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Border painting project empowers kids in Naco, Sonora, to redefine the wall

The wall at the U.S.-Mexico border has long been a source of controversy — for its political message, impacts on the environment and costs, among other things. But for a group of children in a small Sonoran town, it’s also become a canvas.

On a warm Saturday afternoon, three young painters help load a pickup with paint cans, ladders and folding tables outside of Studio Mariposa — a youth art center in Naco, Sonora that opened in 2017.

“We do anything that’s fun, colorful and that kids enjoy doing,” said studio director Gretchen Baer.

Every Tuesday afternoon, some 80 children in this small town gather for art classes at the vibrantly painted art center. And on Saturdays — they paint the border wall.

“We just have that little bit left on the far end that we haven’t done. And that’s a really important area, I think, because it’s the closest to the port of entry we’ve ever painted,” Baer said, gesturing to the section just east of the Naco port of entry.

The rest of the wall for as far as the eye can see has been covered with bright paint, glitter and mosaics.

“It’s empowering,” she said. “It’s empowering for anybody, but I think especially for the kids who live here on this side to take something that’s ugly and redefine it as something that could be beautiful.”

Walking along the half-mile of painted wall that extends to the eastern edge of town, she pointed out paintings of giant fruit, cheerful minions and an illusion that can be created using the bollards.

“You see a green apple and green eyes, right? And then you walk and suddenly, a red apple and blue eyes,” she said. “As rotten as the wall is in general — and the fact that you can see the barbed wire through it is horrifying — But the neat part about it is that you can have this — where you can paint one image on one side and the other the other way so that as you walk past it, it will change.”

Painting the wall

Baer lives in nearby Bisbee, but has been driving across the border to do art projects in Naco since 2010. Back then, her project was called the Border Bedazzlers.

At first it was a political statement, pushing back on negative stereotypes about the border region.

“It really wasn’t intended as a kids project,” she said. “But it immediately became one, because when kids see something fun — paint being splashed onto a big wall like this — they wanted to join in.”

They painted the wall for six years. Then in 2016, they learned that it would be torn down and replaced with this bollard-style wall — with 18-foot tall steel beams spaced about four inches apart.

Baer didn’t want to paint it.

Instead she turned her efforts to Studio Mariposa, offering weekly art classes that, over the years, have secured her place in the community. Baer and the kids at the art center have been asked to paint murals in town and even to decorate the official Naco letters.

Then, during the pandemic, the kids needed more fun outdoor projects, she said. So last year, they came back to the wall.

Art as activism

Today, about a dozen kids came out — some using large flat bristle brushes to put fine details on their designs, others painting wide stripes of purple, blue and yellow with long-handled rollers. As they paint, they tease each other and splatter paint on their faces and clothes.

“Painting relaxes me,” said 10-year-old Alexia Miranda. And painting the border wall is especially fun. She likes to see surprise on people’s faces when they visit from the U.S.

“The tourists from the United States come and say, ‘Wow! The wall is so beautiful,’” she said.

“On this side, it’s colorful, it’s really beautiful. And on the other side, well, ummm,” she hesitated. “It’s brown and rusted.”

Twelve-year-old Jose Granados puts it simply: “Over here it’s not as ugly.”

That’s because projects like this one aren’t allowed on the U.S. side of the border, where painting would be more difficult anyway because of barbed wirethat was strung up across large sections of the wall a few years ago.

“We are altering the borderscape. We are making it different,” said Élisabeth Vallet, a professor of geopolitics at the University of Quebec at Montreal studying border barriers around the world.

She’s visiting Naco today to help paint the wall — one of many projects at the U.S.-Mexico border and around the world that use art as a form of activism, she said.

“Border art is definitely an act of resistance,” she said.

For Debra Sierra, it’s also a show of unity.

“Our countries are sisters,” she said, gesturing toward a huge painting of North America with giant wings. “And Naco, Sonora and Naco, Arizona, are neighbors.”

Sierra has spent most of her life in a house just south of the border, facing what is now the wall. Her kids and grandkids live in that house, and she said this project is making their view a little nicer.

It’s something positive for local kids to do.

A lesson for life

As the day winds down, a few kids wash up paint brushes while others grab spray bottles and start a water fight, screaming and laughing as the sun begins to set.

It’s been a fun afternoon. But Baer believes there’s also a lesson here.

“Sometimes you can’t change a thing in life," she said. “For us, we’re not going to knock down this wall — as much as I’d love to! I don’t have that power. So since you can’t tear it down, you can turn it into art.”

“And in life, so many things are not something that we can control every bit about. So what’s the best way you can take it and make it positive?”

For her at least, the answer is art.

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Kendal Blust, an Arizona native, reports from KJZZ’s bureau in Hermosillo, Sonora, focusing on business and economic relationships between Arizona and northern Mexico.Prior to joining KJZZ, Kendal worked at the Nogales International, reporting on border and immigration issues, local government, education and business. While working on her master’s degree at University of Arizona School of Journalism, she did stints with the Arizona Daily Star and the Tico Times in Costa Rica, and completed a thesis project about women art activists in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands.In her pre-journalist life, Kendal was a teacher, first helping Spanish high school students learn English, then heading to Tucson to teach fourth grade.When she’s not in the newsroom, Kendal enjoys getting outside for a hike or a swim, catching a good movie, hanging out with family and friends, and eating great food.