Playas de Tijuana Mural Project: A Reflection

Playas de Tijuana Mural Project: A Reflection
The Playas de Tijuana Mural Project shows the real faces of deportation. Photo by Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana

By Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana

A life of experiences, three years of fieldwork and, finally, a fellowship that would make a project come to life. The vision for the Playas de Tijuana Mural Project developed after my first visit to Playas de Tijuana in November 2016.

It was a time of mixed emotions. Trump had won the 2016 election, and traveling to Tijuana for training on digital storytelling for “Humanizing Deportation” in el COLEF ignited the pursuit to advocate for the                     (im)migrant community.

Initially, my focus was on the Dreamers, those with and without DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status, thus the birth of the political advocacy project “DACAmented: DREAMs Without Borders Digital Storytelling Project.”

With these projects, I realized the power of narrative elaborated and directed by the narrator and how these personal stories can help clear misconceptions, educate and shape public perception on topics that affect real people.

As the daughter of once undocumented parents who obtained legal status due to amnesty in 1986, I can attest to the “relief” I am privileged to have in a moment in history in which (im)migrant rights are tested each day under this administration.

But my uneasiness with the unethical treatment of (im)migrants does not start with the Trump administration but rather with those who came before him. In my quest to find answers and solutions to the deportation and deportability of childhood arrivals to the United States, I have come across a myriad of stories that highlight a cycle and long history of racial immigration politics that target and further marginalize (im)migrants from countries in our southern border.

Due to my own family’s long tradition of migrating into the United States, my research focus centers on the repatriation of Mexican nationals, especially those who came into the United States as children. As I have shared with different media that covered the Playas de Tijuana Mural Project, my father crossed through Playas and my grandparents were former braceros.

In addition, one of my partners was undocumented and without predicting the effects his “non-status” would mean for our relationship we invested in what we felt. The aftermath of this special moment in my life has heavily marked me and my research.

With all of this in mind, and with my fieldwork experience as a facilitator and researcher on the topic of deportation, I wanted to expand the conversations that were taking place in academic spaces into the public. Although the work done by academics on the topic is admiring and enriching, it has a long way to go in bridging this important knowledge into communities that 1) we study, 2) are the ones living or affected by our country’s immigration policies and 3) are the real producers of knowledge.

On Jan. 23, 2019, I received notification that the UC Davis Humanities Institute would financially support my community-engaged research project as a Mellon Public Scholar. This moment was key in visualizing and moving forward with the mural project as finally I was given the platform to work on a community-based mural as a graduate student.

Of course, I could have found other ways to finance this project though fund-raisers or my own paycheck, for example, but there is power and a deeper meaning by having the support of an institution that values the work this fellowship allows me to do.

After a lightning trip to Tijuana later that week in January, I found myself in Playas de Tijuana. As I looked into the space I wanted to paint, I visualized the faces of those who I have worked with since 2016 and have opened up to me about their (im)migration stories. I knew then, and have understood more so through the development of this project, that my positionality as a university student can do more than what I had initially expected.

The visibility this project has obtained since we started painting in Casa del Túnel and later in Playas de Tijuana has been humbling and has set in motion actions that will provide relief to the narrators that are portrayed on the mural. We will start with a fund-raising initiative to cover legal fees for Dreamer moms Tania Mendoza and Montserrat Godoy ( 

Once back in Davis, I immediately started organizing myself and reached out to Mauro Carrera, who is an artist and friend that I deeply admire. We had previously talked about collaborating on a mural of this kind, and we finally had the opportunity to make it happen.

Soon after, I elaborated a proposal as part of my fellowship that set the guidelines of what this project would look like. Then, I engaged in the selection of participants for the mural. I knew which stories I wanted to share on the mural to represent a wide sample to answer my dissertation question: Who Are the Real Childhood Arrivals to the U.S.?

What I had to do next was to get the permission of the participants to use their image. All of these steps and other details that made this project possible came about at the right moment, which made the developing stages manageable.

Due to our own work schedules and commitments, Mauro and I gave ourselves nine days (Aug. 1–9) to complete the first phase of this project. Undoubtedly, the volunteers who joined us in Tijuana were essential in helping us finish the mural by Aug. 9. Fun fact: We finished painting past midnight and had a bonfire after the mural inauguration to close out nine days of 12-hour-plus workdays.

It took several days to finally let the completion of the mural in Playas sink in. Right after painting, Mauro and I flew back to Fresno and were doing interviews everyday. This process was emotional and rewarding at the same time.

The questions asked by reporters triggered memories, but in my personal experience I had to quickly move past these as the objective of the project was what most mattered at the moment.

The mural will be part of the exhibition “Design at the Edge: The U.S.-Mexico Border” in MODA (Museum of Design Atlanta) Oct. 13, 2019–Feb. 2, 2020. We will also be featured in several documentaries besides the one I am currently editing.

Now, as I am outlining the details for the second phase of the mural, which will take place Sept. 14–15, I can sincerely share my deepest appreciation to all who have expressed their positive thoughts about the project and understand the importance of a work of this kind.

To further advance the objective of this mural, el Patrón restaurant (4326 E Kings Canyon Rd., Fresno) will host a dinner on behalf of the project to fund the costs of materials. Pre-sale tickets will be sold for the event, which will take place on Sept. 6 at 5 p.m. 


Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at UC Davis working toward a Ph.D. in Spanish with an emphasis on human rights. Her academic work emphasizes a community-based collaboration approach through fieldwork on the U.S.-Mexico border to produce narratives surrounding the deportation experience. Contact her at 559-261-5630 or


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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