Narrative plots underpinning mentalities around the US-Mexico borders
This blog post contains reviews of Pablo Vila’s Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders: Social Categories, Metaphors and Narrative Identities On The U.S. – Mexico Frontier (2000), Border Identifications: Narratives Of Religion, Gender, And Class On The U.S. – Mexico Border (2005) as well as Douglas S. Massey’s ‘Understanding America’s Immigration “Crisis”’ (2007).
What interests me in Pablo Vila’s research is that he approaches the immigration problem of the US through empirical studies of plots narrated by people living in the El Paso–Juárez Borderplex – a binational metropolitan area on the border between the US and Mexico. By interviewing various interviewees belonging to different categories of class, gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, time of migration and religion, Vila gleans the ‘cultural shaped cognitive and linguistic processes’ from the storytelling of his interviewee as well as their reactions towards certain themed images. (Vila 2000, p.4)
Vila’s empirical studies (2000) reveals that there are different plots have guided the construction of narrative identities for different people living around the US-Mexico border. On the Mexican side of the border, for instance, the American influence on the Ciudad Juárez (the Mexican side of the Borderplex) is viewed negatively by Mexican nationals from the interior out of the concern that they will be Americanized – which indicates the loss of political autonomy, cultural integrity and economic independence. However, to people living in El Paso (Juárez’s American counterpart), the presence of Mexico around the corner is a constant reminder of the poverty and corruption many people identify with that country. Therefore, to many Mexican Americans, the origin of their identity is not a positive one upon which they could build up a valued social identity, but a liability because of the proximity of Mexico. Thus, Mexican Americans construct their identities by portraying not only Anglo Americans, but also Mexican nationals as the ‘others’.
It is also worth noting that how border politics affect the categories people choose to construct their identities. On the Mexican side of the border, ‘border dweller’ is used extensively as to Mexican nationals (middle class in particular) the proximity to the United States can be used to ‘upgrade’ their Mexican social identity since it is claimed that living near a first world country with easy access to its job opportunities, lifestyle and consumer goods is advantageous. On the other hand, this label is not favoured by people on the American side. Although both Anglo and Mexican Americans separate themselves from Mexican nationals in order to construct a narrative identity as people living in the States. Among Americans an ethnic classification system is extensively used, not a regional one, to anchor their identity and further segment the communities of ‘Americans’, constructing a new set of ‘us’ and ‘others’.
The difference between American and Mexican nationals in choosing their classification systems to some extent reflects the structural conditions of population, unemployment and migration on the US-Mexico border, but it is more important to note that how these classifications have accumulated and fundamentally affect the mindset of generations of people, and eventually leading to the tendency which refuse to seek common ground, shared or compromise between different communities, but looking for differences and social hierarchy. Consequently, different hegemonic discourses emerged. ‘All poverty is Mexican / All wealth is American’ is probably the most prevailing hegemonic discourse. What is implied in this thematic plot is that ‘Mexicans equal poverty’ – thus they are to be blamed for any problem of poverty, to the extent that even Mexican Protestants and poor Anglos whom the plot is incapable to portray are constantly coerced into such narratives in everyday life, such as the distribution of public resources, the use of infrastructures. And Mexican immigrants correspondingly develop their own response, claiming that they are the ones who contribute to the country through hard working and taxpaying, but receive little welfare and low social status.
The ‘All poverty is Mexican’ thematic plot and the corresponding response represents the vicious mechanism that although the border is not homogenized (different identities and cultures hybridized around the border), the hegemonic discourses and fragmented social classification result in fragmented border experience, leading to not a border crossing process but rather the reinforcement of borders. The most extreme claim is probably the one proposed by Carlos Monsiváis (Vila, 2007 p.5-6), stating that there is no such thing as ‘border identity’ but rather a loss of identity, ‘the dubious mixture of two national life-styles, the deification of technology and a craze for the new’ – to the extent that the border becomes ‘the garbage disposal of a country’.
Douglas S. Massey’s research (2007), on the other hand, is his quantitative analysis of the economic, political activities and population movement crossing the US-Mexico border, attempting to qualify America’s assertion of an immigration ‘crisis’. Massey points out that the immigration issue has been overly exaggerated in public discussions. According to him, as of 2006, ‘three-quarters of all Americans rated immigration as a “moderately big or very big national problem”; more than half (54%) said that the United States needed to be “protected against foreign influence”; and nearly half (48%) said that “newcomers from other countries threaten traditional American values and customs”. Although the true percentage of immigrants in the U.S. stands at around 12%, some 53% of Americans polled thought that it was 25% or greater’ (Massey 2007, p.309). On this account, the so called ‘immigration crisis’ is to some extent biased if not imagined and the current situation is to some degree a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The origin of the crisis claim is the US government’s failed attempt to facilitate cross border economic activities and at the same time avoiding labour movement. It dates back to the 1990s when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was initiated between under the administration of George H. W. Bush and ratified during the presidency of his successor Bill Clinton. The signing of NAFTA represents the integration process of North American Markets (the US, Canada and Mexico), and the natural consequence of it are the movements of capitals, commodities, services and labours across borders. The increasing labour force inevitably undermines the average wages and working conditions of the US workers. Therefore border enforcement seemed to be a necessary action to tackle this problem. Nevertheless, Massey points out the flaw of border enforcement – it is inefficient in controlling the inward undocumented immigration, but efficient in apprehending out-immigration (partly because it is unilaterally conducted on the US side of the border). As a result, the net immigration in the US was raised but their average conditions deteriorated due to the negative portrayal of Mexican immigrants during the border enforcement. Massey’s analysis provides another angle to evaluate the ‘immigration problem’ in the US and to comprehend the narrative plot proposed by Vila – the collateral damage of the clash between globally integrated market and domestic protectionist acts.
Massey, Douglas S., “Understanding America’s Immigration “Crisis””, Proceedings Of The American Philosophical Society, 151 (2007), 309-327
Vila, Pablo, Border Identifications: Narratives Of Religion, Gender, And Class On The U.S. – Mexico Border, 1st edn (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005)
Vila, Pablo, Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders: Social Categories, Metaphors And Narrative Identities On The U.S. – Mexico Frontier, 1st edn (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000)