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By Tim Gaynor
NACO, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexican activist Maria Elena Borquez takes up a paintbrush and daubs a bright splotch of color on the rusted steel fence separating the small Mexican town of Naco from a neighboring town in the United States.
"The wall projects hostility," she said, paint pot in hand and surrounded by youngsters from both the United States and Mexico. "The idea is to transform it with art, friendship, colors and life ... into something that unites us," said Borquez, who is director of the local museum.
As the United States pushes for tighter security along the Mexico border as part of efforts to overhaul immigration laws, Borquez is among scores of residents on either side of the border in this corner of southeast Arizona taking the unusual step of working to strengthen neighborly ties.
The project, with a group calling itself the "Border Bedazzlers," was founded last year by Gretchen Baer, a painter in the former copper mining town of Bisbee about 5 miles north of the border.
Bisbee, with 5,600 residents, is hardly a typical town - a local bumper sticker describes it as a "liberal oasis in a conservative desert" - in its community outreach.
A Rasmussen Reports poll found last month that the majority of likely American voters (57 percent) thought the United States should continue building a border fence along the nearly 2,000-mile (3,200-km) border.
There are also periodic flare-ups over civilian volunteers looking for unauthorized border crossers and Mexico's outrage after Arizona passed a 2010 law that required police to question those they stopped, and suspected of being in the country illegally, about their immigration status.
"As the U.S. is pumping up all this security on the border and more and more money is being spent on all of this 'keep them out,' people want to respond in a positive way and say 'That's not us,'" said Baer.
CLINICS AND GREENHOUSES
One example of a positive response is Casa Saludables, a free clinic offering Naco residents healthcare services such as health checkups, blood pressure, eye exams and diabetes tests.
There's also a collaborative garden. Victor Acedo, a Bisbee bartender and trained horticulturist, is helping Naco residents grow fresh food for children at the local Casa Hogar orphanage, a few hundred yards south of the rusted border fence.
He and other volunteers built a greenhouse out of old car tires and a trampoline frame to grow crops ranging from celery, onions and chilies to carrots, cabbage and chard. The produce helps feed half-a-dozen youngsters aged eight to 21.
Mexican handyman Francisco Corona, who is learning from Acedo how to tend plants and improve the soil via vermiculture - worms - says it has become "really important" to the youngsters.
"It gives them somewhere to enjoy themselves after school. They come, they look and see if it needs watering, they plant seeds, they ask if the plants have come up," said Corona, who is now building a second greenhouse out of discarded soft-drink bottles.
City authorities say the Bisbee-Naco ties have been aided by their relative isolation, low waiting times at the border crossing in Naco, and a can-do attitude of residents.
"We don't worry so much, on either side, about politics or where we came from," said Bisbee Mayor Adriana Badal. "We don't get bogged down with bureaucratic stuff ... we say 'OK, I have this project and you have a need, so let's just work together.'"
Badal is now seeking a sister-city agreement with Naco, which would enable the two to step up cultural and economic ties and put their projects on a more formal footing.
Other local initiatives are in the works, including a plan by Jesus Morales, the fire chief in tiny unincorporated Naco, Arizona, to create a food bank over the line with counterparts in its Mexican namesake, where a majority of people live in poverty.
"There's families still sleeping on dirt floors over there," said Morales. "We have to look out for the old or the vulnerable, whether they are here or wherever. It is the humane way to be."
(Editing by Dave Graham, Arlene Getz and Philip Barbara)