For years while I was living in San Diego, I became accustomed to having "the border" or the border between the United States, California, San Diego and Mexico be a central part of my life and its conversations. Although I was never the most knowledgeable person on border issues, during my time in Ethnic Studies, I read a few books, got to hear from faculty who do the research, heard plenty of stories. As the border represented one of those gaping wounds, that a nation attempts to cover over, by putting police, military units, fences, drones, it was also an ideal intellectual site for talking about issues of violence, the issues of race, citizenship, trade, transnationalism, health.
But at the same time, living in San Diego, so many of these issues were not academic, because the communities were literally right there. As I went to different activist meetings or social justice events, I would hear even more stories and meet more people, who live in the "shadow of the border" in San Diego, meaning regardless of whether or not their are undocumented, they are often treated as if they crossed the fence yesterday.
The creation of any community is all about borders, the masking of some, the policing of others. So in some ways, San Diego is built around its identity as being on the border. You use the border to get money, to militarize the police, to scare people, to talk about the humanitarian core of the American people, to talk about a line of hardship and trauma from which the American dream can be made, to mark the terrain where the chaos of the third world begins. But as in any place, you also mask other borders. You make invisible ways in which communities are divided or stratified. The divisions, the economic and racial fault lines have to be hidden, especially in order to create the image of any location as a model or democratic, equality-loving community.
I remember in 2007 when there was a series of nasty fires in the San Diego area, alot of the violence that goes into stratifying society in San Diego came to the surface, even though the media and people in the city did as much as they possibly could to repress it. Media reports in Qualcomm Stadium or other shelters touted as Governor Arnold did, that California is no Katrina. That unlike New Orleans, San Diego and California know how to take care of people. They know how to pull together, work together and make sure everyone is okay. The coverage was so laudatory and gross at times that my department in Ethnic Studies put together a forum on it, wrote an official departmental statement, students wrote different blog posts, and then supporting all this was a web of frustrated emails.
You see, while the media was reporting that there was an abundance of food in all shelters, that San Diego's generosity was really visible today, that everything was going to be okay, you had a wealth of unseen and unacknowledged acts of racism, most all directed to those who are defined in San Diego by a perceived relationship to that border. There were stories of people who looked or were Hispanic being chased away from shelters because they were "illegal." There were reports of ICE patrolling neighbors looking for undocumented people as the fires were ravaging and areas had already been evacuated. For undocumented communities on the outskirts of San Diego, there was no aid, no help.
Any emergency tends to push up for all to see, the order of things, the hierarchies of social value, which often have alot to do with race. An emergency is a moment where the state and where individuals have to draw the lines, and decide who counts, and who doesn't? Who can we afford to help, who can we not? How can some obscene or extreme plan that we've been thinking about, at last be (unfortunately) implemented?
Like any border, those who make it and defend it always assert that it has some eternal presence, that it has always been there and must always remain. The permanence of the border is a relatively recent invention. In previous eras, migratory workers from Mexico crossed the border for work and then returned. Besides, the US-Mexico border provides a very easy and simplistic way of viewing the relationship between the United States and Mexico (and to some extent the rest of Central and Latin America). It provides a metaphor which has the simultaneous impact of providing a source of tension and anxiety for those who want to protect the purity or the whiteness of the US nation, but also provide a metaphor of struggle for those who want to articulate the sheer greatness of the American dream, to use the border to talk about the grandess and promise of it, that they would risk life itself just to get to US soil. Relationships between nations, for instance in terms of economics, get reduced to this almost childlike understanding of the world, where Mexico has no money, no jobs and no opportunity, America has them and so that's why they come to the United States. The lure of the border, in this sense, is due to the ways it can allow the "Open Veins of Latin America" thesis to go completely unread. Imperialism and neo-liberalism are replaced with the American dream. How convenient.
Now that I'm Guam though, thoughts of this particular border are often far from my mind. I'm not free from borders, Guam has plenty of them. Military fences everywhere. Walls between different Micronesia groups. Ethnic groups. Borders of privilege and power. But what brought me back to thinking about the US-Mexico border was a letter that a friend of mine from Ethnic Studies, Traci, put on her blog Frankie's Rides and Tirades. Its a letter written to California Senator Barbara Boxer, about the issue of militarization of the border titled "Treating border violence with...more violence."
Dear Senator Boxer,
Thank you for the email update I recently received from your office, dated July 23, 2009. This email indicates your enthusiasm to report to me that San Diego County will be the recipient of $5 million from the Department of Justice for the creation of something with the ominous acronym BUST--the Border Uniformed Suppression Team.
As a longtime San Diego resident, who has been quite attentive to the problems related to drugs and violence on and across our southern border, I would like to say plainly: NO THANKS. As your email notes, the "drug problem" is at its root a problem of drug use; therefore this money should be spent on prevention and treatment of drug addiction here in the US. Instead, this BUST policy operates under the wrongheaded conviction that an escalation of the violence and guns on the border will somehow help the problem. The San Diego-Tijuana region is quite well armed as it is--we do not benefit from policy that escalates the tenor of conflict in the region, nor the eventual proliferation of weaponry that always attends these kinds of arms races.
As my representative in the US Senate, I implore you to fight rather than support this kind of misguided policy. We do not need more guns on our border. We need sympathetic, nonviolent policy that sees community development, cross-border cooperation, public health, and drug-use prevention as the primary pathways to healing the border region.
Traci Brynne Voyles
University of California, San Diego