Examining the border crisis through the lens of performance art

Published: March 13, 2024
Salvador Herrera portraitSalvador Herrera incorporates a wide range of fields, including Latinx literature and medical humanities, to explore issues around the border crisis. (Photo courtesy of Salvador Herrera)

Emma Horio | March 13, 2024

Doctoral student Salvador Herrera considers a world beyond boundaries

Salvador Herrera’s research occupies the space between reality and speculation.

Herrera, a UCLA doctoral candidate in English, studies how literature and performance art can both confront the existing violence of the U.S. border apparatus and imagine a more equitable world.

When Herrera arrived at UCLA in 2018, he planned to pursue a dissertation project in literary studies. But those plans shifted after his social media algorithms began serving him troves of content about local artists whose work confronted the conditions at the U.S.–Mexico border.

One example was a Snapchat video of a transgender artist who uses the name Muxxxe. Festooned in white crosses that obscure their face, Muxxxe walks slowly along the border wall as the sun beats down, haunting music playing in the background.

“I saw this art, and I was captivated by it,” Herrera said. “It was very provocative, and I couldn’t make sense of it — but I knew it was important.”

Once he identified the border crisis as the subject for his graduate work, Herrera determined to study the problem through the lens of literature and performance art. His next step was identifying UCLA professors with expertise in those areas who could help him develop his skills to better understand and interpret performance art.

“These artists I’m interested in are responding to brutal conditions with creative interventions, speculative visions for a world that is totally beyond borders,” Herrera said. “They’re thinking about the relationships between language, identity, the law and the human body, and how that body is almost seen as a surrogate for the nation.”

For example, a chapter of Herrera’s dissertation delves into the work of Dorian Wood, a gender-fluid Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artist of Costa Rican descent.

“Wood is very interested in the idea that the body and artistic expressions can be used to contaminate a space,” Herrera said, adding that spatial contamination is a salient topic in border and immigration discourse because migrants been characterized as threats to the racial purity of their host countries.

‘A genuinely innovative approach’

English professor Rafael Pérez-Torres said Herrera’s unique interdisciplinary approach to the subject matter provides new context for examining the ongoing issues around the U.S.–Mexico border.

“Sal’s dissertation offers an accessible explanation of why transborder art is significant in broadening our understanding of the southern national border while engaging and synthesizing a broad array of theoretical positions,” said Pérez-Torres, a member of Herrera’s dissertation committee. “He brings together several fields to formulate a genuinely innovative approach to the study of contemporary Latinx literature, video and performance art.”

Herrera also looks at border issues from a medical humanities standpoint, including through his work as a contributor to the health humanities journal Synapsis. His first article for that publication examined the 2019 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, by a white supremacist, and Herrera interpreted the event in terms related to health sciences.

“The shooter imagined himself as protecting the U.S. from a kind of biological invasion, where the border is constructed almost as part of an immune system,” Herrera said.

Among his current projects is a book that examines how artists use the desert to dream of a world beyond normative social constraints.

“The desert connects a lot of the artists I’m looking at — it’s a psychological space that challenges our sense of self,” Herrera said. “In the heat of the desert, your sense of reality starts to unravel. And these artists are playing with that notion to think about how our reality is taken for granted: including the naturalness of race and gender, and the necessity of borders.”

Herrera is on track to complete his doctoral dissertation this spring. This fall, he will begin a tenure-track position in the English department at the University of Oregon as an assistant professor of Latinx literature and culture.