Husband and wife professors dream up pink seesaws at US-Mexico border long before President Trump

The unusual sight of children and families laughing and bouncing up and down on neon pink seesaws straddling a steel fence dividing the United States and Mexico appeared to be a direct visual and artistic attack on the Trump Administration's anti-immigration mandates and directives. 

But Virginia San Fratello, an assistant professor of art and design at San Jose State University who lives in Oakland, said the idea for the whimsical teeter-totter was born as a result of the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

President George W. Bush signed that act into law in order to "help protect the American people," and more fence construction continued through the Obama administration. 

The act authorized and partially funded nearly 700 miles of fencing along the border. According to government figures, U.S. Customers and Border Protection has spent about $2.4 billion on fencing, gates, roads and infrastructure along the nearly 2,000-mile southwest border from 2007 to 2015.

"This idea came long before Trump," San Frateloo said in a phone interview on Tuesday. 

Regardless of which president is in power, San Fratello said that the pop-up "Teeter Totter Wall," was created to "expose the ridiculous-ness" of separating people. 

The artful play structure, which was set up temporarily for 30 minutes on Sunday at the border of Colonia Anapra, a community on the western side of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and Sunland Park, New Mexico, was supposed to represent whimsy and joy, she said.

But it also represented the ramifications of political yin and yang.  

"What happens to someone on one side of the border, affects someone on the other," she said. 

The seesaws, which she co-designed with UC Berkeley architecture professor Ronald Rael -- who is also her husband -- were purposely painted hot pink. That's the color that represents the hundreds of women and girls who have been killed near Ciudad Juarez during a rash of robberies and gang wars since the 1990s. 

Pictures from the scene on Sunday show a girl in pigtails laughing while riding high on the seesaw, a mother smiling and taking selfies with her baby and crowds chatting along the sandy road to watch people from different homelands connect with each other through a fence, fashioned from steel and concrete.

Drone video of pink seesaws at US-Mexico border

The teeter-totters were fabricated in Mexico by local craftspeople and installed by a collective called Colectivo Chopeke. On the Mexican side, the gathering of people was mostly spontaneous. A residential neighborhood is located a stone's throw from the fence and families simply walked up to it and started riding.

San Fratello and Rael brought several friends from nearby El Paso, Texas and architects to the American side. The husband-and-wife professor team chose this site because people can walk up to the fence on both sides and still pass things through; other border wall fences have no open slats. They paid for the three seesaws themselves.

"This far exceeded my expectations," San Fratello said.  "It was just such a fun, happy experience." 

Her husband wrote on Instagram: "The wall became a literal fulcrum for U.S. - Mexico relations."

She and Rael sent up a drone to take video of their efforts, which was tweeted by Mexican actor Mauricio Martinez, bringing international attention to their work. They each posted the video on their Instagram accounts and the story spread far and wide.

The reaction on social media was mixed. 

Martinez tweeted that the seesaws were a "beautiful reminder that we are connected." Others also pointed out how simple and sweet the idea was. But another person wrote on Instagram: "I know they had good intentions but this is kinda gross right? These poor people die everyday trying to get to a better country and you put a seesaw on the barrier between us?

It's borderline mocking the situation, isn't it? The money and effort spent on this probably could have gone to food and water for the people on the other side." And yet another person called the teeter totters the "dumbest gimmick soo far about this important issue; We as a nation need border security, better immigration laws and policies….not this Mickey Mouse photo opps!!" 

The potpourri of comments isn't surprising. In a Ted Talk that he gave, Rael, who teaches a class on "design and activism," described that the architecture as a political statement should be seen as both "satirical" and "serious."  

San Fratello and Rael conceived the idea for the seasaws as far back as 2009, which Rael documented in a book, "Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary."  But the seesaw was just one of the many ideas they had. The pair pictured building swings on to the fence "so you could literally swing over it," San Fratello said.

They pictured a library and a burrito shop, with a portion of each building on one side of each country so people could meet halfway inside. They also drew up plans of turning the fence into a massive xylophone, where people on both sides could take turns hitting the metal and making music.

Their original drawings and models for a "Teeter-Totter Wall" are held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In 2014, Rael San Fratello – the couple's architectural agency -- was named an Emerging Voice by The Architectural League of New York—one of the most coveted awards in North American architecture. In 2016, the agency was also awarded the Digital Practice Award of Excellence by the  Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture. 

While the pair have been working together and dreaming up design disrupters for a long time, San Fratello said the idea to drive down to the border last weekend was a bit impromptu.

"We just thought how wonderful it would be to just make this real, and we came up with it just last week," San Fratello said. "We literally said, ‘Let's do it, now is the time.'"

Since the temporary installation is now done, San Fratello said there's the possibility that she and Rael might erect the seesaws somewhere else in the future. 

Or, she said, "maybe other communities will do it themselves." 


This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.