Un-Trumping Border Stereotypes
President Trump’s rhetoric and action on immigration has sent shivers down the spine of many documented and undocumented Americans, but none so much as those who live on the U.S.–Mexico border. Anne M. Giangiulio, a tenured associate professor at The University of Texas at El Paso, teaches classes that range from introductory to the advanced study of graphic design, and also web design. She saw this as an opportunity to energize her Mexican American and Mexican national students to action in her class Graphic Design 4: Typography, an intermediate-level course exploring the various technical challenges faced by the graphic designer in terms of typography and page layout. The course focuses extensively on the history of graphic design and the role it should play in informing the decisions designers make in the 21st century. Each student was asked to design a poster to promote El Paso by avoiding the cliches and stereotypes that have been triggered by the president’s border tactics. (Some are for sale here.) I asked Professor Giangiulio to speak more about the project.
How and why did this project get started?
The day after Trump was elected in Fall 2016, I came onto campus at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to teach my Wednesday 8:30 a.m. class, and the classroom was silent. Students were actually in tears. One student just looked at me and asked, “What are we going to do?” They seemed so deflated it really disturbed me as a professor. One of the reasons I teach is that I really feed off of the vibrancy of my students. To me it seemed like all these bad vibes were just eating away at the souls of these usually hopeful, fun-loving, spirited and creative young people. I then started to think of how to channel this terrible energy in positive ways because everything just seemed so negative at the time.
Many of your students are Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals. Did they come to you, or you to them, with concerns about Trump’s rhetoric? They certainly did and still do express their concerns about Trump’s rhetoric. Students [were] wondering if they could even still attend classes once Trump was elected because they are Mexican citizens. It was a daily topic of conversation at the start of almost every class. Before he was elected it was always, “Did you hear what he said now?” etc.
The border trash talk is on everyone’s mind here in El Paso. Way back in the Spring of 2015, an interesting study had been conducted by Theodore Curry, Ph.D., and students in the UTEP Dept. of Criminal Justice entitled Why Do Immigrant Neighborhoods Have Low Crime Rates? (This study was spotlighted online in March 2015 by UTEPnews.)
From the page: “In today’s oft-heated debate over immigration policy in the United States, many argue that arrivals from other countries have a negative impact on the country and even contribute to rising crime rates. At The University of Texas at El Paso, a team of researchers is working with new data to prove that, in fact, the opposite is true. …”
This seemed like great fodder to combat the rhetoric coming from parts of the country far from our border city. Fifty UTEP student researchers worked alongside three professors to create a methodologically sound survey, determine a geographic canvassing strategy, and conduct face-to-face polls with more than 1,100 people living in neighborhoods throughout El Paso County.
Dr. Curry and I collaborated to better bring his research to light. I felt that in the current political climate that seems to be so anti-immigrant, studies like this are important. So, as an assignment, I had my students design an on-campus exhibit displaying the results of the study.
The student designers’ job was to take all this (quite frankly, visually unappealing) data and make it understandable, clear and beautiful. They were to help publicize the facts and shed light on REAL statistics and actual research findings so that they can become as much in the public consciousness as the drivel then being spewed by political candidates that is based upon misconceptions and downright bigotry instead of actual facts.
This project became so personal to the student designers. Many of the immigrants surveyed in the study lived in [the students’] very own neighborhoods! Important conversations and stories came to light—about the sacrifices my students and their families were making for them to attend UTEP. I knew then that this could lead to more and more design to dispel myths about immigrants and that we needed to rebrand the border. That is what led to the El Paso tourism poster project of Spring 2017.
Is this more than a class project? In other words, are these posters being used in the community of El Paso? First and foremost, the students [sold] these posters at the largest arts festival in downtown El Paso, called “Chalk the Block,” Oct. 6–8, 2017. This event attracts over 40,000 visitors over the three-day period it takes place. … Next, we have already reached out to the visitor center/gift shops at both Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site (the design by Arturo Rubio) and the Wyler Aerial Tramway here in El Paso (the design by Narda Avila), and the posters hope to be sold there. There are many more outlets around the city the students are exploring to get these posters out to the masses.
What is the response of the city and its population? When we first posted the pics of the posters on the UTEP Dept. of Art Facebook page and had tons of “LOVEs,” we started thinking maybe we should have printed more for Chalk the Block! People are loving these designs.
Has anything occurred since these posters were produced to impact perception in a positive or negative way? I think when you elevate an aspect of your city to poster-topic status, you start to better appreciate what’s been under your nose perhaps your entire life. Many of these students were born and raised in El Paso, and at first it was hard to look at their surroundings in that way. We just take things like the Franklin Mountains, or that we can easily walk to another country, for granted. Residents who are now seeing these posters get excited that their city looks good, really good, and that pride comes back. It was a pride that Trump and others were slowly eroding in us, or making us doubt our greatness. I didn’t want my students to sugar coat El Paso, or to convey it in an untruthful light. I demanded honesty and wanted them to convey their own experience with their city.
Has this been cathartic for the students? For sure! It channels that negative energy they feel after watching the news into appreciation for their city and the unique people, places and heritage here. I am hoping of course that these posters will gain even more exposure and thus even more catharsis.
Cinthia Prado Saenz.
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