Baby Kikito offers another perspective in the US-Mexico border debate

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When hundreds of people drove down a suspiciously narrow, rocky dirt road along the US-Mexico border, it wasn’t to hang out with US Customs and Border Patrol agents.

For over a month, the border at Tecate, California, 40 miles southeast of San Diego, had an unlikely addition: a 65-foot tall photograph of a baby named Kikito sat on the Mexican side, looking towards the US with beaming curiosity.

When Jorge Leonardo Sanchez, a 25-year-old student born in San Diego to migrant parents, looked at Kikito, he pondered what the toddler made of the barrier. “What could he possibly be thinking other than, ‘What is this?’” In Europe, you can easily cross borders, but here, “it’s just a wall that divides you, creating an ‘us vs. them’,” he says.

The art installment, conceptualized by political artist JR, is modeled after real-life Kikito, a toddler who lives a few feet from the installment site. In an interview with the New Yorker, JR said the idea to have a boy looking over the border came to him in a dream. JR’s art has previously transformed favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the Israel-Palestine wall, always provoking visceral reactions.

The artist mounted Kikito on September 7, two days after Trump repealed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and demounted the installment on October 8, just over a week after prototypes of Trump’s border wall began construction in nearby Otay Mesa.

Once JR installed the image and posted on his Instagram of 1 million followers, the world once again had to reconcile how it perceives borders. The comments of that initial picture “didn’t bring a political conversation, but a human conversation,” he told the magazine.

Art holds immense potential to go beyond prejudices we hold, explains Pamela Calore, an art educator and documentary artist based in San Diego. Referencing a Melissa Etheridge quote, Calore says art is a direct line to the heart. “That’s the power of political art. We can reach the heart a lot quicker,” she says.

Calore says the image’s impact is a result of the scale. “It was so much bigger – it actually magnifies children on the border – and almost overpowered the wall itself,” she says.

The message of humans more powerful than man-made boundaries is important for many in San Diego and Tijuana. The San Ysidro port of entry – the world’s busiest land border crossing, with an average of 50 million people crossing each year – splits the two major cities. Family ties and employment often stretch across territories.

Milo Lorenzana, co-owner of Por Vida café in Barrio Logan, says Kikito shows “no matter how tall they build it [the wall], how big they build it, there’s always going to be that passage.” Currently one third of San Diegans identify as Hispanic of Latino, and around 170,000 unauthorized residents live in the area. In San Diego, the conversation Kikito began centered on human; yet, the political can’t avoided nor separated from the former.

Like other visitors who traveled long distances to see the installment, Martha Castro drove two and half hours from Los Angeles County with her four children and husband. She was born in the US to immigrant parents from Mexico – “the original dreamers,” she says – and recognizes that her children, who don’t speak Spanish, need to learn their history. All four are under four years old, but she worries the ramifications overhearing the news – especially about immigration – might have.

“For me this is kind of a realization like, I need to teach my children where they come from originally… because later on in life, I don’t want them to come up on someone who tells them where they’re from and they’re going to deny it or be ashamed of it. So, I feel like I wanted to bring them here and show them,” says Castro.

The subtly subversive toddler’s presence no longer towers over the US-Mexico border, yet it’s simultaneously political and re-humanizing message floats in the air as the nation scrambles to reconcile empathy, Trump’s promised “big, beautiful wall,” costing an estimated $70 billion to build and $150 million to maintain, and the mere 37% of Americans who support it.

“Art touches the heart like no other medium,” says Enrique Morones, Executive Director and Founder of Border Angels, a San Diego-based civil rights advocacy organization. “Kikito adds to that emotion of being a child. His innocence helps convey what I often state: ‘Love has no borders.’”

Political art like Kikito suggests, among other interpretations, that misguided policy hurts the innocent. However, notes Calore, border art’s current reach thwarts potential influence. Though the San Diego/Tijuana community isn’t yet saturated with art, the amount of previous projects have desensitized locals.

So instead, she challenges artists to take their exhibits to New York, or even construct a border in the middle of the country. In places where Americans still don’t fully understand life and ecosystems interrupted by borders, a simulated barrier could illuminate the issues.

So does Kikito make an impact? JR’s installment follows a long legacy of provocative border art, some which may have lost their shock factor. But with the artist’s impressive social media presence, this project reaches all corners of the globe.

“This is just the beginning,” says Lorenzana, who is hopeful that one day the wall won’t exist. But “it might not be my time or that child’s time.” Maybe the memory of this 65-foot tall toddler’s photograph will pierce through the collective heart of America, causing waves more powerful than any politician’s speech.

 

Words: Allison Yates