Border Wall Trumped by Art and Community

As the U.S. debates the wall, two sister cities divided by the border work to preserve and perpetuate a shared identity.
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Separated by a wall, the border towns of Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta in the Mexican state of Sonora use art and culture to transcend the divide between them. 

Photo from Binational Arts Institute

A towering 20-foot wall of rusted metal panels runs alongside Calle Internacional in the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta. Approaching the Douglas, Arizona, port of entry, the barrier is splashed in color, covered in vibrant murals: flowers and cacti forming the chambers and arteries of a heart; and a lone seed appearing to sprout in hopeful hands when viewed from different angles.

This wall, separating the sister cities of Douglas (16,165 residents) and Agua Prieta (80,000 residents), is part of the 262-mile Tucson Sector, one of the busiest and most heavily staffed segments of the U.S.–Mexico border. It’s also where residents of two border towns have found common ground, using art as a tool to penetrate the wall separating them.

As the U.S. remains gripped in debate over the wall Donald Trump wants to build along the border, cross-border community groups, long-time residents, and their governments work to preserve and perpetuate a shared identity that transcends an existing physical and political barrier between them.

Residents of the cities have played chess through slats in the fence. They’ve held art walks and binational residences and, with help from U.S. Border Patrol officers, hosted cross-border concerts. A few years ago they hosted a live art installation stretching across the desert between them as a way of symbolically stitching their countries together.

Children create art during a binational festival celebrating the border towns of Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta in the Mexican state of Sonora. Photo by Ammi Robles.

Although Douglas has had a staffed port of entry since 1924, the federal government’s shifting national security priorities over the years have changed how, and to what extent, the border is enforced. In recent decades, residents saw the replacement of barbed wire and chain-link fencing with the current mix of far burlier structures—from the 20-foot wall between Douglas and Agua Prieta to shorter versions designed to keep vehicles from crossing harsher, more remote sections of desert.

But conversation these days is less about whether the wall should have been erected in the first place and more about how to dispel stereotypes and stay connected despite its presence.

“Besides the political aspect of this, we are a quiet community trying to grow and have the best for both sides, not just for one,” said Joel Camacho, an artist and technology specialist with the city of Douglas.

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The Mexican Consulate first started the border wall mural project, Dreams Across Borders, on the Agua Prieta side of the fence in 2015 as a way to beautify an ugly divider and change how it was perceived among Agua Prieta residents. Security measures generally prohibit people from approaching the wall on the U.S. side.

The cities themselves have since become major champions of cross-border connection, bringing in artists each year from Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora to continue softening the divide.

Douglas’ Wall of Faces, a commemorative storytelling project honoring that city’s Vietnam War veterans, reveals just how deep its connection with Agua Prieta runs. When Douglas resident and project volunteer Ginny Jordan began gathering people’s photos and stories, she found that some of the veterans had been born in Agua Prieta, while others opted to live south of the border following their service.

Mural by artist Joel Camacho. Photo from Joel Camacho.

Roughly 10,000 people cross between the two cities each day, both on foot and by car. Some of that traffic is trade-related, but much of it involves folks going about their everyday lives.

Camacho, the artist, is one of them. Like many who live in these towns, he has dual citizenship, having grown up and essentially living on both sides of the border. He finished much of his schooling in Mexico but currently works for the city of Douglas. As a U.S. citizen, he passes painlessly and frequently back and forth for family functions, grocery shopping, or to go to the movies.

While this binational way of life is the norm for many, movement is dictated largely by economic and political privilege. U.S. citizens can cross easily in both directions, often just on their word that they are U.S. citizens. But Mexican citizens need both passports and visitors’ visas to enter the U.S. In a powerful acknowledgement of his own status, Camacho painted El Tributo—a mural depicting Día de los Muertos folk art—on the Agua Prieta side as homage to Mexicans who lost their lives trying to cross the border into the U.S.

“For me, it’s important [to have allies on both sides] because we’re able to highlight our community in a positive light.”

In May, artists will begin adding new murals to the wall. Because of access restrictions on the U.S. side, they’ll again only be painting in Agua Prieta. But that’s not all bad, said Camacho, who views the art is a first step in breaking down fears and stereotypes people hold about Mexico in general and border towns in particular.

“The main goal is to have a different perspective about the wall, like it’s not there, like we don’t have a wall in between us,” he explained. “You can come [to Agua Prieta] to see the art, then you can see the rest.”

M. Jenea Sanchez, a Douglas resident and artist, cofounded the Border Arts Corridor, a nonprofit that hosts binational arts residencies and coordinates art walks and other creative cross-border collaborations. She sees art as a way for residents from both sides of the wall to shape the narrative about their homes together.

Residents of the border towns speak to each other through the slats in a separating wall during a binational festival.  Photo by Ammi Robles.

“For me, it’s important [to have allies on both sides] because we’re able to highlight our community in a positive light … We have this binational life, so we can show how collaborations can be so fruitful,” Sanchez said.

She has made that mission central to her organization’s work. In 2015, BAC hosted Postcommodity’s live art installation, Repellent Fence. Reaching across the U.S.–Mexico border to symbolically “stitch the peoples of the Americas together,” 26 balloons, each 10 feet in diameter, were tethered at intervals and floated 100 feet above a 2-mile stretch of desert. Currently, Sanchez is teaming up with other artists for a binational dance, theater, and digital arts project next year, commissioned by the Arizona Commission On the Arts’ AZ ArtWorker Program.

And this summer, the communities’ longest running binational performance—Concert Without Borders—will expand its original idea of working across the divide. It was started in 2011 by Cochise College music instructor Lori Keyne and her partners with a simple goal: to have musicians from Mexico and the U.S. perform together.

Dancers perform during a binational festival celebrating residents of the border towns. Photo by Ammi Robles.

For their first concert, musicians, business owners, and independent groups from both sides of the border were involved and the event was held along the border fence about a mile from the Douglas Port of Entry, beside a monument to a youth who had been killed there.

“We just played music to each other across the wall,” said Keyne, who had launched the project as part of her Fulbright Border Scholar Award.

The partnership grew over the years to include the city of Douglas and the Mexican Consulate. They collaborated with U.S. Border Patrol, whose officers help run electric lines to stages on the U.S. side and provide the necessary permissions for individuals to approach the wall to dance, listen to music, and participate in a chess game played through the slats.

The binational festival included poetry, music, and dance on both sides of the border. Photo by Ammi Robles.

With stages built on each side of the wall—and visible through it—the concert uses sound and sight to penetrate the barriers.

This year, Keyne said, the performances will be even more collaborative. Several bands and singer-songwriters from both sides have already agreed to partner across the border to build musical arrangements and prepare simultaneous performances.

Between acts, they’ll show pre-filmed interviews about life along the border and what it’s like to move from one side to the other. Camacho is already in talks with the Mexican Consulate about creating a painting to span both sides of the wall. “It would be hands shaking, like ‘We are together …’” he says. “Just to show this community we are one.”