Declarations of emergency in US border states like Arizona and New Mexico have kicked the immigration debate into high gear.
Artist Judi Werthein has walked smack into the middle of this controversy.
She is hoping to leave her footprint with a special
"crossing trainer" she has designed to help illegal immigrants
negotiate the sometimes deadly terrain they encounter when crossing the
border from Mexico to the US.
Migrants waiting for dark to hop the border fence from
Tijuana into San Diego start calling out their shoe sizes when they see
the boxes in Werthein’s arms.
People start emerging from their makeshift homes in
rusted cars and the cement channel that runs parallel to the border
fence and drains Tijuana’s fetid run-off.
Some have been waiting for months in this no-man’s land for their chance to cross into San Diego.
They call the act of crossing the "brinco" – literally
"jump" in Spanish. And that is the inspiration for Werthein’s crossing
shoes, called Brincos.
The trainers are adorned with unusual items.
"The shoe includes a compass, a flashlight because
people cross at night, and inside is included also some Tylenol
painkillers because many people get injured during crossing," Werthein
The trainers are equipped with a compass, light, map and painkillers
The artist was commissioned by a cross-border arts
exhibition called inSite to develop a project that "intervened" in some
aspect of border life.
While researching her project, the Argentine native
became fascinated by illegal immigrants’ primary mode of transportation
– their feet.
"If they go through the sierra, they walk eight hours.
Their feet get hurt. There’s a lot of stones and there are snakes,
tarantulas. So that’s why it is a little boot," she says.
The Brinco is an ankle-high trainer which is green, red, black and yellow.
An Aztec eagle is embroidered on the heel. On the toe is
the American eagle found on the US quarter, to represent the American
dream the migrants are chasing.
A map – printed on the shoe’s removable insole – shows the most popular illegal routes from Tijuana into San Diego.
First new shoes
Guadalupe Elias has arrived at the Madre Asunta migrant
shelter in Tijuana. Catholic nuns run the refuge for women and children
making their way north.
After the 48-hour trip from her home in southern Mexico, Ms Elias’ trainers are ruined.
She tells Werthein, who has come to the shelter to pass out Brincos, that she needs shoes that fit.
Werthein gives her a pair of Brincos – and Ms Elias begins to cry.
"I’m crying because you gave me these and almost no-one
ever helps me," she explains, adding that she has never owned new shoes
A few days after passing out shoes for free to migrants,
Werthein begins selling the shoes at a hip boutique trainer store in
downtown San Diego.
The shop sells only limited edition trainers. A pair of
Werthein’s Brincos are displayed on a pedestal under glass with a price
tag of $215 (£125).
Though the store is only about 15 miles (24km) from
Tijuana, here the champagne-sipping crowd sees the Brinco as a vehicle
for discussion – not transport.
Andrea Schmidt, of La Jolla, is buying a pair to display in her living room.
"I think they’re historical. I think it depicts a very special problem. And I thought it was important to have them," she says.
But her husband, Joe, thinks her purchase crosses a line.
He says: "It does give them an incentive to come. Because these are probably the best shoes they’ve ever had in their lives."
Werthein dismisses complaints that she is aiding and abetting illegal immigrants.
She argues she is just provoking an important
discussion. The real incentive for illegal immigrants, she says, is
Americans’ demand for cheap labour.
By Amy Isackson