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“El Otro Lado” (The Other Side): Geographies, Boundaries, and Imaginations of Space

Deserts Homelands and Colonial Fantasy

Ed Gomez, artist.
Weavers Needle, from the Superstition Mountains series (2020)
Oil on linen
44x44 inches

Ed Gomez, artist.
Monument Valley (2021)
Oil on linen
44x44 inches

Ed Gomez is an artist, curator, and educator located in Los Angeles, CA. He is a co-founder of the MexiCali Biennial. His creative works engage the politics, histories and fantasties of the American West and the Borderlands.

Deserts are vibrant homelands. Those who live in deserts know them to be varied, delicate, and rich ecosystems. In the American West, deserts have been treated as empty wastelands - lifeless sacrifice zones to be used for military testing, places to dump radioactive waste, and marginal lands to send the displaced. These practices were applied to the Sonora, Mojave, and Colorado Deserts as well as the Pacific Ocean. A self-fulfilling prophecy, these practices create drought and pollute the land and water, destroying desert life.

Residents of the arid North American West, especially Californians, mask the aridity of their surroundings with tropical vegetation and lawns and work assiduously to suppress the fire in their fire ecologies. Popular culture, from Burning Man to the yearly music Bacchanal at Coachella, reveals an obsession with the true desert that lies beyond the reach of irrigation. From this Sonoran Desert that runs through Arizona and Mexico up through the Mohave Desert and the Great Basin stretching through Nevada and Utah to Salt Lake City, they party in them, create art in them, build jackrabbit weekend homesteads in them, build empires of irrigated fields in them, explode nuclear bombs in them.

William Fox writes in the brilliant short monograph Playa Works: The Myth of the Empty

“the low humidity and lack of verticals play games with our visual field. Light does not scatter on droplets of water; colors often don’t shift to blue in the distance. The far and the near are not clearly distinguished; this makes deserts transformative spaces—perception of paleo brain is at once one of danger from the lack of green, but also of fascination…If the lack of visual cues lead to our walking in a circle, it can also dramatically increase our haptic, or whole-body, perception of the landscape. In the desert you can feel as if, by being radically diminished in size, you are properly scaled to the planet." 1

By the late 19th century, After 150 years of painting an ever-expanding, unpopulated American West, an illusion of the empty desert gave rise to a class of developer-engineers who imagined possibilities of verdant expanses of farms and orchards. The idea was to use the new science of irrigation to “reclaim” the land for white Christian civilization, in an explicit reference to Genesis. Irrigation was not just technology conveying water from rivers to fields. It was men wielding a tool of the divine: reversing God’s expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. In this spirit, the Mormons - expelled from the east U.S. “reclaimed” the arid lands of Southern California using irrigation practices developed in Utah.

As California Governor George Pardee proclaimed to reclamation boosters at the National Irrigation Congress in 1903, referring to the triumph of the City of Riverside and its surrounding orchards,

“With the factor of moisture under the control of man, his control over the creation of wealth is vastly enhanced. Civilization is based upon the existence of wealth, since empires are based on population … Man can by his will create [irrigation] States, and in the exercise of his power he does most truly resemble the gods.” 2

The Library of Congress holdings on the dawn of the irrigation age in the U.S. West include photographs, manuscripts, maps, and moving images that illustrate the popular and elite fascination with the imagined desert. ​​​​​​​


  1. William Fox, Playa Works: The Myth of the Empty (Reno and Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2002), page 12.
  2. George Pardee, “Relation of Irrigation to Civilization,” speech reprinted in Pacific Rural Press, vol 66, no 13 (1903), September 26, 1903, retrieved from UC-Riverside Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research. External