How Mexico could subvert Donald Trump’s border wall
‘What could be more magnificent than a divine feathered serpent snaking along vast stretches of the wall’s 2,000-mile extent?’
‘Mexico could turn a symbol of restriction into one of freedom and imagination, and its northern states, such as Sonora, Chihuahua and Coahuila, which share the longest stretches of border with America, could turn concrete into gold.’ Above, the border fence that separates the US and Mexico. Photograph: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg
If the Americans start digging a foundation for a wall across their southern border, then spades might become trumps for the Mexicans, who have the chance to turn the tables on the new American president by embracing and celebrating his monument to exclusion. For Donald Trump’s blinkered vision might just provide an unexpected financial bonanza for his neighbours – an unintended gift costing the US treasury an estimated €12 billion. How could this happen?
The most famous walls in history, built to repulse foreigners or pen citizens in, are now huge visitor attractions. Hadrian’s Wall – Rome’s attempt to keep Pict illegals out of Britannia – draws an estimated quarter of a million people a year to its various visitor centres, a calculation that doesn’t include the thousands who unofficially walk along its 84-mile length. The Great Wall of China, which once prevented hordes of barbarians from crossing the country’s northern border, now attracts hordes of polite visitors each year (a record 16 million pitched up in one week, in October 2014). The remains of the Berlin Wall, that grim and deadly deterrent for East Germans dreaming of freedom in the West, is now one of the German capital’s top attractions.
Freedom and imagination
Walls are big business. If it played its cards right, Mexico could turn a symbol of restriction into one of freedom and imagination, and its northern states, such as Sonora, Chihuahua and Coahuila, which share the longest stretches of border with America, could turn concrete into gold.
The Mexican minister of culture might first consider launching a national competition to find a name for the wall (The Great Wall of Mexico? Trump’s Wall? The Great Stone Snake?). The next thing to do would be to divide the wall into different zones for different uses. One section, for example, could be reserved for artists. Mexico is no stranger to street art: a dismal district of the city of Pachuca was recently transformed by an artists’ collective into a rainbow-hued neighbourhood. More than 200 houses were transformed by 5,000 gallons of paint and a palette of colours worthy of Frida Kahlo. Just as murals turned the Berlin Wall into an object of wonder, so a new generation of artists – the likes of Mexico’s own Edgar Saner, or Britain’s Banksy – could do the same with the Trump Wall.
They could create “trump l’oeil windows” revealing vistas of the blotted-out American landscape, or draw silhouettes of immigrants scaling the wall. Or, given the natural shape and extent of its stone canvas, the wall could provide the base for the longest-ever depiction of Quetzelcoatl, the Aztec feathered serpent, god of the wind and learning – two attributes that would highlight the wall’s crassness.
What could be more magnificent than a divine feathered serpent snaking along vast stretches of the wall’s 2,000-mile extent? The wall, in fact, could be the most potently pointed artistic installation on the planet (and one for which an “alternative fact” could easily be provided: that it can be seen from the Moon).
Another part of the wall might be transformed by climbing plants – sheer, vertical hanging gardens embodying the motif of irrepressible life. Another could be reserved for written prayers, taking its cue from the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where prayers on bits of paper are slipped between the cracks of the stones.
By way of a change, a line of basket ball hoops could be affixed to another section, or the outline of soccer goalposts marked out – for kids to practise the language of sport, a tongue that knows no boundaries. And if the angle of the sunset were right, another part of the wall could be painted in such a way as to glow at dusk and put on a light-show worthy of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), a desert place that has spawned a profitable resort town and airport. Shops, stalls, markets, chapels – the paraphernalia of the pilgrimage destination – would in time naturally spring up.
The wall’s aim is to contain and limit, but its scope is limitless. The Mexicans, however, will need to act quickly to maximise its potential. The wall may last only four years before a new American president demolishes it – for being an icon of crudely restrictive measures so naturally at odds with the democratic traditions America has championed from its founding. Even then, the Mexicans could profit from the debris, which, accruing prestige from notoriety, will immediately convert into hard currency. Where there’s rubble and dust, there’s roubles and dollars, as the East Germans discovered in November 1989.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, large blocks of it were sold for several thousand dollars a piece. Other bits were eventually donated to countries and institutions all around the world as physical reminders of the price of freedom. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has a section, while the Vatican City has another. Cape Town, Kiev, Fatimá, have chunks – and the list goes on.
The US itself is a prize collector of Berlin Wall relics. The Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, for example, features a huge section of it, reminding us that it was Reagan himself who added to the momentum of the Berlin Wall’s dismantling with his famous “Tear down the wall” speech at the Brandenburg Gate in December, 1987. What price chunks of the Trump Wall being exhibited in and touted around the cities of the world in five years’ time, with many Mexicans laughing all the way to the bank?
Yet walls are no laughing matter. On November 9th, 2014, Pope Francis gave an address in St Peter’s Square to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In it he reminded those assembled in St Peter’s Square: “Where there is a wall, there is a closing of hearts. We need bridges, not walls.”
Let us hope for the sake of the Mexicans, that the power of imagination will transform into a symbol of art, poetry and love any concrete structure disfiguring their northern border; and that in the end, for all our sakes, hearts will be trumps.
James Harpur is a poet living in west Cork. His latest book, Angels and Harvesters, was a PBS Recommendation and shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Prize. He is a member of Aosdána