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Activists, Artists Find 'Common Ground' On The Arizona-Mexico Border

common ground
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Every spring, Common Ground on the Border brings together activists and artists, old hippies and avid churchgoers - all eager to learn more about the borderlands.

It’s a new tradition for people to gather in Southern Arizona for a three-day conversation about issues affecting the border. They don’t just connect through words, but through dance, art, food-– and music, so much lots of music.

On the first day of the event, you could hear the sound of wooden panpipes being played by a group of smiling, dedicated people. They also happened to be total newbies at this. Their teacher was nothing but supportive.

“Ah! Precioso! Magnifico! Benissimo!” shouted Anna Maria Vasquez. "You got it, guys!”

Vasquez, a native of Colombia, was one of many musicians, artists and activists who teach at this creative little experiment called Common Ground on the Border. Every year, it features dozens of classes, performances and field trips, all with the same goal: to get people to understand the borderlands and its complex issues, as well as its beauty.

With her panpipes and upbeat energy, Vasquez was trying to get her students to really feel this place, without reading a book or sitting through a lecture.

In her words: “I think art has a way of putting it inside of people’s heart, without people noticing.”

That was the idea crackling across all the classrooms at the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Common Ground’s home since it began in 2014. The church is about 50 miles north of the border, but like many people here, Vasquez doesn’t like to recognize that separation. She thinks all the countries on this continent are really just one, cut up by artificial lines.

“And artists-– and all of us have artists inside-– must bring those visions to life, in which every way we can do it,” she said.

A few classrooms over, Ted Warmbrand was picking his banjo and leading people in protest songs from days gone by.

“We all have a part of us that’s outside the box,” he said, explaining Warmbrand says art and song are good way to access it.

That also gets people out of their comfort zone, which Warmbrand hopes is just the beginning of something bigger.

“It reminds you that when you’re doing things together with people you didn’t even know, it feels good, and it actually is something you might want to do again,” he said, “and if it’s not singing, it might be building a house together, or starting a school or an orphanage.”

Or perhaps learning to make tortillas or folklorico dance, both of which you can do at Common Ground. You can also travel into the desert and watch as activists drop off water for crossing migrants. Or you might cross over to Mexico, and visit a small building where migrants can get a meal before they try to cross. The spot is run by upbeat nuns-– and surrounded by lookouts for drug cartels.

Common Ground isn’t try to whitewash that complexity, or any of the issues on the border. Instead, Good Shepherd Pastor Randy Mayer explained, he wants people to see this area through a new, creative lens.

“There’s no other place like this in the whole world, where you have a first-world nation crashing into a third-world nation,” he said. “And there’s energy and possibilities you don’t find other places.”

Mayer acknowledges the limits of this get-together, how it’s smaller than he’d like-– from between 70 to 90 people this year, depending on the day. Mayer knows it tends to draw the same mix of like-minded, typically white, older attendees. But even if Common Ground is simply preaching to the choir, Mayer thinks its message about the vitality of border life is still needed, and hopes people will share it with others after they go home.

“People should be grabbing hold of what’s down here and saying, this is incredible. This is beautiful,” he said. “This is something I’ve never seen, and I really need to learn more about it.”

Stina Sieg was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2013 to 2018.