In May 2016, a group of faculty from the University of Puget Sound made a week-long journey along the US/Mexico border from El Paso/Ciudad Juárez to the Pacific Ocean. This site—an assemblage of photographs, images, videos and a collectively written narrative of the trip—is a partial archive of our exploration into the vital connections and sometimes violent ruptures along that long international divide.
Each of us took something back with us that will inform our teaching and each of us had our horizons broadened in different ways.
The trip itself was the culmination of the program developed by John Lear and Doug Sackman for their James Dolliver Professorship at the University of Puget Sound (a rotating professorship that supports teaching in the humanities). More information about the broader program can be found at the end of this narrative, under the section titled “prologue.”
Participants: Andrew Gardner, Anthropology | Andrew Gomez, History and Humanities | Robin Jacobson, Politics and Government | John Lear, History and Latin American Studies | Elise Richman, Art | Douglas Sackman, History and Environmental Policy & Decision Making | Ariela Tubert, Philosophy
Day 1 - El Paso
Our first border crossing occurred in the air as our flight from Seattle dipped over Ciudad Juárez towards the El Paso airport. From the air, it is all one big city, divided and joined by the mostly dry scar of the Rio Grande, parallel fences and a few bridges. The sprawl of the much larger Ciudad Juárez dominates, and its maquiladora assembly plants seem to have their counterpart in the shopping malls and parking lots of El Paso.
We picked up our huge rented Suburban, checked into our hotel by the university, and left soon after to dine with anthropologist Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies, University of Texas El Paso. Joe gave us a sweeping overview of the El Paso-Ciudad Júarez metropolitan area, from the initial divide, born of the 1836 Texas rebellion and 1848 US-Mexican War, to a century of relative easy movements across the Rio Grande, to the current divisions of capital, labor and violence that define these twin cities. A key takeaway from our taco-filled discussion: that the striking contrast between one of most violent cities in Mexico and one of the safest in the US was not simply national divergence or coincidence, but a function of their intimate relationship.
Day 2 - Ciudad Juárez
At the crack of dawn the next day, we crossed the bridge to Ciudad Juárez with absolutely no obstacles or contact with officials of either nation. Leaving the US and entering Mexico is far easier than entering the US, even for those without US passports. On the “otro lado” we met Verónica Corchado, a Ciudad Juárez native and life-long activist who directs the collective Arte, Comunidad y Equidad, which uses collective art projects to organize local women around issues of violence and poverty. Verónica was our principal guide for the day and organized an intense day of visits and presentations with activists and academics. The focus was on three fundamental aspects of the Ciudad Juárez experience: the maquiladora assembly plants that dominate the Cuidad Juárez economy, employ mostly women migrants from rural Mexico, and supply US consumer society; the hundreds of rapes and murders since 1993 of women, most of them employed by the maquiladoras; and the generalized corruption and speculation in land and construction that has shaped the city and its politics.
We began with a driving tour around the industrial zones and marginal neighborhoods of the city’s east side with engineer Miguel Fernandez Iturriza, one of the city’s early industrialists and now one of its harshest critics of corrupt local politics and urban speculation. An unforgettable moment: driving through a vast desert suburb, listening to stories of speculation and violence, we passed a site of a recent murder, with the body marked off by police boundaries and surrounded by local photographers and journalists. One response to such violence is the Women’s Art Collective La Promesa, which helps mothers of “femicide” victims deal with their loss and grief through art (more about La Promesa below). We shared lunch at Verónica’s organization with a variety of activist-scholars, including visual artist Gracia Chavez and professor Hernán Ortiz (housed in a beautifully renovated former maquiladora, which provides space for a number of non-profits and has an art gallery). One memorable presenter was Cecilia Espinosa, a former maquiladora worker, now labor organizer, who explained the recent labor conflict that had kept us from our long-scheduled visit to inside a maquiladora. She made clear both the manifold obstacles to worker organization and the tenacious struggles of women like her for basic labor rights and protections from the violence endemic to a society based on the unregulated maquiladora industry. In the afternoon, we visited the red light district downtown and the marginal westside Anapra neighborhood, both sites of many disappearances. Close by, we visited the site where US-based Mexican artist Ana Teresa Fernández (who had come to Puget Sound a month before to share her vision ) “erased” a section of the border by painting the fence sky blue. Around sunset, we shared a final drink and reflection with our guide Verónica, showed our passports to US immigration officers, walked back across the bridge, and returned to the illusion of safety and order on the “El Paso” side of the metropolis, with good food and lots to discuss.
Pushing the City Limits
With Miguel at the wheel, we toured in a circle around the city, driving for hours as our guide named roads, neighborhoods and housing developments. Distinguishing one area from another became difficult through the repetition of the deserted, desolate landscapes. We saw development after development filled with abandoned houses with gaping holes where window glass or doors should have been. Some had boards over those holes and it was unclear if it was to keep people out or protect those who may have illegally taken up residence. These were houses that had never been finished or had been lived in briefly but abandoned as promised services and roads never arrived or as the abandoned units around them multiplied and danger grew. Still, in blocks and blocks of uninhabited houses a unit or two would appear with a car in the driveway, a plant that had been watered and a gate around their house letting us know that there were people still living in this overextended area. As we passed, Miguel would remind us that there was a high chance residents living in such abandoned places may not have electricity or water in their houses. They would probably be far from public transportation and may have to walk very long distances to work, to school, or to the store.
Miguel spoke about about federal monetary incentives to build housing; construction companies find cheaper land outside of the dense city area and used the incentives to build in that land. However, there is no oversight to make sure that there is public transportation or other services in these new developments. Construction became profitable through government support, even if Miguel spoke of how well-intentioned policies can end up disastrously when combined with corruption and little oversight.
Between these neighborhoods, we passed undeveloped fields as we continued to circle the city. Fields, which Miguel pointed out, that were not growing crops. Plastic bags and bottles brought in by the wind were stopped by stalks of overgrown grass, almost seeming to be intentionally distributed equally across the broad expanse. On our drive, we also saw many dumps, illegally made where neighborhoods would deposit their garbage. Clothes, dead cats, and old electronics were spilling down the sides of hills.
We drove for hours navigating the sprawling territory around Juárez and sometimes it felt like we were driving in circles as we were shown the multiple roads that led in the same exact directions, roads with no obvious destination (possibly the future site of more developments to be built and then abandoned), roads that were not finished, and roads that were barely roads. Leaving one development there were two streets, side by side, divided by a barrier: each was meant to have traffic in the same direction, seemingly leading to the same place. As we were leaving, we passed by the neighborhood sign at the entrance of the development and our guide pointed to the twin road next to us. It stopped with no exit possible. It was the road to nowhere. This, the original paved access, failed to connect to the main road when the owner of the last parcel of land refused to sell. Money had been invested in building a road without the planning necessary to complete it. So an entire new street mirroring that pathway was built that diverged for the last 30 feet to cut the corner and avoid the unobtainable land. Miguel decried the lack of planning and the key role of money fueling construction decisions, not the needs of the people. Many of these roads used regularly by people were often dangerous, unpaved or full of potholes. Some of the nicest roads however were not regularly utilized and often did not go where people lived or needed to travel.
These new roads, we were told, were built to provide funding to road construction companies and to improve the value of land held by the elite. Throughout the day, Miguel told us about how the Juárez city limits had been expanded so as to accommodate families who owned large plots of land outside of the city. These families, we were told, hope their land would become more valuable if connected to the city with roads and services. Indeed it was striking to see the difference between the heavily used road leading out of Juárez, which had various design flaws like lanes abruptly ending in a small wall, and the roads going from empty fields to empty fields. The latter, included a wide, multiple lane road surrounded by empty fields and leading to empty fields. We saw one or two cars in our 15-20 minute drive through it during the middle of the day. Miguel told us that this road was built about the same time as the one leading out of the city but more was invested in the remote road than in the main artery out of Juárez. We taught him the English word for these kind of projects—”boondoggles.”
One of these newer roads took us quite far outside the city. Passing empty fields and an occasional pedestrian who was walking for who knows how long, we drove till the city and the developments disappeared. Our driver pointed out in the distance a small dot out in the distance, the university. We arrived after another 10 or 15 minutes of driving on a desolate highway to Juárez’s main educational center, far from the city and its residents. It was on this road that we came upon police having recently discovered a dead body not that far off the side of the road. Was this someone attempting a long commute to the university? A worker or a student? Or did the empty expanse simply provide an opportune place for a crime? We were presented with the very real dangers associated with such high levels of disjointed and disconnected development.
The urban development policies that Juárez has followed has resulted in long commutes not just for students but also for the maquiladora laborers that work in various shifts 24 hours a day. Some of the maquiladoras have added bus routes to pick up workers but most of these run in denser areas. Non-dense areas with beautiful new roads, often have no public transit or maquila transport. The open fields surrounded the new barely occupied developments create a serious safety issue. As it is, people have to walk on the side of the road or through one of the open fields, sometimes at night, to take a bus to get to work at one of the maquiladoras.
In stark contrast to the working class developments and abandoned homes, we drove through an upper class neighborhood and were exposed to the radical inequality found in the city. The beautiful houses in this area had private security guards and high fences. Nonetheless, the Mayor and the Police Chief of Juárez do not live in this neighborhood but in El Paso. The neighboring city with significantly more resources is a draw to others in Juárez as well. In the morning, when we arrived in Juárez, we noticed lots of school aged kids in uniforms, forming a line to cross the border. Throughout the day, we heard about people who cross the border regularly for shopping and other services as well. Those who are able to afford it, live parts of their lives in El Paso, but the great majority are not able to do so and feel deeply the lack of planning and essential resources.
On the way back from the university towards the end of our time with Miguel, he pulled over to the side of the road at a high point so that we could look over the city. We looked down and he pointed out an older neighborhood built into the hillside. Rather than the poorly planned communities ringing the city to fill the pockets of landowners, contractors, and politicians, this was a neighborhood that had developed over time by the residents themselves. The mismatched tin roofs, some with slogans from companies, shown in the sun and they appeared to be stacked on top of each other. We re-boarded the van and drove down through this densely populated neighborhood, seeing children walking in groups and others moving around their streets together. Verónica shared that this was her neighborhood, or had been. She told us the residents were able to get some of their demands met from representatives, even if just at election time, which meant they had electricity and garbage service. She also told us about the time when the neighborhood had pulled together and, despite danger to themselves, kicked out drug dealers who had tried to move in. She had been a leader in that movement. While they were successful, she felt her life was in danger as a result of her involvement and so she moved. But from this organically developed neighborhood that held high levels of social capital, Verónica emerged as a leader and one that would move on to make the city better in other ways.
Ciudad Juárez appeared to us as a grieving city. We were struck by some responses to loss that developed there.
In 2010, Ciudad Juárez had one of the highest murder rates in the world. Though the murder rate has declined in recent years, we were told during our visit that there had been a recent increase in the number of murders — perhaps due to the upcoming elections or El Chapo’s transfer. During the day we spent in Juárez, there were two murders, a “normal” daily number in the months preceding our visit. For one of them, we drove right by the body soon after it had been discovered — police cars and journalists surrounded it on the side of the road on the way to university. We were struck by the pink t-shirt and immediately assumed it was one of the “femicidios” that we had been discussing and hearing about throughout the day. We were told the death would barely make the news, it happens so often, and that it must have been committed by someone without too much experience, as bodies are rarely found in one piece anymore. A small story in the local paper told us it was a man wearing a pink shirt and black shorts; the image stayed with us for the rest of the day and the rest of the trip.
La Promesa is an art collective in what Miguel described as the second most dangerous neighborhood in Ciudad Juárez. It was founded a year ago (2015) on land donated by a couple whose daughter was a victim of femicide. Barbed wire, chain link fencing and concrete walls protect those who enter and designate it as a space to grieve surround the center. La Promesa is in the process of being built by volunteers who use recycled materials such as bottles to make a space that is welcoming, encompassing, and safe. A mural in the courtyard, featuring a strong-trunked tree with many branches, allows people to paint in aspirations—things that they hope will grow in their community.
Mothers who have lost their daughters to femicide are able to mourn at La Promesa by making mosaics representing both their daughters’ faces and something of significance to their lost loved ones. This is a sustained form of therapy, spanning around four months. Mothers engage in weekly sessions that involve remembering their daughters verbally by telling stories and sharing memories and with their hands by making whole, believable images out of broken shards. In many cases, the full body of the victim is not available and parts of the remains are returned to the family as they are found. The process of making the mosaic involves rebuilding and remembering the body and mind of the missing daughter. The mothers are asked figuratively and literally to put the pieces together so as to compose the image of the missing daughter. Special emphasis is put on getting the eyes right and, Veronica explained. This could take lots of trial and error but is central to the project. In addition, mothers are asked to think about objects that would be most meaningful to the daughters so as to represent the daughter’s activities and personality in the mosaic as well. The goal is partially to provide a way of remembering the missing young women that upholds their spirit, their interests, and their character. But in addition, the mosaic aids the family in the grieving process and once completed it is taken to a reclaimed park for a celebration of life and to the cemetery to accompany the grave.
Reading a poem called Sangre Mía/Blood of Mine (which was published in a collection of poems on the femicides co-edited by one of the people who visited Puget Sound as part of the Dolliver program, poet Juan Armando Rojas Joo), Verónica conveys the power, pathos and beauty of the creation process in this video.
“There is doubleness to Ciudad Juárez”, Miguel stated while leading us on a tour of the city. He was referring to the city’s perpetual expansion paired with its rampant vacancy. Miguel led us on a lengthy and meandering tour of a city that has grown geographically seven times in recent history, resulting 100,000 vacant homes. Ciudad Juárez is haunted by ghost town developments within its ever stretching borders. These empty neighborhoods are built as favors to the eight families who own most of the city’s land. Taxes support the government funds that pay for empty developments. In essence, the mostly poor people of Juárez pay for these modern ruins.
Ciudad Juárez’s doubleness is connected to femicide. Maquiladora workers often have to travel great distances across deserted spaces to commute to work. Vacancy and distance create dangerous conditions that contribute to the violence that renders Ciudad Juárez “the capital of murdered women.” Since 1993 hundreds of femicides have been documented and thousands of women have been reported as missing. Many of these women have left their homes in rural parts of Mexico to work in the approximately 340 maquiladoras located in Ciudad Juárez.
Campo Algodonero, a memorial for the hundreds of murdered women in Ciudad Juárez, is located across the street from the city’s Maquiladora headquarters. It occupies the site where eight women were found tortured, raped and murdered in 2001. Campo Algodonero was built ten years later in 2011. Pink crosses, markers of loss, dot the memorial. The crosses’ pink color indicates affiliation with the mother’s pink cross campaign. Eight of the crosses were erected on the site in 2001 to memorialize the women whose lives were lost in the shadow of the Maquiladora headquarters. Their names are painted in delicate script on the crosses and are also etched indelibly into a marble wall. Additional crosses are emblazoned with the words “NI UNA MAS,” in bold black letters. Missing person posters plaster the stone walls behind the crosses, acting as reminders of the thousands of women whose whereabouts are unknown. A memory wall near the memorial’s entrance displays photos of murdered women, providing a space to grieve dozens of individuals. This memorial acts as a grieving space and an admonishment not to forget those are missing and to fight to prevent even one more murder. ¡Ni una mas!
Borrando La Frontera
Ana Teresa Fernández project Borrando La Frontera visually erases passages of the wall separating the US/Mexican border. We visited Fernández’s blue border erasure just outside of Ciudad Juárez and later in Tijuana. These are two of five sites where the border has been erased over the years; the others are at Nogales, Mexicali and Agua Prieta. The three at Juárez, Mexicali and Agua Prieta were painted concurrently last April (2016) with the help of a host of volunteers, including Ana’s mother María Fernández.
Fernández’ project is part performance and part site-specific intervention. In Tijuana, she donned a cocktail dress and high heels as she applied sky blue house paint to a portion of the rusting steel intrusion that physically divides the landscape in two. Fernández felt that performing femininity in formal wear rendered border patrol agents more open to her enterprise while suggesting that gender can act as a social barrier.
A sense of hope emanates from Fernández’s subtle yet defiant interventions. The light blue that she carefully selects, transforms hard, dark barriers into swaths of airy, cool color that seemingly merge into the sky rather than divide land.
Day 3 - El Paso-Bisbee
The first part of the day was spent on a line tour with United States Border Patrol agents in the El Paso sector. The timing of our visit came at a particularly political moment as the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing over 16,000 agents, had recently endorsed the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Yet, they also indicated that the kind of wall proposed in the campaign was not needed and would not be very effective. The line tours are designed to be apolitical, but the inherently political nature of the border seeped its way into several aspects of the tour. Our guides, Gio and Oscar, drove us to several areas of the US-Mexico divide to explain their work and recent developments along the border. In particular, the agents spoke about their patrolling process, the legal process after detainees have been apprehended, recent surges in Central American migrants, and the unique dynamics between El Paso and Juárez.
After the line tour, the group headed west along New Mexico’s State Road 9, paralleling the US-Mexico border. This is a desolate area of the state with Border Patrol agents regularly monitoring the area. (It’s also patrolled by regular law enforcement, who pulled Doug over — for a moving violation: trafficking a group of professors across the desert at too high a speed).
In the early evening, we arrived in Bisbee, a picturesque old mining town in Southern Arizona. That night we met with Katherine Morrissey, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Arizona. Professor Morrissey presented an illustrated lecture on her recent book project that looks at visual representations of the 258 border monuments that were used to separate the US-Mexico border during the nineteenth century. She showed us that for over 100 years — from the 1890s International Boundary Commission photographs to tourist snapshots to re-photography projects — the US-Mexico borderline, and the monuments that mark it, have fascinated photographers.
We encountered many of these obelisks during our trip (some of which we saw from either side of the border fence). The monuments, now mostly backed up by fences (and in San Diego, layers of fences), provide a stark reminder of the evolving nature of the border and its enforcement. Our own fascination with them manifested something else as well: that the man-made structures purporting to permanently mark the precise dividing line between nations are magnetic, charged with an enduring symbolic power.
Day 4 - Bisbee-Ambos Nogales
Friday was largely dedicated to exploring the dynamics in Ambos Nogales. Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico are two neighboring cities with a long, shared history that has been drastically changed by the hardening of the US-Mexico border. We began the day by meeting with Dean Fish and Diana Hadley at the Santa Fe Ranch, where the Santa Cruz River crosses the border in Nogales, Arizona. Dean is a local rancher and Diana is a local scholar and activist. Dean and Diana guided us through the Santa Fe Ranch and explained how local ranchers deal with migrants, livestock, and the environmental consequences of the border. Dean manages much of this land with owner Tony Sedgwick (who we’ll hear more about below), and clearly loves it. Dean spoke at length about how ranchers in the area are divided over the influx of undocumented migrants. The Arizona border is one of the most treacherous stretches of the US-Mexico border, with over 100 migrants dying during the journey in 2015. Ranchers like Dean make water accessible to migrants but there has been considerable debate in the rancher community over how to treat migrants and how to deal with local Border Patrol.
Life and Death at Ambos Nogales
In midday, we gathered at the Pimeria Alta Museum, located on the ground floor of the the Old City Hall of Nogales, Arizona. Filled with artifacts that tell stories of this cross-border region’s past, a pall hung in the air of the Museum that day, for its long-time curator, Teresa Leal, who had brought so much life to the work of the Historical Society, had passed away just days before our arrival. About her life’s work, which included activism to bring social justice to the borderlands and preserve its past at the Museum, Leal once explained: “I come from indigenous upbringing. I remember my dad and uncle would say, ‘You have to be accommodating to your purpose in life. If something comes up and it speaks to you about how you’ve been brought up, go make yourself available.’” She answered this calling right up to the end, for she was toiling away in the archives of the Museum when she passed.
Our group learned a great deal about the life and death struggles that accompany the cross-border traffic in people and goods in Ambos Nogales (as the two Nogales, in Arizona and Sonora, are collectively known). The two Nogales are both separated and united by the international border that stretches between them. In the 19th century, when patrons of Brickwood’s Saloon in Nogales, Arizona stood near its south wall, they were imbibing on the border itself—that drinking space was knocked out in 1894 to put up a border marker (as you can read about in historian Rachel St. John’s book A Line in the Sand). A lot of alcohol flowed north over this border line during prohibition. Much illicit traffic in people and goods continues to flow through Ambos Nogales, though there is also a tremendous amount of licit traffic at this Port of Entry. The President of the Fresh Growers Association, Lance Jungmeyer, told us about the thriving north-bound commerce in agricultural goods coming through Nogales’ modern Port of Entry into the United States, 2.5 billion dollars worth of fresh produce—tomatoes, eggplant, mangoes and more, much of it organically grown—is now trucked over the border each year, supplying a healthy dose of fruit to American consumers in the winter months. Meanwhile, Mexican workers from places like Oaxaca make a perilous passage through the desert to enter the United States, heading to fields and groves in California or Georgia or Washington or countless other places to harvest fruits and vegetables or perform other work vital to the so-called American way of life. Over the last decade, as other less environmentally punishing border zones in California and Texas have been hardened with walls and intensive surveillance regimes, over 6,000 migrants, lost or left behind by coyotes in this arid zone, have succumbed to exposure. We would learn more about those who lost their lives in the desert the next day with Robin Reineke in Tucson.
At Nogales, customs agents regularly discover marijuana tucked in with melons or cucumbers. Sometimes, the illicit trafficking of nature shows up in more surprising ways. On September 24, 2012 Homeland Security agents stopped an American crossing north over the border. Inspecting his car, they discovered over a dozen plants. Turn out your pockets, they told him; insects came out. They seized his suitcase; snapping it open, they beheld dozens more live and dead insect specimens. Though insects and plants regularly hitch rides on human travelers, sometimes with world-changing consequences, rarely do we find such a literal example of what environmental historian Alfred Crosby called “portmanteau biota” (the bits of non-human life that hitch rides in our “suitcases”). We might consider this “unnatural” migration of flora and fauna—interdicted at the border—in relation to the natural migrations of animals whose vital migration corridors are being interrupted by new border walls. It turns out this would-be plant and insect smuggler was a PhD student at the University of Arizona. His slapstick crossing, together with the other deadly serious traffic in nature and people across the border, helps illustrate not only the human bonds and interrelationship that extend north and south of the border, but the natural ones as well. And as historian Mary Mendoza informed us when she spoke at the University of Puget Sound, border barricades and programs of interdiction were first deployed to control the movement of bugs across the border—specifically, cattle-born ticks. Ticks were just one part of the cross-border traffic over the last century; at times, when people were moving across the border, they were been subjected to quarantines and disinfecting baths analogous to those cattle went through. Mendoza says that “ideas about race have been profoundly influenced by nature. Disease, bugs, contaminants, things that we consider bad, but also that our ideas about race change nature and landscape....We develop these ideas and establish racial difference based on concerns about contamination from tiny organism and ultimately transform entire landscapes.”
That complex international nature-culture dynamic is apparent on the ground today at the border in the heart of Nogales at the Alta Pimeria Museum, one of the places along the 1951-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico that is bisected with a 20-foot wall with dramatic social and ecological ramifications. Dan Millis, the coordinator of the Sierra Club’s borderlands program, told us that an impermeable portion of the wall had led to severe flooding in Nogales, Sonora, in 2008, causing millions of dollars of damage and drowning two people. Convinced that the wall is an economic boondoggle and an environmental and social disaster, Millis makes a point of climbing any barrier he comes across—sometimes in view of Border Patrol agents. He was once ticketed for littering. This might seem like an ignominious infraction for a Sierra Club leader, until you find out that his “littering” consisted of putting out water for migrants crossing the arid Sonoran desert. While the Sierra Club has a contentious history on immigration, since at least 1996 it has emphasized an inclusive view of Nature over the divisive Nativism espoused by a faction of environmentalists. Its current borderlands campaign is focused on reweaving the ecology of a region violently torn asunder by barriers that drive people to their deaths in the desert and strand wildlife on one or the other side of the border.
This is a reality that struck home when in 2008 Millis, working at the time with the humanitarian group No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, discovered the body of a fourteen-year-old girl from El Salvador named Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros. Traveling north with her younger brother to meet up with their moth Sonia in California, Josseline never made it through the harsh dessert. Her death made a deep impression on Dan, and her story became emblematic of the tragic way deserts and international policies separate parents from children across the borderlands. A shrine now stands where Josseline succumbed to dehyrdation, on which the words of her mother are inscribed: “Te llevaremos siempre en el corazón | We’ll carry you always in our hearts.”
Dan shared with us some of the collection of things migrants carried with them into the Sonoran desert, and left behind. He had recovered water jugs, painted black so as not to reflect border patrol search lights at night; an assortment of clothing; battered backpacks, lovingly embroidered tortilla cloths; and and a greeting card—the kind equipped with a silicon chip, a battery, a switch, and a speaker. It still played its song when Dan first picked it up. The things left behind in the desert have been archived and made into revelatory memorial art in an exhibition entitled State of Exception/Estado de Excepción).
Dan also showed us the consequences for non-human life of wall construction and increased border patrolling. With the passage of the Real ID act in 2005, the Secretary of Homeland Security was authorized to wave aside any federal laws and environmental protections—including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act— in order to build more walls and barriers along the border, and intensify its patrol regime. The walls and barriers interrupt vital migration corridors for wildlife. And with over 10000 vehicles, the Border Patrol represents a massive mechanical force that daily tears through fragile borderlands habitat. Sonoran pronghorn, organ pipe cactus, desert tortoise represent some of the plant and animal life imperiled by the wall and its ramifications. It’s an existential threat to the jaguar population in the US — only two of these magnificent cats live north of the border, and they are both males, so their future depends on allowing movement across the border to potential mates in Mexico.
Dan may go on with acts of civil disobedience like setting out water or climbing the wall, because he wants to see no more deaths (no más muertes). But he is cloaked and protected, even on the wall, by citizenship and whiteness; just a month after the insect incident at this border, 16-year old Jose Rodriguez had no protection when he was walking the road called Calle Internacional on the Mexican side of the fence at Nogales. An agent, later claiming that rocks were being hurled over the line into the US, pointed his Heckler & Koch pistol through the slats in the fence, blasting 14 hollow-point bullets across the line into Mexico and into the body of the boy, killing him. “It’s our neighborhood,” said his grandmother in shock.
The shootings of Mexicans (over 40 in the last several years) along the border have gone on mostly with impunity, but now two cases are being heard in U.S. courts. In fact, Rodriguez’s case is on hold, awaiting the outcome of another one that is now before the Supreme Court—that of a young man named Sergio Hernández in Juárez killed by a U.S. border patrol agent in 2010. The court is carefully weighing how the decision may affect drone use, among other things. This is all about the projection of U.S. power, into foreign territory, but more than that, into that arena of human rights that are supposed to be, as the nation’s founding documents proclaim, inviolate—truths that are self-evident, part of natural law, life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and as such, guaranteed. Perhaps the Supreme Court will rule that the U.S. border patrol has a right to kill people along a border zone, before the wall, in Mexico. Perhaps not. As NPR reports, “it’s up to the Supreme Court to decide where to draw the line.” We also should look back, behind the wall, into U.S. claimed territory, for that has become something of a rightless, lawless zone too. The suspension of environmental laws and protections on the U.S. side of the border are one way that the borderlands are being made ever more perilous.
Some 40 miles to the west of Nogales, the proposed wall would violate the sovereign rights and threaten the cultural survival of the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose homeland stretches on both sides of the place where the border line was drawn by Mexico and the United States. Chairman Edward Manual has issued a defiant rejection of any new border wall construction, saying it’s “not going to happen.It is not feasible to put a wall on the Tohono O’odham Nation…it is going to cost way too much money, way more than they are projecting.It is going to cut off our people, our members that come [from Mexico] and use our services. Not only that we have ceremonies in Mexico that many of our members attend. Members also make pilgrimages to Mexico and a border wall would cut that off as well.” As Tohono O’odham rancher Jacob Serapo points out, “There’s no O’odham word for wall.”
The popular 5-term sheriff of Santa Cruz County, Tony Estrada, talked with our group that afternoon about his humane approach to law enforcement along the line. Estrada has lived this newly violent borderline, a place he and others remember from a time when the divide between the countries was like a “picket fence between neighbors.” He was born in Nogales, Sonora and moved a mile into Nogales, Arizona when he was one year old, and now describes himself as “someone who has fully realized the American dream.” He remains skeptical of the drive to separate “back-to-back neighbors,” noting that “there is no sealing the border completely.” Serving in a county that deals directly and frequently with undocumented immigration, Estrada has served as a sheriff that has been sympathetic to migrants and also been ardently opposed to immigration laws like Arizona’s SB1070. Estrada detailed his own personal story and explained the challenges that Santa Cruz County faces in dealing with undocumented migrants and drug trafficking.The warm, polar opposite of Mariposa County’s Joe Arpaio, Estrada seems both bemused and troubled by the desire to absolutely shut down the border. He notes that the migrants, for the most part, are hard working, family oriented, people of faith, and contributors to community. “If we could put all that into a bottle,” he says, “Americans would rush out to purchase it.”
What Americans are rushing out to purchase is drugs, as both Estrada and local rancher Tony Sedgwick lament. Sedgwick—an Anglo rancher whose family came to the area a century ago—owns the Santa Fe Ranch that we had visited earlier that morning with Dean Fish. When Sedgwick (whom Doug met with on an earlier visit to the ranch) comes across drug smugglers passing through his property, toting machine guns, he simply says, “vaya con Dios”—go with God. Near where the Santa Cruz River flows into his land from Mexico, the border barrier transitions from the 20-foot tall pedestrian style, designed to stop foot traffic, to the kind of fence designed to stop only vehicular traffic, called the “Normandy” style of fence—as if this were some beachhead of a world war bracing for d-day. Sedgwick reminisces about the days before the bifurcation—when he used to meet Mexican vaqueros literally on the border to buy horses. He is married to a woman from Nogales, Sonora. He sees and experiences the land and people as a unity—truly what historian Sam Truett calls “neighbors by nature.” But he is now heart-broken that it is being fissured and turned into a war zone by what he sees as misguided policies imposed from afar, overrunning the cross-border barrio with an implacable barrier. Looking back to the pedestrian fence—which is constructed of 20-foot tall prefabricated steel bollards, with a space just wide enough between each one to reach a hand through but prevent a body from passing. In the afternoon, sunlight pours through the slits while the steel bollards cast shadows across the land, impressing into a photographic image of our bifurcation at the border.
The border made physical through steel acts as a kind of prism. It splits and re-channels the movement of people and organisms—of bugs, bodies, microbes, goods, identities, and of lead and sunlight—from one side to the other, but it does not stop the traffic at Ambos Nogales, or any where else in this shared world. As much as the U.S. national politics has driven the fantasy of sealing this border hermetically, the larger history of Ambos Nogales and the entire borderlands between the United States and Mexico is of two regions interwoven culturally, economically, and environmentally through the flows of people and organisms across the border—a two-way traffic in culture and nature. “Walls won’t work,” insists geographer Michael Dear, for, among other reasons, “diversity and diaspora trump the border industrial complex” (with no pun intended because it was written well before the last election). But current policies, physically and symbolically manifested in the proposed building of the Make-America-Great-Again wall, attempt to sever those connections, and create, as Gloria Anzaldúa once put it, an “open wound.”
Refuge in Nogales, Sonora
During the last portion of our day, the group crossed the border into Nogales, Mexico with Joanna Williams, the education and advocacy director of the Kino Border Initiative (KBI). The KBI is a binational organization that is devoted to providing direct assistance to migrants and advocating for changes in the United States immigration system. We spent our time in KBI’s Refuge House that was located just outside the border. The Refuge House is strategically located close to the border to aid migrants who have been recently deported. Once there, migrants have access to a morning and lunch meal service, pastoral education, and legal aid (we helped serve food and clean up for the meal when we were there). The migrants ranged from laborers who had spent limited time in the United States to others who had spent the majority of their lives in the United States only to find themselves deported.
The migrants ranged from laborers who had spent limited time in the United States to others who had spent the majority of their lives in the United States only to find themselves deported. The latter group was exemplified by two men that produced electronics in a local maquiladora for a large corporation. Both had spent the overwhelming majority of their lives in the United States, identified strongly with their local American communities, and raised families. For them, ties to Mexico were threadbare and both communicated feeling like foreigners in their country of birth. Ineligible under the DREAM Act and upended by deportation, both men also expressed a constant anxiety over their children and the limited legal avenues that might allow for their reunion.
The two men at Kino’s refuge house represent a growing trend of Americanized deportees that defy stereotypical views of undocumented immigrants. The flood of these deportees in recent years has sparked sizable changes in Mexico and Central America. On an immediate level, these deportees are especially susceptible to violence and coercion from local cartels and gangs. The refuge house’s proximity to the border is not accidental and the group provides essential assistance for deportees that need to navigate this crucial phase of re-entry to Mexico. Additionally, Mexican and Central American corporations have begun to take note of the financial incentives behind hiring fluent English speakers. Recent reports in The Guardian and The New Yorker have noted that this particular class of deportees have been a boon to call centers that work with American customers. Rory Carroll’s report for The Guardian noted that “Employing native English speakers who understand American culture gives Mexican call centers an edge over rivals in India and the Philippines in a competitive, billion-dollar global industry.” Stories like these underscore a fundamental reality of the current state of US immigration policy: whether embodied by agribusiness and detention centers in the United States or maquiladoras and call centers in Mexico and Central America, entire industries are now centered on the exploitation of undocumented or deported immigrants.
Day 5 - Tucson-San Ysidro
Though situated some 70 miles north of la frontera, Tucson is very much a border city. In fact, Tucson is the largest city in the last swath of territory the land-hungry US wrested from Mexico, as it was part of the Gadsden Purchase (or Venta de La Mesilla) made 5 years after the conclusion of the US-Mexico War in 1848.
Unfortunately, we only had the morning in Tucson, but we made the most of it. We met with Robin Reineke, a newly minted Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Arizona and a co-founder and the Executive Director of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. Robin shared her work with us as a forensic anthropologist. The term may conjure visions of dusty archeological sites, with scientists collecting ancient bones and attempting to put them together into the larger puzzle of what we know of human origins, cultures, and development. Robin’s work is much more immediate and personal, for little chronological distance separates her from the human remains she investigates. Nor does she look at them from the cold perch of science. Her work at the Colibrí Center is dedicated to identifying some of the thousands of migrants who have lost their lives in the Sonoran Desert over the last decade, and helping return their remains to family members. The Colibrí Center was recently featured in the documentary film Who Is Dayani Cristal? — with Gael García Bernal, who made a point to say, at the 2017 Oscar Ceremonies, “As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I am against any form of wall that wants to separate us.” Our group was deeply moved by what Robin called the “forensic anthropology of care.”
This day was also our big travel day, so after fueling up (and renting a few movies for the road), we headed west. We stopped for dinner in the Imperial Valley, looking for a Chinese-Mexican fusion restaurant that would match the wonderful dinner in Mexicali John and Doug had enjoyed with John Hernandez in one of their scouting trips. Ours didn’t match that, but this fusion cuisine comes out of a long history of Chinese border culture and border crossings in this region. The rest of our drive through the Laguna and Cuyamaca Mountains at dusk was spectacular if (mostly) uneventful. (One place advertised a Prime Rib for $7.99; we decided it had to be Subprime Rib, and drove on.) When we rolled up to a Border Patrol Checkpoint (some 70 of these exist along U.SA. highways within 75 miles of the border), the folks in the back were engrossed in the film Cartel Land. We just got the volume turned down when we rolled down the window to speak to the officer; otherwise, he might have been startled into action by the movie’s soundtrack of gun shots and arguments in Spanish about drug trafficking. This was a comical moment for us of what if, but the reality is that, though we could all but sail through these checkpoints, not everyone is granted that privilege so easily. These checks along the highways of the borderlands are part of the larger system meant to “control the border” which at the same time police a most basic human right — the right of movement.
An hour later, we turned into the parking lot of our modest hotel in San Ysidro. We knew we had made it all across the western border to the Pacific, for we could smell the marine air and we had to maneuver our big boat of an SUV around an actual sailboat on a trailer to get to the last available parking spot.
Day 6 - San Ysidro-Tijuana
Barbara Zaragoza, author of San Ysidro and the Tijuana Valley and the editor of the website South Bay Compass, served as our extraordinary local guide for our day in San Ysidro. She showed us various sites along the north side of the border, from where a few of the tunnels emerged in the Otay Mesa to the historical heart of San Ysidro and the busiest land port of entry in the Western Hemisphere. An ersatz border marker is displayed just north of this port of entry. As Barbara explained, the original monument was washed away in the devastating 1891 flood. A replacement was established (on higher ground), but the original one was recovered in a farmer’s field in San Ysidro in 1979—the joke when it was found was that Mexico’s border had just shifted north to the marker.
We then made our way to “Friendship Park” where we saw the border fence plunge into the Pacific like some kind of land shark dividing the waters with its corrosive fin. The final border monument, “258,” sits behind several layers of fences. The outer fences are opened up on the US side for a few hours each weekend. We timed our arrival so that we could take part in the cross-border religious service put on by “El Faro: Border Church/La Iglesia Fronteriza.” Methodist Pastors John Fanestil (on the US side) partners with Guillermo Navarrete on the Mexican side to bring people together with words, music and shared sentiments that can still get through the fence’s mesh, as well as the fingers we extended to touch our counterparts in Tijuana. It was communion over disunion at the Pacific, a site where the unnaturalness of the border fence is so strikingly manifest.
We also had the good chance to meet María Teresa Fernández at Friendship Park, photographer and mother of Ana Teresa Fernández—the artist who came to the University of Puget Sound to speak about her searing and scintillating work on this and other borders of human experience. On the Mexican side of the fence just a few yards from the Pacific, Ana had done her first installment of her “Borrando La Frontera/ Erasing the Border” project—in which she utilized a little paint and a powerful Superman-like vision to make the border fence optically disappear, giving us all the x-ray vision to see through steel. Just weeks before our trip, she and her mother had orchestrated three more artistic erasures, including the one in Juárez that we visited on our first full day of the trip. Maria got Ana on the phone: connecting back to Ana from this place took us full circle.
For many of our group, that was the end of the journey. After taking people back to the airport and switching out our big SUV for an economy car, Robin, Elise, John and Doug crossed the border into Tijuana, and visited the Playa on the Pacific on the Mexican side. Ana’s now fading erasure,* along with some other colorful murals on the fence, and many people enjoying a day at the beach, infuse the Mexican side with vibrancy against the austere architecture of security on the U.S. side. Such a contrast between North and South may be stereotypical, but nonetheless the feeling was palpable: the beach on the US side seems eerie and purposely emptied while the Mexican side is alive and welcoming. In any event, we got a picture at the final border monument, a place you can’t get to on the U.S. side.
* After the 2016 election, Ana Teresa Fernández brought her paint cans back to Tijuana, brushing blue on corroding iron to pull “down the sky to kiss the ground again.”
For the last two days, a smaller group explored Baja and Tijuana. Sunday evening, we trekked to the Tijuana side of the border fence that cuts across a busy beach into the Pacific, the side where we had poked our fingers through in communion during the morning religious service, the side where Ana Teresa Fernández had erased the fence with blue paint. On Monday, we headed south along the Pacific Coast to Ensenada. On Tuesday, we met again with Oscar Romo, who in turn introduced us to Angela Torres Lozano, a young writer in the crusading journalist mode who has created the site ScireBC to delve into deeper social and environmental issues facing the people of Tijuana and the larger binational community.
Romo envisioned a park where there had been a garbage heap and pile of old car tires in Los Laureles Canyon in Tijuana. Now the tires, old car hoods, and more materials have been transformed, creating a park for people and a cleaner watershed for the Tijuana River--one natural system that links people and places north and south of the seemingly bifurcating border wall. The Parque Frontera 2012 / Border Park 2012 is a perfectly placed reflection of the work Romo’s group Alter Terra, and so many others we met, are doing to reclaim trans-American dreams along the border.
We greeted Oscar at a park that he constructed in partnership with the local residents to protect and improve the community and the broader region’s environment, by turning an uncontrolled garbage dump in one of the canyons systems into safe space for the community to gather and play. From our vantage point at the sidewalk that looked down into the scaffolded landscape, he pointed to the length of the canyon and noted how these formed like fingers around the city reaching toward the water systems. These were places where informal settlements cropped up and garbage and sewers were uncontrolled. The garbage and sewers run into waterways and across borders, while the growing population exacerbates the problem of erosion. This park was designed to combat these problems in a way that worked with those who were living in the canyon. Oscar had worked with the community to clean up the garbage that had previously littered the valley. That alone was an improvement to the environment and provided jobs and brought the community together. We walked with Oscar down the stairs made from reused tires that were cut and stretched into figure eights, then placed together to make a retaining wall. These protected the area from erosion and provided a tiered garden as plants could be placed right in each of the circle of soil opened by the newly shaped tires. At the bottom, this retaining wall was a smooth area for gathering with a focal point made of car hoods that provided shade. Church services, Oscar told us, had been held here, ball was played on this field, and people commuting to work had a safer path to walk through.
Projects like this one are used by Alter Terra as a model for what can be done across the city and beyond. Oscar secures funding for such work from a variety of sources including ones on the US side. He works hard to convince people that this is a cross-border problem. Back at his office, he showed us the painted milk cartons he tagged and distributed in canyons, which he was able to track to show people that what begins as an illegal dump in Tijuana ends up in waterways in the United States. In front of his office, a meticulous and yet inviting trailer, was a patio made of porous pavers made by a recipe that he developed. He now trains local women to manufacture these pavers, providing a potentially lucrative and environmentally friendly craft. Next to this area is a newly built community education space where his desire to reuse materials is combined with an artistic eye. He has built beautiful windows by framing the ends of different colored glass bottles that allow in light and an opening for ventilation. This space will be used for after school programming, environmental education, and even community music. He is concerned about making a beautiful world in many ways.
In the Spring of 2017, we were able to bring three of the people we met to campus for a symposium on “The Wall: Tracing and Erasing its Effects.” Dan Millis, of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Program, spoke on “From Border Walls to Borderlands”, Verónica Corchado, of the Instituto Municipal de la Mujer, spoke on “Ciudad Juárez: Women and Rebuilding a Wounded Borderland City” (translation provided by Brendan Lanctot), and Oscar Romo, of Alter Terra, spoke on “Border Park: Landscaping across the Tijuana-San Diego Borderlands.” Each brought essential insights and experiences from the borderlands to campus for the well attended event, providing a multifaceted look at community, division and life across the US-Mexico Borderlands, where walls and fences now stand and plans are afoot for a more massive barrier.
Several faculty from the Dolliver Program have been working on sanctuary issues on campus and the broader community. Insights, experiences and knowledge from the trip have already made their way into various courses and projects on campus, and we hope to offer a new version of our Borderlands/La Frontera course and this time bring student to the borderlands to see it for themselves.
In 2012, both John Lear (an historian of Latin America and Mexico) and Doug Sackman (a historian of the North American West) found out that they had been nominated to apply for the James Dolliver National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Teaching Professorship (a rotating, multi-year endowed professorship that supports teaching in the humanities). They decided to submit a joint application, proposing to devote their prospective Dolliver Program to the place where their expertise and interests met—the US-Mexico border and borderlands. (Truth be told, it was also where their “expertise” frayed and ran thin, but they looked forward to learning more). They considered the topic of the US-Mexico borderlands vital in itself (for history and in the present moment), and also thought that the concept of borders was broadly significant for scholars and creative artists working in a number of fields. The border—and borders and borderlands more broadly—would be a topic that would cut deeply into the humanities.
The work on campus was launched with a summer seminar for faculty at Puget Sound from a broad range of disciplines, from art, anthropology and business to philosophy, politics, and theater. Elliott Young, of Lewis and Clark College, and Nicole Guidotti-Hernández, of the University of Texas, were guest scholars for part of the seminar. The Dolliver Professorship allowed us to bring to campus and co-sponsor the visits of many scholars, writers and artists over the next couple of years, including Santiago Vasquera Vazquez, Juan Armando Rojas Joo (whose edited book of poetry on border violence in Juárez was entitled Sangre Mía/Blood of Mine, after the poem Veronica Córchado read for her video about the work at La Promesa), Leonardo Padura, Abraham Acosta, Alicia Schmidt Camacho, Melisa Galván, Kelly Lytle Hernández, Antonio Gomez, Maru Mora, Mary Mendoza, Ana Teresa Fernández, Oscar Romo, Dan Millis, and Verónica Corchado (as well as student Amanda Díaz who presented on one panel). Introductions to some of these events can be found here.
Several of the visits coincided with John and Doug’s co-taught seminar in the Spring of 2016: History 383 Borderlands | La Frontera The U.S.-Mexico Border. The poster for those events is below.