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The stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border that disappears every day

Donald Trump has vowed to build a wall along the border, but an artist is erasing the existing fence with paint
9 Jun 2016 – 06:04 PM EDT
Maclovio Fierro, graffiti artist and community activist, collaborated with artist Ana Teresa Fernández in Ciudad Juárez. The minimalist work creates an optical illusion that makes the border fence disappear. Crédito: Estephani Cano

by Estephani Cano

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – Along miles and miles of desert sand, a giant fence of rusted metal splits the land in two. Mexico is on the south side, the United States on the north.

But there is a spot between Ciudad Juarez and New Mexico where the southern face of the long fence that separates the two countries disappears when the sun rises.

It is the performance art work Borrando la Frontera (which means Erasing the Border in Spanish) by the Mexican artist Ana Teresa Fernández, who used gallons of “perfect sky blue paint” to create the illusion of invisibility.

She created the work to “erase the border from the minds of Mexicans, even if for just a few seconds,” Fernández told Univision News. The brighter the day, the more the fence seems to disappear into the landscape.

Cargando galería

The controversial border fence, made of rusted metal sheets, thick bars and wire, has taken on a special significance during the current U.S. electoral campaigns.

Ted Cruz, a former Republican party presidential hopeful, promised to replace it with an even longer barrier that would run the entire length of the southern U.S. border.

The presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, goes much further with his promise to build a “beautiful and strong wall” along the border and force Mexico to pay for it. That's one of the battle cries of his supporters, who chant “Build the wall! Build the wall!” at nearly all his public appearances.

“It's terrifying to think of a President Trump, but if it happens, if he builds such a wall, I would make it disappear again with paint,” said Fernández.

It's not the first time the artist, raised in Tampico, Mexico, and San Diego, California, has used her brushes and paint rollers to erase the border.

She started in 2011 on the Mexican side of the fence that separates the beaches of Tijuana and Border Field State Park in California. She did it again in 2015, along with a group of artists and community activists and members in Nogales, on the border with Arizona.

This year, motivated in part by the intensifying anti-immigrant rhetoric from some of the presidential campaigns, Fernández said she wanted to use “war tactics” by attacking the border along three fronts.

While she “painted the sky” on a stretch of the border fence between Ciudad Juárez and New Mexico, another group was painting a spot between Agua Prieta and Arizona, and a third was working on the Mexicali side of the border with California.

The event was streamed live to several cities, including Boston, New York, Vienna, Mexico City, Tijuana, Phoenix and San Francisco.

"Terrorist paint rollers"

Since the beginning of its construction in 2006, the 580-mile fence along several sections of the border has sparked powerful controversies.

Supporters say it helps to contain the number of undocumented migrants, including drug traffickers and possible terrorists. Critics, like Fernández, say it's “an ineffective deterrent” that divides the two societies and helped only to reinforce “the humanitarian crisis of Mexican families.”

“The fence has a very powerful psychological impact on our culture,” she added. “It represents the tragedy of the thousands of people who have died trying to cross it… of those who left their families to look for better opportunities or to escape violence or even death… It's like a wall of tears.”

More than 6,000 died along the border from 1998 to 2014, or about 6 percent of all the migrant deaths reported around the world, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Fernández wanted to erase those memories with her minimalist painting along a 20-meter stretch of the 6-meter-high fence, on a sandy slope that makes access difficult and is just in front of a marker from the International Boundary and Water Commission that reads "Boundary of the Republic of Mexico."

“My first reaction every time I saw such an aggressive symbol was to hit it, to destroy it,” the artist said. “But I wanted to offer a more peaceful message, one that would be more like a political whisper and draw attention to this space burdened by violence and pain.”

Fernández said some conservatives have denounced her work as that of a “terrorist” and even reported her to police and called her “the Al Qaeda of the border.”

“There are people who organize the so-called militias and come with weapons to the border to chase immigrants. My only weapons are my paint and my imagination. And they call me a terrorist. That gives you an idea of the fear created when they are shown a different reality,” Fernández added.

Others see her work as a call to freedom.

“The message was very subtle but at the same time very powerful, even loud in a different sense,” said graffiti artist Maclovio Rodolfo Fierro Macías, one of her helpers in the Ciudad Juárez project. “Ana did not need to use one single word to shout what she wanted to say: Freedom!”

For another of her helpers, Julia Calderas, who lives in the border neighborhood of Anapras, Fernández's project was like a “therapeutic process” after the kidnapping and murder of her daughter Maria Elena 11 years ago – one of the hundreds of victims of a wave of murders of women affecting Ciudad Juárez.

“It gives you something like hope of seeing something positive, Calderas said, “that such a sad fence is no longer there.”