“What’s up with the balloons?” The hopes of a community

After eight years of creative visioning, planning and community engagement Postcommodity’s “Repellent Fence” (or Valla Repelente, in Spanish) goes airborne connecting the lands north and south of what is today the U.S./Mexico border. The installation, which launched October 10th, involved 26 scare-eye balloons tethered to the Sonoran Desert ground, that spanned a two-mile stretch and physically and metaphorically created a direct line of communication between communities and their many stakeholders. Repellent Fence is one of NACF’s Community Inspiration Program Pilot Projects.

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“What’s up with the balloons?” asked a perplexed border patrol agent in Douglas, AZ, as he looked up at the blue desert sky on Saturday afternoon. It was a fair question to ask given the 26 10-foot diameter helium-filled PVC balloons floating 50 feet in the air across the U.S /Mexico border. It was also a question that led to one of many eye-opening moments when a group of volunteers involved with the indigenous collaborative Postcommodity explained to the patrol agent about “Repellent Fence”.  REPELLENT%20FENCE_GROUND_6

o_WYHV7dWY06clt-bWOzF0_odPZLhj9qgyWiSSJWps4[1]What was “up” with the balloons was a binational dialogue between the communities of Douglas, AZ, and Agua Prieta, Mexico, with whom Postcommodity has been working for the past three years. The balloons represent a suture unifying a land and the peoples that inhabit it arbitrarily separated by an 18 foot steel beam fence, a moat and miles of barbwire. The yellow, red and black balloon design is that of a ‘scare eye’ or ‘open eye’, a color and design iconography that has been used by indigenous groups across the Americas for millennia. Postcommodity appropriated these balloons, which are sold commercially in much smaller size as ineffective bird repellents, and they capitalized on the irony of the balloons failed purpose in warding off birds.

Securing enough helium and filling up the 26 balloons, driving them into the desert and tethering them down might seem like a monumental task – and it was – with high winds postponing the original launch and Mexican high school students cutting rope into the night to tie the balloons down. However, the behind the scenes relationship building with otherwise unlikely partners such as ranchers, educators, entrepreneurs, government employees, artists, activists, religious leaders, NGOs, school districts, community colleges, arts institutions, US border patrol, and government leaders in the US and Mexico, is what defined the true dimension of this project.

Both on the Mexico and the U.S. side the community engagement was evident with the mayor led and police escorted tour of the city of Agua Prieta stopping at the installation site, or with the full-capacity community discussion/symposium in Douglas once the installation was complete. Challenges of trans-border migration, the “wall” and inequality were topics, but were conveyed in different ways on each side of the border.

“I get it!”, the border patrol agent said when volunteers explained to him about the balloons. He wasn’t the only one. Whether a lasting understanding or a temporary connection, very much like the balloons themselves, Repellent Fence has infiltrated the borderland and given those communities something to talk about. Just as significantly, to some people the balloons represented a sacred experience where tears were shed and healing could continue. In a way, the concrete blocks that were placed on the desert earth from which the balloons were tethered represented connection to a land where many ancestors had roamed and been connected at one time. The balloons could be thought of as the holders of all the collective desires and knowledge of the peoples uplifted in courage symbolizing the hope for a better future.

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