A Harvard professor, Rachel St. John, has just published a useful and comprehensive short history of the western U.S.-Mexico border (meaning from El Paso to San Diego.)
It is a tale that approaches geography as a multiform kind of space: social space, indigenous space, national identity space, commercial space, smuggling space, and so forth.
Early on, as history records, the United States found ways to take what we call the northern portion of the U.S.-Mexico border from Mexico by purchase, diplomacy, and political supremacy based on population. Thereafter, both Mexico and the U.S. found the new border between our two countries hard to define as a literal line in the sand and even more difficult to define as an emblem of state power: my law is the only law on this side...your law is the only law on that side.
Having worked and lived on the border for a number of years, I know what a rough, ambiguous and violent place it can be. There are things I have seen in the canyons north of Tijuana, right at the U.S. border, that have no place in what 99.9% of Americans would think to be American. Subsequent wallbuilding has quieted some of the action, but there is an ethical ugliness to the way we have approached migration and smuggling that is harsh and constant. One doesn’t have to know what to do to change things, although I have a few notions, to recognize that there is something wrong all along the border, and not just the western border.
Better books to reveal the harsh realities of the border’s past and present are novels like Cormac MacCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Roberto Bolaños’ 2666. Both excel in depicting mindless violence, generally driven by greed but going beyond that. So reading Blood Meridian and 2666 is one prescription I’d offer for a national elevation of consciousness about the border.
We in the U.S. need to face the fact that our insatiable appetite for drugs, cocaine, etc., is what fuels the astonishing violence and corruption that travels from our border all the way to Bolivia. The only way to change this is through the earliest kinds of childhood intervention and family support programs. Bad neighborhoods, broken families, and bad schools breed drug use. Good neighborhoods, ostensibly united families, and good schools breed drug use, too. Every family in American with young children needs help facing the torments and temptations of illicit drugs. Until we slow down consumption, we won’t slow down the killing on our own streets and further south.
Illegal immigration is another important issue that breeds great misery both north and south of the border. Right now we’re in an ebb tide because jobs are scarce in the U.S. construction industry and enforcement is up, but that will change. Right now, then, would be a good time to face the fact that it would be better for Mexicans (and others) to enter the U.S. under organized worker programs--we’ve had them before--than to play cat and mouse with desperate souls in the deathly deserts of the southwest. Walls can’t be built high enough when the jobs are here to feed families. As Janet Napolitano said once, “Show me a fifty foot wall and I’ll show you a fifty-one foot ladder.” By the same token, I have seen massive walls on the border smashed through by even more massive bulldozers. Brazen? You bet. The border is a life and death proposition for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people.
But again, my practical thoughts aside, I point to the value of fiction versus history in exploring certain complex events and regions. The St. John book is informative, but not moving. The Bolaños and MacCarthy novels are riveting revelations and summons to action.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund