LOS ANGELES — “If a color cannot cure, can it at least incite hope?” writer Maggie Nelson asks in Bluets, a series of prose poems about the color blue. For residents of the border town of Nogales, Mexico, blue has become a promising signal of open skies and porous borders. On October 13, artist Ana Teresa Fernández led a group of volunteers equipped with paint rollers and brushes to “erase” the border fence dividing the US and Mexico.
Students and community members from neighboring Arizona, as well as locals on the Mexican side, helped paint a 50-foot stretch of the almost 2,000-mile border fence on the southern side with a shade of blue closely matching the sky. Volunteers spent six hours covering every inch of the fence, propping up ladders to reach its height of 25 feet.
This event came on the heels of another installation that took place near Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Mexico, where artists and community members released large balloons along the border. Ana Teresa Fernández witnessed the installation in Agua Prieta, taking part in a panel with the organizers before heading to Nogales for “Erasing the Border,” the title of her series of border fence erasures.
“The border represents the physical wound of two countries not being able to heal,” Fernández told Hyperallergic in an email. “As immigration becomes more and more of an apparent reality with deeper problems, and intimate stories of despair and frustration get revealed, the general public is more open to listen and talk about it. And art is doing just this, opening a platform to address these issues in new ways, being open, honest, but also imaginative.”
The artist herself once crossed the border with her family, having been born in Tampico, Mexico, and now living in San Francisco. While a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, Fernández worked weekends at restaurants where she spoke with co-workers about their migration experiences. Conversations with her mother, who had an interest in documenting the border through photography, also inspired her to begin the first iteration of “Erasing the Border,” which took place in 2011 at a beach bordering Tijuana and San Diego.
Unlike the 2011 event, in which the artist was almost arrested, the installation in Nogales occurred with broad support from the community, bringing together around 30 volunteers and even inspiring a border patrol agent to participate.
“In Tijuana, the first time, I was almost arrested, just having started painting because I was doing it by myself,” Fernández said. “I explained calmly to the Mexican agent that I was only bringing the sky down and erasing the fence. I could see them squinting their eyes to try and imagine it. I saw one of the agents let out a small smile of having an epiphany. He let me continue and finish.”
The response from the Mexican side of the border fence may differ markedly from the US side. While many Mexicans live alongside the border, sometimes using the fence as a fourth wall for their homes, most Americans only experience the fence from a distance. The US Border Patrol also restricts the public from walking up to the fence.
“I think had I done it in the US side in Nogales, vigilantes would have physically stopped me,” Fernández said. “Every institution I attended or gave a talk at [received calls saying] I was a Mexican Al-Qaeda and terrorist.”
For those participating in and witnessing “Erasing the Border,” the blue-painted fence represents not just a new view, but a way of reflecting on the experience of the border and connecting with others whose lives are impacted by the fence.
“It’s very sad watching families hold hands through here, that’s as far as they go, they can’t even really hug,” Mary Ochoa, a resident of Nogales, Arizona, told ASU Now.
The participation of young and old, both US and Mexican, has encouraged the artist to expand the series for other communities along the border. She hopes to paint a section of the border fence in Texas in the near future, where blue can once again serve as a portal to imagining a borderless society.