The border wall is morbidly fascinating every time we see it. This time, as we pulled into El Paso after a long drive through the dry, yellow expanses of New Mexico, I glimpsed part of the imposing structure I’d never seen before. It appeared to meander, to stop and start in accordance with a line seemingly drawn by a shaky hand. Juarez was clearly visible on the other side, pushed right up against the border, peering over with a silent might. We learned later on in the day that in some cases the border is not supported by a wall at all, but rather by simple land markers proclaiming this is indeed the “BOUNDARY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” In other places, the natural obstruction of mountains act as a substitute for the wall itself, relying on the perilous and exposed nature of the terrain to act as a deterrent from crossing. But even if someone were to attempt to cross over the mountains, the countless surveillance towers and motion sensors would surely catch them first.
Our trip to El Paso was part of a larger context to see the border firsthand in all its forms. We had seen the border in Nogales and the borderlands in Tucson and had even spent time on the other side of it in Oaxaca. But something was still missing from our understanding of the recent border phenomenon. Our learning, however extensive, was still based in Tucson, nearly an hour from the actual border. We needed a more comprehensive look at how the border operates from the ground level, right smack against the wall itself, and El Paso served as an ideal location for just that. Within hours of being there, the difference became palpable.
The most peculiar part of this border for me was at the intersection of New Mexico, Texas, and Chihuahua, Mexico. We were separated from Mexico by a mere chain-link fence. On the other side was a small neighborhood, where a group of adolescent boys were hanging out near the fence. I looked behind me to see a vast expanse of mountains and valleys – “American” territory – and felt an uncomfortable agoraphobia at the space that was accessible to me simply because of my citizenship. The boys moseyed over to the fence and began to converse with our group. As they spoke they leaned against the wall, their fingers and bits of their clothes dangling through the chains – a chilling representation of goods flowing through borders while people are trapped behind them. I felt wrong standing there on the other side from them. No matter how much any of us wanted to be cordial and show the boys decent human respect, there was still a fence between us. Not built there for us, but for them.
Being right up against the border exacerbated the sense of blending I’d gotten from my time in the borderlands. A blend of cultures, languages, people. A blend of identities. This is only natural in a place where two countries meet and overlap with dozens of indigenous cultures. But El Paso seemed to be having an identity crisis. The streets were crawling with people past small convenience stores with signs in Spanish. Wherever I was I could hear Spanish being spoken or Mexican music playing, making it seem like the border was a hasty attempt to convince the US that it belonged to it. This was definitely stolen land.
Even more than the cultural blend was the contradictory interactions between seemingly opposing institutions. Our tour guide at Annunciation House, a hospitality house for undocumented sojourners in El Paso, informed us that volunteers saw ICE officers on their way to work, and they sometimes even waved and said hello to each other. Some even knew each other personally. Interpersonal friendliness aside, it seemed the two organizations – one geared toward providing migrants a shelter on their long, dangerous trip and the other geared toward the detention and deportation of people in similar positions – interact on a professional level too, sometimes even to connect family members together. This is truly a unique overlap. In Tucson, the community seemed to be split down the middle: the ACTIVISTS and BORDER PATROL. In El Paso, the two groups existed practically on the same block.
With the constant contact between those working for justice on the border and those working within the institutions perpetuating injustice, there exists a great disparity between the organizations themselves but a strange community of people working on either side. Those on the ground level are perhaps not so different from each other after all. Activists understand that ICE officers need jobs, and ICE officers seem to understand the migrants need jobs too. With the border in plain sight, ripping through everyone’s lives unapologetically, it must be practically impossible not to think of it every single day, at least in passing. For many, that imposing fortress of a wall is their life’s work – whether they want to enforce it or tear it down.
The two did not always see eye to eye, however; in fact, they rarely did. The same natural differences of interest existed between the two only in much closer quarters, which exacerbated the tension. Much of this animosity had to do with the building of new “residential holding facilities” – which is a fancy and deceptive way of saying “family detention centers.” The lingo assigned to these new developments is hardly fooling anyone, though. It seems to be just another hoop ICE must jump through to hide the new centers from public dissent.
The facility in Artesia, New Mexico, is a perfect example of one such construction, and is located in a very rural area next to a Border Patrol training base. Though convenient for Border Patrol, this location is to the detriment of everyone else. Very far out of the way of, well, anywhere, it is a hassle for lawyers and support organizations to make their way out to Artesia – perhaps a way to literally hide the facility with its physical location as well as behind deceptive lingo. And they have good reason to want to. In this family detention center children are being held without schooling, since after a brief stint of school for three hours a day, it was decidedly not worth the trouble. Next, they weren’t even allowed to have crayons to distract them from their inconsolable boredom. In fact, boredom was said to be the number one complaint among detainees, which often led to severe depression.
The adults were not in much better of a situation. Forced to witness their cases from the confines of a small trailer somewhere in the facility, the courtroom must seem like a distant world when only seen through a small box on a monitor. The judge cannot see any body language of the defendant due to the limited visual span of the courtroom’s monitor as well. It is difficult for the lawyer to even speak to her client because of the hypersensitivity of the microphones in the makeshift trailer, often resulting in both the lawyer and the defendant sitting in silence for the duration of the time. Though operating under the title of “residential holding facility,” it seems that the odds are stacked against the subjects ever being released. Hearing of the circumstances leading to incarceration and the limited opportunities for release were very familiar to me after visiting Operation Streamline and the Florence Detention Center. Justification for such facilities came in the form of humanitarian principle, claiming that families are at least kept together this way, just as the shiny, well kept grounds in the detention centers distracted the visitor from the unjust reasons people end up there in the first place. But the reality is that life in Artesia is no freer than in a detention center anywhere else.
The existence of these new holding facilities highlights the superficiality of the relations between Border Patrol and their opposition despite their friendly contact. Though an interesting blend of people exists in El Paso, there still exists a fundamental misunderstanding between them as well. Our Annunciation House guide expressed frustration at the lack of concern from Border Patrol and ICE agents about the workings of higher-ups within the institutions they work. They seem content to let the laws they so loyally follow be created by people and forces far beyond their control, even while some acknowledge the unfairness of the work they carry out. The empty echo of “just following the law,” mimed by so many Border Patrol agents, is problematic when said as if such laws are absolute and beyond question. We heard this echo from our guide agent at the Nogales Border Patrol Station, from the head of a detention center in Florence, Arizona, and then we heard it second-hand from our Annunciation House tour guide.
The pattern is unsettling and unrelenting. Perhaps something in Border Patrol training convinces each and every agent this is the correct attitude to have. Perhaps the few “threats” that are caught coming through the border – which itself is very debatable – is enough to convince even the most skeptical agent of the justice of his work. Or, most likely, perhaps many agents continue their jobs because it is simply the easiest path to take. Regardless of the reasoning, the blind acceptance of regulations concerning border control proves that we live in a culture obsessed with security. This attitude is by no means confined to border agents, either. In fact, it is rampant within this country. It creates a culture of fear that perpetuates anti-immigrant sentiments by making their very existence within the border walls illegal. Once stripped of legality, it is easy to call undocumented people criminals and ship them off to detention centers and private prisons, where they make the corporate elite money by filling the spaces created for them behind barbed wire. An industry has been built off of misdirected hysteria, all of which culminates in the form of the border wall. And though the nature of that wall may vary from place to place, a wall with many faces is still a wall – a physical manifestation of exclusion.
The border was once merely a line in the sand, but has now progressed into a power display under the auspices of “fighting terrorism.” But let us not forget the origins of the Border Patrol, as a division of the Department of Labor, and how those origins are still relevant today. In El Paso, the might of the border can be felt in every pore, and it is impossible to escape. Where the wall tears families and communities apart, it also forms a highly dysfunctional network of opposing institutions in the immediate area. These institutions directly determine the lives of thousands of migrants. And their lives determine the life work of thousands of people either working for a check or working for change.
During this semester, I have been taught to expand the boundaries of the classroom. Our first classroom was at the peak of “A” Mountain at sunset; we could see all of Tuscon as we learned about the semester we were about to embark on. During the first week on a trip to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, our classroom was the home of Nogales resident Maricruz who fed us delicious lentil soup and spoke about her experiences living on the border. Since orientation week our classroom has taken many shapes like a detention facility in Florence, a courtroom in Tucson, and a marketplace in Teotitlan, Oaxaca, Mexico. This Friday, my classroom was a taxicab. On trips to and from a fancy hotel in North Tucson, two separate taxi drivers, both Tucson natives, engaged me and two fellow BSP students in conversations that expanded on topics of indigineity, immigration, and place-making in the borderlands.
Our first taxi driver’s name was Rob. Rob explained how he has lived in Tucson all his life, his family is from Tucson, and his ancestors have lived in (what is known today as) Tucson for hundreds of years. Because of this, he was well-versed in the history of indigenous people in the area. He explained that if you dig anywhere around the Santa Cruz River in Tucson, you uncover remains from irrigation canals that were established over 1000 years ago. He commented on the diminishing water table, saying 50 years ago you could dig 40 feet and hit water and now you have to go at least 180. He pointed at plants that we passed on the drive and explained how they have all adapted to the desert climate. His favorite part of Tucson is the historic downtown area because he said even though there are a lot of changes to the downtown, that area still has a lot of character.
I wasn’t planning on thinking about school during this taxi ride (it was Friday for goodness sakes!) but I couldn’t help it. I thought about the politics that had kept Rob, a dark-skinned man, in a service job all his life while a certain sector of Tucsonans have been accumulating capital, filling skyscrapers with profitable business, and settling in the hills. I thought about the time outside of school he had invested in learning about his indigenous roots and the students who do not have access to learning about their heritage in high school because of laws like SB2281 in Arizona that ban ethnic studies. I thought about the diminishing water table and how the hotel we were heading to (which boasts 7 swimming pools and golf course) and the lifestyle that this sort of hotel caters to are contributing to that decline. I thought about the historic downtown and who has access to the restaurants and housing in that area now that it has been “cleaned-up” or gentrified.
As my mind swirled around with these thoughts and we reached our lavish destination, I recalled a comment from class a week prior. A young woman, a Tucson native and ethnic studies activist, came to our class to talk about her participation in protests against the ban on ethnic studies. She was in high school before the Arizona State Legislature banned ethnic studies classes, which were some of the classes that really engaged her. In response to the ban, she was part of the group of student leaders to organize and act against it. Towards the end of her talk, someone asked her how taking ethnic studies has influenced her life and she poignantly responded, “Honestly, ethnic studies ruined my life.” The knowledge she has learned through ethnic studies and her subsequent participation in a radical protest movement against its ban has plagued her life. She can no longer go home and chill with her family without thinking about the way that the system is failing them. She can no longer see a dude without thinking about feminist theory. Ethnic studies granted her all this knowledge and she was no longer able to ignore injustice, whether it was with her homies or with TUSD.
I felt that way as the taxi driver shared his story. As we rolled up to the hotel I was thinking to myself, “Ok Tori, stop thinking about this stuff. Just enjoy yourself, its the weekend.” Then as we walked through the large marble lobby, passed couches decorated with dozens of silk pillows of all shapes and sizes, gazed through a two-story window that framed the Santa Catalina Mountains, and passed fellow customers with fancy jewelry, shiny shoes, and white pants I got the urge to scream,”Chinga La Migra!”
“Chinga la migra” is part of the refrain of a song called “No Mercy” by a really radical Phoenix-based hip-hop duo that we met this week for class, Shining Soul. I wondered if I screamed it if anyone would know what I was talking about. At the swim-up bar, I had the impulse to ask the bar tender about his immigration stance or if he had every heard of Shining Soul but I shied away. In their song they say they are, “saying the shit that you can’t say” and I definitely felt that I could not say this “shit” at this country club which made me want to scream it even more. And I did, twice, while sliding down a water slide.
This all sounds ridiculous,* I know. Just check out the music video below to be inspired to say something in spaces where these issues do not come up.
(*Also, just as a side note being radical should not be synonymous with being ridiculous. But it is for me. That’s a problem.)
The former ethnic studies student’s inability to go home and act normal and my urge to scream “Chinga la migra!” at a fancy hotel are both examples of ways that our learning liberates us. Oftentimes, when we think about liberation we think about rainbows and butterflies and happiness. That surely is the end goal, but the process of liberation looks more like internal struggle, tension, teaching moments, and overcoming difference. It sure isn’t pretty.
After an evening at the luxurious hotel, a fellow BSP student and I got into another cab to head home. This time our taxi driver was a really nice and chatty woman. After our obligatory discussion about the weather, we explained that we were in Tucson for a semester studying border issues. She asked us to share a bit about what we were learning. I told her that today we learned about the plans to construct CANAMEX, a international highway to promote free trade from Mexico, through the US and to Canada. She thought that sounded pretty good until I explained the tension between the private-public partnerships (P3s) that have mapped out its route and the people the road will impact. For example, Loop 202, a section of CANAMEX near Phoenix, is set to go right through South Mountain, or Moadak in Akimel Oo’dham, which is sacred lands for the Gila River indigenous tribe. Read more about CANAMEX here. Our cab driver was thankful for the knowledge we shared and glad that we were here in Tucson and thinking about these things. She said she hopes that we can do something to make some changes around here and I replied discouraged, “Well, another thing we are learning is it is really hard to make change because off all the power that big corporations have.” She laughed and replied, “So you learned that the hand with money holds the power.”
In that moment, the taxi driver had synthesized the queasy tension that I have been feeling between being liberated by all the knowledge we have learned this semester and finding ways to transition this knowledge into practical strategies to change the system. The sacrifice of fighting against this system and not making money while those benefiting from the system get richer and more powerful. And again I come to the conclusion that liberation is not happiness and rainbows and butterflies. It is a struggle. It is resistance. It is rice and beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is attending community meetings after a busy day at school or work. It is where critical thinking and chilling are inseparable. It is learning in the classroom, on the streets, and in a taxicab. It might be a plague…actually I hope its a plague because that means its going to spread.
The only way that we can help this plague of liberation spread is by sharing it. Sharing it involves solidarity. I think of solidarity as the ability to relate over things that we agree on despite the many ways that we are different. For our Critical Issues class this week, we attended an event to show solidarity between the Borderlands and Palestine. Throughout the night I learned more about the Israeli-Palestinian border conflict, ate some delicious Palestinian food (which, ironically is very similar to Israeli food… food solidarity?), and heard from: our very own Professor/activist/mujer fuerte about disability and its relationship to the conflicts; Shining Soul about Tohono O’odham and Chican@ border struggles; and Amy Juan, a young Tohono O’odham rights activist about the US-Mexico border splitting their land and causing difficulties for her people. At the end of the event, all parties danced together to a lively Tohono O’odham band, the Pick Up Kings. As I reflect on it now, the combination of people from all walks of life dancing together was a beautiful picture of solidarity. We all had our own style but we picked up the rhythm together as well as we could. It wasn’t pretty, some toes were definitely stepped on, but the important part was that we were all in motion together.
My host mom is up, ready for me with burritos at 7 am. “Mija, estás preparado para el desierto hoy?” Though I live here, and see the desert landscape everyday, I still imagine it as flat and sandy. The reality of its frequent crevices, rocky surface and various prickly plant life, are only known later as I pull thorns from my bare arms and stones from my Tevas. She hands me my water bottle and squeezes me goodbye.
We drive out of Tucson from the South Side. The group is lead by John, the oldest resident of Casa Mariposa who wears his thin white hair in a little ponytail, and is more energetic than any of us college kids this early in the morning (though as I’ve gotten to know him, I may argue that he is more energetic than any of us, ever). Kaïa, Brandon and I are all Border Studies students who’ve never been to the desert before.
We begin by talking about Arivaca, a very small town, just 11 miles north of Mexico and situated in the middle of the desert. A Border Patrol check point has put this small border town in the news recently (Arivaca check point). John tells us that a bunch of hippies moved here in the 60s, but the largest population in the town is that of retired school teachers. We fade out of the populated Tucson ground, and in and out of smaller and smaller towns. Arivaca seems like its own world. One bar, one grocery store, maybe two restaurants, a church and an art co-op. Everything looks over grown. Driving through the checkpoint was so informal, it looked like it was compactable, like someone just inflated a checkpoint in the morning and would fold it back up at night. This is part of the point, Customs and Border Patrol originally said it was only temporary, but here we are over six years later, stopped upon each entrance and exit. The presence of this checkpoint, and its attendants dressed in uniform, along with various surveillance towers in town, heightens the militarization of the borderlands. A witness sits outside the checkpoint in a fold up chair, the kind my parents would bring to my soccer tournaments as a kid. This witness, a volunteer from the Arivaca-based People Helping People, is one of many from the Arivaca area who “share a deep sense of anxiety and powerlessness when traveling through the checkpoint, feeling that continuing to be forced to stop and affirm their citizenship status to armed agents in order to leave the area is, at its basis, an unreasonable burden.”
Soon we even fade off of this main road and we’re unloading the car of all its water, packing them up in our back packs or arms. Two gallons of water in my backpack, and two gallons of water in hand, I follow the group into an overgrown desert. In the first twenty minutes we end up walking up and down steep rocky hills, getting caught in prickly bushes, crossing a pretty significant stream and, having completely missed the trail, ending up right back where we started. Though, off trail, we found some powerful things migrants left behind. A beautiful blue blanket is nestled off the bank of the stream, caught up in some mud. A delicate rosary hangs from a tree branch. John says that getting lost is never a mistake because we wouldn’t have been able to see those things. The intricacies of migration in the desert. He asks us what we would carry.
We’re on trail now, dropping off water at the first spot, I unload the two bottles I’m carrying by arm, what a relief. I sit down briefly and drink half my water bottle. John says that we’re about 1⁄4 of the way in, but when we got lost we probably walked twice that. The first water drop is on some big rocks in this little nook between two hills. I feel totally invisible, totally swallowed by the desert. I’ve already got scratches on my arms and legs. We keep moving, it’s harder for me than it is for the others. We’re directly in the sun now, and occasionally we walk through tall grasses that give the effect of a breeze, but I learn later just lead to massive amounts of bug bites. We’re also moving up hill. The view is absolutely incredible.
Its really hard to describe the combination of beauty and struggle that is the experience of the Sonoran Desert. I got scratched up, bit up, burnt up… in the however many hours that the desert swallowed me for. It gave me a new sense of what cruzando really means.
When we reach the major location for the water drop, at an intersection of two trials, we see running water, and a fairytale-like tree which hangs water bottles, like elegant extensions of its branches. We hang the water bottles among water bottles, with messages for the people who will drink from them; “Salud!” “Que le vaya bien!” I sit down for a while; feet in the water cooling off, ankles just above it getting eaten by mosquitoes, I finish off my water bottle, then Brandon’s, and I guess I stand up to fast because dizziness overcomes me.
I lead the way back, imagining sitting down in the air-conditioned car. The route feels faster, everything lighter. Instead of looking between branches and brambles, I’m looking out at the mountains and rolling hills. There is no wind, there are no clouds. Heat hits us and doesn’t stop, but neither do we.
A week later I’m in Oaxaca. Today we visit an indigenous community in the mountains, Analco. The community has faced a lot of out migration, whether that is to the city for education or the States for work; they are functioning with a remarkably smaller population than before. We’re hosted by a group of men working within the ecotourismo cargo. They take us on a walk through their forest, describing the ecology and research they are doing. This walk is very different than the one from last week. I’m wearing a sweatshirt and jeans (and still a little chilly). Everything I see is a healthy green or a rich brown, slightly damp from the morning rain. We talk about migration casually, where are their brothers and sisters? Have they personally left Analco? A lot of them have sisters who moved to the city for education and then marriage. A few of them have brothers with families in the States. The necessity of migration is evident, but the energy around it, on this walk through the forest, is significantly less urgent than in the desert.
I stand with Andres by a little stream on their land, just outside of the dining area. “Que bonito, no?” He asks me. In broken Spanish I tell him I live in the desert, where there is no water like this trickling stream, and no green like the mountains.
“Yo crucé el desierto en Arizona”
“Si? Estuve allí la semana pasada.” I told him about working for No More Deaths, and how I just recently was out leaving water. He asked me if we hung the water in trees. Yes, we do. He said when he was crossing, they had been walking for a while and found water hanging in trees. I think of those hours in the heat, and the beautiful desert tree we hung water from.