Beyond the Wall

Since November there’s been an upsurge in local, national and international marches where protestors carry signs that read: “Build Bridges, Not Walls.” They are responding, of course, to the Trump Administration’s long-promised Border Wall.

And they are reiterating something scholars already know: even where there are border walls, creative community building, so often spear-headed by women, easily blurs boundaries.

The U.S.-Mexico border we know today was formed out of two moments, the 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the U.S. and Mexico (which designated the Rio Grande river as the official border separating Texas and from its southern neighbors) and the Gadsen Purchase, which, in 1853, established the rest of the dividing line. Not only a geographic boundary, the border became associated with a set of practices of inclusion and exclusion affecting those on both its sides.

Still, Mexicans were not immediately or irrevocably “othered” by the U.S. government.

Mexican workers provided necessary labor for U.S. manufacturers, both within the U.S. (where they worked as conquered labor, migrant labor, and as “guest workers”) and in Mexico (in maquiladora assembly plants). It took a 1970s-era recession to spur a stronger stance against Mexican immigration to the U.S., with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now known as Homeland Security) specifically citing such migrants as national security threats. Explaining economic problems as a consequence of unauthorized migration and employing the language of “invasion,” even then CIA director William Colby would claim that population growth south of the border would mean “120 million Mexicans” by the end of the century and a Border Patrol without “enough bullets to stop them.”

Similar fears are employed today, as the administration looks for ways to slash budgets so as to fund President Trump’s wall. Of course, there is already a border wall that crosses 653 miles of the 2,000-mile stretch separating Mexico and the U.S. Economists peg its cost at $7 billion, and estimate that Trump’s proposal will cost another $25 billion (excluding labor costs). No one is truly able to account for how this wall will be handled on privately owned land or in Texas, where the Rio Grande flows, but these details are cast aside. Natural obstructions haven’t stopped the Border Patrol before, after all—in the stretch of border between San Diego and Tijuana, for instance, the Surf Fence project granted $4.3 million on behalf of the Patrol to erect a barrier stretching 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean.

Goods and capital are freely allowed to cross; the border is designed to obstruct, control, and regulate the movement of people, of labor.

In heated rhetoric, U.S. citizens are told that border security is about violence, crime, economics, and the drug war. Women and children are victims (though not blameless ones) and border dwellers are simply collateral caught in sometimes-literal crossfire. Where statistics show a doubling in migrant deaths in the last 20 years, government spokespeople and media report on the “unintended consequences” of border militarization. From a human rights perspective, the wall and its construction have already violated international norms, including the rights of indigenous peoples, the right to private property, and the right to non-discrimination. This is all, it would seem, the collective cost of U.S. safety.

The reality is that 82 million people call the borderlands home. They survive, even flourish. And women are central agents, not victims, in this setting.

In my ongoing research just across the U.S. border in Maclovio Rojas, I have met women, like Hortensia Hernandez, who assume leadership roles to fight for community well-being and lead their neighbors in building their own schools, sports fields, and public services in an area where neither the U.S. nor Mexican government seems willing to help.

And in Tijuana, a majority-female workforce toils long hours for low wages in the factories of multinational corporations.

Women there have created cross-border alliances with activists in the U.S. to try to improve their working conditions. Their American counterparts show their support by, for example, protesting in front of the homes of factory owners who live in the U.S. Such transfronteriz@ organizing transforms “us versus them” divisions into a movement recognizing that we are all workers with entwined destinies.

The borderlands include both U.S. and Mexican territory, U.S. and Mexican citizens and nations of Indigenous peoples. They represent a site of resistance, conviviality, agency, and creative community building. This is a space in which transformative politics not only can but already does take place.

The health of both countries’ economies, so reliant on the cross-border construction and sale of goods, and the health and viability of borderlands communities will be immeasurably impacted whether the Trump Administration’s wall comes to fruition.

Politicians, corporate leaders, and borderlands residents must come together—like so many autos built with U.S. parts in Mexican factories—to fashion not only steel walls but also humane policies if the people and economies of both countries are to flourish.

Michelle Téllez, Assistant Professor of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona.