Identity and Empowerment on the Border

September 25, 2007

The image of the "border crosser" dominates much of recent border studies and theory. As highlighted in works of such renowned writers as Gloria Anzaldúa, Héctor Calderón, Renato Rosaldo, D. Emily Hick and José David Saldívar, the border crosser is someone who is "at home" on the border, who comfortably straddles the two worlds in which he or she exists and who is therefore completely bilingual, and who celebrates international immigration. This view virtually ignores the possibility that the fragmentation of experience that characterizes today's society can lead not to a desire to cross borders but to reinforce them.

My fieldwork in the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso region, which extended from 1991 to 1997, reveals the complex and contradictory nature of border identities, and raises some fundamental questions about the border-crosser metaphor that has become dominant in the field of border culture studies. Portraying those who live in the borderlands as paradigmatic "border crossers" does not allow room for people like Rosario and Felipe who, for different reasons, want to reinforce those same borders:

Rosario: Now many illegal immigrants complain that the government wants to take their children out of school. I say that is okay.... I also suffered a lot in Mexico, as a child I suffered a lot, but I say it is not fair to take away our children's benefits to give them to those who are not legally here in the United States.... Our kids are getting less and less supplies and services and I do not think that is fair either! The problem is that before there were less people, right now there is no room for more people here.

Felipe: I get very angry. I don't know if all of those who live here, who were born here think, "If I were a ruler, I'd stop all the arrival of people [from the interior of Mexico] here." I mean control it, do it in almost the same manner as the United States is doing it, make a kind of border.[1]

According to advocates of the border-crosser image, border identities are "created out of empathy for others by means of a passionate connection through difference. Such a connection is furthered by a narrative imagination which enables critical linkage to be made between our own stories and the stories of cultural others."[2] "The borderlands, then, are a place of abjection and exhilaration," write Melissa Harrison and Margaret Montoya, "a place where the person is 'crisscrossed by multiple identities,' where we are a 'plural self, one that thrives on ambiguity and multiplicity.'"[3] What kind of "multiple identities," "plurality of the self" and "ambiguity and multiplicity" is present in Mexican-American Border Patrol agents—a very important portion of the agency in El Paso—who often express harsh anti-Mexican sentiment, or even a desire to distance themselves from their Mexican heritage? Consider this dialogue:

Alfredo: And my aunt, the one in immigration, she says crazy things like, "I hate 'em, I hate 'em, I hate 'em!" [laughs] And she's become so bitter, so embittered with her job and what she sees that she'll say, "I am not Mexican!" [laughs]

Fanny: And my daughter says, "Alicia, excuse me, you are Mexican!" [laughs].

Alfredo: And she says, "no I'm not!" [laughs].[4]

There is little of the empathy for the other that Harrison and Montoya describe, raising important questions about how differences are perceived by actors living on the border. Part of the problem, as Josiah Heyman has suggested, is that empirically grounded analysis has been replaced by a "facile idea—at the border, two sides equal one hybrid."[5] He goes on to critique the border-crosser metaphor, suggesting that we lack sufficient ethnographic research at the border to make the claim that the border is primarily experienced through hybrid subjectivity or identity.

My six years of ethnographic fieldwork on the El Paso/Juárez border in fact suggests something radically different than the border-crosser prototype of recent border studies. Interviews with over 600 border dwellers suggest that borders can simultaneously produce the reinforcement of the different identities on either side of those borders.

The problem is not that "border reinforcers" are more prevalent than "border crossers" in any specific border situation. I think that the processes of globalization and hybridization are here to stay. Money, people and culture are constantly moving, allowing people to anchor part of their identities in the new hybrid entities this process is creating. Those who self-identify as fronterizos—border dwellers—offer a good example here. They are the "border crossers." But many people, the "border reinforcers," feel threatened by the idea of abandoning an identity and culture that has identified them for generations. Many times, these individuals undergo a regression to a highly defensive and racist form of identification. The point is that both processes are occurring simultaneously and that different actors in the same region, for different reasons, react differently.

At the same time there is a third process linked to globalization, a process one author has called the "ethnicization of the national,"[6] in which individuals seek to find (or reconstitute) their "ethnic roots" and other primary forms of identification (local community, religion and the like). Those who opt for this way of constructing their identities are also "border reinforcers" and not "border crossers." As Stuart Hall writes:

The return to the local is often a response to globalization. It is what people do when, in the face of a particular form of modernity which confronts them in the form of the globalization...they opt out of that and say "I don't know anything about that any more. I can't control it. I know no politics which can get hold of it. It's too big. It's too inclusive. Everything is on its side. There are some terrains in-between, little interstices, the smaller spaces within which I have to work."[7]

If these three scenarios can be described as the "ideal types" of border enforcement/crossing, actual life on the border is much more complex. In fact, the same people can often be defined simultaneously as border crossers and border reinforces. Consider the case of the Mixtecos from Southern Mexico, who now have an important presence in California. Mixtecos call themselves a binational indigenous community. Should we classify this native Mexican group as border crossers or border reinforcers? It depends. From the point of view of nationality they are clearly border crossers because they consider themselves a binational community with roots on both sides of the border. From the point of view of ethnicity they are border crossers and border reinforcers simultaneously, because they are leaving behind their primary identification as Mixtecos and accept being labeled "indigenous," but at the same time they are reinforcing this latter identity, contrasting it to their Mexican and/or American identities.

For all these reasons I think that the "crossing borders" metaphor is correct but partial. We need to complement that metaphor with another one that refers to "reinforcing borders." Many people do not want to cross borders, or to live "on borders and in margins."[8] On the contrary, many people want to reinforce those borders.

The way people on the border construct their identities is an extraordinarily complex process. For instance, Mexican nationals not only construct the "Anglos" as the "other" as mainstream border studies maintain, but other Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans as well. At the same time, Anglos and African Americans are not the only ones that construct Mexican nationals as the other; many Mexican Americans do that as well. In this sense, they are not only border crossers or hybrids, but also border reinforcers. This tendency toward reinforcing borders may in some cases lead to racist, even xenophobic attitudes toward the "other."

In my interviews with Juárez residents, two strands are evident in the way people try to make sense of "us" and "them": one referring to regional and the other to national identity. The oft-repeated phrases "nosotros, los de la frontera," (we, the people of the border) and "nosotros, los de Juárez," (we, the people from Juárez) (or even more affectionately, "nosotros, los de Juaritos," [we, the people from dear Juárez]), as well as the labels Juarenses, norteños (northerners) and fronterizos are used to explain attitudes and behaviors Juarenses consider a particular feature of their region.

Employing this geographic differentiating mechanism, Juárez residents contrast norteños and sureños (southerners) mainly to distinguish themselves from the Chilangos of Mexico City and from the inhabitants of central and southern Mexico. They do this, presumably, because sureños supposedly have more Indian ancestry than norteños. Second, Juárez residents distinguish between fronterizo and non-fronterizo norteños, in part to differentiate themselves from the people who live in Chihuahua City, the capital of the state.[9] Why do many Juarenses use such a refined regional system of classification? I think they do so because of a combination of different historical developments. Some are shared between Juarenses and Chihuahuenses in general, while others correspond to the peculiarities of Juárez and other border cities. Among the first, Juarenses share with Chihuahuenses the idea that their region is very different from Central and Southern Mexico. Both scholarly and folk discourses argue that the struggle against the Apache shaped northern society in fundamental ways, producing a distinct regional identity:

Constantly contrasted with the "brownness" of Southerners, the "whiteness" of norteños is the visible index of what is viewed as a distinct, northern "nature." Relative to other Mexicans, norteños were and are considered to be brave, independent, rebellious, self-sufficient and hardworking. Northern society was and is more democratic, egalitarian and open to individual achievement.[10]

These are the features that many Chihuahuenses use to delineate their identity in relation to the south. Yet one peculiarity that Juárez does not share with the rest of Chihuahua—but which it does have in common with other border towns—is the "city of vice" stigma. Different discourses, ranging from movies or popular songs to academic accounts, almost invariably portray the border as a site of violence, drugs and prostitution. But if the border in general has this bad reputation, the image of Juárez and Tijuana are worse still. Over many years, the presence in San Diego and El Paso of major U.S. military facilities transformed both cities into providers of "leisure"—alcohol and prostitution—for the predominantly single, male population of those military bases. This stigma, which has clung to Juárez since the turn of the century, has heavily influenced the creation of a border city identity. Juárez residents have always struggled to turn that pejorative label on its head by highlighting the virtues of living on the border, including easy access to the United States, to its culture and consumables and work possibilities. Juarenses have constructed an identity so idealized in everyday discourse that, not coincidentally, everything valued is located in Juárez, and everything not valued lies either south of Juárez, in the rest of Mexico, or across the border.

At the same time that many Juarenses establish a regional identity that distinguishes them from other Mexicans, however, they also differentiate themselves from the Americans on the other side of the border. This is not a contradiction in relation to their valued fronterizo identity, because although they frame their access to the United States as a valuable resource, this does not mean that they necessarily want to live there or become Mexican American. To buttress their position, these interviewees usually emphasize the advantages of a Mexican "lifestyle" over the frenetic, money-driven culture of U.S. residents. Consequently, in constituting a Juarense identity, Juárez residents symbolically defend a way of being and living that, while acknowledging U.S. influence, highly values its Mexicanness. Consider the testimony of Robustiano:

In the United States you do work, I mean, there's no time to rest or any of that, I mean all the people there are endrogada [indebted]. So, then if they don't work one day, they go ruined, because life is very hard in the Unites States, and here in Mexico, well, we are satisfied with beans and tortillas, and that's it, right? And here we get into debt according to how much we make so that we don't come off badly, and over there you don't, with the tale of luxury, and the easiness of getting debts, people are inclined to become endrogados.[11]

If all those living on the other side of the border are points of reference in the construction of some fronterizo and Juarense identities, then Anglos are not the only important mirror to look at in constructing one's identity. As a matter of fact, Anglos are less important than other border actors in the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso area, since nearly 70% of El Paso's inhabitants are of Mexican origin. In the particular case of Juárez, the Mexican Americans living in El Paso are a constant point of reference in the construction of identity. Some Juarenses, aware of how discriminatory some Mexican Americans are toward Mexican nationals, construct a very anti-Mexican American stance in which the "other" is the Mexican American categorized as pocho, meaning a highly Americanized Mexican, or a malinchista, a traitor.[12] This can be seen clearly in the following dialogue:

Librado: They love Mexico very much, but they don't love Mexicans! [laughs]

Pablo: What do you mean they love Mexico but they don't love Mexicans?

Librado: You look at the members of LULAC, [League of United Latin American Citizens] you see a clear specimen of the Mexican, you see the Indian-types and those with big mustaches. But it seems that these people are descendants from those who one day went over there [to the United States] fleeing from something over here, and they have a resentment toward what was left here. For example, they say, "you know, so-and-so was caught by immigration." Who told on him? The Chicano, that one! It's the Chicano versus the Mexican...though of course there are very good Chicanos.

Teresita: Yes, I think there are all kinds.

Librado: But there are Chicanos like that Corona, who used to hire workers.... That man killed about 118 workers after they collected their salaries.

Teresita: He had his own cemetery, he buried them there.

Librado: The dead were all Mexicans, what's the problem?

Pablo: There's a contradiction, right? To love Mexico and hate Mexicans?

Librado: No, not the Mexican, not the human being! [laughs] The nation, yes, the nation, yes.... [13]

On the U.S. side of the border I have found very similar processes of identity formation in which "reinforcing borders" seems to be more prevalent than "crossing borders." And those borders sometimes can be reinforced within one's own ethnicity. A profound anti-Chicano discourse was evident among many Mexican Americans in El Paso who, like Albert, point out:

Chicanos are the bad guys in my opinion, those guys who find it very easy to blame someone else and don't have any initiative to better themselves! ...Those are the guys who sit and complain day after day, night after night and then go home and have a fix or a six-pack of beer, then wake up the next morning, the next night and start all over again![14]

On the other hand, I have also found a widespread anti-Mexican American sentiment among many Mexican immigrants living in El Paso. Consider the following story provided by one Mexican woman in El Paso:

A girl who lives here in the alley once got in a fight with a guy. She has a little boy and the guy has another little boy. They were there on the park slides. So, the guy goes over and gets the girl's little boy so that his kid can get on and he tells him, "Get out of here, scoot aside so my kid can get on." And she asked him, "Why are you taking him off?" He said, "You know what? This park belongs to those of us from here. You're from Juárez; you don't have anything to do here in the park." She said, "You know what? If I live here, all what I eat I pay for's at a dear price, but not for you. The government supports you and your brat. I pay taxes, I pay everything and you pay for nothing." And it's true because everyone here has this many kids and food stamps for all of them! Look, they've never been able to give me any because I have this pittance of a house. My husband works. My husband's 67 years old and he still works and I work and that's why they don't give us any. We have two children and that's why they don't give us any. [15]

An anti-Mexican national discourse is also prevalent in the city. This was evident when the U.S. Border Patrol launched Operation Blockade in 1993 to stop illegal immigration from Mexico. According to the El Paso Times, the operation was supported by more than 75% of the Hispanic population of El Paso.[16] After Blockade was announced, Mexican Americans literally inundated the letters section of the El Paso Times with their support.

And according to the paper, more than 130 people called to express opinions on "Operation Blockade." By a 10-to-1 ratio, reported the Times, callers supported the Patrol's action. A sampling of responses:

John Fernandez: This is the only way we can deter some of the crime and some of the illegals coming into our country.

Robert Muñoz: I think this is the greatest thing that has happened. I live in an area where there is a lot of illegal traffic and since Sunday I have felt safer about my house.[17]

Many of the callers said they felt "safer" and "more secure," and were confident that the measures would help reduce crime.[18] Freddy Morales, director of the Chihuahuita Community Recreation Center, wrote: "We're not seeing people being shot or stabbed or robbed. [After the Blockade] its different for the better, because now we don't worry about having to look behind and worry about these undocumented immigrants committing crime."[19] Others said that the operation would benefit El Paso economically in the long run. One woman, Julia Lopez, was reported as saying:

I think the long-term economic impact will be favorable. In fact, my husband and I talked about it and even if our taxes had to go up, it would be worth it. It would be worth to get all this crime and illegals out from our city.[20]

The anti-Mexican sentiment of many Mexican Americans is such that it presents a powerful challenge to the idea in much recent border scholarship that the continuous immigration from Mexico to the United States keeps alive Mexican culture among Mexican Americans. Let's consider the following testimony offered by Rosa, who lives in El Paso:

I have a son who lives in Tennessee now, and he comes for Christmas. And he says: "Mother, no offense, but if I didn't have to visit you and my Dad, I would not come back to El Paso. It is disgusting, and it's hard for me to say that because I was born in El Paso.... But it's very sad, Mom. That I'm over there and I come and I can see the difference.... People from Mexico in El Paso...don't have any manners or class or anything, they just shove you over, you're nobody.... And we were born here." Yeah...a lot of our kids don't want to stay here 'cause there's too many people from that side, and they're gonna move out of town as soon as they get a chance.[21]

We can even claim the opposite argument of the border-crosser theorists: For some Mexican Americans not only is the relation with their Mexican heritage a matter of interpretation (i.e., a symbolic construction that does not require any actual element from Mexican culture to be fed) but also the presence of "real" Mexicans can undermine such symbolic constructions, for they are a constant reminder of the "real" contemporary Mexican culture that these persons want to distance themselves from. This is exactly what happened with one of the families I interviewed who wanted to "import" a nephew from Mexico to "teach" their children about their "Mexican heritage." The experience was a disaster. They rapidly discovered that their nephew's mexicanidad was totally at odds with their own sense of what it is to be Mexican.

The emphasis in current mainstream border studies and theory on metaphors like "border crossing," "hybrid" and "brotherhood" to portray the U.S.-Mexican border masks profound processes of differentiation in the region. It is not just that this metaphor can be challenged on empirical grounds. The consruction of an idyllic image of a privileged border actor, the hybrid and border crosser, has important political implications. In effect, it promotes a naïve faith in the political guarantee that is behind identity politics. That is, it assumes "brotherhood" instead of constructing it.

From the vantage point of this sort of identity politics, it appears politically inconvenient to show the different degrees of resentment that characterize the relationships between Chicanos, Mexican immigrants and Mexican nationals in some border communities. Highlighting these internal fissures, it might be argued, will undermine the already tenuous political power of those who, as a group, were discriminated against so fiercely in the past. At the same time, to undermine the metaphor of "brotherhood" by recognizing that, in some instances, Mexican nationals and Chicanos do not recognize one another as "brothers" but as "the other," challenges one of the most important tenets of the Chicano movement, that is, that they are fully Mexican, but living on the U.S. side of the border. But it seems to me that denying the resentment evident in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez area is even more dangerous. It impedes the construction of a unified "us" that could function as a community confronting racism and discrimination in the region. The only way to construct a powerful antidiscriminatory stance is to allow the differences inside the community to appear and to vent them publicly in the search for an alliance between different actors (Mexican nationals living in border towns, Mexican immigrants and Chicanos), rather than assuming from the beginning that those actors are "the same" (Chicanos or at least potential Chicanos), and that one voice "represents" the entire group.

A more viable empowerment strategy on the border would be to follow what some Chicanas did for many years. They struggled against the metaphor of the "family" within the Chicano movement and the metaphor of "sisterhood" within the feminist movement, thereby making space for the construction of real coalitions. The "family" and "sisterhood" metaphors impeded the recognition of some important relations of power—gender in the case of the Chicano movement and class and ethnicity in the feminist movement—that silenced the voice of the "other," the Chicanas within both movements.

The metaphor of "Chicano-Mexicano brotherhood" in some versions of current mainstream border studies is as silencing of differences within the Mexican community as the previous metaphors of "la familia" and "sisterhood" were. To claim that such diverse groups—Mexican nationals who live in border towns and never want to move to the United States, Mexican immigrants who think their sojourn in the United States will be short, Mexican immigrants who have decided to stay, and Mexican Americans of different generations—have a unitary experience that can be expressed by the authorized voices of Chicano intellectuals is difficult to sustain.

In her critique of feminist theory, Norma Alarcón called for "a reconfiguration of the subject of feminist theory, and her relational position to a multiplicity of others, not just white men."[22] Replacing the noun feminism with Chicano studies and border studies, I propose a similar reconfiguration of the subject of Chicano studies and border studies and its relational position to a multiplicity of others, not just Anglos, in order to address the diverse experiences of people of Mexican descent in the United States.

This requires problematizing the categories of Mexicana/o, Chicana/o, Mexican, Mexican American, and the like, in order to show how other aspects or social positions (not just ethnicity, but also nationality, class, region, time of migration, religion, generation, etc.), as well as distinctive narratives, are central to the process of identity construction. Thus, one may "become a Mexican" or a "fronteriza/o" or a "Chicano/a" or a "Mexican American" or a "border crosser" or a "hybrid" in opposition to other Mexicans, fronteriza/os, Chicana/os and Mexican Americans. That is, the whole category of people of Mexican descent may also need to be problematized. My point is that just as Chicanas demonstrated that metaphors like "la familia" and "sisterhood" were politically and theoretically problematic insofar as they denied the existence of a problem that was not going to disappear through denial (gender within the Chicano movement and ethnic and class inequalities within the feminist movement), the same can be said about the metaphor of "Chicano-Mexicano brotherhood" that is prominent behind tropes like "hybridity" and "border crosser." The profound resentment evident among some people of Mexican descent in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region is not going to go away through the mere expedient of denying its existence and claiming that what all of us have to struggle for—"brotherhood"—already exists.

Pablo Vila teaches sociology at the University of Texas San Antonio. He has written extensively on issues of culture and identity and is author of Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders: Social Categories, Metaphors and Narrative Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Frontier (University of Texas Press, forthcoming) and Border Identities (University of Texas Press, forthcoming).

1. Pablo Vila, "Constructing Social Identities in Transnational Contexts: The Case of the Mexico-U.S. Border," International Social Science Journal, Vol. 159 (March 1999), p. 81 and p. 85.
2. eter McLaren, quoted in Melissa Harrison and Margaret E. Montoya, "Voices/Voces in the Borderlands," in Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, eds., The Latino Condition: A Critical Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1998), p. 652.
3. Harrison and Montoya, "Voices/Voces in the Borderlands," p. 652.
4. Pablo Vila, Crossing Borders. Reinforcing Borders. Social Categories, Metaphors and Narrative Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Frontier (Austin: University of Texas Press, forthcoming April 2000), p. 121.
5. J. Heyman, "The Mexico-United States Border in Anthropology: A Critique and Reformulation," Journal of Political Ecology, Vol. 1 (1994), p. 47.
6. Slavoj Zizek, "Multiculturalism, or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism," New Left Review, No. 225 (1997), pp. 28-51.
7. Stuart Hall, "The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity," in Anthony D. King ed., Culture, Globalization and The World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity (Binghamton: State University of New York at Binghamton, 1991), p. 34.
8. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987).
9. For an extensive analysis of how Juarenses construct a very rigid regional identity see Vila, Crossing Borders. Reinforcing Borders.
10. Ana María Alonso, Thread of Blood: Colonialism, Revolution, and Gender on Mexico's Northern Frontier (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1995), pp. 15-16.
11. Vila, Crossing Borders. Reinforcing Borders, p. 57.
12. Vila, Crossing Borders. Reinforcing Borders.
13. Vila, Crossing Borders. Reinforcing Borders, p. 69.
14. Vila, Crossing Borders. Reinforcing Borders, pp. 102-103.
15. Vila, Crossing Borders. Reinforcing Borders, p. 130.
16. El Paso Times, October 30, 1994. See also Vila, Crossing Borders. Reinforcing Borders, Chapter 5, pp. 167-190.
17. El Paso Times, October 30, 1994.
18. El Paso Times, September 24, 1993.
19. El Paso Times, September 28, 1993.
20. El Paso Times, March 20, 1994.
21. Vila, Crossing Borders. Reinforcing Borders, pp. 123-124.
22. Norma Alarcón, "The Theoretical Subject(s) of This Bridge Called My Back and Anglo-American Feminism," in Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar, eds., Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 32.

Tags: US-Mexico border, identity, community organizing, immigration

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