Wonders of the Wetlands: University of Texas at El Paso Project Unleashes the Creativity of Students and Residents

The park in El Paso covers 372 acres running right up to the Rio Grande, and it gives many visitors a big surprise.

“You are in … a little oasis in the middle of the city,” says Sandra Paola López Ramírez, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “People often tell me, ‘I can’t believe we’re still in El Paso. I can’t believe trees can exist in the desert.’”

López Ramírez, a dancer and dancemaker, is on a mission: awakening the El Paso community to the wonders of Rio Bosque Wetlands Park. Here, and the Wind: an Exhibition about Process, running March 23-May 26 at the university’s Stanlee & Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, will give viewers an echo of a project she spearheaded last year.

As the leader of Rubin Center’s Community Engaged Practices in the Arts program, López Ramírez led a battalion of UTEP students and El Paso residents into the park to explore it and put their creativity to work. Their work climaxed in a performance in the park last November, part of a multiyear project called “Experiencing the Bosque.”

The bosque is the name for wetlands flanking the Rio Grande. “The river would naturally overflow its banks, depending on the snow melt in Colorado,” López Ramírez explains. “It created this natural wetland that had a tremendous amount of biodiversity.”

That changed in the late 1930s, when a federal project redirected the river into a canal meant to control its flow. The bosque, robbed of water, withered. But an effort launched in the 1990s aimed to rejuvenate part of the bosque using treated wastewater, and the El Paso park began to turn green again.

“It’s a really special place,” says López Ramírez. Her love for the natural world took hold as she grew up in Colombia—at the same time as she took dance lessons and enjoyed dancing as a social experience. On occasions from birthday parties to street festivals, she recalls, dancing was “part of the glue that held the community together.”

That vision of dance’s social power stayed with López Ramírez after she came to the United States to study dance in college. After graduation, she says, she focused “my dance practice in ways that would engage the people around me. I started discovering the transformative power that performance and movement can have in communities.”

López Ramírez’s love for nature didn’t play much of a role until she had a daughter during the pandemic. “Being a mom and thinking more tangibly about the future and the kind of world we’re leaving future generations,” she says, “really pushed me to commit myself more directly to the ecological part of my work.”

The sessions that culminated in last fall’s performance were one incarnation of that. López Ramírez began by ushering the students and volunteers into the park, where she told them to close their eyes, listen to the sounds and feel the ground supporting them.

“We don’t have many chances to stand on the earth—on the ground—any more,” she says. “It informs our posture, our alignment, the placement of our muscles. The ground beneath us moves and breathes and has life. … Just (perceiving) that alone, for a lot of people, is a big stretch.”

López Ramírez, who bases her dancemaking on improvisation, then spurred her group to observe their surroundings and imagine movements in response. One participant focused on the birds populating the area.

“When most of us would pretend to be birds, we would flap our arms,” López Ramírez says. But she led the group beyond that. “The gesture of opening a wing—how does that feel if it’s in your scapula? Then take that gesture and work with it to open your back in a different way. … You start to work with this concept that originated from the observation in the natural landscape, and then use it to research your own body.”

López Ramírez organized the myriad movements and gestures into the choreography for the November performance. Meanwhile, art students from the university created costumes, using the bosque’s plant life as the spur for their own creativity.

Here, and the Wind  will spotlight the entire process. A documentary film will let viewers relive the performance, but the show also will include video from the improvisation sessions, costumes, photos, texts and maps.

López Ramírez even is looking for ways to guide viewers in “an embodied, physical experience.” A card in the gallery might suggest that they walk in a particular direction, for instance, or notice what first catches their attention after they shut, then reopen, their eyes.

“I think of dancing in a very broad way,” she says. “Having intentional pathways in which they walk to different places—to me, that’s a dance.”