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Steven and Reefka Schneider show off their latest book at Prairie Lights

BY JENNIFER DOWNING | JULY 21, 2010 7:20 AM

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One of the portraits in the book Borderlines is an image of a young Latina girl, maybe 6 years old, whose arms are draped in women's handbags. Instead of going to school and learning to read and write like other children her age, she is selling her wares on the street in order to help support her family in the Mexican town of Nuevo Progreso. Poverty and hardship are common themes here.

This is part of life on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Other images show the enthusiastic and joyful experiences of Mexican music and dance. Dancers look serene and happy as they move and twirl in their world made of watercolors and pastels while mariachi musicians play along. These images demonstrate the hope and spirit residents of this area still feel.

This is also part of life on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Steven and Reefka Schneider will read from and talk to audiences about their latest book, Borderlines: Drawing Border Lives, an artistic and poetic representation of life on the U.S.-Mexican border, at 7 p.m. today in Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St. Admission is free.

Reefka Schneider began drawing and painting portraits of the people of the Mexican-U.S. border after she and husband Steven Schneider moved to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas in 2001. Steven had just been made the chairman of the University of Texas-Pan American's English department, and Reefka Schneider, an artist, took the opportunity to use local residents and workers as models for her art.

Soon her husband, struck by how compelling her drawings were, got in on the act, composing poems about the lives of the subjects drawn in charcoal, chalk, and watercolor.

"It really was an evolutionary process," Reefka Schneider said. "The whole thing just grew from being an expression of the people around us on both sides of the border."

Though she drew the pictures of more than 100 border residents, only 25, accompanied by Steven Schneider's poems, are featured in Borderlines. The poems either stem from these people's real lives or from his imagination about from where both their hardships and happiness come.

Both Schneiders are known nationwide for their work as individual artists, and there is little doubt whether their artwork and poetry would be able to stand alone. But both also feel that each work wouldn't be near as strong without its counterpart.

"We can make a more powerful statement through our poetry and art together," Steven Schneider said. "So each poem really is drawn closely at the hip with each of the drawings."

Borderlines puts a human face on a subject that is often polarizing in the United States — immigration and the human rights of those living along the U.S.-Mexican border. Along with this, the Schneiders also have striven to present a more balanced, realistic look at life on the border.

"We always see headlines about drugs, guns, and violence, and illegal immigration in this area," Schneider said. "The reality is that the people on both sides of the border aspire for fulfillment and happiness and education like everybody else."

To solidify this sense of camaraderie among people of different backgrounds, the poems in Borderlines are written in both English and Spanish as a way to not only create connections between people of different heritages but of different generations as well. In a country where the largest minority is people of Latino descent, there is also an emerging population of younger people who are bilingual, even though the older generations may only speak one language or the other.

"Grandparents who speak Spanish and kids who speak English can share this book together," Reefka Schneider said. "It helps realize their shared humanity."


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