Border / La Frontera

Counties along the Mexico-United States border

Counties along the Mexico-United States border (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Border (in Spanish, la frontera) is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a side, edge, brink, or margin; a limit, or boundary; the part of anything lying along its boundary or outline,” and “the boundary line which separates one country from another, the frontier line.” Appended to this entry is the definition, “border protection n. (a) orig. U.S., defence or surveillance of the border of a nation or territory, (now) esp. in order to prevent illegal immigration” – a telling addition that points to the fraught socio-economic situations and cultural meanings of the border beyond a mere semantic definition. For the purpose of Latin American art and culture, the border has two meanings – a geo-political border and a metaphorical border. The former definitions takes the border as a site, specifically the United States-Mexico border, its surrounding borderlands, history, and socio-economic conditions. The latter definition of border as metaphor considers the border as a figurative structure of power and marginalization. Contemporary Latin American artists engage with the border as both site and metaphor.

The Border as Site

North American borders have been repeatedly redrawn by European colonial powers and the United States. Borders are not natural boundaries, but rather are constructed by nation-states. The Spanish borderlands between Mexico and the United States were established when Mexico became an independent nation in 1821. The United States’ interest in annexing Northern Mexico resulted in Americans illegally settling in and annexing Texas, provoking the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. The war was ended by the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, wherein Mexico ceded over half of its territory to the United States. The 1854 Gadsden Purchase finalized the current 2000-mile border between Mexico and the United States (figures 1). Mexico’s cessation of what is now California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and parts of Colorado to the United States resulted in the displacement, dispossession, and discrimination of roughly 100,000 Mexicans suddenly annexed into the United States.

Economic and political relationships between the United States and Mexico have shifted towards interdependence during the 20th century, and the results are visible at the border and surrounding borderlands. Border towns experienced population growth following the Second World War as economic interaction between the two nations increased, with activities such as trade, tourism, agriculture, and migrant labour. The bilateral Bracero Program instituted from 1942 to 1964 encouraged Mexicans to work on American farms. In 1965 the Border Industrialization Program was introduced, incentivizing foreign companies to establish low-wage factories along the border. These factories, called maquiladoras, offer low-wage employment to Mexicans at the cost of environmental degradation and resulting health problems. The ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s has increased the interdependence of the two economies, and has resulted in an increasing asymmetry between them; the United States maintains it position as the dominant, industrialized, first world economy, while Mexico functions a dependant third world economy. The Bracero program, maquiladoras, and companies within the United States profit by employing cheap and sometimes undocumented Mexican labour. Still, the low wages of American companies offer better pay than jobs in Mexico. Many are willing to risk crossing the border illegally to work in the United States in hopes of providing for themselves and their families. Undocumented workers are at risk of abuse and exploitation, yet are reluctant to seek help for fear of being deported. Employers are not obligated to pay undocumented workers minimum wage or offer health and social benefits. Migrants have no access to social services. Additionally they are separated from their families, isolated, and perhaps unable to speak English. Even crossing the border is dangerous – the American government implemented Operation Gatekeeper in 1994 as an initiative to secure the border from illegal crossings. The scheme included an increase of border patrol guards and the building of a fence along the border. These efforts have not quelled illegal border crossing but instead have forced people to cross at more dangerous points, such as through the Arizona desert; many migrants die in their attempts to cross. Thousands of people cross the border everyday, and although statistics vary, the numbers sum to millions per year.

The Border as Metaphor

Gloria Anzaldúa’s germinal text Borderlands / La Frontera instigated thinking about the border as a metaphor for boundaries beyond nationality. Anzaldúa traces the history of the Mexico-United states border as outlined above, and considers the social, cultural, and psychological ramifications they have had on Mexican-Americans or Chicanos, those who live with the realities of the border. She reveals how Chicanos and especially Chicanas have been discriminated against and subjugated within the United States by cultural myths and conditions of the border. She then synthesizes her own mythology to create a positive identity for long marginalized Chicanas. Anzaldúa’s work teased out the metaphorical border from the conditions of the geopolitical border. Stemming from such conceptions of the border as a metaphorical site, the border currently features prominently in cultural theory, sociology, and anthropology. The metaphorical border is a site where a dominant hegemony collides with a subjugated, marginalized, or minority voice. It a power structure of differentiation that delimits what is included and accepted within the borders of a society, and what is outside and marginalized. Symbolic borders represents the boundaries and collisions between categories such as gender, age, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity and nationality. The people who inhabit borderlands – either on the margins of accepted identities or on the frontiers of a nation – negotiate their position between two places or ideologies to produce hybrid identities. These borders are not fixed categories or binary terms, but fluid and permeable identities and positionalities; border crossing in this figurative sense means transgressing hegemonic constructs. The figurative border is a liminal site of negotiation and hybridity.

The Border in Contemporary Latin American Art

Both the border as site and metaphor find expression in contemporary Latin American art. The United States-Mexico border, its socio-economic conditions, its implications of identity, racism, and border crossing, are manifested as subject matter in border art. The Border Art Workshop (Taller de Fronterizo; BAW/TAF), an artists collective working at the Tijuana-San Diego border, is one notable example. The border as metaphor also functions in contemporary art. Conceptually inclined contemporary Latin American art employs global aesthetics and artistic practices that transcend national border – such contemporary border art addresses a global audience with global issues, but with local meaning and referents in the work. For example, Gustavo Artiga’s multimedia work Rules of the Game, 2000, involves a soccer and basketball team both playing their sports simultaneously on one court, speaking to the challenges that occur where two nations collide at a border while remaining optimistic of the potential to coexist. Border crossing in art can refer to the conceptual transgression of traditions in art, or border crossing can serve as the subject matter of border art that takes the border as site.

To summarize, the border can be constituted as a geopolitical boundary or as a conceptual structure that creates boundaries and a strategy to transgress them. The international course of contemporary art reflects a dissolving of the importance of national borders evident in other spheres. With the advent of globalization, the control of borders and citizens is shifting from nation-states to transnational corporations. The postmodern, globalized world is in this respect a post-border world. Nonetheless, border thinking allows us the ability to recognize, negotiate, and cross real and symbolic boundaries in art and society.

Sonia Kata

Spring 2010


This entry was posted in boundaries, Chicano, Gloria Anzaldúa, Maquiladora, metaphor, Mexico, North American Free Trade Agreement, site, Uncategorized, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

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