Untold Arizona: A Fatal Cross-Border Shooting Through The Eyes Of An Artist
In 2012, a teenager was fatally shot by a U.S. Border Patrol agent who fired his service weapon through the border fence.
Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, 16, was standing in Nogales, Sonora, and was shot 10 times by the agent from Nogales, Arizona. Eventually, prosecutors abandoned charges in the case — which inspired both art and protests.
The story of how the shooting has been commemorated begins more than a thousand miles south of the border, in one of Mexico’s most colorful cities: Oaxaca.
On a recent Saturday, a band with drums, clarinets and trumpets marched from an iconic church called Santo Domingo toward the center of the city. Trailing it were dancers with long white dresses and handkerchiefs in bold pastels. The ground they walked on are clay, the hills surrounding the city are an intense green. And the artist we were looking for was around the corner.
Yescka — who goes by his pseudonym and doesn’t give his civilian name — has a big mustache, and looked at his most recent paintings along the walls of his studio. They incorporate famous brand logos like Marlboro or Chanel. He wants to appropriate them and give them a Mexican look, he said.
"The brands are always using your culture, and they are using it to make commercial things," Yescka said. “I want to take that back.”
Yescka also makes murals in cities around the world. A few years ago, he was invited to Arizona by a painter from Phoenix — and that’s when he decided to make a mural about Rodriguez, the teen who was shot on the Nogales border.
The agent who shot the teen, Lonnie Swartz, was not convicted on either second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter, before prosecutors abandoned the case.
Yescka’s take? A mural on the wall next to where Jose Antonio was shot. He painted a boy jumping rope, wearing a bullet-proof vest.
“This was my idea because children have to now play with this thing just to protect themselves because they don't know when border patrol wants to shoot them," Yescka said.
"You are killing kids. It's not your enemy. It's not some narco. It's just kids playing in front of you, and you are killing them."
Storytellers In Cartel Country
Katie Beltran, also known as La Muñeka, is the Phoenix painter who hosted Yescka in Arizona. She said that after Yescka made the mural, they met Jose Antonio’s mother, who told them the mural looked exactly like Jose Antonio. It was strange because Yescka didn’t know what the boy looked like, Beltran said.
“It did resemble him a lot,” Beltran said. “It was pretty eerie."
Yescka and Beltran aren’t the only artists who have commemorated Jose Antonio. Richard Montoya, a filmmaker and a playwright, wrote a play inspired by the shooting and called it “Nogales: Storytellers in Cartel Country.”
Montoya and director Sean San José researched the play by conducting interviews on both sides of the border, including with former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In the play, they argued Arpaio’s rhetoric on immigration led to the deaths of migrants. The play ran in Tucson and San Francisco in 2016.
A work of art can help remember the lives of Jose Antonio or of migrants who have died while attempting to enter the United States, Montoya said.
"It's almost like that movie 'Koko,'” Montoya said. “If you keep the flickering candle and the flame alive, you keep the memory of that person alive."
Yescka’s mural has since been painted over. And Montoya’s play is no longer in theaters. But Montoya says the memory of Jose Antonio and other young black and Latino males killed by law enforcement lives on.
Back in Oaxaca, Yescka said he plans on making another work of art involving the border — across from San Diego — though he won't t give many details.
“I want to build the wall. Part of the wall, my version of it,” Yescka said. “Maybe Trump wants to help me.”
Yescka said even if President Donald Trump completes his project to extend the border fence from Brownsville to San Diego, there will be more human connections across than there will be miles of barrier in between.