As Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign nears, and the “Build the Wall” rhetoric echoed by his supporters begins anew, a viral Instagram video of children playing on a seesaw positioned between the U.S./Mexico border sent a strong message in favor of connection and unification.
The project was designed by professors Ronald Rael, who teaches architecture, and Virginia San Fratello, who teaches interior design, cofounders of the Oakland, California-based studio Rael San Fratello. The installation is part of the Teetertotter Wall, which originated from a 2009 project called WPA 2.0 that called for designers to reimagine infrastructure and public works projects — a throwback to the 1930s-era Works Progress Administration that employed artists during the Depression. This project began about ten years ago, shortly after Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, which funded the construction of hundreds of miles of fencing along the Mexican border. It was then that Rael and Fratello became interested in the implications of the wall, and the impact it might yield for people on both sides of the border.
The idea for the installation stemmed from the initial question: “What kinds of consequences take place when we separate people, both now and later?” Rael tells Rolling Stone. As an example, he cited an instance in which a border wall separating Nogales, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona acted as a dam following a heavy rainfall, causing nearly six feet of water to build up and leading to millions of dollars of property damage and the drowning deaths of two people. The fact that the teeter-totter is built on the principle of equilibrium — one person goes up, causing the other to go down — made it the ideal vehicle to communicate the message that “the actions on one side [have] direct consequences on the other,” says Rael.
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@rrael & @vasfsf designed this “Teeter-Totter Wall” for the book "Borderwall as Architecture," which uses "humor and inventiveness to address the futility of building barriers.” This week the wall “became a literal fulcrum for U.S -Mexico relations and children and adults were connected in meaningful ways on both sides with the recognition that the actions that take place on one side have a direct consequence on the other side.” (via @cnn) #noborders #nowalls #weareallimmigrants
Rael and San Fratello crafted conceptual drawings of the project, which was one of many included in their 2017 book, Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary. While Rael said that they had been trying to turn it into a reality for some time, they increased their efforts in 2018, when the Trump administration enacted its brutal family separation policy. “We wondered if we could use this as a vehicle to connect people across the border and draw attention to the issue of child separation,” he explains.
Over the course of a month or so, Mexican metal artisans worked with Rael, San Fratello, and members of artists’ collective Colectivo Chopeke to build the seesaws. They wanted to be able to fit them easily through the wall, while positioning them in a place where people could engage with them easily. They decided to build them on the border between Sunland Park, New Mexico, and Ciudad Juárez. They painted the seesaws pink, in part because pink is the color used to commemorate the violent murders of women in Juarez, Mexico — where thousands of women have been killed since 1993 — but also because of the jarring effect of seeing the bright neon hue against the drab metal fences.
“The borderlands are a world of contrast,” says Rael. “The approach to our work is one that recognizes there is horror and humor at the border: There is the horror of xenophobia and immigration policy, and humor is our way of overcoming hardship in many ways. The project itself recognizes those contracts: there is horror and there is joy. That is embedded within its very design.”
When it came time to install the “Teetertotter” at the border last Sunday, Rael says he was extremely nervous: He didn’t know whether the Mexican soldiers stationed at the border or U.S. border patrol officers would take umbrage to the project, or prevent them from installing it. He was pleasantly surprised, however, when the officers and soldiers who asked him about the project didn’t object to it at all. Instead, they smiled and watched as children and adults on both sides of the border played, taking turns on the seesaws for half an hour. “Everyone was so happy. It was such a beautiful thing,” he says. The only objection that arose was from a young boy on the seesaw: When it was time to go, “he didn’t want to get off,” Rael recalls, chuckling.
Since he initially posted his Instagram video of the seesaw, Rael says he’s gotten almost uniformly positive feedback. He’s seen very little negative commentary from border control hawks on the far right, which he says doesn’t surprise him. “There is a fundamental meanness around the concept of a wall and it is very mean to want to keep children from playing,” he says. “I do wonder if that’s why [we’ve gotten very little criticism for the project.]”
In light of the Supreme Court recently giving Trump the green light to expand border walls, which may cost an estimated $2.5 billion, Rael is hopeful his project will draw public attention not just to policy debates, but to the actual lives of those who live and work on the borders. “There are communities there: grandmothers, children, mothers, fathers,” he says. “What’s so important to me, and what I feel is missing from the conversation, is the recognition of the humanity that exists along the border, and an approach to thinking about immigration from a humanistic perspective. I have seen people who have been locked up and separated and I can only imagine what it would be like to have your child forcibly separated and not knowing if you would see your child again, or if your child will ever see you again. I hope people glean [from the project] the importance of keeping families together, of keeping that joy and happiness together.”