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Transcript of Episode 6: Fly Like An Eagle

This episode of Art History for All contains discussion of lynching and torture. Listener discretion is advised.

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In 2018, photography is possibly the most accessible art form there is. We all have cameras in our phones, in our laptops and desktops and tablets, even in drones. Where once there was a cumbersome wood-encased camera with a drape to block out light from the viewfinder, many cameras now can be held in the palm of your hand. And yet, as many photos as we see on our devices, there’s still something captivating about entering a still, quiet space, walking up to a physical print of a photograph and just…looking. Even when the image we are looking at is challenging or difficult in some way.

In April of this year, photographer Laura Aguilar died at the age of 58. Though many of her best-known images date from the 1990s, Aguilar’s work is still incredibly topical. Her landmark work is a triptych, or arrangement of three images, entitled Three Eagles Flying, which deals explicitly with Aguilar’s Chicana heritage and the relationship between Mexico and the United States. This work is different from others I’ve covered in this podcast not just because it’s a photograph or a triptych, but also because it features the body of the artist herself. This prompts us to ask whether or not the way we look at an image changes when the artist is the focal point of the image. To what degree should we consider the artist’s biography and background when looking at images like this? Do we take into account aspects of their biography that may seem tangential to the image at hand? And, when there are so many intersecting issues at hand in an artwork, how do we even begin to unpack all those layers? Well, in this episode, we’re gonna roll up our sleeves and try. So let’s get to it!

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In the catalogue for Laura Aguilar’s 2017 career retrospective, Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell, Columbia University curator Deborah Cullen provides a particularly eloquent and concise visual description. Though I usually write the visual descriptions myself, I decided to quote Cullen’s description for you here, and to encourage you to read the essay from which it comes, “Beyond Face Value: Reconsidering Laura Aguilar’s Three Eagles Flying.

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“In Aguilar’s large gelatin silver triptych, a woman stands between a US flag hanging at left and a Mexican flag hanging to the right. The woman is nude. Her head is wrapped in a second Mexican flag that drapes behind her shoulders like a cape. She is swathed from the waist down in a second US flag that covers her lower half like a skirt, but her arms, breasts, and torso are bare. A thick rope winds around her neck, snakes down the center of her chest, loops around her midsection, binds her crossed hands in front of her, and cinches her thighs. We know that the female model is the artist herself.”[1]

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Laura Aguilar’s photography is very heavily based in the many different aspects of her identity. She was an American of Mexican, native Californio, and Irish descent; a lesbian and a woman of size; a diabetic person who also had auditory dyslexia, a learning disability that involves difficulty processing and comprehending spoken language. This last element seems to have been a driving force in Aguilar’s photographic career: while understanding speech was difficult for Aguilar, taking pictures was “incredibly easy,” and Show and Tell curator Sybil Venegas describes Aguilar’s photographic training as “highly intuitive.”[2] Venegas traces the roots of how Aguilar learned to “see like an artist” to female familial influences in Aguilar’s early life, from her mother Juanita, to her aunt Inez, to her grandmother Mary.[3] I’ve mentioned in previous episodes about the process of mythmaking that goes on when it comes to the origin stories of artists, and Aguilar’s life seems to be no exception. The way that she is described in writing, especially so in the obituaries published after her death, it seems as though she was absolutely destined to be a photographer. And she seems to have been equally destined to photograph the subjects she did over the course of her career, from Día de los Muertos celebrations in Los Angeles, to the denizens of an East L.A. lesbian bar called the Plush Pony, which has since closed.[4] She found her signature subject in herself, beginning with a 1989 work called In Sandy’s Room, in which Aguilar reclines naked on a chair and ottoman in front of a fan and an open window. Just a year after In Sandy’s Room, she created Three Eagles Flying, which, while it still depicts Aguilar herself, cannot strictly be called a self-portrait.

It’s easy to see how personal Three Eagles Flying is: Aguilar herself is literally caught between, smothered by, and trapped amidst the symbols of her Mexican-American, or Chicana, identity. Aguilar’s Chicana-ness was a fraught question when she was growing up, as she did not speak Spanish, yet was noticeably darker-skinned than her mother Juanita, who was often “mistaken for white.”[5] It was only really when she began attending East Los Angeles College in the 80s that she began to develop a firmer sense of her heritage through Chicano studies courses.[6]  According to Venegas, despite the fact that Aguilar grew up in the 1960s and 70s, when the Chicano movement flourished, Aguilar, quote, “[recalled] that her family, like many Mexican American families, rejected the radical politics of the movement and never acknowledged a strong connections to a cultural past.”[7] End quote. Aguilar’s friend and mentor Mei Valenzuela pointed to Aguilar’s time at ELAC as a particularly formative one, in this excerpt from her essay in the catalogue:

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“For a period, life seemed to be in direct conflict with Laura. She experienced her mother’s diagnosis and subsequent death from cancer; being banned from her beloved photography at ELAC until she completed a series of English classes…to improve her communication skills; losing her beloved friend Gilbert Cuadros to AIDS; being diagnosed as dyslexic with no prognosis for real improvement. She began proudly identifying herself for the first time as a Latina, and as a lesbian and overweight woman in a social culture that idolized ‘Hollywood glam.’ Tentative relationships led to failed expectations and personal conflict, to her growing alienation from an extended family whose ties to religion seemed senseless, and to the probable collapse of any dreams she had that required social conformity. A lesser person would have given up amid this flotsam of life’s ebb and flow, yet when she did falter she would ultimately use her emotions and questions about life to create bodies of work that visualized humanity’s sometimes tenuous hold on existence, finding and creating grace in her photographs.”[8]

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None of the many identities and qualities that Aguilar recognized and claimed as her own can really be considered separately from the others. Aguilar’s existence and work are a real-life case study in intersectionality, a version of feminist theory that originated among feminists of color and was formally defined by law professor and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989.[9] Intersectional feminism recognizes that for individuals who embody multiple marginalized identities, for instance, disabled Chicana lesbian, those identities cannot be considered independently, but must be considered in terms of how they intersect. Aguilar’s Chicana background cannot be considered without regard to how it interacts with her womanhood, with her learning disability, with her large body, with her sexuality, or with her Americanness. So when we talk about Three Eagles Flying, we cannot focus solely on Aguilar’s Mexican ancestry or American citizenship—we have to engage with how those things connect or conflict with her size, with her gender, or with the invisible aspects of her being that still influence the visual work. Now, we only have so many minutes in a podcast, so I can’t get to absolutely everything, but I can certainly get us started down the path, and who knows? Maybe you or someone you know will get inspired to write about it yourself!

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Knowing about the many qualities and identities Aguilar embodies makes looking at and thinking about Three Eagles Flying significantly more difficult. Where once you might have looked at the triptych and seen a fairly straightforward expression of Mexican-American cultural and identity conflicts, you can’t help but realize, once you know more about Aguilar, that there’s so much more at play. This is one of those Intimidating Art Moments that many people experience, a moment I’ve seen firsthand as a graduate teaching assistant: when presented with more information about the artist and their work, those who started out with an authoritative, concrete opinion of the work begin to find themselves a bit lost, and those who were confused or disengaged to begin with sort of shut down and move on to the next image in the gallery. It’s a totally reasonable reaction, and it happens to me, too! So how can we push past that Intimidating Art Moment and peel back the layers of meaning in Three Eagles Flying? Well, let’s start with its origins as a work.

From a material standpoint, Three Eagles Flying can be seen as a product of Aguilar’s community and environment: she initially asked a friend to pose for the triptych, but her friend refused, insisting that since the work was about Aguilar, she should be the one to pose for it.[10] At the time, Aguilar was too poor to buy the props for the photo, so she had to borrow or find the flags and rope, literally pulling the trappings of the photo from the place she lived.[11] Even the idea of a triptych and the paper it was printed on came from Aguilar’s community, specifically L.A.-based photographer Willie Middlebrook, who suggested a larger format and gave Aguilar some 20-by-24-inch paper, and also allowed her to use some of his equipment.[12] Just as Aguilar’s photographic training was significantly shaped and guided by family and friends, Three Eagles Flying was also the product of friendship, mentorship, and collaboration. It has tangible material connections to Los Angeles and its art community, connections that are rooted in Aguilar’s economic position and working-class background.

So we know where the triptych came from, but how has it been received? How have people looked at this, and what connections have they made to other artworks? Deborah Cullen’s essay on Three Eagles Flying in the Show and Tell catalogue tracks some of the responses to Three Eagles, but notes that much of what has been written about Three Eagles is either fairly surface-level or misses the opportunity to explore its relationship to other works, photographic or otherwise. In order to remedy this, Cullen spends a good portion of her essay discussing how similar imagery has been employed in works by Puerto Rican artists and activists, such as a mixed-media triptych by Juan Sánchez and a 1977 protest in which Puerto Rican nationalists covered the Statue of Liberty’s forehead with a Puerto Rican flag.[13] The covering of faces or bodies with flags, or the transformation of bodies into flags through creative hair-cutting and more, is a particularly powerful visual. Replacing the face with a flag effectively erases the individual in favor of a larger national identity, sometimes an identity rooted in colonial oppression. Aguilar’s inclusion of both the Mexican and American flags in her work, and the prominent featuring of the Aztec eagle on the flag wrapped around her face, highlights not just her ownership of both identities, but also the long history of colonial conquest and oppression that those flags symbolize. Even the title, Three Eagles Flying, specifically references the bird that is the symbol of both countries and the root of Aguilar’s last name, a bird that has been mustered not only in service of patriotism, but also in service of colonial control.[14] Aguilar wrapping flags around her body and face is not just about how she personally relates to the identities associated with those flags, but also about the numerous ways in which those flags have been used to symbolize or to justify the actions of the nations they represent.

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The covering of a body with a flag is also evocative of images of death—deceased American military personnel have their caskets covered with American flags, for instance, and while dead bodies may not necessarily be wrapped in flags, fabric shrouds have long been a part of burial practices around the world.[15] One of the most famous examples is the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be the shroud in which Jesus Christ was buried before he rose again, and which supposedly still retains the image of his face. The flags wrapped around Aguilar, particularly the one wrapped around her head, mimic burial shrouding, adding a more morbid layer to the understanding of the flags as obscuring her individuality. This in turn takes on a new meaning in light of Aguilar’s recent death, forcing the audience to reconsider how we characterize her posthumously—the triptych suggests that Aguilar’s identity is often limited to Mexican-American, and indeed that is one of the main identifiers used in both Aguilar’s obituaries and scholarship on her work  produced during her lifetime. Her Chicana identity is a big part of her, but Three Eagles seems to assert that it is her primary identifier regardless of the many other facets of her identity she has made abundantly clear.

Aguilar’s covered head, secured with a thick, nooselike rope, evokes in particular images of torture and lynching. When I considered this connection, my mind jumped immediately to the infamous image of an Iraqi prisoner, Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, head completely covered by a black hood and standing on top of a wooden box with what appears to be wires extending from his outstretched hands.[16] This was just one of many photographs published beginning in April 2004 documenting abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, and while Aguilar made Three Eagles some 14 years earlier, the idea of obscuring the face, and thereby obscuring the personhood, of a victim of torture by no means began with the Iraq War in 2003. Cullen discusses images of “kidnapping, torture, submission, and humiliation” in Latin American countries in the 1980s, which many Latinx[17] artists drew upon and which Aguilar was likely aware of.[18] Aguilar was no doubt also aware of the imagery of lynching in the United States, particularly in the South under Jim Crow laws. Lynching is essentially torture committed closer to home and primarily motivated by racial prejudice. Many of us think of lynching solely in relation to the history of African Americans, but many different ethnic groups have been impacted by the terrorism of lynching.[19] In fact, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery recently began showing a series of works by photographer Ken Gonzales-Day exploring the history of lynching in the American West and its impact across multiple racial and ethnic groups.[20] Gonzales-Day’s 2006 book on the subject, Lynching in the West, “verified 354 cases of lynchings in California between 1850 and 1935. Of those, 140 were Latinos.”[21] When we consider the imagery of lynching and race-based violence in relation to Three Eagles Flying, Aguilar’s image can no longer be read solely as an expression of frustration with the limits of Mexican-American identity. Aguilar’s bound body becomes reflective of the thousands[22] of bound, tortured bodies that suffered as a result of identities in conflict. The violence enacted by and upon earlier generations still leaves an impact on Aguilar, still leaves her feeling trapped and bound up in conflict to such an extent that it overshadows her individuality. And yet, there are still aspects of her identity that are not subsumed under a flag, and that in fact are somewhat disruptive to both the conflict and the convergence of Aguilar’s Mexicanness and her Americanness.

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Aguilar’s body is an inescapable part of both the artist and her work. In Three Eagles Flying her torso is the only visible part of her, which forces the viewer to engage with the reality of her large breasts, wide arms, and rounded stomach and hips. Her size, and the details of her body such as the scar on her right arm, enhance the specificity of the image: this is not just an allegory with an idealized, non-specific body. This is reflective of a real person’s real experience. In the following catalogue excerpt, art professor and curator Amelia Jones characterizes Aguilar’s use of her body in photographs as an act of “radical vulnerability,” a vulnerability that is deeply affecting to the viewer:

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“In investing her practice with radical vulnerability, Aguilar’s project offers this possibility of exposure, as well as a strategic mode of intervention into the convention of portraiture: rather than seeming to ‘give’ us the person depicted, as portraiture of the Renaissance through the modern period offered to do, she makes us work for a relationship, one coded in terms of body size, able-bodiedness, ethnicity/race, class, and gender/sexuality, all as intersectionally coextensive modes of identification. Rather than fragmenting and multiplying the subject into a splintered array of personae…Aguilar, by making us work to relate to the people depicted (particularly herself), makes us aware of our own mutability and vulnerability, always in relation to these myriad modes of identification.”[23]

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Jones goes on to assert that modern portraiture is often focused on erasing the vulnerability of the subject, and instead presenting them as “authoritative and self-possessed.” She argues that Aguilar, by contrast, portrays herself as vulnerable in her photographs and implicitly asks the viewer to engage with her vulnerability. But Three Eagles is unlike Aguilar’s other nude self-portraits in that the focus is not solely on her, but also on props that help to construct an image that goes beyond just portraiture. Given this, how do we begin to interpret Aguilar’s nude body in the context of Three Eagles Flying?

Well, one thing to consider is the use of women’s bodies in patriotic allegories: think of the Statue of Liberty, or other female allegories like England’s Britannia or France’s Marianne. Countries have historically been gendered as feminine, such as in the lyrics to “God Bless America” in which the singer asks the audience to “stand beside her and guide her.” We sometimes hear Russia referred to as “the Motherland,” or colonial powers called “mother countries.” Looking at 18th and 19th century European monuments, and some paintings and prints, one sees numerous instances of continents or countries personified as women, usually idealized women with idealized bodies. Aguilar’s figure in Three Eagles could be read as both a successor and a challenge to this visual tradition. Without individual identity thanks to the flag wrapped over her face, this could be seen as an allegory of the Mexican-American identity in general. But Aguilar’s large body disrupts the line of the tradition, and in turn leads the viewer to question what her size might symbolize in the context of an allegory. If Aguilar is portraying an allegory of Mexican-American identity, what does her fatness signify? We can’t help but be confronted by all the stereotypes we associate with fatness, a list that is populated overwhelmingly by negative terms—lazy, slow, sloppy, unhealthy, greedy—with only a couple positives—abundance, or perhaps comfort. The negative associations so outweigh the positives when it comes to our associations with fatness and size, it’s hard to look at Three Eagles as an allegory and not be disturbed by the conclusions we jump to in reading Aguilar’s body allegorically. Aguilar was clearly conscious that her size was to some degree incompatible with societal standards, as in this quote from a 2003 interview:

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Voluptuous is a kind way to put it, but really I’m fat. I am not saying I like being this way. I have always felt a lot of anger about my size. My work is a way of coming to terms with my body, with learning to be comfortable with who you are. I have lost some weight but I would like to lose more. Unfortunately, it’s something that all women struggle with. We can’t all be a size zero. I’m trying to be really honest about accepting my body.

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Recent years have brought body positivity and fat positivity to the fore in mainstream cultural dialogues. The fraught relationship Aguilar expresses having with her size is echoed in writing and videos and art and activism worldwide—but it’s uncertain if body acceptance is as much an issue at play in Three Eagles Flying as it is in Aguilar’s more straightforward self-portrait series. As I’ve mentioned before, Aguilar sits at the intersection of a great many marginalized identities, not all of which are visible, and even fewer of which are visible in Three Eagles, thanks to the flag coverings. Her size, however, is inescapable, and while the specific role of Aguilar’s size in Three Eagles is not necessarily clear, its visibility complicates straightforward readings of the image, challenging the viewer’s assumptions of what an American, a Mexican, or a Mexican-American looks like.

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Twenty-eight years after the creation of Three Eagles Flying, the situation of many Mexican-Americans is just as complex as it was when Aguilar first wrapped herself in flags. Mexican-Americans, Mexicans in America, and native Americans like the Gabrieleños from whom Aguilar was descended, have long been treated with disdain and violence, as evidenced by the lynching statistics I mentioned earlier on. The very term Gabrieleño is derived from the San Gabriel Mission, part of a system of Catholic missions that not only sought to convert native Californians to Christianity but also worked to erase their language and culture and replace it with Hispanic culture. So-called “Juan Crow” laws[24] enforced the segregation of Mexicans from whites in the Southwest for decades, despite the fact that significant aspects of Southwest culture, such as place names and foodways, and the very idea of the quote-unquote “cowboy,” are rooted in Mexican and Native American language and traditions. Today, many Mexicans, and Hispanic and Latinx people more generally, are viewed as immigrants regardless of whether or not they immigrated here. Aguilar herself was clear about the fact that her family did not immigrate across the border: “they were here before it changed.”[25] Actress Eva Longoria famously described a similar family history in her speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, saying, quote, “My family never crossed a border, the border crossed us.”[26] End quote. But these realities, and the sheer breadth of the Mexican-American experience, are often overshadowed by flat-out bigotry and a misguided desire for a homogenous white American culture that ignores the fact that, prior to the end of the Mexican-American war in 1848, Mexican territory included “all or part of” what are today the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.[27] One of the most highly publicized recent incidents of systemic bias against Mexican-American and Hispanic people is the case of former sheriff Joe Arpaio, who racially profiled Hispanic people in Arizona and detained some on suspicion that they were in the country illegally, even if they were citizens or legal residents.[28] Despite a court order to cease these practices, Arpaio continued to profile and detain people, and he was ultimately found guilty of criminal contempt for violating the court order in 2017. Similarly high-profile anti-Mexican and anti-Hispanic sentiment became ingrained in Donald Trump’s public persona beginning with his presidential candidacy, so much so that in 2016 Time published a list of “All the Times Trump Insulted Mexico,” which has not been updated since then, but certainly should be, extensively.[29] The racist, xenophobic rhetoric spewed by Trump and others glosses over the nuances and differences between Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and other people of Hispanic heritage, lumping them all into a single group. Their individual experiences are erased, and they are reduced to symbols of tensions across the border, trapped between two nations regardless of their birth or citizenship status. Aguilar’s Three Eagles Flying is just as relevant today as it was 20 years ago, expressive of both Aguilar’s individual situation and the collective situation of millions of Mexican-Americans. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of the layers of meaning contained in Three Eagles in this podcast, not to mention Aguilar’s other photographs, and if there’s any body of work, or indeed any body, worth investigating in greater depth at this moment in history, it is hers.

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Thanks so much for listening to Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, including links to images and citations, at You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, and while you’re there, why not rate and review us? It really helps us out. Follow us on Twitter at arthistory4all—that’s art history, number 4, all—for updates about the show and other fun art stuff. If you’ve already done all that, and just want to give a little extra love, please consider leaving a tip on the podcast Ko-Fi at

This podcast was produced and narrated by me, Allyson Healey. The theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other background and interstitial music can be found in the podcast description or at the end of the transcript. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast feed so you won’t miss future episodes, and remember to look closely: you never know what you might see.

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[1] Deborah Cullen, “Beyond Face Value: Reconsidering Laura Aguilar’s Three Eagles Flying,” in Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell, Vincent Price Art Museum exhibition catalogue, (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2017) 27.

[2] Sybil Venegas, “Take Me to the River: The Photography of Laura Aguilar,” in Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell, Vincent Price Art Museum exhibition catalogue, (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2017) 13.

[3] Venegas, 12.

[4] Some information about the history of the Plush Pony can be found on the blog Lost Womyn’s Space, which includes excerpts from oral histories:

[5] Venegas, 12.

[6] Venegas, 12.

[7] Venegas, 12.

[8] Mei Valenzuela, “Tempering of an Artist,” in Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell, Vincent Price Art Museum exhibition catalogue, (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2017) 19-21.


[10] Michelle Hart, “A Mexican-American Photographer’s Body, On Display and Invisible,” The New Yorker, November 29, 2017,

[11] Cullen, 28.

[12] Venegas, 16.

[13] Cullen, 28-30. See also Mary Breasted, “30 in Puerto Rican Group Held in Liberty I. Protest,” The New York Times, October 26, 1977:

[14] Cullen, 27-28.

[15] For a fun look at shrouds and clothing dead bodies, see this video from author, YouTuber, and mortician Caitlin Doughty on “Funeral Fashion”:

[16] Wikipedia contributors, “Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed July 26, 2018).

[17] The suffix “-x” is a common gender-neutral suffix applied to gendered nouns in Spanish instead of the gendered suffixes “-o” or “-a”. It is primarily used to improve fluency of language and to ensure the inclusion of individuals who identify as neither male nor female. “Latinx” and “Chicanx” or “Xicanx” are the most common use-cases I have encountered.

[18] Cullen, 31.

[19] Cullen, 31.

[20] Luis Alonso Lugo, “Smithsonian Gallery Explores Diversity in US Lynchings,” AP News, July 20, 2018,

[21] Lugo, “Smithsonian Gallery”.

[22] The Tuskegee Institute’s annual report on lynchings in the United States, accounted for 4,733 people dead by lynching between 1882 and 1959. See “Lynching in the United States,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed 26 July 2018).

[23] Amelia Jones, “Clothed/Unclothed: Laura Aguilar’s Radical Vulnerability,” in Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell, Vincent Price Art Museum exhibition catalogue, (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2017) 39.

[24] Marlon Bishop and Fernanda Echavarri, “‘No Mexicans Allowed’: School Segregation in the Southwest,” NPR’s Latino USA, March 17, 2017:

[25] Cullen, 28.

[26] NBC News, “Eva Longoria: ‘The Border Crossed Us’ | NBC News,” YouTube video, 1:32, posted 25 July 2016.

[27] Wikipedia contributors, “Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed 27 July 2018).

[28] Melissa Etehad, “Joe Arpaio, former sheriff in Arizona, is found guilty of criminal contempt,” Los Angeles Times, 31 July 2017:

[29] Katie Reilly, “Here Are All the Times Trump Insulted Mexico,” Time, 31 August 2016:

Additional Music Credits:

“Edmond VI” by Marco Trovatello, via Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License. Based on a work at

“Friction” by Nctrnm, via Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

“First Time Outdoors” by Parvus Decree, via Licensed under a CC0 1.0 Universal License.

“The Encouragement Stick” by Doctor Turtle, via Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

One Comment

  1. Ali Ali

    I could not refrain from commenting. Very well written!

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