On Orienting Myself To the Border

Written by Emily Packer; Images by Emily Packer and Jill Holslin

The process of looking, the process of figuring out where we are in relation to each other, can help us better understand who we are with respect to our relationship with each other.

I have always taken pride in my sense of direction. People seem to gather this about me, because I am often asked for directions.

I am even asked for directions in Tijuana. As a gringa, this both amuses and surprises me to no end.

In San Diego, I am often asked for directions to Friendship Park. Despite the resilient efforts of the Friends of Friendship Park to work with the state and national governments over Border Field State Park to develop official, clear signage leading up to Friendship Park, the journey is confusing.

Often, the main road is flooded and those wishing to access the park must abandon their vehicles (there is no real way to access the park on public transportation) and walk along one of the two paths for 40 minutes in order to reach the first gates. The two paths seem to go in opposite directions; the first veers to the left on through the mud and stillwater left over from the rains, which is often difficult to navigate depending on the dryness of the day and whether you know about/can remember the entrance to the trail that runs along side the road.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 12.04.18 AMThis path presents other obstacles as well; personally, I have seen three rattlesnakes while walking this first path, I have seen elderly women in wheelchairs attempt this walk, I have seen families with young children attempt this walk. The other path leads out towards the ocean, but seems to go the wrong direction. I have given people instructions on how to avoid the mud by taking this path, but when they see the fork in the road, they abandon my advice and head towards the mud. I can’t blame them; taking a northwest path in order to get southwest is unintuitive. Both paths are deceptive, the landmarks of the bullring and lighthouse that help locate Friendship Park, seem impossibly close to also be this far away.

It should also be noted that there is no such hike or confusion in finding the park from the Tijuana side. Tijuana is nestled up close to the wall, and Playas de Tijuana, the neighborhood where Friendship Park is located, is expanded as far north as its economy will allow—the wall and the border reality just another fact of life in the city.

From the Park on a clear day, I can easily see the San Diego skyline as well as the apartment building where my grandparents live on Coronado Island. Logically, this means I should also be able to see the wall from their apartment. As a part of my most recent film about the border, La Frontierra Chingada, I have included a scene in which my mother, grandmother, and I look for the border from the window and try to orient ourselves to the wall.Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 12.39.44 AMScreen Shot 2016-04-19 at 11.59.57 PM

In the months I spent reviewing the footage, I find that the auditory descriptions of where we’re looking at the time that I took the footage don’t quite match up with the visuals. It took me several viewings over weeks to finally find what I’d been looking for…the bullring and lighthouse. I encounter this process of orientation through film review in many instances, and just as I come to new conclusions about conversations I record, it often takes me multiple viewings in order to come to new conclusions about orientation at the border. Upon imaging these spaces, I am also more able to lead others in their viewing by creating new video-maps. Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 12.37.19 AM

My friend and Friends of Friendship Park member, Jill Holslin, is an activist, academic, and a border photographer. Much of her more recent experience in doing border photography she’s described to me as orienting herself. Although she’s journeyed to several places along the wall from both sides, it’s often hard for her to know where she is in relation to the other side. The arbitrary separation of space becomes real, becomes disorienting. There are no real landmarks that close to the strange non-space that the border creates by cutting off our vision to the other side.  Jill’s photoseries Rastros: fotografías del muro fronterizo features close up photographs of inscriptions and drawings on the physical wall. The photos are so close up, unique, and colorful that they could really be any wall, and once they are explained in a context that makes sense of the materiality (the fact that it is a photo of THE US-Mexico wall), their meaning is amplified and what is unseen (the space that these inscriptions exist in) becomes an integral part of the meaning of image, even if it can’t be seen in the photograph itself.


Although each of Jill’s photos are art on their own right, this process of charting her understanding of the wall takes on new life. Jill is a border resident; she lives in Tijuana and works in San Diego. I was fortunate enough to spend a few weeks working in her studio in Tijuana, which is lined with a several-paneled map of the border region that is often referenced as a way to help make sense of her confusion and where her photos were taken on one side or the other.


Jill and I are both cautious of how this region’s careful mapping and charting is presented in such a sanitized, finite way. The space was first colonized by the Aztecs, then the Spanish, and in 1821 by Mexico, and then in 1848 by the US and eventually with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that determined the limits of border as we know it, and finally by the border wall itself which was built after 9/11, and in how that wall has been built up since then. I think there is a notable difference in our artistic mapping of the area: while we are trying to understand, we’re not trying to contain this space by mapping it. (Although I both Jill and I are open to criticisms of our mapping and countersurveillance methodologies.) We’re trying to pose and begin to understand answers to basic questions, such as Where are you? Where am I? Where am I in political space, in spatial history? What landscapes do we share, and how does that help us understand each others’ perspectives?

Just as there is a pride in knowing where I am, I also feel great embarrassment when I do not. The first time I went to Friendship Park, I got a little turned around (read more here). When a stranger asks me for help figuring out where they are going, it is a great honor to help the landscape become clear to them, and there is a sort of shame in not being able to. In this case we are both lost but the trust that was built in and having one party admit to not being completely in control, is lost as well.

These maps that Jill and I are building through image-making are more human than the delineations of these treaties and official maps that are born out of violent histories. They aren’t as clearly identified with lines in the earth, or even bends in the river. They are stories we can point to, experiences that tie our memory and emotion to a space. Again, this is much like making video for me. I can look at some of my footage from last year and remember who was with me when I took it, what conversations were had that day, where I was. Our spatial understanding is shaped by what sticks out to us personally. It helps us orient on an individual basis and turn moments into landmarks. For that reason, my map of the same space is different than yours, because you don’t orient yourself to the best coffee shop on the Playas boardwalk, or the street on the way to Friendship Park that had my favorite fruit stand. Maybe this is one reason why asking for directions sometimes feels like a compromise of the self; we have to admit to not knowing how to orient ourselves and rely on others’ personal maps of the world.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 12.02.06 AMWhen I first got to the border I dreamt up some performance art ideas I could do, one of which was watching the sun set on the beach with someone on the other side. Now that I’ve lived briefly in both places, I see that this is more of a regular happening than any sort of intentional artistic resistance.

There is a communal mass migration to the edge of both cities. After work gets out in Tijuana and in San Diego, everyone heads to the beach. They watch the sun set out of their stalled cars, gasoline still running, or if they’re not in a rush, they get out and walk down to the waves. Once the sun sets completely, they get in their cars and drive home. I have spent many sunsets with my grandparents on Coronado, who take part in this daily event, looking towards Tijuana knowing that I am watching alongside many communities. There is something magic and ritualistic that draws us to the beach: a shared understanding of the beauty of the world which is unique to this coast where you can watch the sun set over the ocean and know that its worth stopping your day to do as often as possible.

In this orientation process, it is particularly strange to show the film to other white folks here where I’m based in New England. They’ve never seen images of the wall, let alone oriented themselves to it or imagined their implication in the border wall. The image of the wall at Friendship Park in particular – a place that is so inherently beautiful because of the beach – is striking to them. Seeing the wall jut out into the water is astonishing, something they’ve never had to consider because it is happening so far away.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 12.03.31 AMAfter the sun set last December, the last time I was able to spend such an evening with my grandparents on Coronado, I pointed to a flashing light on the coastline to the south. Now that I’d spent so much time looking, I could say with confidence that the light was coming from the lighthouse, el Faro, which marks Friendship Park and the border wall itself. Tijuana shimmers behind it in urban paradise.   (You can see that moment here)

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Part of my intention in the visual theory of the film was to confuse a global north/common understanding of a singular way or method to orient us. (For this reason I’m sort of notorious for flipping maps upside down or sideways, reconsidering the “correct” way to look at or understand a space.) This also means the film comes across as confusing. I find myself drawing maps of the region constantly, and using this map to explain the micropolitics of Friendship Park itself as well as my personal experience there. I never fail to include in my description how I relate to the space, how often I visited and where I walked in order to get to Friendship Park, or where it was in relation to the best tacos in Playas, or where I stayed while I was living there. Yes, this type of orientation is confusing, but the purpose of my film isn’t necessarily to explain, but to get viewers to look.


I am asking viewers, I am asking you, to orient yourselves to the border: to create your own maps. The choice to look, the choice to try to understand, is an acknowledgement of our importance to one another across borders and a commitment to care for, respect, and empathize with different perspectives and experiences. Orienting ourselves to that wall and to the histories that produced it, implicates us in the image.