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Borderline Cases

On the Border: Portraits of America’s Southwestern Frontier

by Tom Miller
Harper & Row, 226 pp., $12.95

The Border Economy: Regional Development in the Southwest

by Niles Hansen
University of Texas Press, 225 pp., $8.95 (paper)

The border means more than a customshouse, a passport officer, a man with a gun,” Graham Greene said. “Over there everything is going to be different…. The man seeking scenery imagines strange woods and unheard-of mountains; the romantic believes that the women over the border will be more beautiful and complaisant than those at home; the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell; the suicidal traveler expects the death he never finds.” That Greene wrote those words after visiting not Hong Kong or Trieste but Laredo should come as no surprise. The Mexican border—the very words are a metaphor for starting over—has been the inspiration for more feverish literary fantasies than that. The immediate significance of the border, however, is no longer to be found in the frequently overblown notions of romance or promise it provides south-bound travelers and writers, especially writers—Mexico, as Paul Fussell says, makes Anglo-Saxon authors go all to pieces—but in its distinction as the only international frontier in the world that separates a largely impoverished nation from a highly developed one. To the extent that the border still offers the promise of a fresh start it is not for those moving south, but north.

Though it is not really necessary to do so, one might quibble with Tom Miller’s description of the border as merely a strip of land two thousand miles long and twenty miles wide; the radians of its influence certainly extend as far as Louisiana to the east and Colorado to the north, roughly the area that Joel Garreau, in his imaginative book The Nine Nations of North America, has christened “MexAmerica,” and in several important ways there is now no place in the country they do not touch.

But the border as a sphere of influence is another topic altogether; as a meeting point of two countries it is equally deserving of study, if only because it is often no more than an imaginative collection of convenient fictions. For the moment, the most troublesome myth seems to be that the border between the United States and Mexico, like the one between, say, West Germany and Czechoslovakia, is a frontier over which this country can, should it choose to do so, exercise a near-absolute degree of sovereign control. This is not so, and even the idea that political boundaries in general ought to be barriers to mobility is relatively recent. In his book Abroad, Paul Fussell quotes C.E. Montague, the British novelist and journalist, recalling Europe before the First World War as a place where “you wandered freely about the Continent as if it were your own country…without knowing what a passport looked like.” So it was too in America, where until the early part of this century the only formality required of Mexican immigrants was the payment of fifty cents. Not until 1915, following the outbreak of war in Europe, did the US begin requiring visas of foreign visitors, and until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 there was not so much as a single border patrolman to thwart unwanted immigrants.

The strict enforcement of movement across national boundaries quickly came to be taken seriously in a Europe shaken by one war and about to be devastated by another. (“All these frontiers,” fussed Isherwood’s Arthur Norris in the early Thirties as his train approached the German border, “such a horrible nuisance.”) But while trans-Europe expresses were being boarded by stern-faced passport inspectors, the Mexican border, never considered a prospective threshold for military invasion, remained virtually unguarded. In the meantime the disparity between the quality of life on either side, which had earlier lent the border a good deal of its flavor (the difference between the United States and Mexico, Greene wrote in 1939, was dirt and darkness), grew ever wider until by the mid-1970s the average per capita income in this country was eight times that of Mexico. For nearly three decades after the Second World War the United States had failed to foresee that another kind of invasion was in the making, and by the time economic refugees propelled by the imbalance in incomes began arriving here in large numbers there was no mechanism capable of stopping them. Even then, successive administrations were slow to react or did so in peculiar ways. President Nixon, apparently perceiving the problem as akin to a military exercise in the interdiction of troop movements, named a retired Marine Corps commandant, Lieutenant General Leonard F. Chapman, to head his immigration service.

That the influx of uninvited visitors has now caused some alarm in Washington is evident from the serious discussions going on there of the feasibility of closing the Mexican border altogether. Whether such a thing is possible or not, the fact is that at present the border could hardly be more open. Anyone with a little perseverence can swim or walk across with about one chance in five of being detected on the first try, and the legal cross-border traffic of workers, shoppers, and tourists is far greater than the illegal. It is therefore far more useful at the moment to view the border as a membrane rather than a line that is simply American on one side and Mexican on the other. As Miller suggests in his too brief but nonetheless absorbing book, the melange of customs and cultures that such permeability affords has created along the border “a region that does not adhere to the economic, ethical, political, or cultural standards of either country,” a kind of third country that “obeys its own laws and has its own outlaws, its own police officers and its own policy makers. Its food, its language, its music are its own. Even its economic development is unique. It is a colony unto itself,…ruled by two faraway powers….”

Apart from long, vacant stretches of desert, mountains, and river the essence of the region is to be found in the string of bilingual, bicultural cities that straddle the border from Brownsville and Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico to San Diego and Tijuana on the Pacific coast—cities linked not only by international bridges and ports of entry but by what Carey McWilliams identified as a unique set of interlocking economic, social, and cultural interests. The pairs of cities are really city states, self-contained to a surprising degree and more dependent on each other than on their respective federal governments. (Though official recognition of this interdependence has come rather belatedly, it was formally acknowledged last summer when the governors of the four American and six Mexican border states met for the first time, in Juarez, to discuss mutual problems that might best be solved without recourse to Mexico City and Washington.)

The general impression of such border towns, as Mr. Miller points out, “is that they are sleazy and sleepy, dusty and desolate, places where the poor and the criminal mingle,” impressions that were first acquired during Prohibition when the border began to attract Americans looking for a drink and were mostly well deserved. Some of the smaller towns are still a bit sleazy but Juarez and Tijuana, which had perhaps the most sordid reputations, are today tame by US standards—no pornographic bookshops, topless dancers, or massage parlors, the only reminder of years past being a handful of seedy nightclubs deserted except for a few aging prostitutes (like other Mexicans, the younger ones now cross the border to work where the rewards are greater).

Given the difficulty of enumerating largely fluid populations border demographics are approximate, as they were in the mid-nineteenth century when a patrician Easterner named John Russell Bartlett set out to map the new United States-Mexico boundary established by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. At one point, Bartlett’s diary records, “We asked, ‘How many people are there in Chinapi?’ The reply was ‘Bastante.’ Enough…. Had I asked if the place contained five hundred people, the answer probably would have been ‘Quizás.’ Perhaps.”

Census taking is still difficult, not only in the Mexican “ciudades trampolinas” that serve as staging areas for those from the interior waiting to slip across the border on their way to Los Angeles and points north and east, but also on the US side. Until this year, United States Census forms in Spanish were not easily available and many older Mexican-Americans who grew up long before bilingual education simply went uncounted. There are probably about four million people living on each side of the border, and though the population of the region appears to be growing at an astonishing rate the myth of a sleepy backwater persists—one of the Washington correspondents who accompanied President Reagan to his meeting last February with José López Portillo, the Mexican president, referred to Juarez, where the meeting took place, as a “border community.” By most estimates, however, the population of Juarez is now close to one million, making it larger than all but six American cities. Taken together with El Paso, its twin, whose population is approaching half a million, the city of “El Juarez” would replace Houston as the nation’s fifth largest. (San Diego and Tijuana, with a combined population of nearly two million, would displace Philadelphia as the fourth.)

Miller sees the cities as “reluctant lovers in the night, embracing for fear that letting go could only be worse.” As Niles Hansen points out in his admirably researched but less entertaining study of the border, “the economies of El Paso and Juarez are so interrelated that it is difficult to discuss one without considering the other.” Residents of El Paso cross the bridge to Juarez not only to dine and drink, but to fill their automobiles with cheap gasoline, mail letters back to the United States for nine cents apiece (a trick that large-volume commercial mailers are only just discovering), visit cut-rate doctors and dentists, and to stock up on sugar, milk, coffee, fresh fruit and vegetables (including vine-ripened tomatoes for a dime apiece), lobster and giant shrimp, all at a fraction of their domestic prices.

The Mexican residents go north to work. Each day an estimated 40,000 holders of the coveted “green card” awarded to legal resident aliens commute to their jobs in the United States from their homes in Mexico, where they find life more agreeable and also cheaper. Perhaps an equal number enter with less exalted credentials that permit brief visits to the United States to shop but not to work. There are a million such cards outstanding, and the immigration service has no way to control how long their bearers stay in the United States or what they do while they are here. Mexico requires no such permits of US border crossers. An even larger number of workers simply cross the border illegally to reach their jobs, returning the same way each night.

Part of the problem encountered by John Russell Bartlett, and shared by government officials to this day, is that for half of its 1,966 miles the Mexican border is a negotiated boundary marked by no physical feature that might also serve as a barrier to entry. From Brownsville to El Paso the border follows the twisting, sometimes changing, course of the Rio Grande (the Rio Bravo to the Mexicans), a shallow ribbon of water that in the summertime is barely knee-deep in places. (The expression “wetback,” still much used by natives north of the border, though no longer in polite company, became popular before farmers in Colorado and New Mexico began siphoning off the river water to irrigate their crops.) West of El Paso, where the river turns north, there is nothing that even looks like a border save for a long line of obelisk-like monuments marching to the Pacific Ocean.

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