Border-wall seesaw artist embarks on new project: Adobe ovens at Mexican migrant shelters

Border Report Tour

Migrants eat fresh food cooked in an adobe crick oven at the Casa de la Misericordia shelter in Nogales, Mexico. The ovens are part of Rael San Fratello’s project, “Pedacito de la Tierra” (A Little Piece of Home). (Courtesy Ron Rael)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The artist who slid seesaws through the border wall so that families on either side could play is working on a new project that also aims to bring people together: outdoor adobe brick ovens. 

Ron Rael’s new project, titled “Pedacito de la Tierra,” is documented in a new short film by the same name, which translates in Spanish to “a little piece of home.”

It involves building adobe brick ovens, or hornos, at migrant shelters on the Mexican side of the border. 

One oven is already up and running at Casa de la Misericordia shelter in Nogales, Mexico.  

On Saturday, during a family event to announce the project and premiere the film, people at the shelter could be seen using the oven the cook and baking pan dulce and other breads.  

Rael told artnet.com that he plans to build hundreds of ovens, and he’s getting help from several groups, including the global humanitarian organization Alight, Burning Man’s “Burners Without Borders,” the Catholic Sisters, and filmmakers Lina Plioplyte and Kai Schoenhals.

“I hope this opens the door and creates communities all along—and across—the border,” Rael told artnet.com, adding that many of the migrants are familiar with using an horno to cook. 

“The food, whether it is bread or meat or vegetable, tastes absolutely delicious. You’re making local food from an oven that’s made out of the ground that you’re standing on. So the actual terroir is the oven itself, and you’re burning wood that is growing from that ground too—you’re tasting the place,” he said.

Rael is the man behind the “Teeter-Totter Wall” art installation, a collection of seesaws that allowed children in Juarez, Mexico, to briefly play with children across the border in Sunland Park, New Mexico in July of 2019. 

The seesaw installation, which was reportedly removed within an hour, was named by London’s Design Museum as the overall winner of the Beazley Designs of the Year competition for 2020.

Rael said the seesaws were created in response to the Trump administration’s strict immigration policies and the border wall. 

“The oppressive nature of the Trump administration created an awareness among a large segment of the population that pushed them to action,” Rael told artnet.com. “I think that created a momentum that will carry over. And there has been positive change already—the day of the inauguration, Biden put a halt to the construction of the border wall.”

“Teeter-Totter Wall” was designed by Rael and Virginia San Fratello with help from Colectivo Chopeke, an artists’ collective in Juarez.

“There’s so much good design in the world that doesn’t take on political issues or social issues,” he told artnet.com. “And I love that. The winner could have been a project that was just a really beautiful thing. But, instead, we can have a conversation about a really important issue. To me, that’s the art.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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