What do we lose when we try to define where ‘we’ begin and where ‘they’ end?
The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture. Borders were set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them.
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 1987.
As we drive on U.S. highway 90, a long stretch of old road that spans the US-Mexico Border, the landscape changes from green snarled trees of the Old South to the dusty brush of the Southwest. The car’s AC billows, disillusioning us to the 104-degree temperature that hovers outside. The car becomes a small enclosed habitat, a floating homestead separate from the world. I sit softly dozing in the passenger’s seat as the scenery morphs in the distance. If I’m not careful I might miss the exact moment when the space shifts, and we begin to inhabit the border country. The dog Winston, a 38-pound black poodle who we’ve been tasked with driving across the country from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, lays knocked out cold in his crate in the back seat of the minivan. My husband drives steady, unwavering as we traverse the long stretch of highway that leads us from Louisiana to Eastern Texas.
When Our Flawed Immigration System Means a Death Sentence
I have never been to Mexico. This is the first time I am physically near the U.S.-Mexico border. For Gloria Anzaldúa, a lesbian Chicana poet and theorist from Texas, the border is a separate place. Not a crossing, but una herida abierta; an open wound that does not heal. I can feel the atmosphere change. But at the same time our little roadster spaceship, like the pockets of the liberal East Coast, seems immune to the trauma of crossing. Like the umbra of the moon, the border stretches out to our left as we drive westward.
Although we do not plan to leave the country, we encounter several border patrol checkpoints on our southern sojourn to California. While not new, an increase in anti-immigration actions from the Trump administration has condoned highway checks some 50-100 miles from the physical border. What that means is border patrol agents and checkpoints stand sentry deep into the southern United States, a threat against undocumented border crossings.
Road signs warn us that we “must come to a stop” as we pass the border checkpoint in Texas. I see the border anew, I begin to understand the wound that Anzaldúa writes about. Each stop a reminder of the trauma of this place, like the raw, unbridled elements of the desert, threatening to break open. America’s southern boundary festers—tissue and organs of the land split open. Despite the protection of a little blue passport book, my heartbeat takes flight and bile rises in my throat.America’s southern boundary festers—tissue and organs of the land split open. Click To Tweet
How can we define the places that are safe, that distinguish “us from them,” as Anzaldúa puts it? Growing up Puerto Rican and Italian in NYC, the idea of land boundaries made little sense to my hereditary landscape. That is, Puerto Rico and Sicily are both archipelagoes. Islands dotted with smaller islands. Bodies of water told my ancestors if they did not belong. The idea of a continuous landmass transected by only the immaterial was utterly foreign to me. As for growing up in NYC, your borough was your place. Manhattan and Staten Island are surrounded by water. For some, going to “the city” was akin to going abroad; think The Warriors. Although Queens and Brooklyn are physically connected, borough pride was a self-imposed boundary.
Being a light-skinned Latina I often benefit from white privilege while traveling. The NYPD is notorious for ticketing and arresting people who evade fares on the subway, or “jump the turnstile,” as well as for other minor infractions. They enforce the border of who is a good citizen and who is bad, often targeting people of color, who already are more likely to not be able to afford the fare. I have been stopped by police three times while riding on the subway. Twice for fare evasion, and once for putting my feet on the seat. Every time I was let off with a summons (fined around $60-$100). I was never arrested. I might have been poor enough to be fined, but I wonder if it was my light skin that kept me out of jail.
Stories From a Sanctuary City Courtroom
Before we pull up to the first border checkpoint, several cameras photograph our car, license plate, and faces. It is perhaps made of concrete and brick and low-grade steel. The structure could be the entrance to a city pool, which historically kept out Black Americans. “Us and them” made solid.
The border agent, a white woman of average height with sandy brown hair, wears reflective sunglasses and a gun at her hip; she reminds me of all the ways feminism can slip into complacency. She asks if everyone in the car is a U.S. citizen. We both answer yes, indignantly as we can. However, it is a silent, ineffectual protest. She mistakes our tone for frustration of being minorly inconvenienced with a process that does that concern us. We both have U.S. birth certificates. We have nothing to fear when traveling. Carl is white. I am white enough.
The next day we continue our drive, going from western Texas, through New Mexico to Arizona. In New Mexico we again pass a border checkpoint. This time, as Carl lowers the driver’s side window, the border agent takes one look at him and waves us on through. When Carl is sitting down you cannot tell his stature rises to over six feet. He is blond and blue-eyed—the “perfect American.”We both have US birth certificates. We have nothing to fear when traveling. Carl is white. I am white enough. Click To Tweet
The third time we are forced to stop is in California. The initial stop is an agricultural inspection. A few years ago California suffered a fruit fly blight when out-of-state fruit was brought in. As the car comes to a halt, an agricultural inspection agent asks, “Are there any illegal fruit or vegetables in the vehicle?” What he implies is, “Are there any illegal people in the vehicle?” We say no, as if he could detect if we were lying. The charade of this person, who looks to be no older than us and seems to have no vested interest in illegal immigration other than for a paycheck, being stationed there for the sole purpose of protecting California’s agriculture from dangerous produce, was both laughable and enraging. We knew this was a thinly veiled way to enforce the violence of citizenship.
The last and final time we pass a border checkpoint, Carl barely rolls down his window when the agent in a dull green uniform and state-authorized gun gestures us through. By this time, it is absurdly clear who the border place is safe for. We both know that if either of us looked “Mexican,” or anything but white, our road trip would have been very different. We were allowed to drive through each state, each boundary in a minivan with out-of-state license plates and a dark crate in the back seat without arousing suspicion. There was no doubt that we didn’t belong. No question of citizenship. We sat comfortable in our AC while the border loomed near, enforced by a boundary that ran in jagged, angry lines.
As the topography thinned out and expanded into rocks and cliffs, sand and brush washing out the scenery, I swear I could make out the thin red streams. I could hear la herida abiertando. I could smell the wounds festering.