Borderlands: Blurring Boundaries, Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges

By Lydia Row and Vy Anh Tran

In the summer of 2018, a wall was erected by the U.S. government between San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico after a prolonged period of heated controversy. Within a year, videos of children playing together on three pink teeter totters crossing the wall went viral. Bay Area Professors Virginia San Fratello of San José State University and Ronald Rael of UC Berkeley crafted this makeshift playground, coining it the “Teeter-Totter Wall.” Focusing on the need to encourage equality between communities and people, the pair made a conscious choice to combat the heavily charged politics of the border with a simple emotion: the joy of a child’s playground. 

Although the “Teeter-Totter Wall” is no longer on display, the conversations surrounding it still remain. Joining the national discussion on the meaning of borders, the College of Humanities and the Arts introduces Borderlands: Immigration and Migration in the 21st Century, a series of themed events for 2019–2020.  

Borderlands seeks to address questions that naturally arise from increased globalization, international conflicts, and friction between communities in transition: How are we connected? How are we engaged? How do we learn from each other? How do we build a better world together?


Thanks to donor-funded global engagement funds and artistic excellence grants from our college,  SJSU is engaging these inquiries by applying the perspective of the humanities to the issues that surround the meaning of borders. Seventeen events will investigate and interrogate this theme through drama, music, design exhibitions, lectures, and literary events, adding nuance and depth to conversations at both the local and national level.

To learn more about Virginia San Fratello’s and Ronald Rael’s work, please visit:

Borderlands Events Showcase

Beyond Borders Exhibition: The Cost of Crossing Borders

August 16-18 at the Hammer Theatre

August 21-September 13 at the SJSU Art Building 214

Upon entering the well-lit exhibition room in SJSU’s Art Building, your eyes are drawn to a small TV in the corner. On the screen, a shoe steps on a butterfly, breaking its wings. Words appear next to this image; they say, “Don’t step on someone else’s dream,” followed by “Support the Dream Act.” As the video loops, more images appear: a child and parent being separated, a naturalization form ripped apart, a person jailed.

This video was part of the Beyond Borders Exhibition, an exploration of the refugee crisis around the globe.

The Beyond Borders Exhibition, featuring artwork created by SJSU graphic design students with the theme “Borders: Migrants and Refugees,” opened in the Hammer Theatre in August 2019 as part of the International Design Education Exposition and Conference (IDEEC). The students’ artwork were showcased alongside the works of professional designers during the conference. After the conference, the students’ pieces were moved to the exhibition room in the Art Building for public viewing.

According to Professor Yoon Chung Han, curator for the exhibition, the students were asked to think of borders not only as boundaries between countries, but as the divide between cultures, languages, beliefs, and people. Around the room, posters with images and messages about the struggle and trauma of refugees adorn the walls. Paper structures depicting their hardships fill the table in the center of the room. On the TV screen, words continuously fade in and out: Don’t reject, help project migrants and refugees. Color outside the lines, live without the borders. Refugees are our neighbors, classmates, coworkers, friends & family, together we are one.

To see the Beyond Borders video and the students’ artwork, go to:

Falling Words: Teaching SJSU Students the Art of Rakugo

October 24 at 5:00 PM at the Student Union Ballroom B

Inside one of the ballrooms of SJSU Student Union, the audience burst out laughing as the man sitting on stage demonstrate how to make a folded fan looks like chopsticks. He holds the fan as he would chopsticks and makes the motion and noise of a man eating noodles. This description does not do his art justice, however.

The man on stage is Shinoharu Tatekawa. He is giving a lecture on rakugo, the Japanese art of telling stories while sitting in a formal position and using only a fan and a small cloth. This rakugoka, professional rakugo performer, was invited by the Department of World Languages and Literature to “give students an experience beyond textbooks,” according to Professor Midori Ishida, the event organizer. This lecture on rakugo, like other the Borderlands event, answers the question, “What is it to cross borders?”

Shinoharu is one of the few practitioners who performs in Japanese and English. His lecture transfers the listener not only across languages but also time. With 300 years of history, those who perform rakugo must follow strict protocol while performing both stories from ancient time, passed down through generations of rakugoka, and newer stories. These English performances of Japanese stories allow the audience to appreciate a different culture through laughter and empathy. Though Shinoharu can only give the audience in the SJSU ballroom a truncated version of a rakugo performance in his lecture, the audience’s laughter shows that they understand the spirit of the art.

Professor Midori Ishida hopes that “Mr. Tatekawa’s talk will make the audience realize that we live in a world where there are millions of different cultural backgrounds, but we still have some qualities to share, and that’s why we can laugh together and cry over the same story.”

Upcoming Events in 2019

A Bilingual Conversation with Balam Rodrigo 

November 14 in the Hammer Theatre at 3:00 PM

A poet who literally and figuratively crosses borders, Balam Rodrigo comes to SJSU from Mexico to lead a poetry workshop and a public conversation at the Hammer Theatre. This event is free. For information on the workshop, contact the Chicanx/Latinx Student Success Center. For information on the conversation, visit the Hammer Theatre website.

[Dreamer] Project: An Undocuplay

November 15, 16, 21-23 at 7:30 PM and November 24 at 1:00 at the Hammer Theatre

This play is a verbatim theatre piece created from interviews with SJSU undocumented students. [Dreamer] Project shows students not just as “undocumented” but as human beings navigating an extraordinary time in our history. This is the story of our students. Tickets can be booked on the Hammer Theatre website.

Bang-Bang You’re Dead: A STEP Production

December 4-6 at 11:00 AM and December 7 at 2:00 PM and 7:30 PM in the Hammer Theatre

Bang Bang You’re Dead, a play by the Department of Film and Theatre’s School Touring Ensemble Program (STEP), challenges the safety of schools as a recourse for dealing with a broken, violent, and unfair world–fixable only by today’s generation. All showings of this play are free.

The College of Humanities and the Arts is proud to present these Borderlands events, which showcases the diversity and talent of SJSU students. We hope to continue fostering our students for a brighter future with the help of our faculty and alumni.