Critical / Radical Cartography of the US-Mexico Border – Brinco Shoes

Manú Bartlett

The Brinco Shoes project is an example of Critical/ Radical Cartography in the way it works as both a material tool to bring about social change and in the way it questions assumptions surrounding space, maps and politics. 

The Argentinian Activist Designer Judi Werthein designed the shoes in 2005 to raise awareness surrounding the difficulties faced by Mexican Migrants on the US-Mexico Border. The shoes are halfway between a work of art and a practical tool. The focus of this project is the map found on the detachable insole of the shoe which shows the US-Mexico border region surrounding Tijuana/San Diego and the most popular illegal crossing routes. The shoes also come with a compass to aid the reading of the map. The name of the shoes ‘Brinco’ means to jump in Latin American Spanish and is a term used by migrants to colloquially refer to the act of crossing the border illegally. 

Source of map/graph: Artist Judi Werthein

The map on the insole of the shoe is a physical map. Physical maps continue to be essential for those without access to a steady electricity supply to charge phones etc. Although the map clearly shows the borderline between the two nations, the colours and symbols across the area remain the same. This is unlike most political maps which show countries as different colours, reinforcing the fact that the area cannot be divided by a border. This area has been described by Gloria Anzaldúa and others as the borderland  ‘an open wound, where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds’

The legibility and thus the utility of the map is questionable, as the routes are very small and the lines are unclear; perhaps this is where the art focus of the project overtakes the practical usability of the shoes. It is important to note that the quality of the map is limited by the constraints of fitting it into a shoe. Perhaps the map could’ve been split in half, with one part on each sole in order to allow for a more zoomed in and thus legible map. 

Photo source: LaBoutik

The appearance of the shoes tells us a great deal about their intention. As explained by the We Make Money not Art blog, ’An Aztec eagle is embroidered on the heel. On the toe is the American eagle found on the US quarter, to represent the American dream the migrants are following. On the back ankle, a drawing of Mexico’s patron saint of migrants.’  As migrants the journey ‘north’ is often seen as shameful, therefore the Aztec imagery is important to instill a sense of pride and direction. Furthermore, the use of religious imagery invokes protection for the migrants and links them to a larger group of Mexican migrants who have undertaken similar journeys. However, the exclusively Mexican focus of the shoes may now seem exclusionary to Central American migrants who form the majority of migrants at the US-Mexico border, as well as the numerous non-Latinx migrants whose border journeys are often invisibilized. It is important to bear in mind that the shoes were produced in 2005 when the demographics of the border region saw a great number of Mexican migrants.

Critical Cartography recognises that maps reflect and perpetuate relations of power, with the intention of creating a more reflexive, politically informed cartographic praxis. The Brinco project aims to support migrants in their quest to cross the border illegally; the border is a material and symbolic demonstration of the US’s violent nationalism, racism and economic exclusion.  By providing migrants with alternative routes to bypass the ‘formal’ entry points to the US, Brinco is working to subvert the relations of power. Furthermore, the Brinco shoes are an example of Radical Cartography, which can be defined as the practice of mapmaking that subverts conventional notions in order to actively promote social change. Brinco shoes work as a migrant activist tool in order to provide material and emotional support to migrants, to raise awareness, and to raise funds (half of the shoes were sold at $200 each in the USA to raise money for migrants). 

The conception and production of the shoes speak to their physicality. Firstly, the conception of the 

project questions the way we think about who maps work for. Often the key focus of maps are roads for vehicles; however this project brings the focus to the primary mode of transportation for migrants, which is their feet. During the pandemic we saw a proliferation of migrants having to walk home due to transport restrictions; this was seen acutely in countries such as India and Peru.

Map showing the long distances crossed by foot by Central American Migrants to the US-Mexico Border. Map source: BBC News

In addition, the production of the shoes underscore the damage caused by outsourcing in the border region. The maquiladoras are the key industry of the border region and therefore the choice to produce the shoes in China demonstrates the continued displacement and exploitation that citizens of the region have faced. In many ways this project works in the same vein as Bunge (1928) who aimed to move inward toward exploited and overlooked places.  

After releasing the shoes Judi Werthein received threatening messages accusing her of defending and promoting illegal immigration. Many of the criticisms mentioned how the inclusion of a map within the shoes was ‘telling migrants exactly how and where to go’. This complaint demonstrates the way in which anti-immigrant voices in the US see maps as pertaining to the ‘developed’, ‘rational’, ‘white’ world. It appears to be triggering for these anti-immigration voices that the loyalty of the map which usually works to demarcate and thus ‘protect’ their land through border lines can be subverted to serve migrants, who they see as undeserving ‘others’. (Gutierrez, 2009) 

Critical-creative application prototype: 

Since 2016, more than 4.6 million people have emigrated from Venezuela, mostly to other Latin American countries. For example, a total of 870,000 Venezuelan migrants have traveled 4,500 kilometers to reach Peru. (World Bank 2019) What if we were to design a migration shoe/boot for Venezuelan migrants in South America? The shoe will include: 

  • Guidebook of countries’ different migration rules (each country’s legal context varies and information is hard to find);
  • Pocket to store a passport and other necessary documents under the sole; 
  • Map booklet with different information on local transport, refuges, local zoomed in maps and information on ecosystems which may be unfamiliar e.g. rainforest; (Similar guide booklets for vulnerable travellers have been produced over the last 100 years, for instance the Green Books for African American travellers).
  • Optional GPS tracking and alarm button – in a similar way that the Alarm Phone programme works to track migrants at sea in the Mediteranean and alert local support groups. 

This shoe will build upon the idea introduced by Brinco shoes, but instead focus on the practical usability of the map, adding additional information about the geography and the legal context of the region. 

Map showing routes taken by foot by Venezuelan migrants in South America. Map Source: World Bank, 2019.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *