Two artists built a ‘protest seesaw’ across the U.S.-Mexico border. Video of kids playing on it went viral.

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It is not a sound normally associated with the border, particularly in its latest role as a national symbol of incalculable political charge.

But there it was, unmistakable as the pink seesaws that prompted it: laughter.

Two architects in the San Francisco Bay Area are responsible for the installation over the weekend of the three seesaws that briefly graced a small stretch of the nearly 2,000-mile swath of land where the United States abuts Mexico. Videos of the seesaw have drawn millions of views after it was posted on Twitter by Mexican actor Mauricio Martinez.

The project draws power from its simplicity, the way it presented a vision of another reality at the border that contrasts with the one created by the heated immigration debate.


A mother and her baby play on a seesaw installed across the steel fence that divides Mexico from the United States in Ciudad de Juarez, Mexico, on Sunday, July 28, 2019. The seesaw was designed by Ronaldo Rael, a professor of architecture in California. (Christian Chavez)

Hence, the laughter.

But commentators on social media said they saw darker undertones in the installation, with some saying they felt it was a Pollyanna message about equality and unity, or a dystopian portrait of a security-obsessed future.

“There are so many horrible things about this installation, from adding to that violent colonial wall that is desecrating Indigenous land & separating families, to the see-saw implying equal power relations, to human relations being mediated by the settler states of USA and Mexico,” one wrote on Twitter.

Republican officials like President Trump have sought to paint the border as a lawless place, overrun with invaders who seek to enter this country to do harm.

But a steady stream of everyday citizens have sought to show the border in another light.

In February, the city council of Nogales, Ariz., unanimously passed a resolution to formally condemn six rows of razor wire the U.S. military installed on an existing border fence next to neighborhoods and schools. Elsewhere, some through-hikers have walked long stretches of border, including a pair of women who walked the entire 1,954 miles in one, months-long go — a direct rebuke to the characterization of the border as dangerous.

And it is amid that tradition that the the seesaw project, dubbed the Teetertotter Wall, was born.

Virginia San Fratello, a professor at the San Jose State University who designed the project with fellow architect Ronald Rael, said that the pair had made a conscious choice to combat the heavily charged politics of the border with a simple emotion: the joy of a child’s playground.

The project was not born in the current political moment, but a decade ago in the wake of the federal Secure Fence Act legislation of 2006 that saw large portions of wall constructed along the border.

“We frequently travel through southern California, Arizona and Texas and we saw portions of the wall being built or beefed up,” San Fratello said in an interview. “We saw how it was changing people’s lives. We saw that disruption and wanted to think about scenarios that would bring people together.”

A decade of traveling to projects in Marfa, Tex., about an hour from the border in West Texas, brought them regularly to cities near or on the border such as El Paso, Valetine and Presidio. So they developed the idea in a series of drawings and models made in snowglobes that drew inspiration from other artists who had sought to make the border their canvas.

Other unrealized art projects that have been conceived for the border include turning the wall into a giant xylophone, its panels musical keys. Rael and San Fratello designed another concept that includes constructing a food cart into the wall so that Mexico food — burritos, primarily — can be shared through the slats for diners sitting at counters on both sides.

Rael, a professor at the University of California Berkeley’s school of environmental design, explored some of these ideas in his 2017 book, “Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary.”

The Teetertotter Wall was up for about 30 minutes on Sunday, San Fratello said, on a small stretch of border fence in Anapra, N.M., about 20 minutes northwest of El Paso.

Rael and San Fratello installed it with the help of friends on the Mexican side of the border, where it had been constructed in Ciudad Juarez by a fabricator.

They had chosen a place on the fence that separated Anapra from a residential area in its Mexican counterpart on the other side, Puerto de Anapra, where they had seen children playing on the weekends.

“It’s a place where people from both sides can walk up to the fence,” San Fratello said. “The type of fence where you can pass something through. We designed the seesaw to fit in that place.”

The seesaws were designed to be able to fit through the gaps in the columns that make up the fence in the location. Each of the three seesaws had a knot, handle bars and bicycle seats.

After it was installed, children in the area came up to play on it with their families, San Fratello said. Border Patrol agents arrived too, San Fratello said, but let the group continue unimpeded.

“I think they got it,” San Fratello said. “They were very courteous and professional and they seemed to understand the intent of the project. They let us go on until we decided that it was a good time to take it down.”

San Fratello said the experience was “exhilarating.”

“Everybody was kind of high and thrilled and positive,” she said.

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