SAN DIEGO -- The high-top sneakers cost $215 at a San Diego boutique, but the designer is giving them away to migrants before they cross to this side of the U.S.-Mexico border.
These are no ordinary shoes.
A compass and flashlight dangle from one shoelace. The pocket in the tongue is for money or pain relievers. A rough map of the border region is printed on a removable insole.
They are red, white and green, the colors of the Mexican flag. On the back ankle, a drawing of Mexico's patron saint of migrants.
On this side of the border, the shoes sit in art collections or the closets of well-heeled sneaker cognoscenti. On the other side, in Tijuana, it's a utilitarian affair: Immigrants to be are happy to have the sturdy, light-weight shoes for the hike -- or dash -- into the United States.
Their designer is Judi Werthein, an Argentine artist who moved to New York in 1997 -- legally, she notes.
On recent evening in Tijuana, after giving away 50 pairs at a migrant shelter, Werthein waved the insole and pointed to Interstate 8, the main road between San Diego and Phoenix.
"This blue line is where you want to go," Werthein, 38, said in Spanish.
"Good luck! You're all very courageous," she told the cheering crowd of about 50 men huddled in a recreation room after dinner.
"God bless you!" several cried back.
Werthein has concluded that shoes are a border crosser's most important garment.
"The main problem that people have when they're crossing is their feet," Werthein. "If people are going to cross anyway, at least this will make it safer."
Only 1,000 pairs of the "Brinco" sneakers (it means "Jump" in Spanish) have been made -- in China, for $17 each. The shoes were introduced in August at inSite, an art exhibition in San Diego and Tijuana whose sponsors include nonprofit foundations and private collectors.
Benefactors put up $40,000 for the project; Werthein gets a $5,000 stipend, plus expenses.
The shoes have kicked up a mini-controversy in art circles.
A San Diego surgeon told Werthein that she was encouraging illegal immigration -- a charge she rejects, saying people will cross with or without her shoes. The surgeon's wife sided with her, Werthein said, and bought the shoes.
Chris and Eloisa Haudenschild display a pair of the sneakers at their resplendent San Diego home. Eloisa Haudenschild said the shoes portray an uncomfortable reality about the perils of crossing the border.
"It's a reality that we don't like to look at," she said. "That's what an artist points out."
Across the border, several curious migrants waiting for sunset along a cement river basin approached Werthein as she emptied a sport utility vehicle of white shoe boxes. One man already wore a dirty pair of Brincos. Another, Felipe de Jesus Olivar Canto, slipped into a size 11 and said he would use them instead of his black leather shoes.
"These are much more comfortable for hiking," according to Olivar Canto, who said he was heading for $6.75-an-hour work installing doors and windows in Santa Ana, about 90 miles north of border. "The ones I have are more dressy."
From there, Werthein went to Casa del Migrante, a Tijuana shelter that will receive a share of the proceeds from Brincos sold in the United States.
Jose Garcia, 30, eased into a size 10, which he said he would wear to cross the California desert on his way to Las Vegas or Phoenix.
"Those are way too heavy and they don't breathe," he said, pointing to clunky hiking boots that he tossed aside.
"Does it have a sensor to alert us to the Border Patrol?" joked Javier Lopez, 33, who said he had a $10-an-hour job hanging drywall waiting for him in Denver.
This isn't the first time Werthein has tried to appeal to art aficionados and low-wage workers alike. In 2002, she turned a room in the Bronx Museum into a salon, painting the walls pink and inviting the public to get their fingernails covered with work from the museum's collection.
Blends, a downtown San Diego boutique, displays the shoes on a black pedestal. Werthein says Blends and Printed Matter, a store in Manhattan, have sold about 350 pairs.
"I wouldn't wear them and I wouldn't want my husband to wear them," said Blends browser Antonieta LaRussa, 28. "But the cause is awesome. There's so much opposition to immigration. She's looking at it from the other side of the fence and asking why."
To research the best design over two years, Werthein interviewed shoe designers, migrants, aid workers, even an immigrant smuggler. She joined the Mexican government's Grupo Beta migrant-aid society on long border hikes. She heard from a Salvadoran woman in Tijuana who said she was kidnapped and raped by her smuggler.
Based on those interviews, she added a pocket -- migrants told her they were often robbed. She also added the flashlight -- many cross at night.
Some get lost -- hence, the compass and map.
"If you get lost," she told the men at the shelter, "just go north."<