Contested Terrain The U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

September 25, 2007

The U.S.-Mexico borderlands—the territory running about 30 miles along either side of the 2,000-mile line stretching from Tijuana/San Diego on the Pacific coast to Matamoros/Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico—run through four U.S. and six Mexican states, areas of forbidding desert and urban sprawl, a wide variety of unique cultural landscapes, and the fastest-growing industrial belt in Mexico. At their center is the border itself, which as Peter Andreas reminds us, is both "the busiest land crossing in the world and one of the most heavily fortified." The borderlands are at the core of the "deepening contradictions of economic integration," and some observers—Mexican writer Carlos Monsiváis among them—claim that they belong more to the domain of global "savage" capitalism than to either country.

Indeed, one of the bases of the new global economy is the ease with which investors can gain access to sharply differentiated labor markets. Transnational agreements like NAFTA depend on mobile capital and freely flowing commodities, as well as on a labor force whose options are severely limited. There is therefore a constant tension between NAFTA's need for easy border crossings by imports and exports, travelers and tourists, investors and their money, and, on the other hand, immigration control. The U.S. government has taken on the job of ensuring one kind of access while denying another. An observer crossing one of the bridges, say, between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, can simultaneously look out upon an increasingly free flow of traffic and a beefed-up U.S. Border Patrol.

There is, of course, no shortage of contradictions on the border. U.S. companies, attracted by cheap costs of production and lax enforcement of health, safety and environmental regulations, routinely set up shop in Mexico, especially in the burgeoning maquiladora economy. Yet, as Lori Saldaña details, hazardous waste discharges on the Mexican side of the border have a tendency to flow back to the U.S. side. While some companies are beginning to pay attention, the highly mobile maquila plants have traditionally felt they can leave their wastes for others to deal with.

The populations of border cities like Juárez and Tijuana are hard to count because of the constant arrival and flowthrough of people from the interior of Mexico. And within the maquila economy, the huge rate of turnover adds to the instability of the population, the workforce and the ability to organize. Indeed, everything about the maquila economy seems temporary.

As both Pablo Vila and Debbie Nathan stress, the border—especially Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, with their cross-border proximity to big U.S. military bases—is often portrayed "as a site of violence, drugs and prostitution." The very temporariness of the place, Nathan argues, along with the proclivity of transnational firms to "use gender difference to exploit labor," has contributed to the violence, especially within the largest and most disorderly of all the border cities, Ciudad Juárez: 1,000 homicides a year, increased rates of household violence directed against women, and the widely publicized kidnapping-and-sex murders of dozens of women maquila workers.

The social interactions and multiple identities of the borderlands, Vila and Víctor Zúñiga tell us, carry their own set of contradictions. Border culture may simply be a "northern variant of Mexican culture" on one side and a southwestern version of U.S. culture on the other. Or it could be a response to a cultural assault from the North, yielding "cultural subjugation, surrender, loss and risk—de-Mexicanization," or, perhaps, just the opposite, a reinforcement of difference and resistance. Or the borderlands may be a territory where "hybrid identities" are formed, or, as Vila suggests, where the contradictions are simply too great to identify any consistent set of commitments and identities.

In any case, the northward flow of young Mexicans—to and over the border—can serve as a powerful reminder of the principal contradiction of the border economy. Women working for low maquila wages have traditionally been told that it is their "husbands, working outside the maquila, who are supposed to be the real breadwinners." But such bread, for Mexican workers in the global economy, is simply not available to be won.


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