New faculty members Malcolm Rio and Germán Pallares-Avitia explore architectural history through the lens of decoloniality.
RISD SEI Fellow Germán Pallares-Avitia Explores International Relations along the US-Mexico Border
Social Equity and Inclusion (SEI) Teaching and Research Fellow Germán Pallares-Avitia first became interested in the US-Mexico border while growing up in Juárez, just across from El Paso, TX. He relocated to the US and earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, where his dissertation focused on the US-Mexico borderlands and the Mexican government’s 1960s- and ’70s-era efforts to attract American tourists via commercial, cultural and infrastructural projects.
“My research in RISD’s Center for Social Equity & Inclusion continues this investigation with a focus on cultural and commercial centers in border cities,” he says, “places where immigrants and residents frequently change places and have daily access to cultural, social and commercial activities across political divides.”
Although US policy around immigration and its relationship with Mexico changes with each presidency, Pallares-Avitia explains that “decisions affecting the border are very long-lasting and can transcend political terms of office.” He cites as an example the huge logjam of Latin American asylum seekers that made international headlines during Donald Trump’s presidency, which continues to grow under President Joe Biden.
Pallares-Avitia studied concepts and problems related to borders with students at Lehigh University and the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design in the past but says that RISD students offer something unique. “They have very fresh and interesting perspectives, and they’re deeply interested in the built environment’s effect on social and political policy,” he says.
“[RISD students] have very fresh and interesting perspectives, and they’re deeply interested in the built environment’s effect on social and political policy.”
Students in Life on the Border: History, Theory, Praxis, a seminar Pallares-Avitia taught in the Liberal Arts division last fall, investigated a range of topics related to the built environment that shed light on race, class, gender, environmental issues and other socio-cultural constructs.
“They created really interesting projects,” he says, “like one by grad student Julia Woznicki MArch 24 about underground watersheds, which don’t follow politically drawn boundaries. Juárez and El Paso are both running out of water rapidly, and she investigated how these cities might start working together to maintain and extend their water supply.”
Another project investigated patterns of commerce along the border and how merchandise passes from one side to the other. And a third focused on the negative effects of the wall separating the two countries, which makes it impossible for—not only humans—but cattle and other animals to cross safely.
“RISD students respond to problems by experimenting and making,” says Pallares-Avitia, “and they bring such interesting and unexpected concepts into the conversation. The creativity of the RISD community has pushed my own research in new directions as well and inspired me to think about my historical research and design practice in a more integrated way.”
“The creativity of the RISD community has pushed my own research in new directions and inspired me to think about my historical research and design practice in a more integrated way.”
Next semester he’ll teach an Architecture studio focused on possible futures for the US-Mexico border. “We’ll develop projects using the same typologies—commercial, cultural and infrastructural—that can help us understand local conditions, global problems such as colonialism and imperialism and how the past and present can influence the way we see futures for the borderlands,” Pallares-Avitia explains.
The overarching theme for the projects will be how US and Mexican citizens perceive waste and how the cities of El Paso and Juárez can prepare for a greener future together. “RISD students will collaborate with Texas Tech El Paso architecture students,” Pallares-Avitia adds, “and I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with.”