confrontations with danger and violence. Enter more empathy: one only need recall the calamitous event in Orlando, Florida, the horrendous mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, the very night of this artistic gathering half way across the nation. It touched the Valley. Frank Escalante Hernández, 27, originally from Weslaco, Requiescat in Pace, R.I.P.

So, after the art—grim reality. We woke to news about young people — some from Texas — out for a night of dancing and fun, facing hate and death. It was devastating and nearly incomprehensible. Only spiritual reflection and, for me — art — can help us sustain ourselves through such mayhem. This brings us back to reaction to particular pieces in the Brownsville show. Some of the talented eight artists featured have developed ways that “work” for them to make sense of the senseless, to celebrate life — and to ponder death.

Death is not far from us at any time. It is especially difficult to accept, however, when it affects the young and innocent. Jesus de la Rosa rose to the challenge of graphically capturing such emotional moments with his “Borderland Child with Gun Halo.” Stolid and poignant is the print; one is captivated by the sweet child. But, upon drawing back to view, we realize the ominous, threatening encirclement of guns surrounding his head.

Mark Clark slyly steals your heart with “Mayan Bather;” she could be a pre-Hispanic glyph on a stelae, except for the bikini and sun glasses. Moving on, the artist rips your heart with “Moctezuma’s Revenge” (“Every Gringo’s Fears of Mexican Immigration”). The large painting, a cacophony of color, is filled with Zetas, drugs and graves. Then come horror and humor: an Aztec snake eating Mickey Mouse, a sinister Ronald MacDonald selling venomous Helados. One could spend an hour in front of this Bosch-like painting, the figures meticulously drawn.

Many works are less about death, but more about life and interior reflection about its meaning. Many artists express their rejection of man-made strictures that intrude into our lives. Mysterious is Maurico Saenz’ conceptual installation, “Exile.” The precise, pristine white, large wood cabinet (constructed in Matamoros by a master carpenter) is video-embedded. It reveals a deeper, reflected look of the cabinet, suggesting life, but an encapsulated, melancholy existence.

Reflections about life and channeling clouds of meaning infuse the work of Nancy Moyer. But they are clouds of cloth — large photographs of pastel, faded, draped wash cloths, subtly imposed over a discreet “map” drawn from the outlines of the very cloths we see. They softly scream “the infiltration of nature by man-made excess.” She is “disturbed with the effects of artificial over-production.” (Think box cars in the south Texas, full of ropa usada, some of it not used at all, shipped from the East coast). Moyer also miniaturizes and encases the abstract images as jewelry; she wears one, as if a trophy of battle, proudly around her neck.

Two cities, two nations, divided by one river, yet linked by that river and by history and culture, now are linked by art, artists and aficionados of art. Those progressive artists and art lovers join in sympathy and empathy with the LGBT community and all citizens of Orlando. Their cities, too, have faced extreme challenges throughout history.

Ultimately, love and amistad are greater than violence and hate. As President Obama said in his message to the nation, “no act of hate or terror will ever change who we are or the values that make us Americans.” I would add: “Americans” in all the Americas, on both sides of the Rio Bravo, Rio Grande. Let the word go out: South Texas and Northern Mexico value art and life. Here, two cities are one.

* Un/Provincial: Art of South Texas; Entrance gratis; contributions welcome. For more information contact Rene Van Haaflen, Executive Director; Jennifer Cahn, curator; Brownsville Museum of Fine Art, 660 East Ringgold Street, Brownsville, Texas, 78520.