We used to go to Mexico a lot when I was a kid. It was an easy family vacation. You could get a tourist pass at the border – no passport required – and my parents spoke enough Spanish to deal with restaurants and hotel rooms.
I haven’t managed to make it across lately, even though I only live about 300 miles from the border. But I’ve been down to the Rio Grande Valley and out to the high desert country near Big Bend National Park on several occasions.
And every time I’ve done it, I’ve been stopped at a border patrol station about 60 miles inland from the border and asked if I’m a U.S. citizen.
I don’t have any problem at these stations. I’m Anglo – Texas-speak for non-Hispanic white – and I look it. Plus I can do a pretty good Anglo Texas accent when I want to; it’s my native tongue. That’s just as well, because I never remember my passport unless I’m actually leaving the country.
I haven’t crossed the border, but I get treated as if I have. And I don’t like it.
Partly that’s because I’m a white, middle-class Texan-American and therefore think I should be able to go anywhere in the country without being hassled by the police. My rant against this treatment is based in the white privilege I’ve always had. Lots of other folks in the U.S. don’t have the luxury of even thinking they can go places without risking hassles.
But the other part of my problem with the increasing militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border is that I know the history. Texas used to be part of Mexico. (You don’t have to have been subjected to Texas history classes, as I was in the eighth grade, to know that; the theme park “Six Flags Over Texas” should give you a clue.)
So did New Mexico, Arizona, California, and big chunks of other parts of the U.S. southwest. Of course, before the Spanish explorers trampled across them, they were already inhabited by a variety of indigenous peoples. Mexico ended up with all that territory in 1821 after they kicked out the Spanish.
That made Texas a republic for about ten years, but the rest of the southwest still belonged to Mexico. When Texas became part of the U.S. in 1846, hostilities ensued. The U.S. won the war with Mexico, and ended up with New Mexico, Arizona, California et al.
I don’t know how the people of Spanish descent living in that country saw themselves, though I’m pretty sure the Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches, Navajos, Hopis, Pueblos, and all the indigenous nations of California didn’t see themselves as Spanish, Mexican, or part of the U.S. But after that war, a border got drawn and rules got made.
And people who thought of themselves as Mexican – or at least, as people with some Spanish heritage – lived on both sides of that line. And had relatives on both sides of that line. In Texas, folks of that background use the term “Tejano.”
I don’t know how many Texas Tejanos trace their heritage back to before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but I know some do. I do know, from looking at the Pew Research Hispanic Trend Project’s demographic survey that 70 percent of the Hispanics in Texas were born in the U.S. and most of them are of Mexican heritage. (In New Mexico, 83 percent of Hispanics were born in the U.S., but New Mexico has a much more developed Spanish/Mexican history than Texas.)
Knowing those things, I find it really hard to take the border all that seriously. In many ways, the people who live here and the people who live just across the Rio Grande (if you’re in Texas) or just across an artificial line in the desert (if you’re west of here) are tied together.
The geography shows the relationship, too. Texas may be divided from Mexico by a big river, but the country on either side of that river is pretty much the same – a lot of desert, some of mountainous. And that particular river runs through the middle of New Mexico until it gets to El Paso.
I’ve been reading an essay by Rebecca Solnit called “Thirty-Nine Steps Across the Border,” which talks about the geographical similarities. (Found in her collection, Storming the Gates of Politics.) She describes the border as
not so much a line drawn in the sand of the desert, but in the imagination, a line across which memory may not travel, empathy may be confiscated, truth held up indefinitely, meaning lost in translation.
I wrote a story set along the Texas border, called simply “Borders”. It’s available in Walking Contradiction and Other Futures. In it I posit that people on the Texas side of the border have to cross into Mexico every day to work at the maquiladoras, because the jobs have been exported to Mexico. If I were writing the story today, the workers would have to wait in long lines to come home every evening, because there would be lots of Border Patrol officials checking to make sure they qualified as Americans.
I haven’t been down to look at the border wall. The very idea of it depresses me. The Flatlanders sum it up nicely in the song “Borderless Love”:
A wall is a mirror that can only reveal
One side of a story that passes for real
But break it all down it all becomes clear
It’s the fearless who love and the loveless who fear.