Narrative Reality


nogales panorama




Narrative, the stories we use to make sense of our world, is reality.

We may read a sign at the grocery store stating: Delicious juicy oranges for sale! ---  But how do we know they are in fact juicy and delicious?

Perhaps we rely on our visual senses and past experiences to discern if they are indeed oranges as the sign states.

And if they do seem to be oranges, then maybe we'll trust the sign’s narrative enough to accept it as reality and purchase one with the expectation it will be juicy and delicious.

However, until we actually experience the juicy and delicious flavor of the oranges our reality is based on the narrative of the grocer.

As the old saying goes: You gotta see it to believe it.

Just like oranges, the borderlands are subject to numerous and often contradictory narratives.

Over the past decade, the most prevalent narrative about the borderlands, and one that has been adopted by politicians and media alike, is a narrative of fear.

This narrative of fear has resulted in billions of taxpayer dollars being spent to build walls, and turn our borderlands into de facto militarized zones patrolled by armed guards and buzzing drones.

But how does this secondhand narrative of fear square with the narrative one actually experiences when traveling in the borderlands?

What if all we have to fear is fear itself?

us no trespassing


Over the past couple of weeks it’s been an honor to meet with students from Northern Arizona University who were touring the borderlands and trying to find out for themselves what the real narrative is.

In addition to meeting with deported migrants in Mexico and learning about the efforts of humanitarian groups such as No More Deaths, the students also attended an Operation Streamline hearing and met with myself for a lesson on the finer points of wall playing.

The professor and the coordinator who brought the students down from Flagstaff for this experience are innovative educators, fine wall players, and people whom I am proud to call friends.

Provided with a unique opportunity to experience the borderlands firsthand though immersive field trips, the students were able to evaluate the projected narrative of fear for themselves and hopefully gain a greater understanding of the complex issues.

During their most recent trip, the students spoke with a man who had been living in the U.S. for more than a decade with his extended family --- all of whom where legal citizens --- including a son who was currently serving as a U.S. Marine.

However, after being arrested in a domestic dispute, he was deported to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico where he is now homeless and adrift in a county where he has citizenship but no other connection.

Complicating matters, he was deported without his cell phone or a calling card, and has been unable to contact his family in the U.S. to tell them where he is to get assistance.

After spending the day hearing similar narratives from other deported migrants, the students returned on foot to the U.S. via the Mariposa Land Port of Entry. After passing through customs an agent yelled at one of the students in a confrontational manner telling him to “put that phone away.”

The student who shared his narrative said he complied with the agent, but was clearly upset by the abusive tone of the agent’s command.

Perhaps pulling out the phone was inappropriate --- although from what I heard there were no signs against it --- yet at the same time, the bullying and goonish response of the agent seemed disproportionally harsh considering the offense.

As the student noted: “If this is how they treat U.S. citizens, I can only imagine how they treat migrants.”

By the time we met for our wall playing session, the students were clearly eager to percuss some metal and let go of the day’s events.

The simple act of transforming the wall with performance and sound can be powerfully cathartic  after a day spent encountering anger and despair.

But before we played, I shared with the students my personal narrative of The Nogales Wall, and how I came to play it.

I also shared a few rules of performance I try and follow when working in the borderlands.

First and foremost: Respect.

Respect for the people who live on either side of the border and respect for those whose job it is to patrol it.

Also, as with any instrument, I asked them to physically respect the wall itself, even if they should feel otherwise.

I explained it is my not my intention to damage the wall in any way although sonic and metaphorical deconstruction were certainly acceptable and highly encouraged.

To this end, all of the mallets we used for playing the wall were made from wood or soft metal such as aluminum. The cello bow was also made from wood and well-rosined Mongolian horsehair.

Second: Openness and dialogue. Never confrontation.

When encountering Border Patrol or The National Guard during a performance, I make it a policy to explain what I am doing which is usually enough to satisfy them.

Some may get it and others may be ambivalent, but almost all of them let it go after a few words of warning telling us to be careful.

And so it goes: Play a bit, take in the scenery and then move on.


nogales wall 4

For 99.9 percent of the law enforcement I encounter, this is enough.

However, every so often the idea of playing the border wall does not jibe with an agent’s personal narrative of reality and when that happens things can get strange.

When we arrived to play on this last trip, an agent was parked nearby in his truck. When we told him what we were planning to do he gave us the okay and the usual warning.

Then after a few minutes of playing, a second agent arrived. Unlike the first, this one was clearly agitated by our presence.

At first he told us flat out we were not allowed to play the wall.

I then explained I’d been playing the wall in the exact same location since 2006. In fact we’d just played the wall in the same exact spot roughly a week before without incident.

If playing the wall was outlawed, it was news to me.

However, before packing up and going,  I felt I was within my rights to request he provide me with a better explanation regarding the sudden change in playability and accessibility since his mandate seemed arbitrary and at odds with what I’d long known to be my rights.

I provided the agent with my business card, and he changed his narrative from illegality to one of concern for our safety.


weyant biz card

According to the agent, if we continued playing the wall there was a good chance we would be robbed.

Now I’m not much of a poker player, but I know a bluff when I hear one. And while I appreciated his new found concern for our safety, it seemed a bit preposterous considering the huge wall that lay between us and what he called “the bad guys.”

Not to mention we were also in the presence of at least two Border Patrol vehicles with another on the horizon, all of whom were watching the area closely.

So the narrative of fear did not hold much sway either.

Eventually cool heads prevailed, and after he checked with his supervisors the narrative of prohibition changed to one of approval and we were given the official okay to continue playing.

Before leaving the agent took a few photos with his cell phone which I’m guessing were to compliment a narrative of the day’s events in a file somewhere.

Or maybe the photo was to share with friends as in: “You won’t believe what I saw people doing today.”

I’ve no idea.

However, sharing the narrative of The Nogales Wall being transformed into something other than the usual symbolism and purpose is always fine with me.

Towards the end of the session, the NAU instructor spoke again with the first agent who initially gave us permission to perform and invited him to play as well.

While the agent declined --- the agitated agent also declined a similar offer --- he did say he appreciated the idea of bringing students to the border and allowing them to develop their own narrative by showing them firsthand how things are.

He also said he liked the music.

Before we left, one of the students went over to the agent who took everything in stride and shook his hand.

And for me that was the big take away from the day.

Since 9/11 the borderlands have become a polarized place of us versus them.

And in the middle of this stark black and white reality is the border wall.

The wall is The Great Grey Divider, a symbol of acrimony in a place where two countries collide and blend like tectonic plates, in a delta of commerce and culture, eventually meshing into one.

In a volatile atmosphere such as this, how do all of us, Americans and Mexicans alike, transform the narrative of fear and loathing into something new and beneficial for everyone?

How do we build a future for all of us regardless of nationality?

For some it is with acts of kindness, such as providing a deported migrant with warm clothing and food or simply listening to their story.

For others it is shaking the hand of a Border Patrol agent sitting in a truck atop a hill in the desert, most likely feeling like a target and wondering what the falling night will bring.

For myself, transformation is achieved with a cello bow and implements of mass percussion.

So which will it be : Hope or fear?

The narrative of reality is up to you.


occupy the wall