Miguel Fernández de Castro’s white Toyota pickup truck rolled into the empty gravel lot outside the Santa Ana bus station a few minutes after 5 pm. We were two hours south of the Arizona border, in the desert state of Sonora, one of the most sparsely populated regions in Mexico. I had met Fernández de Castro six months earlier in Brooklyn, at a Japanese-inspired cocktail bar run by the art magazine e-flux, where he was screening his experimental film Grammar of Gates. Released in 2019, the video examines the plight of the Tohono O’odham, the Indigenous group from which he is descended and whose territory straddles the US-Mexico border. Pairing drone footage of the tribe’s ancestral lands with clips from the kitschy 1970 western Geronimo Jones, it’s an impressionistic portrait of a nation encroached on from all sides. From the south, cartels have established trafficking routes that snake through the territory. From the north, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has occupied the reservation as a base of operations. At the time of the screening, Fernández de Castro was nearing the end of a fellowship, and he and his partner, the anthropologist Natalia Mendoza, were preparing to return to Altar, the town in Sonora where he was born and raised. When he said I was welcome to visit, he probably didn’t think I’d take him up on the offer. But there I was, sitting on the curb outside the bus station next to a taco stand, watching 18-wheelers trundle by on Federal Highway 2.
Fernández de Castro pulled up to the curb. He is 35 years old, with dirty blond hair and striking gray-green eyes. He wears blue jeans, brown cowboy boots, and a dark baseball cap with a curved brim. When he’s driving, he always has a playlist at the ready—often corridos tumbados, the emerging genre that combines Mexican country music with hip-hop production and pop songwriting. Altar was an hour away, so after a few minutes on the highway, he decided to pull over to grab two Tecate Lights from the cooler in his truck bed. “Don’t expect to find craft beer out here,” he teased as he cracked a can and placed it in his cupholder.
Just a few days ago, he said, he took his regular drive from his home in Altar out to his family’s cattle ranch, about 30 miles north, to find his farmhand missing. He asked around town to see if anybody knew his whereabouts, and heard he’d absconded to el otro lado—the other side. Fernández de Castro went through the farmhand’s things and found a notebook full of codes used by puntos, or lookouts: “K-8,” for instance, means “friendly vehicle approaching”; “K-6” indicates an unidentified armed group. The Sonoran Desert is crisscrossed by unpaved roads, called brechas, that connect towns to more isolated settlements like Fernández de Castro’s ranch. Fernández de Castro told me that smugglers use a brecha near his property to reach the US-Mexico border fence. The notebook suggested that his farmhand was moonlighting as a lookout for the local mafia. The job had probably gone sour, and the farmhand fled. So at that moment, Fernández de Castro’s main concern was finding somebody to feed his cows.
Altar (population 8,000) is the second-to-last town before the border with Arizona. Because of its proximity to the United States, it’s become a way station for migrants from Mexico and Central America to prepare for the final leg of their trip. They pay exorbitant prices to mafia-owned smuggling operations for safe passage. Some migrants earn extra money by carrying drug shipments on their 170-mile hike to Tucson. This booming black-market economy has brought extraordinary violence to Altar. Most residents have a friend or family member who’s been killed or disappeared.
The knock-on effects of the cash infusions are plainly visible. There’s a new casino across the street from Fernández de Castro’s house that’s packed day and night with older ladies pulling slot-machine levers. Formerly run-down houses are getting paint jobs and renovations. Meanwhile, Altar’s main street is lined with general stores selling camo and desert survival gear from racks on the sidewalk—everything migrants need to make it to Tucson unharmed and unnoticed by CBP. At the town’s main intersection, Fernández de Castro pointed to a new restaurant serving stews that are rarely found this far north. Between food, lodging, and passage, Central American migrants spend up to $12,000 on their way to the US, and Mexican impresarios don’t miss an opportunity to catch the falling pesos.
Such is the context for Fernández de Castro’s art, which—via photography, video, and installation—offers a nuts-and-bolts view of how power operates in and through these economies. Where journalism might sacrifice nuance for the sake of an attention-grabbing headline, his works preserve the slippery relations of the people and things around him. His poetic imagery leaves room for layered meanings that would be impossible with a straightforward documentary style. While addressing current events, he sidesteps the spectacle of violence to focus on the material processes that drive the region’s social, economic, and ecological crises. By cutting through the melodramatic or moralizing attitudes that prop up clichés about the border region, he forces viewers to question the story lines imposed on it by people who don’t live there.
When people ask me what kind of art Fernández de Castro makes, I tell them about El Ladrillo, or The Brick, a work commissioned in 2017 by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson. On the way from Altar to the border, he passes an abandoned factory that once exported bricks engraved with the word MEXICO to clients in Arizona. It is now a brick graveyard, and when the museum contacted him for a site-specific installation, he decided to send one of the bricks as a neighborly gesture, to honor the historical bond between Sonora and Arizona. But rather than ship it via FedEx, he asked a trafficker he knew to smuggle it through the stretch of desert that leads to Tucson. He offered him the museum’s $2,000 honorarium and asked him to take photos documenting the brick’s journey. The first few are grainy landscapes, with natural features that Fernández de Castro recognized from the Tohono O’odham Reservation. In one photo, a porta potty stands on a hill, and in another a vacuum-packed bundle of drugs, which presumably accompanied the brick to the US, sits in the passenger seat of a car. The brick arrived after about a week’s journey, and the museum displayed it along with the photos.
By funneling the museum’s cash to a criminal organization, Fernández de Castro exposed the ties between economies that are more entangled than media accounts generally acknowledge. The image of the brick itself is evocative, too, insofar as it stands in for the bricks of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine that crossed the border with it. By flouting the moral standards that would have us see one brick as good and the other bad, he suggests that both commodity flows need to be understood to paint a full picture of the US-Mexico border.
The Brick isn’t the only art project that’s brought him into contact with organized crime. Some level of contact is unavoidable in a place like Altar, where everybody knows someone who knows someone. Fernández de Castro’s cousin is serving a sentence at a jail in Pima County for trying to move drugs into Arizona. Their grandfather knew the brechas from hunting, collecting honey, and shepherding cattle, and passed on his geographic expertise. Fernández de Castro’s understanding of his subject matter is something that it would take an outsider years to cultivate.
“The most honest way to do this work is to become part of it,” he said over breakfast the day after I arrived. We were eating eggs and machaca—salted, rehydrated steak served with tomatoes and chile peppers—in the cool, dark kitchen of his one-floor home. This insider angle allows Fernández de Castro to produce rigorous, detailed representations that defy victim and villain archetypes, so common in the work of activist-artists. “When you get up close,” he explained, “you discover things that don’t fit within that simplistic vision.”
But if you get too close, you might stop asking hard questions. “If I went out partying with these guys every night, I feel like my work would lose its critical capacity,” he said. That’s the central paradox of this kind of work: To call oneself a witness is to presume to speak for someone at a remove, but it’s equally fraught to try to collapse that distance.
Fernández de Castro will talk for hours about the people and things that inspired a given project, often careering past any discussion of the actual art object. His next exhibition, a collaboration with his partner Mendoza, goes up in February at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in Manhattan. In it, the objects seem secondary to the thought experiment that undergirds the show. Its title, The Absolute Restoration of All Things, is a reference to a Sonora state court ruling. In 2014, a judge ordered the mining corporation Minera Penmont—a joint venture of US and Mexican companies—to vacate a site it had occupied illegally in nearby Caborca. The judge not only returned exclusive mining rights to the villagers (along with $350 million for the gold and silver extracted) but also demanded that Minera Penmont restore the “mountains, waters, air, flora, and fauna” to their original state.
This mandate, as Fernández de Castro pointed out, is a “legal fiction.” Even with sufficient resources, restitution would be impossible. But it’s also a beautiful, utopian scenario to contemplate—one that might help society conceive alternatives to our current ecological death spiral. “There will be renderings and all that,” he said, “but the speculation won’t only be visual. There will also be videos with testimonies from a number of disciplines, like biologists and geologists. More so than trying to render the landscape, it’s about trying to speculate, critically, on what the hell ‘restoration’ means in a context like this.”
Mining in Sonora happens at two scales: industrial and artisanal. The artisanal miners, called gambusinos, work in small groups with low-tech machines that filter mineral deposits from the soil. In 2017, a fellow from Trinity College in Cambridge, England, asked Fernández de Castro to develop an installation for one of its libraries, a 17th-century building with stained-glass windows and tiles of black and white marble. Fernández de Castro gave the university one gram of gold, which he had bought from a gambusino he’d met while filming. He placed the gold specks in a glass display case at the center of the library, a representation of the centuries of colonial resource extraction on which the institution’s wealth is built. He told me, “I thought of it like, ‘Here you go: one more gram of gold. You want it? Take it.’”
At the time, he was reading about certain non-Western gift economies that consist of three steps: giving, receiving, and responding in kind. “Within this framework, it’s implicit that by accepting the gift, you’re obligated to reciprocate,” he said, “which means you could end up ruined if you try to surpass the value of the original gift. So, what I wanted to do with the gold was present them with a gift that put them in a position where it was impossible to reciprocate.” How could Trinity College possibly match—let alone surpass—a gift that represents all the gold it has extracted throughout its imperial history?
In 2019, Fernández de Castro began working with Madres Buscadoras (Searching Mothers), an organization of women in Sonora who are dedicated to finding the graves of their disappeared sons and daughters. At first, he just wanted to volunteer, because he had two things they needed: an all-wheel-drive vehicle and a drone-operated video camera. Less robust vehicles would get stuck on the unpaved roads, so he often plays chauffeur for the women. Meanwhile, his drone is useful for detecting any disturbances that might indicate the presence of something buried.
What interests him about the Madres Buscadoras is their landscape literacy: their ability to read and decipher the earth’s surface like a code. It’s the same skill he admires in the region’s smugglers, who use subtle geographic clues to navigate the network of brechas while remaining unnoticed by CBP.
Fernández de Castro’s own landscape literacy is useful to him. It allows him to understand the relations between people and things based on the physical traces they leave. He’s obsessed with erosion—and not just in the way one usually thinks of it, with the passage of wind and water shaping land masses over hundreds or thousands or millions of years. He takes a big-picture view of it, one that encompasses human and natural processes of land alteration.
Recently, Fernández de Castro has been shooting aerial videos of the Pinacate Natural Park, a high-desert plain of mile-wide craters formed by volcanic explosions that took place as recently as 12,000 years ago. In the 1960s, NASA brought its astronauts here to train for Apollo missions, because of the geological resemblance between the lava fields and the moon’s cratered surface.
We arrived at the Pinacate in the late afternoon, because that’s when the light is right. Fernández de Castro parked in front of a crater of Martian-red rock. On the rare occasions when it rains, the runoff causes jagged fissures to form on the outer surface of the crater. At this hour, the harsh contrast and elongated shadows accentuated the contours of this erosion. He pulled the drone out of the cab of his pickup, placed the monitor on his truck bed, and sent the drone buzzing toward the crater. In the monitor, shallow grooves filled the frame like veins.
There were only two hours of light left when Fernández de Castro was done shooting, which meant we’d miscalculated. In another era, we could have made it back to Altar in two and a half hours, but these days it can take four with the constant checkpoints, where soldiers and cops stop cars in search of contraband and enemies. Civilians know not to use this stretch of highway after dark, because of the reports of firefights, ambushes, and abductions. Cartel operatives throw ponchallantas—tire-popping spikes—onto the roads to cause their rivals’ vehicles to crash.
It was pitch black by the time we were halfway home. At the checkpoints, the men with their faces covered and AR-15s hung over their shoulders weren’t even wearing uniforms. Fernández de Castro’s partner kept texting for updates, and finally the sign for Altar appeared in the headlights. The next day Fernández de Castro showed me a local news report of a shoot-out between cartels that had taken place on that highway at a mile marker we had passed 20 minutes before.
On Sunday, we headed to Fernández de Castro’s ranch, passing vans full of migrants trailing clouds of dust. At one end of the property was a brick cabin with a well that his great-grandfather had dug; at the other, an arid valley with a forest of saguaros that climbed to 50 feet.
Beyond the cacti, a rocky promontory rose above the valley. Fernández de Castro pointed to a cluster of rocks covered in petroglyphs drawn by the Tohono O’odham, who lived here before the Europeans arrived. One resembled two parallel lightning bolts; another consisted of numerous concentric squares. The O’odham petroglyphs often feature a maze motif, with a man standing at the entrance, representing the winding path of life. The sun was low as we followed the dry, shallow riverbed that took us back to the cabin. It was too late to drive back to Altar, so we built a fire out by the truck and watched the sky turn orange and purple.
Before Fernández de Castro attended school in Tijuana, it hadn’t occurred to him to make art about the environment he grew up in. “I needed the geographic distance to see what was going on here,” he explained. “Because if you don’t leave, you also run the risk of getting trapped.”
In the same way that New York and Los Angeles hog the spotlight in the US, Mexico’s art world is dominated by its largest cities. The fact that he remains in Altar, makes art about his surroundings, and carries on his family’s cattle-ranching lifestyle makes Fernández de Castro something of a curiosity in the domestic art scene. But it also gives his work a rootedness and sense of place that many artists from the capital find enviable. It’s become fashionable for artists and curators to venture out into provincia—or the provinces, a colonial holdover word that refers to everything outside of the city—in search of new issues to address in their art. Having arrived in a place like Altar, Fernández de Castro says, they then try to speak on behalf of its inhabitants, without even listening to them first.
“They have preconceived notions of what the North is, and all they do is look for images to confirm them,” Fernández de Castro told me. And if the capitalinos are ignorant about life in northern Mexico, the gringos are even worse. “They think the world ends at the border. Even the ones who defend the migrants have no idea where they’re coming from.”
Fernández de Castro’s art offers a corrective to conventional ideas about the border, and not necessarily in the form of a counternarrative. Rather, his work drives home the impossibility of reducing the place to any single story, by showing that it’s just as complex as anywhere else.
Yes, the violence is a constant looming threat. But if he were to show the guns and gore head-on, the exotic thrill of danger would distract from the deeper dynamics of the reality he’s trying to convey. That’s why, as he says, he “prefers to keep the gun outside the frame.”
Images of atrocity might be useful for raising awareness. But a lack of awareness isn’t what Fernández de Castro is trying to address. Instead, he portrays the region in all its three-dimensionality—not just the emotional element, but the whole system of intersecting forces that sustains it: the human, the industrial, and the ecological.