Thick, rusty-brown steel plates loom 20-feet high over Ambos Nogales, signaling the physical and symbolic delineation between the United States and Mexico.
Ana Teresa Fernández wants to change that.
In October, she took to the streets with her tools of resistance, paint and a paint brush, to “erase the border” in Ambos Nogales. She chose a pale blue to give the impression that the wall is an extension of the sky.
In 2012, Fernández, a bi-national artist based in San Francisco, painted the border fence in Tijuana, Mexico, the colors of the sand and sea that could be seen through the tall posts.
Her art in Nogales and Tijuana has gained national attention as part of a larger movement of art and activism along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border that is re-imagining what the border looks like and symbolizes for people along either side.
“I don’t use text. I don’t use slogans. All I use is my imagination and paint,” Fernández says. “I used these two things to dream of a space that would allow us to coexist side by side without hate, without violence, without oppression.”
Fernández painted this 30-foot segment of the border in Nogales as part of a weeklong border art program sponsored by Arizona State University’s Performance in the Borderlands initiative. Unlike her mural in Tijuana, Fernández invited others to join her in painting the border in Nogales.
Artists, activists, students, family members and passers-by from both the U.S. and Mexico picked up paintbrushes and added to the mural.
“People came from all over Arizona to help,” Fernández said. “But more importantly, there were people that lived on that block.”
One painter, Luis Antonio Esguerra López, was deported after living in the United States for 20 years, since he was a young child. The border now separates him from his 16-year-old daughter. He’s glad to see the wall beautified and bringing people together.
“As I was starting to work, there was an officer that came over here and started to paint too,” he says.
Fernández took notice. Seeing a deported migrant working alongside a Border Patrol agent was one of the most rewarding moments for her. “I never would have imagined that for a million years,” she says.
Yet, this kind of connection is exactly the point of the project.
Art on the border brings awareness to what is happening on the border, says Luis Diego Taddei, a visual artist from Nogales, Sonora. He has seen many artists from both sides doing this kind of work.
“It’s important because it shows that an interest is growing along the border to bring this issue to the attention of people from both countries,” he says. “I hope there will be greater openness.”
Art is a thread that brings people together, says Susannah Castro from the Border Community Alliance (BCA). “It’s powerful to communicate in that way.” She hopes this spotlight on Fernández will draw attention to other artists who have been using the wall as canvas.
“Really, the big story is that this is happening all over,” Castro says.
Artists from both the U.S. and Mexico have created murals and art installations on the border, but they don’t always get much attention, she said.
Castro also points out that border art is being created almost exclusively on the Mexico side of the wall. They can’t do this kind of project on the U.S. side.
“It’s militarized,” she said. “They don’t want you touching it.”
The Border Community Alliance partners with FESAC (Fundación de Empresariado Sonorense) in Nogales, Sonora, where artists like Guadalupe Serrano have been creating community artwork for years. One of the main goals is to change people’s perceptions of the space.
“The border is known for the wrong reasons all over the world,” says Alma Cota de Yanez, the executive director at FESAC. The border separates people, but art can connect them, she says. “Art at different stages of history has become a bridge.”
FESAC is working to bring artists from the both the U.S. and Mexico to add to Fernández’s mural, connecting other sections of the border with paintings of papel picado, or pierced paper, a traditional Mexican art form used in national and cultural celebrations such as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. She hopes projects like this will inspire people to cross the border and see what they are doing.
“We really want the world to know the great stuff that happens on the border,” Cota de Yanez says.
Activists like Nancy Bennett and Steve Teichner of the Green Valley Samaritans are also anxious to see changes on the border.
“When I heard about this I thought, what a wonderful project,” says Bennett. “I won’t live to see the day this wall isn’t here, but the acknowledgement of the offensiveness of the wall I think needs to be brought to people’s attention.”
Not everyone enjoyed the Erasing the Border mural, however. Fernández has received angry letters threatening her or calling her a terrorist for trying to change the border. Others just don’t think it is really art.
Some people expected a mural, not just a blue wall, says Castro. But she thinks the message is still clear: there is something wrong with the border wall as it exists today.
“I like the fact that it will make more people aware of how offensive the wall is and how much it interferes with normal relationships between the two communities,” Bennett says.
“And of course, painting it with the sky softens it so much. It at least gives the illusion that it’s not the formidable barrier that it is.”