Ana Teresa Fernández Erases the U.S.-Mexico Border
The far northwest corner of Mexico is a bit peculiar. It is both a place of militarization and optimism. The most prominent feature—the Pacific Ocean—is punctured by the second most prominent feature—the U.S.–Mexico border fence, which extends several meters into the sea. At the Playas de Tijuana, the fence is a bit crude, but just a mile or two from there it turns into a more ominous concrete fortress with floodlights and barbed wire. But even at the seemingly penetrable western edge, when I visited the site, I felt like I was probably at one of the most heavily surveilled places on earth. Surely there were men and women north of the border watching our every move and possibly listening to our conversations. The Orwellian-named Friendship Park on the U.S. side has historically been a meeting place for families separated by the border who could link fingers through holes in the fence and spend days together. Recent construction of an additional fence, however, has severely restricted access to even this token of humanity.
But even amongst this dystopian environment there is a tenderness to the Playas. A plaque in the shadow of the fence proudly declares this site as the northernmost point of a nuclear-free Latin America, as stipulated by the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco. Like the Berlin Wall before it, much of the southern face of the border fence has been turned into a canvas for murals. These pictures and words document defiance, melancholy, and promises for a more just future.
At the water’s edge the fence is actually a series of iron bars sunk into the sand. A child could slip between them if not for a chain-link fence on the northern side. In 2011, San Francisco–based, Tampico-born artist Ana Teresa Fernández used this fractured stretch of the border as her own canvas for a work called Borrando la Frontera (Erasing the Border). Matching paint with the usually blue California sky, she and volunteers painted a thirty-foot stretch of the fence so that it appears to disappear. In December 2016, Fernández repainted the fence and extended the “hole” to about seventy feet. Her color of choice was Behr’s #P500-2: Seashore Dreams.
Fernández has executed similar projects on border fences in Mexicali, Nogales, Agua Prieta, and Ciudad Juarez. But the optical illusion seems to be strongest in Tijuana. The fence is solid at some of the other sites, and while it is fragmented at others, the meeting of the sea, sky, and paint create a remarkable image in Tijuana. From certain angles and at certain distances there truly appears to be a hole in the fence. In a future where the fence is taken down, this might be what the first day a demolition looks like.
A wooden boardwalk runs perpendicular to the fence. Looking south, you could be in almost any beach town in California, Baja or Alta. Cafes and pizza shops look out onto the ocean. One restaurant is shaped like a pirate ship. Children cartwheel in the sand, and almost everyone else walks a dog. The best word I can think of to describe the scene is “normal.” As someone originally from a Southern California beach town, it was all just so normal to me. I almost felt at home. But when I looked north I was confronted by the very stark reality that I was not at home. The black curtain cutting across the horizon is a symbol of the difference between myself and the dog walkers and cartwheelers.
I am afforded the privilege to come and go as I please, look at art, enjoy an espresso, have a nice lunch, and return to my family’s house in the north by dinnertime. This hospitality by the Mexican government is not reciprocated. Mexicans intending to spend an afternoon in San Diego need to apply for an expensive and difficult to attain visa. They must convince U.S. authorities that their lives in Mexico have value, furnishing bank statements, paystubs, and diplomas.
Borrando la Frontera offers a reprieve, if only conceptual and poetic, from the bureaucracy and armed border agents that separate families and complicate livelihoods. You can look through the border and see a clear path to downtown San Diego. For those that frequent border regions, the fence may become a familiar part of the landscape. Major roads and highways run alongside it in Tijuana, El Paso, and Ciudad Juarez. Downtown Calexico, California, dead ends at the fence. Borrando la Frontera is a simple but abrupt challenge to any acquired normalcy. The erasure begs the question, “What if this were all gone?”
As someone from the north of the border, I can only interpret this work from a very limited perspective. The Playas are not near the neighborhoods most trafficked by tourists from the U.S., and I suspect the majority of viewers of Borrando la Frontera are Mexicans. It was the day after Christmas when I visited and there were small crowds engaging with the work. The fence, and especially the segment painted blue, were a sort of attraction. Families on the beach were taking pictures; several young men climbed the fence to pose for photos amidst the cheers and laughs of their friends. These activities are kind of mundane, but given what the fence represents—confinement, human smuggling, dehumanization—these acts of play or just plain attention are acts of defiance. For those from both sides of the border that dream of a future without the fence, Borrando la Frontera is a constant reminder of that future, its possibility, and its promise.