On Saturday, Apr 9th, artist Ana Teresa Fernández led a three-pronged attack against the Mexico-US border wall, armed with nothing but blue paint. Alongside several other artists, activists and residents, she set about “erasing” three sections of the wall – in Mexicali, Baja California; Agua Prieta, Sonora, and; Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua – by painting them to match the sprawling sky above. When viewed from a distance, the painted sections created the illusion of holes in the fence – a powerful statement on the arbitrariness of where one place ends and another begins.
This isn’t the first time that the San Francisco-based artist has erased the border wall. Her series of installations titled Borrando la Frontera (Erasing the Border) began back in 2011, in Tijuana, Baja California. There, the wall separating Playas de Tijuana from San Diego’s Border Field State park is made of thick steel slats, 15 feet high, with enough space in between them to reach an arm through. Visually, it mimics jail bars. In practice, it divides like them, too. These characteristics were inspiring factors for Fernández, who had long wanted to do a piece directly on the border fence itself, after doing a series of performance pieces near the border wall in the water and sand. Ultimately, she decided to “bring down the sky back down” in the hopes of “reigniting people’s imagination, allowing [them] to see what that public space would look and feel like if jail bars didn’t run down the beach and separate the ocean.”
Borrando la Frontera at Playas is still up. From far away, the paint really does seem to dissolve the slats, making the landscape behind the painted section appear continuous with the foreground. It’s as if you could walk down the beach straight through the fence.
In 2015, Fernández painted another iteration of Borrando la Frontera, this time in Nogales, Sonora and in collaboration with residents and students. The project might have ended there, but as news of her work began to snowball, so did demand. Artists, border organizations and locals wanted to get involved, and to see the installation come to life at the border in Texas and Arizona – states that have, in recent years, enacted a series of harsh anti-immigration laws. From Arizona’s notorious SB1070, which inspired a flurry of copycat laws across the south; to the vigilante militias working at the border; to a presidential race that has seen Republican frontrunner Donald Trump build his campaign around threats to extend and raise the wall; the charged political environment around the border continues to intensify.
Against this context, Borrando la Frontera succeeds in opening our imaginations to another way of living with our neighbors. Which is exactly what drew so many people to clamor for another rendition and to be a part of it.
Saturday’s event came about organically, through word of mouth. As it took shape, Fernández thought to have the three groups paint the fence at the same time, in the manner of guerrilla warfare attacks. This third rendition of Borrando la Frontera was thoroughly collaborative: at each site, the leaders worked in partnership with various border organizations, schools and the local community. Participants from the Arizona-based Border/Arte collective were drawn to Fernández’s ability to dissolve the very thing that the border wall was built to enact: separation. A member of the group (who chose to remain anonymous), wanted to be involved because, “Borrando la Frontera reminds us that the border is a place of connected histories, cultural flows, creativity and possibility.” Another member noted that the project ends up “uniting us all [as we]…utilize the border wall as the canvas for our connection.”
At 9am, people of all ages from both the U.S. and Mexico gathered at the chosen sites and began painting. They were each led by an artist—Ana Teresa Fernández in Juárez; her mother, Maria Teresa Fernández in Mexicali, and; M. Jenea Sánchez in Agua Prieta. I watched as they coated the rust-red fence with layers of sky blue paint. It looked like quiet fun, not work, this subversive erasing of a wall that has divided communities and is militarized by others.
For a piece of art as common and simple as paint on a fence, the illusion – and the possibilities it represents – is powerful indeed.