Juárez/El Paso (Boxcar), 1987–1988
James Drake, American, born 1946
Charcoal on paper, mounted in steel frame with coal, railroad spikes, and crowbar
Overall: 69 × 110 × 30 in. (175.3 × 279.4 × 76.2 cm)
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Juarez/El Paso (Boxcar)
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Born in Lubbock, Texas, James Drake moved to El Paso as a teenager and spent many years there before moving to his current home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In El Paso, Drake learned Spanish and assimilated into Tex-Mex culture while he worked in his family’s import business. Drake earned his B.F.A. from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. In the 1960s, he returned to El Paso, where the border culture, with its neighboring Mexican city, Juárez, continued to influence his work. His career has been filled with politically charged works of art, dealing with issues such as drug trafficking and border tension between the United States and Mexico.
Juárez/El Paso (Boxcar) is a political response to a 1987 Mexican border incident. A transporter, or “coyote,” smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States for a large fee locked his cargo of 19 men in a boxcar outside the town of Sierra Blanca, near El Paso. As temperatures reached 130ºF, all of the immigrants suffocated except one, who managed to pierce a breathing hole through the floorboard of the boxcar with a railroad spike. The authorities did not find the men until 14 hours after they had been locked in the car.
Drake powerfully memorializes this tragedy with a large charcoal drawing of the isolated boxcar. The ominous tone is heightened by the physical presence of coal, a substance that often serves as fuel for railroad engines, piled up on the floor in front of the drawing. A crowbar and railroad spikes (objects that were in the locked boxcar with the immigrants) are thrust into the mound of coal, suggesting a makeshift grave. The charcoal drawing is smudged with blackened handprints, evoking the presence of the men who perished in the boxcar.
According to Drake, this poem was found on one of the bodies of the victims in the boxcar, and he has requested that it always be included in the installation of Juárez/El Paso (Boxcar):
Qué lindo es los Estados Unidos, [How beautiful is the United States,
Illinois California y Tenesi. Illinois, California and Tennessee.
Pero allá en mi país But over in my Country
Un trozo de cielo me pertenece a mí. A piece of the sky belongs to me.
Adiós Laredo, Wéslaco y San Antonio. Goodbye Laredo, Weslaco, San Antonio,
Houston y Dallas están en mi cancíon. Houston and Dallas are in my song.
Adiós El Paso, he vuelto Chamizal. Goodbye, El Paso. I am back Chamizal.
Ha regresado tu amigo el illegal. Your friend the illegal has returned.]
Drake’s use of charcoal to depict the boxcar unifies the various media of this installation. The charcoal in the drawing echoes the pile of coal assembled on the floor both in color and in texture. Drake also utilizes other objects connected with the story, such as the railroad spikes and crowbar. The isolated boxcar serves as a strong metaphor for the forgotten immigrants. Without any narration or direction, the viewer is compelled to acknowledge and sympathize with the victims of this incident.
Tension has existed along the U.S.-Mexican border since Texas achieved its independence in 1836 and subsequently was annexed by the United States. The friction has been exacerbated recently due to factors such as the great disparity in wealth between the two nations, the dispute over the water supply in the desert region, attempts by the Border Control to regulate immigration, and drug trafficking. El Paso, bordered by the much larger city of Juárez, is a hot spot for both cultural exchange and conflict.
- Without looking at the title or the story behind the work, what is your gut reaction to it? How does it make you feel? What parts stand out to you?
- Identify all of the materials in this work, both the drawing (including the frame) and the installation below it. Why do you think Drake chose those materials?
- Is there anything in this artwork that signals life or a human presence?
- Examine this work in the context of the true story that inspired it. Be sure to identify all of the elements in the work and relate them to the story, for example the pile of coal and the crowbar.
- How would the work change if it was not in two parts?
- Why do you think Drake chose to represent the event this way, without any images of people?
- Consider news stories, issues, or concerns of today. Analyze ways global, cultural, historical, and political ways influence works of art. What other topics might Texas artists tackle in their work? What topic might you include?
- Create an original artwork that expresses a variety of ideas based on one of the topics discussed above.
- Read and discuss the poem included in the installation of Juarez/El Paso (Boxcar). Students compose a poem to complement their original artwork using a variety of poetic techniques (i.e. structural elements, figurative language, etc.) and a variety of poetic forms (i.e. sonnets, ballads, etc.).
- Extension: See LTA Handout: “Poetry Unit: Ballad Poetry”
Subject Matter Connection
- Participate in a Socratic seminar (see LTA Handout: “Socratic Seminar”) evaluating how immigration and migration to Texas have influenced Texas and Mexico relations. Analyze how immigration incidents affect participants by incorporating points of view derived from historical contexts such as the 1987 Mexican border incident, Chamizal, or other US Mexican border tensions.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.