Reimagining the Border

Aug 23, 2018
6:05 AM

On  July 29, President Donald Trump tweeted the following message:

This tweet indicated how far the President is willing to go in order to obtain funding for his coveted wall. The tweet also served as an effort to rile up his base ahead of the midterm elections in November.

This is much of the same rhetoric that Trump has employed since the days of his presidential campaign in 2016. The difference is that today he is the sitting President of the United States. His words have more power than they did in 2016, and he is willing to use that power to shape public policy. The President’s willingness to shut down the government in an attempt to secure funding for the wall is disquieting. It is a political gamble based on the confidence that a critical mass of  the American public fear the border and those who come through it enough to throw their support behind a bill that would provide funding for what they anticipate will be a protective wall.

President Trump is not the only politician capitalizing on this latent anxiety over the border. Last month, Florida gubernatorial hopeful Ron DeSantis released a shameful political television commercial. The commercial is narrated by his wife Casey, who brags that her husband Ron is an “amazing dad.” He plays with the kids as well as teaches his daughter how to read and talk. As evidenced by the commercial, the DeSantis family’s idea of playing is instilling xenophobic sentiments in their children. In the 30-second political ad, which serves as a not-so-subtle pledge of allegiance to Donald Trump, DeSantis is teaching his young daughter how to stack cardboard blocks in order to create an imaginary wall across the southern border. The fact that the commercial was planned, recorded, and subsequently released without much concern for public backlash demonstrates that DeSantis, like Trump, is confident that his would-be constituents fear the border enough to vote for a candidate that will support a wall along the southern border.

As late as June 2018, approximately 41% of Americans were in favor of expanding the construction of a wall along the U.S-Mexico border. While a minority, this 41% represents a sizable number of voters in key districts. But how many supporters of the wall have actually visited the border? Very few, I would assume. How then, has Donald Trump found such an ardent base of supporters for his wall? How has such fear of the border been bred among Americans?

Of course, part of the fault lies squarely with the politicians who hurl xenophobic rhetoric in hopes of activating their respective voter bases. Who can forget Trump’s now infamous claim regarding Mexican immigrants during his 2016 campaign: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Trump may have exacerbated existing fears about the border, but assuming that he and his coterie of racist politicians were the creators of these sentiments would be giving them too much credit.

Perhaps we can find the answer in popular culture. Television shows such as Border Wars, Netflix series like Border Security: America’s Frontline and The Traffickers, and even documentaries such as Cartel Land, emphasize the dangerous and criminal elements of the border. These “cultural texts” create a Trumpian vision of the border that emphasizes the border’s porousness, as well as the inherent dangers associated with those who cross it.

Per this distorted vision, drug smugglers, gang members, and human traffickers run rampant across the border and into the United States. This vision has been exploited by President Trump and his administration to justify their often cruel immigration enforcement policies. It is now becoming increasingly common for political hopefuls like DeSantis to use this same vision and normalize fear of the border, even as they disguise their racism as ads that supposedly promote family values.

They simply bear the reap the benefits of an insidious obsession with the border in popular culture. Let’s take, for example, the Fusion docuseries The Traffickers, which is available on Netflix.

The fourth episode in the series focuses on gun trafficking from El Salvador into the United States. The episode begins with dramatic images of tattooed Salvadoran inmates. A these images are displayed, the host explains that she is “tracing a trafficking route that leads [her] from the slums of San Salvador to the heart of the American Dream.” The claim that there is a direct route leading from dangerous Central American slums and into U.S territory, effectively threatening the American Dream, has tremendous cultural power. It creates fear and exacerbates anxieties in the American psyche that the border must be secured. It is an anxiety that politicians can (and have been) capitalizing on.

Other documentaries place the viewer directly at the border and portray it as the United States’ last line of defense against the overflow of violence produced by Mexico’s most violent drug cartels. Cartel Land, an award-winning Sundance production. tells two parallel stories. The first and primary story is that of the José Manuel Mireles, the early figurehead of the autodefensas, which are civil vigilante groups that rose up against cartel violence in Michoacán. The documentary tells the story of the gruesome acts committed by the cartels in excruciating detail.

The second story told is that of an American vigilante group led by Tim Foley, a disgruntled American and former construction worker. This group of self-proclaimed patriots dedicate their time to patrolling the U.S-Mexico border in a remote part of Arizona. Among Foley’s top concerns is the threat of Mexican drug cartels. “It’s the cartels. They’re the ones terrorizing their own country and now they’re starting to do it over here.”

The first words out of Foley’s mouth are telling: “There’s an imaginary line out there between right and wrong, good and evil. I believe what I’m doing is good. And I believe what I’m standing up against is evil.”

The fact that Mexico has experienced a bloody and prolonged war with drug cartels is undeniable. Exploring this issue is fair game for any journalist or documentarian. However, by emphasizing the violence and corruption in Mexico while simultaneously portraying border vigilantes as America’s last line of defense in remote borderlands, Cartel Land contributes to the cultural creation of a sensationalized vision of the U.S-Mexico border.

The documentary subtly creates a binary divided between order in the U.S and chaos in Mexico, violence in Mexico and concerned patriots in the United States. It constructs the border as a contested territory between the forces of good and evil. Who wouldn’t want to secure such a precarious place under threat from the overflow of violence?

Sensationalizing the dangers of the American border(s) is an industry of its own. Alongside The Traffickers and Cartel Land are television series such as Border Wars and Border Security: America’s Frontline, both of which emphasize the dangers that lie at the points of contact between the United States and the rest of the world.

They allow viewers to form distorted visions of the the border from the comfort of their living room. Most importantly, these cultural representations of the border can have political repercussions. It is this cultural understanding of the border as a dangerous place that must be secured that gives Trump’s words such resonance with a large portion of the American public. It is a cultural power that he and other politicians are capitalizing on in order to shape public policy.

It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to find a direct link between of the types of media productions that sensationalize the border and the political stances of those who consume them. However, the mere ubiquity of such media productions both reflects an existing anxiety, and does the discursive work of continuing to create fear of the border. These types of cultural texts create a one-sided and distorted vision. They reflect an American perspective of the border that is strictly from the inside toward the outside and which focuses its gaze on the potential dangers that lay beyond. They ignore the humanity of the immigrant, the historical context of the border, and reject any notion that the border may have other meanings.

Time to Reimagine the Border

As the November midterm elections inch closer and closer, we can anticipate that the border will continue to be politicized. Therefore, It is imperative that we reimagine the border in a way that more fully encapsulates its many truths and accounts for its complexity. Luckily there is a myriad of cultural sources created from a Latino perspective that imagine the border much differently. These sources include songs and movies that give voice to a collective historical experience with the border that emphasizes the humanity of those who cross it, the loss that it represents (loss of culture, nationality, and even life), as well as acknowledges its already militarized nature.

Ricardo Arjona, one of Latin America’s most poetic voices, released the song “Mojado” in 2005 as part of his album Adentro. Arjona, a native of Guatemala, teamed up with the Mexican band Intocable, who provide the instrumentals to this beautiful song. The song is dedicated to the millions of mojados, those who cross the southern border without documentation. Arjona sings: “Dijo adiós con una mueca disfrazada de sonrisa/ Y le suplicó a su Dios crucificado en la repisa/ El resguardo de los suyos/ Y perforó la frontera/ Como pudo.”

The mojado’s transgression of the border is exactly the type of incident that causes such anxiety for such a large swath of the American public. The mojado is unvetted and unknown. Thus, he poses unknown dangers to the United States. He carries with him elements of criminality and poverty. He imports unknown dangers into the United States by way of a seemingly porous southern border.

But Arjona’s song gives a different meaning to the mojado’s journey. Prior to embarking on his treacherous voyage north, the mojado “Empacó sus ganas de quedarse/ Su condición de transformarse/ En el hombre que soñó/ Y no ha logrado.” The mojado’s act of piercing the border is not an act of criminality, nor is it something that should elicit fear. Instead, it is an effort to self-realize… to become the man he dreamed of being. More importantly, the mojado is fully aware of the implications of his actions. He knows it is a crime to cross the border. Yet for him, the act of criminality is not something that he commits against others. Instead, he bares the mark of criminality upon himself in an effort to become the man he knows he can be.

It is the price he pays in exchange for the opportunity to pursue a better life for himself. Arjona sings: “El suplicio de un papel lo ha convertido en fugitivo/ Y no es de aquí porque su nombre no aparece en los archivos/ Ni es de allá porque se fue.” The mojado effectively becomes a fugitive at the border. He loses a fundamental part of who he is-his sense of belonging. He has given up his former home in order to call home a place where his existence is illegitimate. The mojado is nameless, but he simultaneously represents the experience of millions of undocumented immigrants who have left their home country in search of opportunity north of the border.

Other stories of border-crossing told by our most revered lyricists emphasize the loss that the border can represent. In their 2002 album, Revolucion de Amor, the Mexican band Maná included a song dedicated to the journey of the undocumented immigrant. “Pobre Juan,” tells the story of a man who leaves his past life behind-including his home and wife- in order to search for a dignified life in the United States. Juan’s story resonates with that of many who have made the journey northward. Juan leaves behind his pregnant fiance Maria in hopes of being able to provide for her. Juan begins his journey full of hope, but it ends in tragedy. “Juan ya nunca regreso/  En la línea se quedó/ Pobre Juan/ O la migra lo mató/ O el desierto lo enterró/ Pobre Juan.”

The vision of the border constructed in “Pobre Juan” acknowledges that it is indeed a dangerous place. However, the danger is impending for the immigrant. He is at the mercy of la migra and the harsh conditions of the desert. It is a desolate, barren, yet highly militarized place that can represent the ultimate consequence for those attempt to transgress it-death. In “Pobre Juan,” the border serves its purpose. It successfully keeps out the unwanted. Yet another truth remains. The border causes Juan’s death, preventing him from fulfilling his hopes of living a dignified life. It squashes dignity and prevents human flourishing.

Our trove of cultural visions of the border extends beyond musical interpretations. The film Under the Same Moon, released in 2007,  deals head on  with the consequences that the border can have for families. Rosario, a single mother who crosses the U.S-Mexico border illegally, is living in Los Angeles. She works multiple jobs and makes just enough to pay bills and send a little bit of money to her son Carlitos, who is living in Mexico with his sick grandmother. The only form of contact that Carlitos and his mother have is through weekly telephone conversations.

Carlitos’ grandmother’s health finally takes a toll on her, and she dies in her sleep. With limited options, Carlitos decides to use the money his mom has sent him to hire a Mexican American couple to serve as his polleros. The couple accepts and devises a plan to bring Carlitos into the United States by hiding him in a makeshift nook in between the seats of their car.

They successfully make it past the border checkpoint, and Carlitos goes on his way. After a series of misadventures, Carlitos arrives at a place that he recognizes in Los Angeles. Although he has never been there before, he remembers the way in which his mother described her location during many of their telephone conversations. He knows that this must be the place from which she called him every Sunday night. The movie ends with Carlitos seeing his mother across the street. We don’t see their long-awaited embrace, but the border is no longer an obstacle between mother and son. The main problem in the movie has been resolved.

In Under The Same Moon, the border is something that severs family ties. It separates mother and son. It criminalizes the son’s attempt to reunite with his mother. In this context, the meaning of the border contrasts sharply with the family values that DeSantis’ political ad  purportedly promotes. A strictly Trumpian vision of the border would recognize Carlitos’ successful entry into the U.S as a failure on the part of border patrol to protect America’s boundaries. Yet as the film makes clear, Carlitos’ successful entry into the U.S is a moral victor. It signals the reunification of mother and son.

Together, all these examples construct a vision of the border that emphasizes the humanity of those who attempt to cross it. Additionally, they problematize the criminality attached to the act of crossing. Piercing the border as an undocumented immigrant is not a moral wrong. It is an attempt to live with dignity, fulfill one’s potential, or reunite with family.

Within the framework of this understanding, the border is not a place where the U.S is under attack from the outside, but rather a geographic space that separates families and can lead to the tragic death of those seeking to cross it. Collectively, these cultural declarations, created from a Latino perspective, speak back those who imagine the border as America’s last stand against the dangers of the outside. They allow us to reimagine the border in a way that includes those outside of it, and those who experience it by crossing. They give voice to those who left their family behind to migrate to the United States. They give voice to those that lost their life in the attempt. They give voice to the mother and child who are separated by immigration policies.

In reality, the border is ineffable. It is a stretch of land that extends for approximately 2,000 miles. It is comprised of rivers, desert, and beach. Much of it is desolate and treacherous natural terrain. We hear about the border.  We read about the border. We see the multiple ways in which the border is portrayed. But really knowing the border is an impossible task. Most of what we think we know about the border is culturally constructed.The way we imagine the border is guided by television shows, documentaries, songs, movies, news, political ads, and a countless array of other cultural productions.

(Photo by PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty Images)

These cultural texts are sites of negotiation. It is in the cultural arena that we negotiate the way in which we understand the border. As election season ramps up, the border will continue to be politicized and exploited as a symbol of what threatens the country. We will hear calls “to build the wall” and read about the threats that lay just beyond. This is a limited understanding of the border. Yet, it has the power to drive our public policy.

Chicana cultural theorist Gloria E. Anzaldúa tells us that “In fact, the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.”

The border is full of contradictions and complexities. It is porous and yet militarized. It protects as much as it has the potential to kill. It defines the boundaries of a nation, while simultaneously separating families.

We must heed Anzaldúa’s wisdom and recognize that the meaning of the border is constantly contested. There are two competing cultural understandings of the border, neither fully encapsulating its full complexities. Yet we must ensure that whatever our understanding of the border might be, that it emphasizes the humanity of the immigrant and those beyond it, and that it acknowledges that it divides in places where it should not divide. “The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds,” Anzaldúa wrote.

She is right, and the border deserves to be understood in its tragic totality.

As the 2018 midterm elections draw nearer, it is imperative that we consider what understanding of the border American policies will reflect. Will they be repressive, isolationist and anxiety-ridden? Or will we reimagine the border using the tools that Arjona, Under the Same Moon and Anzaldúa give us?


Carlos Ruiz is a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Iowa. He studies Mexican American Catholicism in the Midwest and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement. He tweets from @CarlosIRuizM.