First things first, says the American artist teaching Mexican kids to paint: This is not about saving the children or rescuing Mexico. It’s just about decorating a big, ugly wall.
To be fair, the wall’s bleak aesthetics are perhaps not the fault of the architect, who only had giant concrete blocks or sheets of corrugated metal to work with, and didn’t have much leeway in its design. Looks are beside the point when building a barrier separating Mexico and the United States.
But a few years ago artist Gretchen Baer decided to turn these blocks and sheets into massive canvasses, where she painted dozens of panels with fanciful images: a smiling sun, cactus, a stained-glass window pattern, a red cartoon heart inscribed with the words “Te Amo” — “I love you.”
With a few cans of mixed paints donated from a local church, she started working first on the U.S. side of the border in Bisbee, Ariz., in 2012, then began to take trips every few weeks into Naco, a small but vibrant city in northernmost Mexico that shares a border with an American burgh of the same name.
In the way these things often happen in a small town, first came a couple kids, interested in the foreign lady wearing big pink sunglasses. A few more joined them until Baer’s semi-monthly painting visits officially became a Thing To See. By this year, she and the children have painted an entire mile on the Mexican side of the wall.
Baer laughs when told she is like the Pied Piper of Naco, leading the children to defacing U.S. property.
“I don’t have a mothering bone in my body,” she says from behind those giant, pink sunglasses. It was her way to protest a closed border. “And the kids came along.”
The children of Naco painted panels of toy trucks, their own graffiti tags and the Eiffel Tower. Spectators came from across the world and added a few brushstrokes, sometimes an entire panel. TV news crews did interviews. Baer christened her small group the Border Bedazzlers.
Then, just before President Trump’s inauguration, Baer heard from the Border Patrol: The wall needed to come down. Its replacement would be taller and two layers. It would also be made of wire. It would be impossible to paint.
Then something extraordinary happened.
One day last month, Baer was muttering about the callousness of the U.S. border policy as she drove her 1989 Toyota to the crossing separating the Arizona and Mexican Nacos. Just then an unmarked SUV pulled up behind her, its blue and red lights flashing.
“Oh, what is this going to be?” Baer said, staring into her rear-view mirror.
Out of the SUV, decked cap to pant cuffs in olive green, walked Border Patrol Agent in Charge Michael G. Hyatt. Baer lowered her window. Hyatt closed in, ducked his head next to her and smiled.
“Hey, I’ve been looking for you!” he said with a grin. “I didn’t want to come by your job — you know, have them think the Border Patrol’s out here trying to find you!”
“Uhmr….” Baer managed.
“That wall you guys painted? Listen, it’s coming down,” Hyatt said.
“Oh, yeah. I heard about that,” Baer said, still trying to pull her identification from her wallet. Was this guy just trying to rub it in?
“So, we wanted to let you all keep a couple pieces of it. Is that OK? We’re moving it out soon, and we could move it somewhere,” Hyatt said.
It was not what she was expecting. She thanked Hyatt and drove on.(And, no, he didn’t ask to see her ID.)
Baer says that her experience with the Border Patrol and customs agents is usually, at best, muted derision. Sometimes she experiences outright hostility, and sometimes, she concedes, she can be a little hostile back.
But here was the Border Patrol extending an olive branch. She didn’t know what to think.
One month later, she still doesn’t. The wall still stands, unmoved, though the Border Patrol says plans are still in place to begin work — it does not yet have a beginning date.
On the Naco, Sonora, side of the border, painting the wall has been a way to teach children that though the U.S.-Mexico border may appear intimidating at first, manned as it is on both sides by men and women in fatigues and long guns, the two countries have no reason to fear each other, said Maria de la Borques, who helps operate a small art museum in Naco, Sonora.
“I hope people keep it going,” De la Borques said. “In Bisbee and Naco [Ariz.], and in our Naco, art helps us speak even though we do not speak the same language.”
Hyatt told Baer that his men would help move one or two panels of the painted wall and asked her where she might want them. Baer has been eyeing an abandoned kitchen that once served migrant workers on the Mexican side of the border as a potential landing spot and gallery for the artwork.
“Even if it’s just [a fence made of] wire next year, then people will still see that the art stands,” Baer said. “It will be facing north, though, this time right at the U.S.”
Follow Nigel Duara on Twitter: @nigelduara