A man named Enrique was packing up his hot dog cart on Calle Internacional in Nogales, Sonora, late one recent hot afternoon.
Asked his opinion of the new border wall across the street, he looked up appraisingly at the 18-foot steel posts looming above him.
"It's más beautiful," he said, speaking in the Spanglish of the borderlands. Prettier than the old wall.
Not everyone agreed. At the bus stop down the street, an older man shrugged. The two walls were "igual." he said. Equally ugly.
The old landing-mat wall, covered with graffiti and grassroots murals, has been coming down for months, removed piece by piece by Granite Construction, a firm contracted by the Border Patrol. The graffiti has vanished along with the wall, but some of the wall's best-known artworks have been rescued.
The acclaimed Paseo de Humanidad, a cavalcade of painted metal figures, was moved last year, much of it to a gallery in Tubac. A painted mural of Chiapas was rescued just last week, after a last-minute campaign by supporters, and returned to artist Guadalupe Serrano.
The corrugated panels are rapidly being replaced by the towering new poles, which rise as high as 30 feet in some places, says Steve Passement, a Border Patrol supervising agent. The massive poles, 6 inches square and filled with concrete, descend 6 feet down into the earth. The $11.6 million project should be finished sometime in July, and when it's done will slice through 2.77 miles of Ambos Nogales.
The beauty of the new wall, from the Border Patrol perspective, is that it's see-through. The heavy posts are separated by four inches of open air, too small for a body to slip through, but big enough for la migra to look south into Mexico.
"Our agents need to be aware of what's on the other side," Passement said. "There's always the chance of being rocked"—hit by rocks thrown from the other side. "The new (wall) definitely gives agents an awareness."
But the open spaces cue in potential wall-crossers as well. As Enrique closed up his cart and prepared to head home, three likely migrants ambled down the street, equipped with telltale border-crosser backpacks. They could see right through the new posts to a Border Patrol agent stationed on the other side. They laughed when they saw him pacing just yards from the barricade they intended to cross, then turned and walked off in another direction.
The old wall was flimsier—coyotes routinely used torches to blast holes in its thin metal skin—but it was opaque. Neither crossers nor agents could see their opponents on the other side.
A rough patchwork of used helicopter-landing pads, it was hastily cobbled together in the 1990s when immigration was beginning to surge into Arizona. The Army had discarded the flats after using them in the Persian Gulf and in the jungles of Vietnam, and was only too happy to turn them over to the Border Patrol free of charge.
Rising up 12 to 15 feet—miniature compared to the new wall—the landing-mat fence was colored the purples and rusts of a bruise. It was unapologetically ugly, and its battle history provided an uncomfortable metaphor for an international border between two nations at peace.
But it had at least one aesthetic virtue: It was flat, and it was big, a perfect canvas for grassroots art of all kinds.
Naturally, there was plenty of graffiti, mostly consisting of angry rants against the United States. As of last week, one bit still survived, on a section of the old wall still up east of the DeConcini Port of Entry. Painted in white against red, it read: Mundo sin fronteras ya basta, which loosely translates as: "A world without borders. Enough walls already."
On the west side of the port, where much of the old wall has already been replaced, white crosses memorialized the deaths of migrants. (Coalición de Derechos Humanos counts 2,192 known deaths in Southern Arizona in the last 11 years.) Once nailed to the landing flats, the crosses are gone now.
Paseo de Humanidad was west of the crosses. An international project completed in 2004, the aluminum artwork was a collaboration between Serrano; the late Alberto Morackis of Taller Yonke in Nogales, Sonora; and Alfred Quiroz, artist and art professor in Tucson.
The Mexican team constructed colored figures of migrants and migra in the Arizona desert, offering warnings to would-be border-crossers of the dangers ahead. Quiroz added milagros, heads and hearts that were like prayers in aluminum. (See "Artistic Warning," May 13, 2004.)
Paseo was taken to safety long before the arrival of the demo crew the week of June 6. Since last November, the Serrano-Morackis portions have been on view in the sculpture garden at K. Newby Gallery in Tubac. Serrano said last week he's hoping to take it down by Wednesday, June 22, and store it in Rio Rico pending its next exhibition.
"I got an invitation to exhibit it at the UA in November, but it's not definite yet," Serrano wrote in Spanish in an e-mail. Quiroz's milagros are back in Tucson with their maker, he added.
The Chiapas mural had a much narrower escape. Its fate was still in doubt as late as early last week, when the wrecking machines were scheduled to knock down the portions of the old wall clinging to a steep hill along Calle Internacional.
A community group, led by Serrano and Morackis, had painted the mural directly onto the border wall in 2005, Serrano said. Officially called "Vida y sueños de la cañada perla¨ ("Life and Dreams of the Pearl Stream") and nicknamed the "Mural de Taniperla," it depicted indigenous people living an idyllic traditional life in the mountains of Chiapas. It was a copy of a 1998 work painted by Sergio Valdez and numerous Tzeltal Indians in embattled Chiapas, where the Zapatistas were in a standoff with the Mexican army. The army invaded the town and destroyed the original, Serrano said, and Valdez was jailed for six months.
To show their support for the people of Chiapas, artists around the world painted identical murals on their own hometown walls. The Nogales version was a community project, painted by people on both sides of the border, Serrano said.
Last week, a last-minute campaign by Serrano; Dan Millis, of the Sierra Club's Borderlands Campaign; Congressman Raúl Grijalva; Susannah Castro, of the Tubac Center for the Arts; Bob Phillips, of the Santa Cruz Community Foundation; and his counterpart in Nogales, Sonora, Alma Cota de Yanez, of Fundación del Empresariado Sonorense (FESAC), won the mural a reprieve.
"The Border Patrol was cooperative," Phillips said.
The Border Patrol "reached out to Granite," Border Patrol spokesman Steve Adkison said, and gave the construction company instructions to take down the panels carefully and turn them over to the artists. Early on June 16, the mural's 30 panels were gently felled. The pieces were hauled to Serrano's studio, where they are being held in safekeeping until a new location can be found.
It's unclear whether the new wall can accommodate art. Now that the agency has a clear view through the barrier, Agent Passement said, "We won't permit anyone to block it or hang things on it."
Crosses and metal sculptures might be out, but it's not hard to imagine artists painting the 6-inch wide posts, trailing designs across the openings.
In any case, enterprising families have already found a way to take advantage of the see-through new wall. A few days before Father's Day, several families were having a cross-border visit in a quiet district east of the port of entry. The mothers and children were on the Mexican side of the wall, and the dads were on the American.
One little girl had dressed up in pink to see her father. She sat by her mother, her legs dangling into the ditch created by the new wall. Her parents leaned into the poles, and her father listened intently as her mother spoke.
A few feet away, a little boy of about 5 or 6 had brought along a school paper—a drawing, perhaps?—to give to his father. The child was too small to push the paper into the United States, so his father thrust his own hand between the bars, and reached toward his child in Mexico.