On 14 June 2011 Ana Teresa Fernández walked up to the US-Mexico border at Playas de Tijuana and began painting its imposing struts in sky-blue. After a few hours a considerable swathe of the frontier seemed to have vanished, as its new coat of paint matched the receding sea, shore and sky behind.
Art takes a creative eye and the audacity to draw outside the lines to turn a symbol of division into a message of unity. But can a border art unate?
Whether in Cold War–era Berlin or present-day West Bank, border walls have long been used to stop people whose race, religion, economic status, or ideology have been unwelcome. But wherever anti-immigration politicians see opportunity, artists see canvas.
Two professors from California transformed a part of the U.S.-Mexico border into a tool for the connection rather than separation. Children from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border were playing together on three bright-pink seesaws placed through the fence in Sunland Park, New Mexico (near El Paso, Texas), and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The temporary art project, known as the "Teeter-Totter Wall," was first dreamed up in 2009 by Ronald Rael, an architecture professor, and an interior design associate professor Virginia San Fratello. After 10 years of conceptualizing, the installation came to life with Mexican and U.S. Border Patrol agents overseeing its construction at the highly politicized border. When the temporary seesaws were put in place, families on both sides of the wall gathered to play for approximately 30 minutes, capturing videos and photos that have since been widely shared across social media.
Borrando La Frontera (Erasing the Border)
The San Ysidro port of entry that connects Tijuana and San Diego is the busiest land border crossing in the world. Some 100 years ago, this boundary was marked by little more than flimsy cattle fencing. Today, the border wall's rusting steel bars extend 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean. In 2011, Mexican artist Ana Teresa Fernandez in her projectBorrando La Frontera (Erasing the Border) "erased" the border by painting the fence to blend into the sea, sand, and sky.
"I do it on the Mexican side because that wall exists for Mexicans," she explains. "In San Diego, there's lots of beaches, but in Tijuana, that's the only beach people congregate at. I'm doing it for the Mexicans who go there on their day off to rest and meditate and exercise, and they're met with this visual obstruction."
By erasing the fence, she made this sameness come to the fore. The black bars of the fence separate; the blue bars of the painted fence disappear, showing a unity that is not interrupted by a display of sovereign territoriality.
Mural de la Hermandad (Brotherhood Mural)
Just inland, Enrique Chiu is aiming to cover the length of the rest of the existing U.S./Mexico boundary wall with murals created by volunteers, artists, and community groups in border towns across the Southwest. Covering a distance of more than a mile and counting, Chiu's project Mural de la Hermandad (Brotherhood Mural) is gunning for the title of longest mural in the world.
Chiu began the project in 2016. Over the past two and a half years, nearly 4,000 volunteers have converged on the US/Mexico border to assist the artist with painting a mural. The wide range of styles, including written phrases and more illustrative narratives reflects the diversity of those who have worked alonside Chiu to complete the expansive mural.
In 2016 when a French artist JR was scouting for a spot for his new project, he noticed a house in the Mexican city of Tecate, an hour southeast of San Diego, near the border wall. He knocked the door to see about the possibility of locating the spot around. There the artist saw a smiling toddler who had been staring at him and reminded him of the boy he had dreamed about to photograph. JR asked the mother if he could take a picture of her son and she agreed.
A year later the artist installed his new work in Tecate: a monumental photograph of Kikito pasted onto a special scaffolding placed just behind the border fence with California. Seen from the US side, the child seems to be peering over the slatted fence as if from inside a crib, getting ready to crawl toward something that's caught his interest.
On the final day of the installation, JR organized a picnic that took place across both sides of the fence. Kikito, his family, and the guests from both the United States and Mexico sat around a long picnic blanket printed with an image of a woman's eyes. Those eyes belong to Mayra, 32, a so-called "dreamer" whose mother crossed the US border 28 years ago when Mayra was a child.
Mayra and her mother attended the picnic, and Mayra says seeing so many people gathered on her eyes made her feel … seen. "People embraced me in their arms, one after the other, and they shared their migration stories," she says. "My mom told her story for the first time to people outside of our family. I came back feeling a greater sense of responsibility to stand up for who I am. For 25 years, I have lived a reality that feels like a dream — I traveled, I attended college, I dated, I went to the movies. In any of those 9,125 days, I could have been detained and deported. The 'dreamer' label is a reminder of that."
It was a joyous occasion as people passed food and tea back and forth and enjoyed the music of a mariachi band–half the ensemble played on each side of the fence. For a few hours, the division disappeared.
A "Dreamer"- a term that describes undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and fall under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program
Playas de Tijuana Mural Project
In 2019 a new border mural was unveiled at Playas de Tijuana in Tijuana. Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana, the project director, started the mural as part of her dissertation which focused on the deportation of childhood arrivals to the United States.
The Playas de Tijuana Mural Project shares the stories of 15 undocumented immigrants who arrived to the United States, many as children. Many were deported to Tijuana. Some of them faced deportation to Mexico, while others remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. Each portrait is accompanied by a QR code, which links to a website detailing their immigration stories.
The artists use this immigration situation to inspire change. There is a hope that they make a difference — or at least carry on the tradition of leaving evidence of the efforts to fight for one's rights.