(De)Constructing the Mexican-American Border (1998)
Today, if there is a dominant culture, it is border culture.
And those who still haven’t crossed a border will do it soon.
All Americans (from the vast continent America)
were, are, or will be border-crossers.
The Mexican-American Border constitutes a social space involving an exceptional amount of political, economic, and cultural interaction and conflict. Constructed and deconstructed over the course of nearly centuries, the border according to Norma Iglesias has been converted into a kind of floating culture in which there are no fixed categories from a racial linguistic or cultural point of view. The frontier culture is liminal and unstable, full of constant change, It is for that reason that Nestor García Canclini in Culturas Híbridas argues that “[l]a incertidumbre generada por las oscilaciones bilingüístas, biculturales y binacionales tiene su equivalencia en las relaciones con la propia historia” (299). The absence of fixed categories along the frontier, in turn, produces an anxiety that is mirrored in the uncertainty of cultural identity, since identity prefers stability and the rootedness of permanent “essences.”
The floating frontier is a social space of cultural hybridization, a space in which one’s identity shifts according to the perspective(s) that one inherits and the changing forces that affect social reality. For nearly two centuries, Mexicans and North Americans along the border have intermixed and produced a floating, hybrid culture that, paraphrasing Homi Bhabha in his article “The Commitment to Theory,” is neither Mexican nor American but rather is Mexican and American at the same time (10). The results of such a hybrid culture are manifested not only in language (Spanglish) but also in food, customs, art, and literature.
In “(De)Constructing the Mexican-American Border,” Latin American Issues provides an important discussion of the political, economic, and cultural conflicts and trends that have arisen in this social space. In their essay, Mónica Gendreau and Gilberto Giménez analyze the impact of economic and cultural globalization on traditional rural communities in central Mexico, particularly focusing on migration patterns to and from the United States, while Glenn Martínez examines the representation of the immigrant experience in contemporary Mexican cinema. Silvia Pellarolo, in examining the life of slain Tejana singer Selena, proposes a new reading on her construction as a cultural icon in cinema and the mass media in the United States. Richard Roman and Edur Velasco Arregui discuss the important economic changes that have taken place under the auspices of the Border Industrialization Program and NAFTA, placing special emphasis on the way these programs have differentially affected capital and labor. Alexandro Silva and Howard Campbell use Edward Said’s analysis of the Other to illuminate the largely negative stereotyping of the colonias (neighborhoods) that have proliferated in the United States border cities within recent decades, while Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez works from a cultural studies perspective to analyze the Mexican-American border as the space of the Other.
Each of the essays included in this issue helps to shed light on a complex and increasingly important set of realities that link the United States and Mexico.
Gendreau, M. and Giménez, G. A Central Community Among Multiple Peripheral Communities. Latin American Issues [On-line], 14(1).
A CENTRAL COMMUNITY AMONG MULTIPLE
The Effects of Economic and Cultural Globalization
on Traditional Rural Communities in Central Mexico1
Universidad lberoamericana Golfo-Central
Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México
The purpose of this report is to study the perception, and the observable effects of the processes of modernization and globalization from a perspective that is peripheral and regional, that is to say, from the point of view of the traditional rural communities in the center of Mexico and, more precisely, of those in the region of Atlixco, Puebla. Among other things, we will be addressing the questions of self-identity and community identity, in the context of global connectivity and the tension between global and local cultures. This implies, certainly, processes of social change and cultural change at a local level, not necessarily just in terms of homogenization and “de-traditionalization,” but also of adaptation, rearrangement, and even revival of the traditional cultures. In other words, the process of change is always unforeseeable and indeterminate and may vary between the dissolution and the re-integration of the communities in question –between the “dismembering” of these communities and their “remembering” (Shinar).
We shall give special importance in our analysis to two phenomena, each distinct and yet related in substance: international migration and exposure to media. We consider that these phenomena constitute the principal means of contact between the traditional cultures of the region we studied, and urban modernity and are thus being the most important factors for change.
On the one hand, international migration is frequently considered a one-way process, the natural result of which would be the disintegration of the communities from which it took place: the dissolution of their culture, anomie, and the generation of negative identities. We have found in the region, however, an alternative model in which migration instead contributes to the revitalization of the local communities and to the “trans-national” enlargement of their networks of sociability, thanks to the weak acculturation in the places of destination for migration and to the extensive communication that exists not only among the paisanos of the diaspora themselves, but also that which exists between these and their friends and relatives. This situation of absence-presence seems to characterize especially those workers who, due to conditions that we shall explain later, emigrate with the idea that they will return one day, considering migration only as a temporary strategy of survival, an improvement in the condition of their lives.
The mass media, on the other hand, have been seen as another window” to modernity, as people in very different parts of the world can see, hear and experience the same mediated events. Nevertheless, in the town under study, if it is true that some migrants have had access to new technologies of communication (tape-recorders, video cameras, etc.) we are finding that the inhabitants of this region do not know much about “the world” as such. When asked about various international events, or about national or even local celebrities, or happenings, they have no broad-spectrum knowledge of these. They are much more interested in national sports, in Mexican TV and movie celebrities, in very few politicians (e.g. the president or the governor of their state) and they are really quite informed only about local or regional sports, popular music, and community happenings.
This report presents some preliminary findings of a long-term research project in the Valley of Atlixco in the state of Puebla, Mexico. We have combined diverse methods in order to have a regional approach (we administered a survey) and a more profound and qualitative perspective (in-depth interviews and ethnographic work in two localities). Our objective has been to study the effects of migration and of media exposure on changing regional identities. In other words, to explore if there is an association between these two factors, migration and media exposure, because they are -as we said- the two principal means of contact between traditional cultures and urban modernity. Both of these have to be studied within broader subjects: the effects of economic transnationalization and globalization of mass media in traditional cultures.
Regional Economy in the Valley of Atlixco2
The region under study embraces five counties, with a population of 170,000. Almost 50% of these live in Atlixco City, and the rest are settled in a very dispersed pattern, in a variety of poor rural communities. The valley is well linked with the rest of the large cities in the state of Puebla by an interstate highway system, and throughout the region dirt roads connect many isolated communities with Atlixco City. With the exception of this city, which has diversified and developed economic activities, the regional economy is based on agriculture. Poor peasants live on subsistence agriculture that depends on very small plots of land. The average rural family plot consists of from one to five hectares. Economic differentiation is not based on land extension but on access to water and the ability to trade crops.
Agriculture, once sufficient to sustain a peasant’s family, now has become too scarce to warrant its subsistence and has forced people to look for alternative ways of earning money. Commerce and work for salaries have been used as alternative sources, and they have been accompanied by migration. The use of the family labor force, plus all available resources, and the exploitation of several pieces of land by the family, have been some strategies to survive.
Most exchange of farm produce takes place in the weekly market of Atlixco, but occasionally farmers bring their goods to some other nearby regional markets (Puebla, Izucar de Matamoros) or, through intermediaries, send their crops to Mexico City. There is also some exploitation of lumber, on a small scale.3
Migration to the United States
One of the factors contributing to the intensification of the present crisis in the Mexican farming country is, without doubt, migration. Its importance lies not only in the extent and variety of its patterns, but also in the short-range and medium-range repercussions it has, and will continue to have, on the manner of life and social relationships in rural areas. The question of migration, therefore, must be approached not only as geographic and labor mobility, but also as a form of contact with urban modernity, implying serious consequences of a sociocultural order such as change of customs, change of life forms, changes in social relationships, and changes in the method of organization and integration of families and communities.
D’Aubeterre explains that if, in the past, rural migration was a strategy resulting as a complement of agricultural activities, now it “represents the principal option around which are structured the lives and futures of an ever-increasing number of domestic groups” (D’Aubeterre). Therefore, it must be clear that, although the migrations began more than five decades ago in Mexico, the neo-liberal economic model has established the basis for the transformation of migratory patterns and also for the roles of women and families, even in the smallest localities.4
Migration to the United States has grown to astronomical proportions, above all in the last 10 years. Feminine migration toward the cities of the country has also intensified. The economic support of the migrants represents an important resource for the families of the area, besides creating repercussions of demographic, familial, and cultural character. For example, the migration of a majority of young men from an area affects the organization of work in families, and also the traditional models for marriage; the exodus of married men, also extremely important, has modified tremendously interaction among family members, and changed familial roles.
In the United States, the final destinations of migrants from this region are usually New York City, Los Angeles, and New Jersey. Robert Smith, a Columbia University specialist in this matter, said that there are more than 200,000 Mexicans living in New York, and a great proportion of them are from Atlixco (Smith).
This massive migration to the United States is possible thanks to strong, gradually built-up paisano5 networks, made up of family members and friends who have already received their immigration-status, legal-residency in New York, where they have started small businesses such as tortilla factories, bakeries, gardening services or flower commerce. Some have been incorporated into the service and industrial sector. These social networks link the communities of “expulsion” with some specific destination places in the U.S, and make transit back and forth between Brooklyn and Atlixco, for example, easy and widely experienced. This is how strong nexuses are built between migrants and non-migrants, within a framework of complementary relationships and interpersonal compromises based on an informal set of reciprocal expectations and prescribed conduct (Massey 170-171).
The sense of belonging to the same community of origin (paisanaje) gives a latent-bond dimension to their community that becomes explicit and significant each time a member migrates. Consequently, when migrants come together in the same place of destination, a strong sense of identity grows under the adverse circumstances of migration. Our informants said that paisanos of Atlixco Valley have founded soccer teams and music bands in New York City; they even have some special parks in which to meet on holidays. It is through newly-arriving migrants that the foreign community in NYC receives news, letters and gifts from Mexico.
Some communities under study in the Valley have begun to “remember” absent people, reserving them a symbolic place. This is not just because absentees send money to pay for the community celebrations, or because they have contributed to pay for community projects, such as drainage, the restoration of churches, or the painting of schools. They are still recognized as community members with their traditional rights because they have never stopped being an integral part of the place.
The festivity of the Patron Saint is still the most important social celebration for villagers, nurturing relationships among members of the community, both absent and present. This annual festivity has always been an important date for migrants to return, when it is possible, and remains a demonstration of community cohesion6 (Ginsburg; Melucci).
In this context it is easy to understand why migration of return is widely extended. Migration is seen simply as a temporary strategy of survival, a way of improving family and community-life conditions. In those cases studied, we could appreciate that migration strategies are usually taken by groups. For example, in an extended family, the elders decide who can migrate, for how long, and where. In these cases, they take care of the migrant’s wife, and family if he is married. They are also in charge of maintaining frequent contact with the migrant in order to ensure his loyalty and return. All this points out clearly that even though there are strong incentives for international migration, it is not an easy decision. It is taken strategically, at some precise time, and to fulfill specific objectives. Migration has its origin in family needs, and once they are accomplished, a strategy of return is implemented, allowing another member of the family to leave, again temporarily.
Socio-Cultural Effects of Migration
It has been pointed out by some other researchers (D’Aubeterre; Massey; Marroni de Velázquez), and we concur, that some social and cultural patterns are altered as migration becomes a massive phenomenon. Significantly, those patterns related to women living in their towns of origin have suffered adaptations in various important dimensions of life: productive organization, family dynamics, and festive and religious practices, among others.
(1) In the first place, the structural tension created by the fact that family members live in separated places must be considered important. In cases of international migration especially, there are huge distances to be considered, and family integrity can be preserved only as long as migrants send the remittances needed to sustain their families. This kind of migration generates new ways of living, and affects not only couple-relationships and marriages but parent/children and parent-in law/daughter-in-law relationships as well. Economic support from the migrant is the basis of those familial relations; when it is interrupted, what is at stake is not only the difference between penury and well-being is at stake, but also reciprocity between generations and between men and women. The effects of this economic support on identity and the sense of community are profound.
(2) In the case of international migration, links between those who left and those who stayed are not under any familial or community-control mechanisms. They are based solely on the migrant’s sense of belonging, as fragile as it may be. In other words, migration forces a re-defined sense of belonging to a family, in terms of dues and rights. The same occurs to the sense of attachment to community. Not only are remittances needed to sustain the agriculture cycle, but they also are needed to improve community well-being and the maintenance of rituals and festivities, as well. D’Aubeterre and Massey conclude that remittances are becoming an essential factor for the reproduction of community social networks, enabling migrants to keep alive their social identity at home.
(3) Above all, international migration generates tensions and re-adaptations to the new situation of presence/absence of one or several family members. Women, especially, are under tremendous pressure because they have to assume more and varied responsibilities. These include that of being the family’s de facto head, and the new responsibilities derived from living under the surveillance of their parents-in-laws (since male migrants leave their families under their parents’ custody). For women, there is also the uncertainty, always present, about the possibility that the migrant could re-marry in his new place of residence (Fagetti).
Today there is no connection between the socially-accepted role and the actual role that women have to perform in rural Mexican societies. An understanding of the consequences of this contradiction, in the present and in the future, is crucial to understanding the changes in consciousness and condition of different family and community members, and above all, changes affecting women (Abric; Doise et Palmonari).
(4) It is no coincidence that among those communities studied, and others in the state of Puebla by D’Aubeterre, Fagetti and Marroni de Velázquez, migration is forcing a change in family-size. A large family, highly-valued in the traditional rural context, is not now compatible with the ever-increasing extra-domestic work of women caused by the migration of the men. Nor is it compatible with the young couple’s expectations to migrate together to the United States. The desire for small families is reinforced by those patterns operating in places of migration-destination outside the border of Mexico.
The current, profound agricultural and economic crisis has contributed to this new situation. Families see little future in agriculture work and as the costs of nurturing children rise, mostly because more children now attend school,7 the economic value of children has changed and young women have begun to visualize the need of having fewer children.
Finally, the men’s absence as family heads and the women’s new presence in the rural wage labor force have produced new links between the sexes and generations inside families, and in a wider social context also. For example, the in-laws, grandparents, parents, brothers, and, especially, mothers-in-law are left to control wives and their children when husbands are absent. Studies of several communities in Atlixco suggested that even though a migrant’s remittances enable his nuclear family to live in their own home place and build a house, his extended family maintains an important control over his spouse and family, even after his departure. In spite of this dependence, the wives of migrants continue to represent them, to assume their civic and religious community responsibilities, and to make decisions that could not be made while their men were present.
Re-membering and Dis-membering Migration
We have suggested the co-existence of two migratory patterns in the region studied, and their global effects on both the cultural and identity integration of the “expelling” community must be taken into account.
On the one hand, there exist communities that far from suffering de-segregation or deterioration from the effects of migration, seem to become revitalized and even enlarged beyond national borders, thanks to the absence-presence of its migrants in diaspora. In fact, these are the ones who left with the idea of returning and are those who not only re-create or simulate their native culture in new destinations,8 but also maintain an intense “long-distance” communication with their place of origin–by telephone, by correspondence,9 by remittances of money to their families, and frequently by periodic returns to their native places in order to participate in ceremonial rites and festivities.
On the other hand, we also found localities in the process of disintegration, with an accelerated loss of the pride of belonging (negative identity), whose members have lost all contact with their migrant relatives and whose young people only await their turn, the right occasion, to emigrate, too, as their plans for the future are considered to be completely outside the community.
Everything seems to indicate that the first migratory model, which we could call (paradoxically) “re-integrative migration,” requires certain essential conditions that function as powerful factors for bonding with the community of origin. These factors include a strong identity based on historic patrimony and/or on the common, ethnic-religious heritage; an attachment to place (the local or regional “topophile”) which is frequently associated with property, or the possession of land considered as a material and cultural inheritance; and, perhaps above all, a minimum of level of economic viability and social well-being that can sustain a viable community existence.
The second model, however, that of “disintegrative migration,” is seen more in peripheral areas of the region and is marked by a more severe agricultural crisis, and characterized by an extreme division of family parcels (a product of the demographic pressures on the farmers), and the impossibility of acquiring new and better land. Given these conditions, it could be said that the minimum conditions necessary for a relatively gratifying identity, together with a pride in belonging, are in no way present.
In our opinion, the first model described is that which occurs most frequently in the region. Based on a regional study, the estimated number of emigrants is reflected partially in the ratio of male inhabitants to females.10 The first results from the survey show us that 69.3% of the families have one close relative (husband, brother, son) working outside Mexico; 78.4% of these are men, and 78.7% of the men are between the ages of 16 and 30 years old –a period of years that is extremely productive. The places to which they emigrate are New York (65%); New Jersey (8.6%); Los Angeles (13.8%) and Chicago (7.1%). From these figures it is clear that the favored destination for the emigrants from the area studied is New York, where it is estimated that more than 200,000 persons from the state of Puebla are currently working (Statistics, Mexican Consulate, NYC).
On the one hand, if we analyze age groups, 72.5% of the young people between the ages of 15 and 20 said that the place where they would most like to live was their home area, and only 12.5% said they would like to live in Mexico City. This was the highest percentage for all the age groups. In the analysis of this information from a gender point of view, we found that there was no significant difference between the viewpoints of men and those of women –more that 84% feel great devotion to their place of origin, and would like to continue living there. Among the reasons given are the fundamentally affective ones: “because I was born there,” “everyone here knows me,” “because that’s where I have my land,” “in my town I am free; I can do whatever I want –like being in my cornfield,” “I can watch my children grow,” “in my town the people are good.” Whether reasons of an economic or instrumental type were not given (for example, because one lives well there, because there are jobs, or because there are enough resources there for one to advance. their regard is fundamentally a question of affective ties to the family, to the community and to the land –elements deeply rooted in the traditional rural culture of the region.
On the other hand, our survey revealed a tremendous persistence of local identity with, and fondness for, the place of origin. Some 85% of those interviewed defined their place of origin as “the place to which one feels most attached, and where one would most choose to live.” Only 4.9% said they felt more drawn toward a different place, such as Mexico City, or other states. A very low percent (1.3) felt affection for some place outside Mexico.
San Pedro Cuauco and San Jerónimo Coyula:
An Ethnographic Approximation
Ethnographic observation seems to reinforce the existence of the two above-mentioned patterns of migration. We shall review two case studies in this respect –the first realized in San Pedro Cuauco and the second in San Jerónimo Coyula.
San Pedro Cuauco represents for us a clear example of what we have called “re-integrative migration.” San Pedro is a rural community (it has been officially re-baptized as San Pedro Benito Juárez) situated on the western periphery of the region under study, practically at the foot of the volcano Popocatépetl. The town is characterized by its lack of urban services of health, education, highway infrastructures, etc., although, paradoxically, it is not far from urban-industrial centers of importance such as the cities of Atlixco, lzúcar de Matamoros, and Puebla.
The locality is particularly rich in what we could call “ethnographic culture,” as it is permeated with a profound religious sense that is manifested in rites of life and death, in town festivities, in village dances, in nuptial ceremonies, and even in decisions concerning harvests. But this ethnographic culture also nourishes a deep sense of belonging, and many of its elements function as shared symbols of identity.
If it is true that the inhabitants of San Pedro recognize that they are “language brothers” –“the Náhuatl of our forefathers”– they do not identify themselves as a special ethnic group, but as mestizos and poor farmers. They feel “proud” of their blood and of their region; they participate actively in a rich variety of civil and religious community rites; and they reveal a profound attachment to their native land.
The cultural localism of this village comes into contact with modernity through two principal channels: migration and exposure to the media. In a former article,11 we have described these principal patterns and their effects. We shall only recall here that migration is principally a masculine phenomenon, that in most cases it is not considered as definite, but retaining the perspective of return,12 and that the destinations for migration are principally New York and New Jersey. “Nueva York… I Km. Nosotros le traemos o llevamos a sus familiares al aeropuerto de la Ciudad de México.” (New York… 1 kilometer. We bring or take members of your family to the airport of Mexico City): thus announces a sign painted on a wall of the town. It is as if the border of Mexico with the United States were reduced to the village scale, and were almost within sight.
Concerning the dimensions of the migration phenomenon, it should be sufficient to point out that 81% of the nuclear families have at least one migrant, and 28.3% have more than one. In addition, 89.2% of extended families have more than one migrant, and 10.8% more than two. This seems to indicate that the phenomenon of migration tends to affect almost every family in the village.
At least in the village under study, and in other localities of similar ethnographic culture, no sign was observed of “expatriation or cultural uprooting” among the migrants (actually absent), nor among the ex-migrants who had returned. What we observed were, rather, “repatriations” of the culture of origin, or new forms of relation to space. Thus, we found the migrants from San Pedro in New York or in New Jersey inhabiting city districts characterized by networks of solidarity, based on relationships that could be familial, neighborly, or based on compadrazgo (godparent-godson) ties. In these neighborhoods were reproduced, among other things, the alimentary culture and the festivities of the place of origin. Those we interviewed, for example, had friends and relatives in New York. The case of Nicolás, when interviewed, was illustrative: he said he worked in New York as a plumber and mason, lived with a group of Mexicans (who were mostly from Atlixco), and thus considered it was not necessary for him to “make a great effort to learn English,” as in the neighborhood and among friends everyone spoke Spanish.
In addition, emigrants maintain an intense long-distance communication with their place of origin, by telephone,13 through letters, and, above all, through remittances of money to their families. At a subjective level, this persistent linkage may be translated in symbolic and affective terms as terms of nostalgia and hope of return. Those we interviewed often expressed themselves with this eloquent paradox: “It is necessary to go in order to remain here.” With this, they want to say that the migration they face is only temporary, necessary for specific projects such as saving money to invest in more land, fixing a house, or fulfilling some social or religious obligation (such as a wedding or party). Concerning the nostalgia felt by the migrant in a foreign land, Nicolás, a 32 year-old “returnee” , expressed the feeling in this way:
“You miss your family; you can’t see your children; and there they have customs that are –well, I don’t know– different…. You don’t see the volcano; you’re used to taking care of your cornfield; well, all that counts…. One can’t “find oneself” there … [it is] just [that] necessity… sometimes is greater.”
To counter the somewhat idyllic vision that may be deduced from our description, we must add two observations:
(1) In the locality that was studied, generational variables seem to play an important role. In effect, we have been able to prove that the young people –unlike mature adults– manifest a greater propensity toward migration (some never return at all), tend to conceive their life projects outside the community, and seem more susceptible to “urban fascination.”
(2) Among some of those interviewed with more extensive migratory experience, we found cases of uncertainty as to identity, ambiguities, and conflict of loyalty. This is precisely what seems reflected in the expression of one of these returned migrants: “I have left and come back so many times that sometimes I feel I am neither from there nor from here.”
We suspect, without being able to prove it, that frequently these cases are related to the formation of a second family in the place of destination.
San Jerónimo Coyula, in contrast to the aforementioned village, this is a community that exemplifies the model of a “disintegrative migration,” one that in extreme cases could lead to the disappearance of the town through the slow “evaporation” of its male population. This is a town badly laid out, with no paved streets, and great deficiencies in urban services.
A considerable number of the families in this town, and more than half of the young people, consider that no future exists there for them; thus they live in hope of migration, manifest a clearly negative identity (characterized by a weak attachment to their community), and conceive plans for a future outside. Furthermore, many of the families own no land or have only a few fragmented plots of eroded land (an average of 2.5 hectares).14 This may be explained in part by the tremendous agricultural crisis throughout the region, which has affected this town greatly.
Then, too, some families begin to lose contact with their migrant sons because they no longer phone or write home frequently. Younger sons know that they, too, will migrate, and parents consider this “a good decision.” Finally, all seems to indicate that the lack of opportunities for an improvement of the situation favors the formation of negative identities, and the primary effect of this is the devaluation of a sense of belonging. In cases like these, migration, far from strengthening bonds with the community, is, instead, breaking them.
Studying Media Exposure in a Family Context
The second of the channels of contact between traditional cultures and “globalized” modernity is that of means of mass communication, particularly those of radio and television.
The primary results of a survey carried out in the fall of 1997 comprise a sample of 34 localities in 5 municipalities.15 A total of 760 survey sheets were distributed at random, thus obtaining a representation of the entire population of the region. The first results, based on an analysis of 52% of the total, marked a clear tendency toward the use of media. Some 82.5% of the families own radios; 83.7% have TVs; and 23.9% can watch films on their videocassette players. The preferred radio programs are primarily musical. Adults listen to ranchera, norteña music and boleros, while young people like grupera and tropical music and, in few cases, rock music –in Spanish.16
The most frequently-watched television programs were found to be: telenovelas or soap operas (48.1%) and news programs (20.5%), decreasing in popularity to Mexican movies (10.8%). It is noteworthy that only national (94.8%) and local (5.2%) TV programs are watched. One important piece of information gleaned from our survey is that exposure to the media has not generated in the region a “culture of information,” as the majority of the persons interviewed are not all well-informed, even about regional events, through the media. What is more, upon being questioned as to the type of news programs they prefer to watch on TV, they mentioned only “nota roja” (red note) programs –those with an accent on the sensational (reporting of crimes, assaults, etc., as in “60 Minutes”)
Media exposure has been widely studied from a marketing context of audience analysis. With this method, only the total number of people watching or hearing a specific program in relation to some socio-demographic traits has been considered important. And such a per-capita method results from the thesis that a “mass society” is the main trait of a modern, industrialized nation, which in turn weakens traditional links and promotes individualism, and the isolation of people.
This focus, however, has been severely criticized from different theoretical perspectives. Fiske and Turner argue that audiences are “fictions” and have no empirical existence,17because they are only a collection of people having in common the TV set or radio turned on at the same time that some program is being transmitted.
An alternative perspective would be, then, to conceive people’s relationship to the media (watching TV or listening to radio) as a complex activity, inextricably linked to other domestic and daily practices (Ang; Silverstone; Morley). From here, we have concluded the need to study the specific forms in which a communicative technology acquires a particular significance. In other words, to study the communication context. This will help us to learn how the media are integrated differently into family and daily lives, in original ways, for different purposes, and for different types of families and people. If we adopt this focus, we may need to study the relationship of mass media with their public from a natural-environmental viewpoint, that is, from a family context, including the sociocultural framework in which it is embedded. This way of understanding audience-study asks us to use an ethnographic methodology as the most appropriate way to learn the media relationship to daily and familial contexts. Following Lull’s agenda, we made an ethnographic study of two families in the towns under review.
In San Jerónimo Coyula, we carried out a rigorous ethnographic study, or follow-up, of two families, with respect to their daily use of the mass media, taking into consideration both generational and gender differences.18 It is fit to emphasize here the importance of these two fundamental variables in defining a pattern of daily activities and their relationship to the media of mass communication. The results are consistent with the findings in San Pedro Cuauco, and with those of the regional survey. Both families have a member who migrated and returned more than 20 years ago; those who left now constitute the second generation of migrants.
Local authorities dated the first appearance of TV in town as 25 years ago, and its use has been extending gradually in such a way that almost all families now have at least one TV set. In fact, extended families often have two TV sets, usually located in the parents’ bedrooms and in those of the married children. Radio, the most popular medium in town, was introduced in the mid-1950s. Today, there is an average of two or three radio sets per family. There is no store selling newspapers or magazines, so they are acquired by these people while attending the market in Atlixco City. There is no cable TV in town, nor parabolic antennas. There are, however, a few families with VCRs, although videos for these can be rented only in Atlixco City.
The preferences of those interviewed, above all, adults, seem to be adjusted effectively to traditional codes of “popular Mexican culture.” Everything seems to indicate that people from San Jerónimo have became accustomed to staying at home for their entertainment. Thanks to radio and television, people now enjoy music, melodrama, and “agonistic events” (e.g. bull fights, boxing, soccer, etc.) in their own home, whereas formerly such entertainment was sought outside their homes at regional fairs, at shows given in tents, in village theaters, or on stages improvised in public squares.
Concerning the effects of exposure to the media, it was easy to prove that far from becoming a so-called “transnational public, de-territorialized and anonymous,” the inhabitants of San Jerónimo carefully select their musical programs and for entertainment choose programs that accord with los códigos populates locales (popular local codes).19
We have studied two families, one nuclear and the other extended, in order to find out if there is a significant difference in their relationship to the media in the course of their daily lives. They are both representative of traditional, poor, peasant families of the town, and both have at least one migrant member in N.Y.C. There has been TV in both families for two generations; nevertheless, there is some mistrust of new technologies among adults. There are no VCRs, no video games, no CDs.
Men work primarily in the field, planting their own small piece of land or becoming employed at a nearby farm. Their lives are organized, from sunrise to sunset, around fieldwork. They rest only one day a week; during weekdays they have to attend to their fields and their farm animals. This is an important issue in explaining their minimum relationship with the media. They rarely watch any TV program (sports, music, Mexican movies) and are not accustomed to reading any newspaper or magazine. Radio is much more important in their lives; it “accompanies” their domestic activities, but not their fieldwork.
As we found in the survey, their knowledge of national public life is limited to recognizing the president, a few cabinet ministers, perhaps the governor of their state, some national entertainers –mostly singers and soap-opera stars– and, above all, athletes (soccer players, mostly, and boxers). Local news is not media-transmitted. Radio programs come from state or national stations and news about local events is spread through interpersonal communication, either at the market in Atlixco, at reunions, at the mass on Sunday, at local committee meetings, or at parties. The men interviewed stated expressly that they have no “interest” in TV programs. Although there is a TV set in their home, they turn it on rarely, usually on Saturday or Sunday nights. They do not consider watching television a daily activity.
Women, on the contrary, stay most of the time at home or near it, and that is why they listen to the radio continuously, from morning until night. Although they have a TV set, and younger people turn it on in the evenings, older women “do not have time to waste.” Even soap operas, so common in Mexico’s TV programming, are considered to be “silly programs” and do not speak about “how expensive everything is” or about children growing up and looking for work.” One of those interviewed asserted that she has “to fight with her young children” not to watch TV because “it only fills their head with strange ideas.”
It is clearly proven that age plays a fundamental role in the integration of TV into daily life. Children and teenagers under 15 are more familiar than adults with TV programming, and watch it almost daily. Girls attending school are used to doing their homework in front of the TV set. They do not watch cartoons, however, but soap operas. Boys prefer to play with friends after home duties are finished. Although they do not choose programs, they like to watch cartoons (e.g., Power Rangers). Younger people like very much to listen to radio and tape-recorded music while being at home.
For entertainment, old and young people like to go out to Atlixco, to the Cholula fair, or to market. In the weekly market of Atlixco they buy home-taped cassettes (called piratas).20
These findings lead us to affirm the greater importance of radio and taped music when compared with TV programming. This may be due to the fact that as music is compatible with their daily activities; it does not require much of their attention and is used mostly as a “companion.” Thus, the primary sources of family information are: market days, family or party reunions, and the priest’s sermon during Sunday masses. Interpersonal communication among friends and neighbors is very important for learning about news that affects them.21
These initial data, collected in our fieldwork, suggest that mass media in this town are subordinate to family structure and to routine work. Nevertheless, it can be stated that young generations are showing higher and more frequent media-interaction. Adults not only show little interest, but some “distrust” for those urban programs “so far removed from reality.” Popular music and “agonistic”22 shows and events are selected to be interwoven into their daily routines. Media programming content responds to their codes of traditional culture. Even those returned migrants who have brought back from the United States sophisticated music sets such as CDs and stereo tape-recorders, always select Spanish music that corresponds to their popular codes.
Some Preliminary Conclusions
First, the contact of rural families with urban modernity through the migration of some of the family members is certainly provoking significant changes in local cultures. This can be said of objective forms (symbolic and labor behavior patterns, entertainment activities, daily life configurations, etc.) as well as of subjective ones (social representations, sense of belonging, attachment to the land, etc.). Indeed, it could not be otherwise; culture and a sense of belonging are dynamic realities ruled dialectically by the logic of continuity and discontinuity.
Changes are particularly visible in the context of family structure, where significant alteration can be observed, e. g., in the hierarchy of parents, in the evaluation of women’s fecundity, and, above all, in the symbolic and instrumental roles assumed by women as supplemental during the absence of their men.
It is interesting to observe how feminine roles change. For example, this change occurs at first as supplemental, conditional only upon the husband’s absence. Later, those new roles will enter into a hard “nucleus, ” or socially-accepted core (Abric). In other words, women’s out-of-home labor as land workers (jornaleras), which at first assumes a “supplementary” and “conditional” status, turns out to be highly valued, later, as “normal” women’s activity, not socially-faulted anymore. In this way, a psycho-social mechanism of cultural change clearly pointed out by socio-psychologists becomes evident (Flament 49). The following Diagram 1 schematizes this process.
Second, all this seems to indicate that in spite of the discontinuities observed, a logic of cultural and identity continuity still prevails. One has to mention adaptive strategies to face economic and migration phenomena, but these do not represent cultural or identity mutation, yet. The latter would imply a substantial or systematic alteration of local values and traditions. If one uses socio-psychological language, those changes observed are occurring mostly on the periphery of social representations (Jodelet; Dolse et Palmonari). The process modifies and enriches the system and its conditional prescripts, but without seriously affecting their hard nucleus.
Contrary to some linear-theoretical expectations of modernity which affirm that the result of an interaction between traditional and industrial cultures would inevitably be a process of detraditionalization and urban-acculturation, we found that international migration, in this region studied, has contributed mostly to reproducing and reinforcing the local culture and sense of belonging.
Diagram 1. Stages of Socio-Cultural Change23
|1.||External circumstances are modified (e.g., agriculture crisis and migration of some masculine family members).|
|2.||Adaptive modification of social practices takes place (e.g. spouses assume some masculine roles while their husbands are absent).|
|3.||(Cognitive) modification of conditional prescriptors (norms) related to those practices takes place (e.g. emergence of a new conditional prescription: women cannot work outside their homes, except in those cases when their wage is needed).|
|4.||(Cognitive) modification of absolute prescriptors occurs (e.g., incorporation of a new absolute norm in the social representation nucleus: women can work outside their homes anytime and anywhere).|
In fact, migrants not only behave as fellow countrymen neighbors in a Diaspora, with its own identity, integrated only superficially and weakly into dominant reception by urban cities, but they also continue to consider themselves active members of their communities of origin and are well recognized as such back in their towns. Moreover, they continue to have a symbolic place in village festivities. One can say, then, that migration has contributed to widening the local community dimension in an international network that still includes its absent members. This phenomenon corresponds to a specific migration pattern, one to be considered as a temporary specific strategy for survival and improvement and one that includes, consequently, a perspective of return. It is true that if migrants want to stay in their towns, they have to leave at least for a while.
However, we must add that this model, undoubtedly the most generalized in the region under study, is only verified under specific conditions that we have tried to identify on previous pages. As a matter of fact, there is an important variation contradicting such a model. In some peripheral communities in the same region, characterized by extreme poverty –e.g., complete land erosion, property fragmentation or generalized agricultural crisis– one can find a “shameful” local culture, which generates negative identities by destroying local solidarity, weakening community traditions of loyalty, and dissolving land attachment. In those cases, as reported in the southern Atlixco Valley in a region called the Mixteca Poblana, migrants have lost contact completely with their community and do not send any remittances to their families.
One of the communities under study, San Jerónimo Coyula, has begun to illustrate this situation. Young inhabitants in particular despise their community; their future is conceived as being completely outside their town and region. These cases verify the fact that only relatively gratifying and successful identities –based on some sort of minimum economic viability– can be factors for holding them back and allowing them to develop a sense of proud belonging. On the contrary, negative or stigmatized identities can be a source of underestimation, inferiority complex, dissatisfaction, and crisis (Bassand 6).
These variations show the multi-directional and non-forecastable character of cultural and identity changes. Taking into account this variety and incertitude one has to say that, depending upon the cultural strength and group identity, these changes can vary between a complete abandonment and a regenerative renovation, between “dismembering” and “remembering” (Shinar). In other words, cultural change through ,’modernization” could be based either on reactivating a collective identity anchored in basic traditional paradigms (“root paradigms”) re-functionalized through “re-aggregative processes,” or it could bring dissolution of this same identity, either by the adoption of foreign cultural paradigms or by violent collision with them (“dismembering of dissolution processes”) (Shinar).
Third, concerning the mass media, the limited effect of this in cultural change, at least in the localities under study, can be noted. On the one hand, it seems that the thesis of cultural consumption of mass media, already sustained in preceding works, has been confirmed: local audiences select their programs from popular codes long-standing in this region. Programs selected are: “agonistic” spectacles (wrestling contests, boxing, soccer, etc.), soap operas, Mexican movies (always designed to follow the popular melodramatic code), and popular ranchers music (norteña, grupera, etc.), all in Spanish.
On the other hand, there is a different hierarchy in the daily use of mass media: audiovisual media (TV, VCRs, etc.) are not dominant, as we expected; those which are auditive, such as recorded music and radio, are more popular.
This fact can be explained because mass media, far from determining daily interaction patterns in a significant way, are clearly subordinated to the domestic and agricultural work-structure and rhythm of the people. Radio, for example, is used mostly as a “sound background,” an accompaniment for other activities, both intra-domestic and extra-domestic. It is not used as a means of information, because this is mostly spread through traditional channels like face-to-face interaction at fairs, the marketplace, churches and popular spectacles. Today, as radio is more compatible with the daily routines of the families studied, and does not require as much attention as TV, it retains the dominant position in the mass media hierarchy.
Young people, however, especially those attending school, feel themselves more attracted to TV and demand more time of access; this is not to be overlooked.
Our final conclusion could be summarized as follows: economic globalization and transnationalization of mass culture through mass-media, far from creating a “global community,” have determined a much more complex and diverse world configuration. If we consider a “central community” of industrialized, capitalist countries with a myriad of “peripheral communities” rotating around them, we see that although these satellites may be economically dependent. they still maintain their cultural differences.
- A preliminary version of this article was presented at the 47th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, “Communication in the Global Community” held in Montréal, May 23rd. 1997. return to text
- The Valley of Atlixco has been inhabited since the pre-Hispanic epoch. There are still some indigenous mores, although the native language (Nahuatl) is almost extinct. During the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (I877-1911), peasants living on old haciendas or in small towns were linked exclusively to the agricultural activity of the hacienda. During the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917), this region was convulsed by fighting everywhere. Once land reform took place, between 1925 and 1933, the pattern of agricultural exploitation became established: small ejido property worked by poor peasants beside some large private properties (ranches and farms) producing commercial agriculture and livestock. An ejido was a piece of land given to peasants who fought for it during the Revolution. For more than 70 years the Mexican government was supposed to give an ejido to countrymen asking for it as a political measure for maintaining peace. During the Carlos Salinas administration (1988-1994), however, the Constitutional Guarantee of Agrarian Reform ended, with a recognition of the limits of land distribution, and established the basis for capitalist commercial exchange, exploitation, and association for any peasant with land. return to text
- There is a wide variety of agricultural crops within this region (flowers, vegetables and fruits, peanuts, corn and beans) and the sexual division of labor is homogeneous with respect to farm activities. Men specialize in two kinds of work: that which requires physical strength (maneuvering the yokes of draft animals, lifting heavy bulks, cleaning irrigation channels, etc.) and that which is related to modern technology (the application of agrochemical pesticides and fertilizers, truck and tractor driving). Women, on the other hand, are linked to manual work related to traditional technologies, or within modern technology they are hired for activities requiring delicate and skilled tasks (cutting flowers, seeding, weeding, transplanting, etc.) (Marroni de Velázquez 145-147). return to text
- In the period 1940-1960, the migratory currents were principally internal, moving from rural zones to urban zones in the interior of the country, although at an international level some contracts for migrant workers had been initiated. The last decades, however, have witnessed the development of new migratory patterns as well as new migratory destinations, new forms of insertion into the receptive economy, and the growing incorporation of women into both internal and international currents. This has been the case in the Valley of Atlixco: the process of migration that began at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s had, at the beginning, an individualistic character, but little by little it began to acquire a character so massive that it ended by affecting all families involved. return to text
- The term paisano means someone from the same region, that is, someone belonging to the same place of origin. This attachment to the land, the traditions, and the customs of a definite region allows migrants to seek out members from their communities of origin while out of the country –in order to get work, find a place to stay, or to receive help. return to text
- In a small town south of Atlixco City, a woman who lived 35 years in NYC has returned to her village to organize the festivity of the Patron Saint this year. She and her three sons saved money in order to make such a big celebration (costing more than $5,000) that nobody could ever forget it. So they “saved” their symbolic place in their community (La Jornada de Oriente).return to text
- Some interesting aspects of this change in family patterns can be found. D’Aubeterre has shown that there is a change in rural desires. Men and women clearly perceive the need to let their children attend school, which she calls a real “Aspirations Revolution.” This could be the outcome of many factors such as the profound and lasting rural crisis; undervalued manual and non-skilled work; government educational programs; and TV programs showing examples of urban life and migration, among others. return to text
- A frequently observed phenomenon in the sociology of migration is the tendency of the migrants to re-create the culture of their place of origin in the place of destination. This gives an explanation for the emergence of urban districts that are transformed –literally remodeled– by the symbolic characteristics of migrant ethnic minorities in many North American cities: “Chinatown,” “Little Havana, ” etc. In cases like these, estrangement from the place of origin does not automatically signify loss of cultural identity. On the contrary: it would be more exact to say there has been a “re-territorialization” of the native culture, or a re-composition of the identity of origin, in a situation of diaspora. return to text
- A recent investigation on Mixtec migrants at the border in Tijuana confirms that communication by letter is the means of contact with their community of origin most frequently used. This is surprising if one takes into account the low scholarly level and the oral character that is traditionally attributed to indigenous cultures (Velasco Ortiz 165-166). return to text
- This ratio is expressed as the total number of men for each 100 women. In the region of Atlixco, this ratio is 95.8% which shows some sort of population equilibrium. Nevertheless, this ratio is 40 men per 100 women in some localities, which shows massive male migration. In others the ratio is 110 to 130 men for each 100 women, which gives an approximate indication of the economic viability of those places where men remain owing to the possibilities of employment. return to text
- “San Pedro Cuauco between Popocatépetl and Brooklyn… Mexican Migrants Return from U.S to their Home States in Mexico”, a paper presented at the 45th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association (ICA) held in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1995. return to text
- For many the return is conditional upon the agricultural cycle that begins with plowing in April or the harvest in October. Others return to fulfill civil or religious duties in the festivities celebrating the Santo Patrón (Patron Saint) on June 29, and in those of San Miguel, in September. However, absences from the village tend to become prolonged, at times for up to several years, and, in some infrequent cases, become definite. return to text
- In San Pedro Cuauco there is a public telephone booth. From this booth Don Pancho, an elderly man whom we interviewed, frequently calls his sister, who works in Michoacán; he also receives calls on Sunday mornings from members of his family who are working in New York City. return to text
- What is more, part of these have been expropriated in order to construct a super-highway that will connect the center of Mexico with the port of Acapulco. This can generate tremendous pressure from real-estate speculators and urbanizers, who will see in this the ideal place for the construction of vacation homes for wealthy people in Puebla City.
- Municipalities (in Spanish, municipios) are the political administrative divisions of the territory, similar to counties in the United States. return to text
- Ranchera is Mexico’s country music, accompanied mostly by guitars and mariachi bands; boleros are romantic songs accompanied, usually, by a guitar trio; tropical music comes from the Caribbean, as a rule, while musica norteña, from the northern part of Mexico, has a distinctive, marked rhythm. Música grupera is a new type of country music, played with rock instruments; this is chiefly music from the border, and its words reflect topics of border life, and, often, difficult situations faced by migrants.return to text
- They are “‘fictions’ in a sense that they are statistics abstractions created by the researcher, but whose subjects are not found in any relationship or interaction” (Merton 249). return to text
- We have been working on this project for more than two years, and this gives us sufficient authority to pick out two families that are truly representative of rural family life in this area. This ethnographic work was realized with Julio César Tapia from May through October, 1996. Although we have done a regional survey to learn about local access to media, we wanted to begin this ethnographic approach in order to have a deeper insight into this phenomenon. return to text
- We understand by “popular code” a repertory of “re-conceived possibilities and pre-fabricated representations” (Jakobson 20) corresponding to the vision of “los de abajo”(those from below). According to several authors, this code is basically realistic (Bourdieu 257-403; Abercombie 115-140) as it assumes that cultural forms must be plausible and significantly suitable to the perception of reality in every-day life. In rural Mexico there is still in force a customal “realism,” consisting of a certain ranch culture carefully chosen and popularized by movies of the “golden epoch.” In our opinion, this culture still defines the essential in popular rural taste. It is a culture of a simple structure, giving preference to songs that tell a story, or are lyrically amorous, frequently dramatic, and of a strongly sentimental tone (corridos, boleros, canciones rancheros). Preferred in the field of escape-entertainment are melodrama, agonistic events (wrestling, boxing, cock fights, bull fights) and humor of a mocking double entendre sort that inverts hierarchies in a jocular manner and promotes hilarity. return to text
- They are not officially recorded, but taped from an original and sell at a lower price, about ten pesos each ($1.20). return to text
- Contrary to what has been found in a suburban context , (Barrio) TV programs do not constitute a great source of conversation among family members, and, as we have said, local news is not radio-transmitted. An example: recently, Popocatépetl has been renewing its volcanic activity, and state authorities have designed emergency evacuation plans for the population. These plans, however, have been communicated to the population principally by local school Parent-Teacher Associations, by local authorities’ meetings, and by the priest’s weekly sermon. This shows that local contact with the public sphere, regional or national, is minimal, and people do not learn much about any public campaign through the mass media. Local government is considered “auxiliary” to that of county authorities.
- These are events similar to those performed in popular fairs, such as boxing, bull fights or soccer. return to text
- We are supposing that internalized culture can be equated to “social representations” conceptualized by European social psychology (Moscovici). Social representations, in turn, can be defined as an organized set of cognitions related to an object. Those “cognitions” could be descriptive or prescriptive, and the latter can be either absolute or conditional. return to text
Martínez, G. Mojados, Malinches, and the Dismantling of the United States/Mexico Border in Contemporary Mexican Cinema. Latin American Issues [On-line], 14(2).
MOJADOS, MALINCHES, AND THE DISMANTLING
OF THE UNITED STATES/MEXICO BORDER
IN CONTEMPORARY MEXICAN CINEMA
Glenn A. Martínez
The University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Mexican cinema boasts a wide variety of films that deal with the immigrant experience in the United States. Maciel has noted that the trajectory of such films dates as far back as 1922 when the silent film El Hombre sin patria was first screened. Maciel’s research focuses on immigration related films in Mexican cinema up until 1963, and he reaches the conclusion that Mexican film makers have systematically and, for the most part, uniformly represented Mexican-Americans as traitors to their country. He says: “…en México la gente de origen mexicano que vivía en Estados Unidos vino a ser ‘el México olvidado’ o mejor dicho estereotipado. De acuerdo con esa visión, aquellos orgullosos mexicanos que residían más allá del río Bravo no eran más que pochos, por lo cual no merecían mayor atención o simpatía” (187). In this respect, the early cinematic representation of Mexican-Americans seems to be somewhat Manichean in that the subjects are viewed as transgressors of an unquestioned “natural” law that demands loyalty to one’s cultural roots. Maciel analyzes another film entitled El Hijo desobediente (1945) which makes this point clear. The film seems to extend the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son to the immigration issue. The protagonist returns to Mexico after having been in the United States for the past fourteen years and after having adopted the “American way of life.” His acculturation is so extreme that he changes his name from José Flores to “Joe Flowers.” Joe’s acculturation takes on ethical implications because his ultimate redemption from the sin of betraying his culture is achieved through his decision to remain in Mexico and marry a Mexican woman.
The contemporary films analyzed in this essay also represent the Mexican-American as malinchista; however, the more recent representation through the eyes of undocumented workers transcends the ethical imperative that resonates in the earlier films. The perspective of the Mexican-American as malinchista in these latter films is embedded in a process of immigrant ” self-fashioning” in which the undocumented worker appropriates the differentiation imposed upon him/her by affirming his/her mojado identity, and thus creates a space for her/himself. Mexican-Americans are presented as malinches because they have adopted the American way of life and, by doing so, have betrayed their Mexican heritage. In other words, the Mexican-American has, from the cinematic perspective, dissociated him/herself from that space which s/he once shared with the undocumented worker. The dissociation from Mexican cultural heritage reduces Mexican-American identity to a mere projection of hegemonic Anglo culture. The mojado encounter with the Mexican-American, therefore, surfaces in these films as part of a more global counter-hegemonic discourse where the dominance of both Mexican-American and Anglo cultures are subverted. The discourse makes its way into cinematic expression through mechanisms associated with the comedic genre. It begins to take shape within the context of immigrant self-fashioning, and it results in the strengthening of mojado identity and the subversion of border discourse.
The following five comedy films will be analyzed in this essay: El Ranger y el mojado, Alicia en el país del dólar, Mojado … pero caliente, Supermojado, and El Tratado me vale … Wilson. The fact that all of these films are comedies is important in that modem Mexican cinematic expression finds therein a position from which to launch its counterhegemonic discourse. Humoristic genres in general spring from what Broyles-González has termed “oral performance culture.” In Mexico, this tradition reaches its most refined expression in the carpa.1 The cultural logic that governed the carpa survives to this day in Mexican popular culture in the form of comedy films. The carpa tradition is intimately bound to oral culture, and this, in turn, is inextricably interwoven in the context of the “lifeworld.” This suggests that oral representation is imbued in a context of human action and that it has an operational content. Human action is taken to refer to the cultural practices of interpreting the world, living in the world, and creating and altering the world. The net result of placing human action at the forefront is a growing awareness of cultural conflict. Walter Ong states, “By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle” (qtd. in Broyles-González 24). Thus, the tradition of the carpa and, by extension, of contemporary humorous films, configures and transmits knowledge in such way as to incite consciousness of human struggle in general, and of cultural conflict in particular.
In the carpa tradition, the site of cultural conflict is located in class inequality. The interpretative system of this cultural production is distinct from that of hegemonic culture precisely because it emanates from the experience of the lower social classes. Cultural contestation is usually perpetrated by a single archetypal figure, which in this case would be the pelado. In his essay, El Perfil del hombre y la cultura en México, Samuel Ramos defines the pelado as a person who is totally marginalized from mainstream society and who, in turn, is spiritually and psychologically empty due to this marginalization. The pelado’s physical and verbal behavior is intimately tied to his marginalization and to his feelings of inferiority. Ramos explains, “la terminología del pelado abunda en alusiones sexuales que revelan una obsesión fálica, nacida para considerar el órgano sexual como símbolo de la fuerza masculina. En sus combates verbales atribuye al adversario una femeneidad imaginaria, reservando para sí el papet masculine” (54). This extreme machismo is, according to Ramos, nothing more than a facade behind which the pelado hides his true being.
The pelado’s behavior within the context of the tradition of humoristic performance forms part of bahktinian “grotesque realism.” This refers to a specific counter-hegemonic discourse strategy in which the “lower stratum of the material body” gain prominence, and thus it inverts the normal order of things. The inversion of high and low represents an inversion of the sites of cultural power. In other words, hegemonic discourse is reinterpreted in “carnavalesque” terms. In this way, humor and laughter displace the sobriety and well-manneredness characteristic of the dominant culture. The lowering of the sites of cultural power implies an empowerment of the lower classes and, therefore, it is common in this tradition that the underdog subvert authority and come out on top, even if such subversion is merely temporary or illusory (Broyles-González; Fregoso).
It seems that contemporary Mexican cinematic expression has inserted the archetype of the mojado in place of the pelado. In Mojado … pero caliente, Supermojado, and El Tratado me vale … Wilson, grotesque realism and the pelado archetype coalesce in the figure of the mojado. Aside from the constant sexually oriented jokes and the characters’ persistent need to feel themselves to be “el más chingón,” these films each contain a scene in which the protagonist encounters a homosexual. Homosexuality represents, for the protagonists, the inversion of “machismo.” He interprets “Homosexual” as the binary opposition of “macho,” i.e., what a man should be and what he should not be. The protagonists’ reaction is predictable in each of the three instances; they run away. In El Tratado me vale … Wilson, however, it is not only the protagonist’s reaction that signals the macho/homosexual opposition; the opposition is also created at the level of the film itself vis-à-vis the audience. The first scene of the homosexual is accompanied by subtitles that say: “¡Ay, güey! En la madre, estos migras se ven raros, parecen pu… ¿Serdá o no serdá? No, sí son. Sí se la papean.” Furthermore, it is not only the macho/homosexual opposition that is being created in this scene but also the opposition of delinquent/authority, given the fact that the homosexual is also a Border Patrol agent. The two oppositions interact in such a way that associations become crossed. The macho delinquent subverts the homosexual authority and, on the grounds of “manliness,” strips the homosexual of his authority and designates him delinquent. This scene anticipates the end result of the process of dismantling borders in several ways. Most crucially, the inversion of the mojado’s delinquency suggests a re-interpretation of the authority, not only of the Border Patrol Agent, but also of that which he represents, i.e. the United States – Mexico border. In Supermojado the encounter is even more degrading. When the protagonist runs away from the homosexual, the homosexual pejoratively calls him “¡Mojado! “. The protagonist’s response to him is, ” Sí, pero a mí se me quita lo mojado la amnistía y a usted no se le quita lo joto ni mandándolo a vulcanizar.” Aside from the implications this might have on the protagonist’s own image of himself as a mojado, the opposition macho/homosexual is doubly marked because the insult consists of not only attacking the homosexual’s present state of being but also the essential quality of that state, i.e., neither is he a “macho” nor can he ever be so. This machismo, and more precisely, its formulation in terms of sexuality and homosexuality reveal that the mojado has indeed taken the place of the traditional pelado figure and that this figure’s self-defining process is brought about in a “carnavalesque” framework.
These films attempt to extract humor out of the experiences of undocumented workers in the United States. The relative success or failure of an immigrant to integrate into United States society varies most crucially according to the immigrant’s legal status (Massey et al.). Papeles begin to take on metaphysical connotations because the individual’s social identity depends on them. Undocumented immigrants feel utterly constrained by a perennial dark cloud that looms over them and marks them as delinquents. Their delinquency stems, however, not from deviance per se, but rather from their mere physical presence. Thus, they must at all times be on the look out for fear of getting caught because at all times they are doing something wrong, i.e., being. This “psychology of fear” tends to hinder the individual’s interaction with other people. In this sense, the undocumented immigrant is mistrustful of nearly everyone. The vulnerability and the knowledge that at any moment the Border Patrol may strike is lucidly revealed in Mojado… pero caliente. One compadre warns the other:
Oiga, compadre, abusado con esa madre. Anda la migra dura, eh. Pos anda dura, no la migra, la CIA, la FBA, la CBB, la ABC y la chingada.
Y esos, ¿quiénes son?
No sé, pa’ la chingada, son iniciales que usan aquí en los Estados Unidos. Anda duro el pedo. Cuídese compadre.
¿Y la migra también?
También, y van a venir pa’ este rumbo.
No mames, compadre.
This scene reveals vulnerability, yet at the same time, it reveals the way in which vulnerability is dealt with. Authority is openly mocked. The first compadre juxtaposes a real threat, “la migra,” with several imaginary ones, “FBA, CBB”. Such juxtaposition reduces both threats to absurdity and, by extension, subverts the authority of the border itself. In Alicia en el país del dólar the psychology of fear once again shows itself to loom over the characters although in this case the mojada seems much more submissive to border authority. Alicia, the mojada, is speaking with her boss, and he says:
Boss: Además, no todos los mexicanos están tan amolados como usted dice. Hay algunos que cooperan con la economía nacional como usted. Usted manda todo su sueldo en dólares a su mamacita para incrementar la economía de México.
Alicia: Y a mi que ma… que me importa la economía. ¿Usted cree que está a todo dar, estar por acá chambeando, nomás mandando dólares pa’ llá, y que no sepa en dónde anda uno, corriendo peligro con la migra…?
Boss: ¿La migra?
Alicia: No, nada.
In this scene Alicia becomes so involved in her lament that she forgets that her boss doesn’t know that she is illegal, and this is why she suddenly evades the question altogether. However, it is revealing to note that she considers “corriendo peligro con la migra” as one of the most negative factors in her immigration experience.
Mexican-American attitudes towards illegal immigrants is another factor that contributes to the slow pace of social integration. These attitudes are by no means uniform, but rather seem to co-occur with factors of socioeconomic class. Generally, middle class Mexican-Americans are more sympathetic towards illegal immigrants because they are not in direct economic competition with them as is the case with those from the lower classes (Miller et al., Polinard et al.). Rodríguez and Núñez show that conversely, undocumented workers perceive Mexican-Americans as lazy and lacking in family values. Thus in the encounter between Mexican-Americans and undocumented workers there is a conceptual clash. The dialectic between Mexican-Americans and illegal immigrants is clearly present in contemporary Mexican cinema. El Ranger y el mojado, for instance, opens with a scene where the Mexican American Border Patrol agent, Officer Téllez, is in pursuit of the mojado. The Agent clenches a rifle in hand and attentively gazes into the distance. He turns his head towards the ground and sees footprints. Upon examining the footprints, he says “Ajá, desgraciado” referring to the “mojado”. The imagery evokes the feel of a hunt, where the rational, calculating hunter is in hot pursuit of his bestial prey. Still examining the footprints, the Agent hears behind him the sound of a rattlesnake. He lifts his rifle, shoots the snake, and says, “Desgraciado, si vives no vas a poder tener hijos”. The term “desgraciado” is applied both to the snake and to the mojado; this parallelism metaphorically reduces the mojado to the status of the snake, that is to say, it animalizes him, and in this way establishes the differentiation. In El Tratado me vale … Wilson, the differentiation takes place on several levels. First, the antagonist, Wilson, always refers to illegal immigrants pejoratively as “meksicanos”. Second, in one of the opening scenes of the film, Wilson is shown gratuitously running over Mexicans in his truck. These images are counterpoised by subtitles that say:
Nombre clentífico: Ohaio Tripicantropus Erectus
Nombre común: Pinche Gringo Ojete
Thus, differentiation is established both at the level of the character vis-à-vis the protagonists and of the film itself vis-à-vis the audience. In all of these films, the Mexican-American’s differentiation from mojados seems to be a reflex of his/her allegiance with Anglo hegemony and the authority of border discourse.
Mexican-American differentiation thus forms part of a more widespread hostile environment that is perceived by the illegal immigrant upon crossing the border. The hostility is further compounded by identity loss which, in turn, gives rise to a sense of powerlessness. Identity loss comes as a direct result of loss of legitimate legal status that occurs upon crossing the border. Legal status seems to be a crucial component to the human psyche in general because it confirms an individual’s identity. An individual knows who s/he is because s/he has papers, documents, identification that can prove it. Loss of identity through illegitimization of legal status involves more centrally, however, an issue of power. Once identity is confirmed, an individual has the power to fashion it, to build up her/himself. Border crossing implies not only the loss of identity, due to illegitimate legal status, but also the loss of power and autonomy to shape identity. This state of affairs impels the immigrant to draw power from a source other than legal status in shaping his/her identity; therefore, it might be said that integral to the border crossing experience is a process of immigrant self-fashioning or re-fashioning. The concept of “self-fashioning” was originally proposed by Greenblatt within a specific Renaissance context; however, it may be extrapolated to the present context with little justification. The process being represented in these films differs essentially from Greenblatt’s original conception in that the latter is more concerned with climbing the social ladder while the former is a strategy employed to recover lost identity. The processes, however, are similar in that both strive for the attainment of power. In the Renaissance version, power is intertwined with cultural institutions, yet in the present version, it is more aligned with the justification and confirmation of a new or assumed identity. Some of the characteristics of Greenblatt’s Renaissance self-fashioning that seem pertinent to immigrant self-fashioning are:
- None of the figures inherits a title, an ancient family tradition or hierarchical status that might have rooted personal identity in the identity of a clan or caste.
- Self-fashioning for such figures involves submission to an absolute power or authority situated at least partially outside the self–God, a sacred book, an institution such as church, court, colonial or military administration…
- Self-fashioning is achieved in relation to something perceived as alien, strange, or hostile. This threatening Other–heretic, savage, witch, adulteress, traitor, Antichrist–must be invented or discovered in order to be attacked and destroyed.
- The alien is perceived by the authority either as that which is unformed and chaotic (the absence of order) or that which is false or negative (the demonic parody of order). Since the accounts of the former tend inevitably to organize and thematize it, the chaotic constantly slides into the demonic, and consequently the alien is always constructed as a distorted image of the authority. (24)
After crossing the border, the immigrant starts with nothing and finds her/himself unable to extract authority intrinsically. The authority they find is rooted in their past and, specifically, in the ethical imperative of maintaining loyalty to their cultural heritage characteristic of earlier Mexican films. In essence, the loss of power to shape identity is responded to by illusorily clinging to what was left behind. Rodríguez and Núñez show that one major factor of differentiation between illegal immigrants and Mexican-Americans is the fact that the former maintain a Mexico frame. The hope of one day returning to Mexico is fundamental to the Mexico frame. The authority, therefore, is founded within the small group of immigrants who also maintain this loyalty to fatherland. In Alicia en el país del dólar the desire to return to Mexico permeates the discourse of the characters. This can be noted in the following scene where Alicia’s boss finds out that her entire family has been living in his house without his knowledge. After being fired, Alicia and her family begin packing their things and her brother says:
Brother: Nos vamos a regresar a México. ¡Bendito sea Dios! Ya no voy a estar viviendo como un puma encerrado en su jaula del zoológico de Chapultepec.
Alicia: Ay, sí. A México. Si allá están peor. No tienen ni dinero ni para comprar unas méndigas tortillas.
Brother: Y ¿para qué queremos tortillas? Nos podemos agarrar los frijoles con los dedos. Mother: Y ¿cómo quieren que tengamos qué tragar si nomás estamos deflojos por acá? Nos gusta lo fácil. Si nos pusíeramos a trabajar nuestra tierrita, tendríamos frijoles, tendríamos leche, tendríamos harina. Tendríamos todo. Pero nos gusta lo facilito.
Brother: Tiene razón la jefa.
Alicia: Pos sí, tiene razón. Vámonos pa’ México. Que se queden estos nomás con su dinero.
What is most interesting about this scene is Alicia’s radical change in perspective. At first, she doesn’t want to return to Mexico and thinks that conditions will be worse there. Her mother, however, offers a different interpretation. She suggests that the problems stem from their own unwillingness to work. The problem in Mexico, then, is not the economy, but rather that “nos gusta lo facilito”. Alicia accepts this reasoning and thus, ultimately, shows her loyalty to Mexico.
In submitting to the authority of nationalism which is characterized by remaining loyal to the cultural heritage and by maintaining the desire to return to Mexico, the illegal immigrant often appropriates the differentiation placed upon him by United States society. This appropriation constitutes the fundamental source of power through which the characters of these films fashion their identity and, as a result, subvert the authority of border control. The immigrant appropriates and identifies with the sign “mojado” and reinterprets it as an indicator of his/her commitment to Mexico and of his/her resistance to acculturation. Supermojado offers several excellent examples of this appropriation. The climactic scene of the movie occurs after the Border Patrol has apprehended Sonia, a friend of the two protagonists, Tacho and Choforo. The following dialogue ensues:
Tacho: Pobre Chava.
Choforo: A mi se me hace que se le pusieron el dedo, porque qué casualidad que nada más a ella se la llevaron.
Tacho: Ahora la bronca va ser pa’ sacarla.
Choforo: N’ombre si de allí no la saca ni Superman.
Tacho: El menos que nadie, güey.
Choforo: ¿Por qué?
Tacho: El es gringo. Imagínete si existiera y trabajara en la migra, en media hora nos saca a todos.
Choforo: Tienes razón, todos los superhéroes son gringos. Allí tienes a las Tortugas Ninjas.
Tacho: En México no tenemos a ningún héroe.
Choforo: No, y de acá de este lado del puente, menos.
After this dialogue, there is a scene where the Border Patrol raids a factory and is in the process of rounding up a handful of undocumented workers. Suddenly, a voice is heard form the background saying, “No se preocupen paisanos. Aquí estoy yo, Supermojado, el protector de la raza.” The fact that Tacho takes on the role of “Super” “mojado” results in a deconstruction of the sign. In other words, appropriation of the sign “mojado” entails an erasure of the differences that the sign denotes. The character, in this instance, associates himself with the signifier in order to dissociate himself from the signified. He calls himself “mojado,” yet he overtly challenges the authority of the Border Patrol, and by extension, the authority of immigration laws in general, thus refuting what made him a mojado in the first place. This appropriation takes place both at the level of actions, Tacho’s transformation into “Supermojado,” as well as at the level of discourse. The following scene, where a reporter is interviewing Tacho on a street comer, exemplifies the latter.
Reporter: Perdone, ¿Es usted mojado?
Tacho: No, así sudo, sobre todo cuando hace frío como ahorita.
Reporter: No lo que quiero decir es ¿si tiene usted documentos?
Tacho: Como no, tengo los documentos estos, son de un refrigerador que compré, pero mi tía, como está loca, me agarra de homo de micro ondas, ¿verdad? Entonces, tengo un documents de una bicicleta, pero la bicicleta ya me la quitaron.
Reporter: Me parece que no me expliqué bien, ¿tiene usted visa?
Tacho: ¿Usted cree que si tuviera Visa o Mastercard iba a andar buscando chamba con esta bola de zarapados. No, ¿Usted cree que si tuviera Visa o Mastercard iba a andar buscando chamba con esta bola de zarapados.
Reporter: No, lo que yo quiero decir, ¿es usted legal?
Tacho: No, pos, eso depende del punto de vista de cada quien, porque la legalidad y la ilegalidad la marca la ley, porque allí voy. Un señor mata a alguién, está cometiendo un acto ilegal, entonces, el tipo que mató al muerto le agarra la ley, entonces queda legalmente preso. Ahora, si yo soy legal o ilegal no es fácil. Soy legalmente ilegal.
Reporter: Ali, entonces, ¿usted no es residents de este país?
Tacho: Si no soy residents del país donde resido, pues ¿de cuál? China no conozco.
In this obviously Cantinflas-like scene, Tacho once again deconstructs the sign “mojado” by delinking signifier and signified. The delinking here is, of course, brought about by a play with synonymity, i.e., by confusion and alteration of the signified.
The mojado, having established an authority through nationalism and having appropriated her/his designation in United States society, assigns Otherness to the Mexican-American. This is often the case because it is in the Mexican-American that the mojado encounters the first site of cultural conflict.2The figure of the Mexican-American represents for the mojado a deformation of his/her own national identity; in other words, they are Mexican on the outside but American on the inside. The deformation of national identity finds an historical expression in the Mexican psyche in the figure of La Malinche. Birmingham-Pokorny states that “both the figure and the name itself of La Malinche … have either been read as synonymous of ‘treason’, ‘betrayal’, or of someone who ‘sells out’ to the foreigner, who devalues national identity in favor of imported benefits, or have been called forth to symbolically re-enact or play out the violent configurations of betrayal, violation, victimization, appropriation, and destruction often associated with the conquest of the New World” (121). In contemporary Mexican cinema, the mapping out of the Malinche figure onto the Mexican-American is restricted to the first definition given by Birmingham-Pokorny; however, violence against illegal immigrants is very often present in the representation of Mexican-Americans. This violent extreme is especially characteristic of the Wilson character in El Tratado me vale … Wilson. There is a scene where Wilson arrives at the ranch and finds a Mexican boy riding his horse. He reproachfully says to the foreman, who is playing with the boy, “My horse,” and the foreman replies, “pero es un niño.” Wilson’s reply to this obvious plea based on the child’s innocence is “pero Meksicano.” The foreman’s resistance causes an eruption of violence. Nopal and Tlalcóyotl see Wilson and his friends beating on the foreman and go to defend him. After the fight that, incidentally, Nopal and Tlalcóyotl win, the foreman says to them: “De todos modos, mucho cuidado con él [Wilson], el es un mal hombre. El odiar a los meksicanos. No querer pagar nunca justo, no querer pagar lo extra … ya sabes que yo no sé porque él renegar de lo meksicano si él es más meksicano que el pulque.” Nopal responds to this: “O sea que es un renegado. Eso es to que más coraje nos da a Tlalcóyotl y a mí.” In this scene, we see both betrayal and selling-out to the foreigner on the part of Wilson and its violent extreme; however, we also see the illegal immigrants’ response. Nopal’s reactionary position is seen when he says, “eso es lo que más coraje nos da.” In this film, it is fairly clear how illegal immigrants and Mexican-Americans are configured in a position of cultural conflict with one another, i.e., mojados vs. malinches. In Supermojado the intersection of betrayal and sexual violation is also evinced in the malinchista figures. There is a scene where Tacho goes to the factory to ask for a job, and the malinche Manager abruptly cuts off the dialogue saying that he doesn’t speak Spanish. At the end of day, before Sonia is able to clock out, the Manager tells her that she must work overtime. Once she is alone in the factory, he says to her,
Manager: ¿Sabes que me gustas mucho?
Sonia: Me alegro.
Manager: ¿De verdad?
Sonia: Sí, me alegro de que hayas aprendido español tan rápido.
The Manager violently grabs her and tries to kiss her, and she runs out of the factory. In this scene, then, the Manager’s malinchismo is revealed in his refusal to speak Spanish, and at the same time it is coupled with violence towards illegal immigrants. This act is what eventually propels Tacho to become the Supermojado, so in that respect, the militant reactionary positioning of the mojado comes into play in this film as it does in El Tratado nee vale … Wilson. In both films, the mojado protagonists are incited by the malinche antagonists’ blatant racism to assume an oftentimes violent and active stance in contrast with the passive and submissive stance revealed at the outset of the films. Once this militant stance is assumed, moreover, the characters are in a position to defy the authority of the Border not only in its Mexican-American expression but also in its Anglo expression. This same reactionary positioning is expressed quite differently in Alicia en el país del dólar. The following dialogue between Alicia and her boss takes place when he asks her to prepare a special dinner for himself and his girlfriend:
Boss: Esa “vieja” se llama Jenny y es una mujer muy linda.
Alicia: Pero es una déspota, qué diferencia con la mamacita de usted.
Boss: Pues sí, pero no me puedo casar con mi mamacita.
Alicia: Podría buscar una mujer parecida a ella, así del tipo mexicano como era su jefa. Así, alta, no flaca, así como regular… y que lo quiera mucho.
Boss: Ay, mi mamacita, era muy linda, y era de Guadalajara, era tapatetía.
Alicia: Tapatía. Yo también soy tapatía.
Unlike the “coraje” that characterizes Nopal’s reaction to malinchismo, Alicia’s reaction towards her malinche boss seem to be more oriented towards somehow redeeming him or bringing him back to his cultural roots. She contrasts her boss’ mother with his present girlfriend, but actually she is contrasting his cultural roots with his present state of being, i.e., agringado. She is saying that he should abandon his present state and return to his roots, which in concrete terms is equivalent to him abandoning his present girlfriend and finding a woman “parecida a ella [his mother]” who in this case is Alicia herself.
The mojado subverts Mexican-American domination by defining it as malinchista, and by either positioning her/himself militantly against it as in El Tratado me vale … Wilson and Supermojado or trying to erase it through a process of cultural redemption as in Alicia en el país del dólar. Furthermore, the subversion of Mexican-American domination may be seen as one manifestation of a broader counter-hegemonic critique of Anglo domination. The interpretation of the malinchista representation of Mexican-Americans as part of a more general discourse against Anglo domination requires that a distinction be drawn between the different types of Mexican-Americans presented in these films. Although the majority of Mexican-Americans are malinchistas, there are several notable exceptions. Some Mexican-Americans seek solidarity with the mojados such as in the case of the ranch foreman in El Tratado me vale … Wilson. While he is portrayed as an agringado, especially in his speech for he like Wilson also says “meksicano,” he is not a “renegado” and, therefore, is not amalinchista. The negative portrayal of Mexican-Americans varies according to their acculturation, i.e., according to their proximity to Anglo culture. This is further illustrated in this movie in a scene where Nopal and Tlalcóyotl are in a supermarket and Wilson goes up to them and asks, “¿Qué hacen en una tienda para americanos?” Tlalcóyotl responds, “Primera, hable bien, no mememimememi, porque traes una papa entre los sicos. No ¿qué están haciendo? Estamos comprando, tenemos derecho. Segunda, no tienen porque discriminamos. Tercera, tenemos el Tratado de Libre Comercio firmado, chingado, por los gobiernos y Oltima, no esperen que con nuestro pais van a poner otra estrellita en su bandera. Y si lo ponen va a ser así de chiquitito.” As he says this last part, he makes an obscene gesture with his hand. The critique launched against Wilson is clearly directed towards Anglo hegemony and towards more immediate political concerns. The polysemy in the name Wilson: Wilson the agringado and Wilson the Governor of California, makes the political nature of the discourse in the film fairly obvious. In sum, mojado self-fashioning in contemporary Mexican cinematic expression may be seen as the route taken in order to launch a politically charged counter-hegemonic discourse.
The effects of this discourse are manifold. In the first place, it creates a space for the mojado through appropriation and deconstruction of the sign and through an establishment of differentiation from agringados. This might be interpreted, however, as a leveling device used by illegal immigrants because they are envious of the Mexican-American’s position in Anglo controlled society. Limón suggests, in connection with joking traditions in South Texas, that “Leveling and envy imply that the cultural performer has no positive interest in his own historical culture–that it is a burden and not a source of strength … Texas-Mexican joking is not an exercise in self-hatred; rather it takes account of societal differences in expressive ways that strengthen ingroup identity and pride” (48). This also seems to be the case in the films analyzed here. The fact that the mojado maintains a Mexico frame and the fact that his/her desire is in most cases to return to Mexico suggest that there is a positive interest in her/his own historical culture. This is most evident in the resolutions of the different films. In most cases the resolution is simply a return to Mexico; however, in Alicia en el país del dólar the resolution is that Alicia romantically conquers her boss and in this way makes her dream come true. The climax of the film is when she declares her love for her boss in the following dialogue:
Alicia:Te quiero, digo, lo quiero Mr. Phil.
Boss: No entiendo.
Alicia: Cásate conmigo.
Boss: Pero ¿cómo me voy a casar con alguién que no siento nada por esa persona?
Alicia: Bueno, porque siempre me ha visto como la sirvienta que hace el aseo y que le hace la comida, pero lo quiero, ¿qué, no le gusto?
Boss: Claro que sí … y no estoy diciendo nada de eso.
Alicia: Toque mi piel, ¿no siente nada?
Boss: No, no siento nada…
Alicia: Bésame … ¿Qué siente?
Boss: Pues, lo siento mucho pero no sentir nada.
Alicia: Fue lo último que hago por usted. Pero ¿sabe qué? Me voy. Quédese con sus novelas y con todos sus premios, pero déjame decirle una cosa, ninguna novela [que escribes] va a ser como la que yo le iba a contar de mi abuelita Leocadia.
Boss: ¿Cuál abuelita?… Alicia lo que quiero es te quedes, no te puedes ir, tienes que contarme todas las histories de tu pueblo.
Alicia decides to stay provided that her boss apologize to her, that he make her his secretary instead of his maid, and that he marry her. This resolution seems to be more in favor of the boss, the malinchista, than of Alicia because, after all, she is submitting to him and to his desires. However, if it is noted that the boss is not sexually attracted to Alicia and that the only reason he wants her to stay is so that she will continue telling him “histories de su pueblo,” then it may be convincingly suggested that Alicia, in fact, accomplishes what she had hoped, i.e., to eradicate her boss’ malinchismo. Her accomplishment, therefore, transcends the personal sphere of her marrying him and becomes symbolic of a strengthening of mojado identity because it assigns a value to Mexican experience that was once unseen by her boss.
The strengthening of mojado identity functions as a device for dismantling national borders and the methods used in controlling them. In other words, the net result of counter-hegemonic discourse, as anticipated at several junctures in the development of this argument, is a breaking down of the social construction of the border. Harlow states that “border and the discourse of boundaries that patrols them are designed as part of hegemony’s self-interest in maintaining its border controls intact” (163). Counter-hegemonic discourse exposes the artificiality of borders. While Mexican-American malinchistas have internalized the “discourse of boundaries” and attempt to preserve it alongside hegemony, the mojado dismantles the border by subverting this discourse. In some cases, machismo also plays a role in the dismantling of the border and in the subversion of the “discourse of boundaries.” The mojado’s ability to sexually conquer Anglo women functions in these films precisely in this way. The strong desire to see and sexually conquer “güeritas” is evident in the opening scenes of El Tratado me vale … Wilson. Nopal, complaining about Tlalcóyotl’s having brought him to the United States, says, “este Tlalcóyotl estaba chingue y chingue y chingue y vamos a los Estados Unidos, vamos al otro lado, vas a ver freeways decía … y luego dice, vas a ver a las gabachas, están bien buenas … la verdad, hemos visto puro pinche campo.” Seeing and, implicitly, sexually conquering Anglo women thus forms part of these characters’ motivation for coming to the United States. Sexual conquest, in this context, becomes a metaphor for the border itself. In the referential framework of the pelado/mojado archetype, the act of sexual domination is one way in which the underdog ends up on top. Border crossing parallels sexual domination inasmuch as the mojado is able to impose her/his will on it, appropriate it, extend it, and control it. By doing this, the mojado has, in fact, stripped border control from the hands of hegemony. In El Ranger y el mojado as in El Tratado me vale … Wilson the protagonists do seduce Anglo women, and in both cases, they get married and go back to Mexico boasting a “güerita.” The final scene of El Tratado me vale … Wilson portrays Tlalcóyotl and Daisy, a “güera,” walking out of a church after having been married, and Nopal says, “Qué bueno que te casaste en México.” The final scene of El Ranger y el mojado is a recreation of the scene towards the beginning when the mojado is dreaming about returning to Mexico. However, in this final version, he not only buys a house for his mother but also for his pregnant Anglo wife.
In conclusion, contemporary cinematic expression represents Mexican-Americans as malinchistas. However, this representation is not just a stereotype, but rather it forms part of a more general discourse that attempts to dismantle the social construction of the border and the controls that are associated with it. The five films analyzed each present at least one Mexican-American character who identifies with dominant Anglo culture. These characters immediately create a schism between themselves and the protagonists because the protagonists maintain strong cultural ties with Mexico and find themselves at odds with Anglo culture. The maintenance of ties with Mexico strengthens the protagonist’s resistance against hegemonic culture and thus, it becomes possible for the protagonist to appropriate the label hegemony has placed upon her/him. By appropriating this label or sign, the protagonist deconstructs it and establishes a space for him/herself among the configurations of malinchistas and Anglos. This space or identity is further strengthened by means of a constant subversion of the authority that attempts to repress it. The construction of a mojado identity diametrically opposed to Mexican-American, malinchista and Anglo identities manipulates border controls because the reinterpretation of the sign allows them to directly defy these controls. The fact that the border no longer controls them but rather that they control the border is expressed symbolically in these films through acts of sexual domination be they physical as in El Tratado me vale… Wilson and El Ranger y el mojado or spiritual as in Alicia en el país del dólar.
- The “carpa” tradition consisted of travelling theatrical groups who performed maromas, matachines, and titeres, as well as short comedic skits under tents, thus the name “carpa”. It dates back to the sixteenth century and can be considered the prime expression of secular theatre in Mexico and in the Borderlands. See Ybarra-Frausto for a more in depth discussion. return to text
- Massey et al. describe the integration process of illegal immigrants in the following terms: “Al principio las relaciones… se cencentran dentro del grupo de los mismos migrantes; sin embargo, llega el momento en que abarcan a los migrantes de otras comunidades, luego a los nacidos en los Estados Unidos, chicanos, y finalmente a los nativos angloamericanos” (304). This concentric pattern of establishing social networks accounts for the Mexican-American being the first site of cultural conflict. return to text
Pellarolo, Silvia. Reviv/s/ing Selena.. Latin American Issues [On-line], 14(3).
a mis hijas Paloma y Violeta,
Selena fans forever …
“Our city is named the ‘Body of Christ’ and Jesus Christ is not getting as much recognition as Selena.
This is not Selenaville. Back off.”1
Anonymous reader, Corpus Christi’s Caller-Time (Patoski 258)
“and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.”
Leviticus 16: 21-22
“One of them, Caiaphas, the high priest that year, said, ‘You don’t seem to have grasped the situation at all; you fail to see that it is better for one man to die for the people, than for the whole nation to be destroyed’. He did not speak in his own person, it was as high priest that he made this prophecy that Jesus was to die for the nation–and not for the nation only, but to gather together in unity the scattered children of God. From that day they were determined to kill him (John 11: 47-53).”
René Girard, The Scapegoat 112
Selena’s Passion and the Construction
of the Resurrection Narrative
“I will survive!”
In the late morning hours of a rainy Lent Friday, March 31 1995, the famous Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez bled to death at the lobby of the Days Inn Motel in her hometown of Corpus Christi, after her best friend and president of her fan club, Yolanda Saldívar, allegedly shot her in cold blood. Her agonizing morena body–once exuding the health and vitality represented in her skilled performative displays which reflected the corporeality of her audiences, usually erased from hegemonic iconographies–staged an early Holy Friday Passion, the main characters of the drama replicating the Easter play’s cast in an intriguing way. Indeed, the “treacherous road” down which the Latina Judas was leading her young friend in fact climaxed in the sacrifice of this sexy paschal lamb, disavowing the anonymous Caller Time reader’s complaint that Jesus Christ was not recognized as much as Selena after her death in the city that celebrated the humanity of God’s child.
The metonymic hypostasis is evident: Selena, as sacrificial lamb, bore upon her flesh the iniquities of a society still tom by racial, cultural and religious conflict. Throughout her brief life, it had been her confessed design “to gather together in unity the scattered children of God” (Girard 112). Moreover, her willingness to bridge with her music not only the differences between the Mexican American and Anglo sectors of this nation’s society, and those populations to the South of the border, made of her a “goodwill ambassador” along the multicultural spectrum of the Americas. By means of her music, which brilliantly merged two cultures, she was able to give a pro-active response to Rodney King’s desperate plea after the 1992 LA riots: yes we CAN get along, as well as dance out our differences.
As soon as word of her shooting was aired through the media, her astonished fans started pouring into the parking lot of the Days Inn Motel where Yolanda kept the police at bay in a ten hour stand-off inside her red truck, threatening to kill herself with the same gun with which she had shot her friend. When news that she had died in the hospital hit the public, impromptu shrines and altars were put together by grieving fans in the room where Selena was shot, her home and boutiques; candlelight vigils and masses were called throughout the Southwest and wherever her Latino/a followers resided. Her biographer, Joe Patoski, a witness to this display of spontaneous sanctification, was struck by the collective outpouring of grief from her fans, and believed that “something very powerful [was] going on”: “No one was orchestrating this. People came by and wanted to offer their sympathies and express their feelings. It was a thing of pure beauty. When I pulled up, there was like a row of 40 candles lit below the stairwell of the boutique, and there was this semicircle of older women singing these sad songs in Spanish” (Bream 3E). After her highly attended public viewing and burial, Corpus Christi became a Mecca for her mourning fans who would tour the sites closest to their idol: her home in the working class neighborhood of Molina, her boutique, the Days Inn Motel, which never again rented room 158, her grave. Several facilities were renamed Selena; West Oso High School students designed a memorial just some blocks away from their neighbor’s house. They painted an elaborate mural and planted a bed of Selena’s favorite flowers, white roses, which would be kept by the locals: “The kids wanted timers to irrigate the flower boxes,” said art teacher Dickie Valdez, whose brother [wa]s the prosecutor [of Yolanda Saldívar]. I said: “No man, this is Molina. The old ladies in the neighborhood will take care of it out of love” (Hull IA). Selena’s San Antonio and Corpus Christi’s boutiques became tourists attractions on Saturdays, “when visitors would come in to talk about Selena, cry or leave tokens of their respect and grief,” “living museum[s]” where videos, music and tributes of her life were featured (Patoski 224). Most of her fans I talked to or interviewed via electronic mail say they have a Selena shrine at home and remember their beloved singer by playing her music daily, talking to friends about her, spending time in the several chat rooms in the World Wide Web dedicated to her memory. These are, in fact, the most popular Latino web sites, according to Spanish periodical La voz norteña, from Eureka, California.
Yolanda Saldívar had started the Selena sanctification in life of her friend, as she was said to have had a shrine of her favorite singer at home. Her obsession with Selena could be traced to her signs of adoration while working for her and her reluctance to share her with anyone else: “‘Yolanda was always very possessive’,” observed Albert Dávila of KEDA-AM radio in San Antonio, one of the stations that Yolanda kept in touch with on behalf of the fan club for updates on Selena’s live gigs and record releases. “She’d keep you away. Selena was possessed by her. One of our employees went to [Yolanda’s] house to pick up some materials and freaked out because one room had an altar, candles, everything. It was a Selena shrine” (Patoski 135).2
All these expressions of popular veneration, which spring from the religious tradition of the Latin American Catholic Christian communities acquired a cult status, and due to their mainstream dissemination through the Anglo media, gave visibility to a silenced and ignored sector of the US society. Patoski concludes the book on the life of the singer acknowledging the religious role accorded her by the community of adoring fans:
Selena was both a real person and a symbol, the poetic image of youth, beauty, wholesomeness, and family values, an inspiration to young people that they can be faithful to the old ways while embracing modem ideas. Her life ended in a tragedy that would forever be replayed in millions of minds, a senseless tale of betrayal by one who had loved her. Those circumstances are precisely why her image has become something greater and more influential than it ever could have been in life. The pilgrims were coming. The candle had been lit. As long as there were those who remembered, the flame would bum. Her spirit was alive. Through her, there was redemption for all. Eternamente. (329)
Thus her sacrifice was construed as redemptive. Barbara Renaud González explains the singer’s religious force in a Latina article, titled “Santa Selena?”, where she emphasizes that Selena was the gorgeous chola morena who never forgot her pueblo, and we fell under her spell feeling that we were under her protection. She made us proud to be who we are, so we worshiped at her altar. We hoped she would redeem all of us from second-class citizenship, if only she crossed over enough (83).
With such an important role assigned to this young and successful representative of a subaltern culture, the construction of her biography reached legendary proportions after her death. Patoski sets a mythical origin for Selena: he claims that the child’s birth on an Easter Sunday, April 16 1971, “was preceded by some strange events” (34) as the doctors first mistook her mother’s pregnancy for a tumor. When born, the “giggling baby girl (…) was a bundle of energy” (34) and very special. Anybody who saw her was apparently captivated by this little princess; as a bank agent in her native Lake Jackson remembers “Everyone had a feeling that she was destined to be more than the average child. She was so beautiful. She was vibrant. The way I remember her, because of her teaching she respected her elders but she always had a twinkle in her eye, you could always cut up with her. She had that aura, something magical” (35). Her eagerness to please did not go unnoticed. Her father thought that his youngest child had a gift, “I saw her qualities at a very early age. She could dance and had charisma as a little girl, she had stage presence. I knew she would go places” (Patoski 38). This “gregarious, athletic girl who was something of a tomboy” (38) learned to love music from an early age, and confessed that her favorite disco diva was Donna Summer. Her broad smile and sense of humor amused everybody and made of her someone very attractive and loveable. As a young girl she used to anticipate to her acquaintances that she was going to be a star (Patoski 52).
Bearing such origins and as part of the construction of the redemption narrative, her “after life” was construed as a “resurrection,” the two most important and extremely marketable expressions being her posthumous album, “Dreaming of You,” released in the summer or 1995, four months after her death, and the movie “Selena” directed by Gregory Nava and jealously monitored by her patriarchal father, Abraham Quintanilla, released two years after her death.
“Dreaming of You,” which was to be her crossover hit with songs in English, unwittingly introduced an increasingly interested Anglo audience to her most popular Spanish songs, included to fill the gaps of the work-in-progress impossible to complete with the singer’s passing. As Joe Patoski put it, “It was an unintentional way of introducing the sound of her culture to a mainstream audience, but it worked” (245).
The most startling selection on the album was “God’s child,” her duet with David Byrne. The rhythm was offbeat, with a quirky marimba lead-in, full of mystery and subterfuge in the tradition of Byrne’s work with the Talking Heads. The track, which was edited out of the film Don Juan de Marco only to wind up in another movie, Blue in the Face, nonetheless breathed fire and ice with Selena doing some impassioned salsified testifying en español over Byrne’s haunting, almost premonitory lyrics “Who calls this child to walk on her own? Who leads her down this treacherous road?” (Patoski 246)
In this song the circumstances of Selena’s life before her death (which I will discuss below) are played out with eerie similarity. The “child” was evidently “walking on her own” because she was trying to open a clothing business in Mexico, and was travelling constantly to Monterrey. Also, as part of Selena’s “secret” revealed to Univisión journalist María Celeste Arrards, the singer was having a very close relationship with a Dr. Martínez and had confessed to three of Arrards’ sources that she was planning to divorce Cris Pérez, with whom she lived a clean married life dwelling in a house contiguous to her father’s.
The invitation “Ven, baila conmigo” (Come, dance with me) of the subtitle–a refrain repeated several times in the song–could be construed as the summon to a practice with a potential counterhegemonic effect for Tejano audiences: collective dance as a social movement, a call to dance to Tejano music as a way of symbolically performing a specific identity for Chicano/as living in Southern Texas, a reappropriation from the margins of the South Western culture monopolized by the hegemonic version of thousands of Hollywood Westerns.4 But also, beyond this regional necessity, dancing to Selena’s music had become with the imminent crossover, a way of performing a harmonious racial/cultural encounter, a utopian invitation that mimicked Rodney King’s stuttering challenge, “Can we… can we… can we get along?”5 And in Selena’s invitation, “Come dance with me,” that first person singular subject of the utterance should be understood as the corporal icon that represented in the public sphere the “body,” not only of the Tejano community, but also the Latin American constituencies living in the US.
The mythic image of Selena is completed with the construction of her immortality. The Selena movie, which I will discuss in more detail below, opens with a reenactment of the last concert where the singer performed with her family band, Los Dinos, at the Houston Alamodome. Neorican actress Jennifer López appears as Selena, attired with the same purple sequined tight jumpsuit which also served the unfortunate Tejana as her burial shroud. Gregory Nava’s symbolic cinematic style serves the purpose of perpetuating the seamless narrative of this down-to-earth, girl-next-door mythical representation of Selena. It opportunely starts out with López lip-synching to Donna Summer’s song “I will survive,” obliquely connoting the resurrection theme in the singer’s afterlife that mystified her faithful audiences. Furthermore, the last scenes of the movie feature clips of real Selena footage with the song “Vivirás por siempre Selena” as background music, reinforcing the idea of immortality that initiated the movie.
Santa Selena’s Sexy Body, or Reconciling la Virgen de Guadalupe
and la Malinche.6
Taking into account Selena’s “immaculate purity” within her sanctification narrative as the one of “a true Madonna,” it is easy for her Mexican American fans to fuse her memory with the national religious icon par excellence, la Virgen de Guadalupe, whose morena skin reflects the carnality of her worshippers. Barbara Renaud González suspects that Selena “came into our lives because on some level, we prayed for her to do so. We needed a modern icon to boost our self-esteem, and there she was” (83). She then adds:
[w]e revere Selena because she, like our Virgen de Guadalupe, was a post-modem mestiza who came to remind us of who we are–and to signal that who we are is just fine, thank you. Wearing sequins and a cross between her breasts, Selena first appeared in her hometown of Corpus Christi. She ascended to stardom robed in the music of the people–conjunto, ranchera, polka, and cumbia–the synthesis of everything that others, our conquerors, had scorned. (83)7
This beatification is very common among the very religious and ritualistic Latin American communities who bestow saintly qualities to popular personalities taken away from this earth in their prime. Such pop idols as Eva Perón come to mind immediately. Evita’s and Selena’s lives were similar: both the young, attractive, talented poor women who due to their talents were able to transcend their misery and become mass media icons by means of their performativity, while at the same time, remaining faithful to the ones like them, giving visibility to their needs and desires in their new positions of power.
Ilan Stavans notices in a not very flattering article on the singer, whom he describes as “a pantheistic deity in la frontera,” “the uncontested queen of hybrid pop culture, part wetback and part gabacha” (24), that after her death she
ceased to be the tejana singer she had grown up to be, with modest means and high ambitions, ready to cross over to the mainstream market, and became not only a fearsome competitor to Madonna (her album Dreaming of You, with a handful of songs in English, including one by David Byrne, sold 175,000 copies in a single day), but a cult figure, a Hispanic Marilyn Monroe–an object of relentless adoration and adulation. Magically, she has joined Evita Perón in the contemporary pantheon of mystical and magical hispanas, a patron saint of the descamisados. (25)8
Thus, Santa Selena and Santa Evita live up to their mass mediatic pledges of immortality (the former’s “I will survive,” the latter’s “volveri y seri millones,” both outliving their untimely deaths by means of their folk cult status and eventual international media dissemination.
It seems then, that in a Butlerian sense both Selena’s and Evita’s are “bodies that matter.”9 (We are concerned here with their spectralities too, their emblematic representations being Madonna’s and Jennifer López’s bodies performing the screen deliveries of “Evita” and “Selena” respectively). So why is Selena’s a body that matters? Because it becomes in the collective unconscious a symbol of the plight of a people, a screen unto which a community’s desires, hopes and needs of visibility and representation are projected. Selena’s sexuality, her fleshy body as object of desire and mirror that represented/reflected her audiences is thus of central significance.
The power of the Latino as well as Anglo mass media promoted the dissemination of this flamboyant working class female corporeality that José Limón, in an unpublished article traces to the cabareteras andranchera/bolero singers of la frontera (I would add the vedettes of the variété and revista genres, and even the transvestites that performed in popular border night clubs). The potential counterhegemonic value of this colored voluptuous physique in an era that celebrates pale starving waifs, and the massive dissemination of her “spectral corporeality” in different media, ambiguously threatens hegemonic appropriations of racialized sexualities. Moreover, and although it could be interpreted that the music industry’s appropriation of Selena could reify the most “authentic” elements of the culture she represents, as was the classic case with other popular women of color appropriated by Hollywood–Carmen Miranda and Josephine Baker among the first ones–I believe these racialized corporealities ambiguously sidestep these mass-mediatic exotizations. These women are able to perform a dance of resistance to cooption while at the same time seducing first world audiences eager for the consumption of otherness. In a clever twist, these third world divas dance their way to international recognition, accepting the terms of the culture industry, and thus reaching a wider audience, but at the same time maintaining a loyalty to their cultures and former regional audiences, who due to their popular idol’s visibility become legitimized in an international arena.
I am aware of other claims about Selena’s sexuality, which is contended to perpetuate the woman-object myth which satisfies a patriarchal desire (i.e. “She was the combined Madonna-whore of every Latino male’s fantasy” [Renaud González 83]), and of negative interpretations of her massive success coming from a line of thought spawned by the dogmatic devaluation of the culture industry inaugurated by Horkheimer and Adorno.10 In an anxiety to assert progressive and feminist perspectives to the study of the Selena case, these claims fail to recognize the complexity of the performer’s exchange with her popular audiences coming from what José Limón calls “a besieged society,” their own cultural productions being bound to the laws of the market, and that in addition issues of biculturality, colonialism and female agency cannot be disregarded. That is why it so important to focus on Selena’s materiality, the control of the performing body as a powerful instrument of female agency as well as a material surface for the projection of collective desires. This exchange acts out an interesting paradox, which is typical of popular productions due to their ambiguous affiliation to capital and hegemony. In this particular case, it evidently represents the collective performative consolidation of an allegedly “post” colonial, hybrid regional identity, by means of a practice that is constrained by the laws of Anglo capitalism. And this is performed via the exaltation of the young, voluptuous, exotizable and commodifiable morena body. What a task!
If we look more closely at her corporeality, it will become clear that Selena’s unapologized eroticism is a common sign in the Latin American media, which predominantly represent the ideal of female beauty as the sexy, many times sluttish monumento type of woman, accepted and cherished by males and females, niños y abuelitas alike. It is important to add that the legitimation of a massive dissemination of Selena’s material corporeality also came from the popularity of a sluttish model presented by Anglo MTV via Madonna and her like, an inevitable female referent for an American girl (like Selena) who became an adolescent in the mid 80’s. If we consider that until very recently “decent” Latina women did not attend shows in cantinas, cabarets or night clubs where the precursors of this style, the “dangerous” women performed, the importance of this “gender-blind” dissemination of the carnal female model by the Hispanic media, is heightened. It seems to me also that the “opening of the peep-hole” to heterosexual Latinas multiplies the subjects of desire of this sexual object, threatening to promote same-sex identifications which obviously challenge the Latin American patriarchal and thus heterosexist economy of desire: “As la Malinche, she embodied the modern woman, withpasiones de la carne. She desired fame intensely, and if she didn’t want sex, she sure fooled me, because she projected a very seductive image. Thus, she bewitched every man who looked at her (and at least one woman)11 (Renaud González 83). Concerning this bisexual desirability of Selena, it will be useful to expand on another possible reading of her phenomenon: her “queering.” In fact, this is how I originally perceived this Tejana queen, probably because I experienced her popular sexual appeal vicariously–I mean, via the surrogate performativity of “la Gaby,” the Mexican drag queen mentioned above, who impersonated Selena during the musical acts in this working class gay and lesbian night club around the time the singer was killed. “La Gaby” was the best Selena impersonator I have ever seen and has much to say about her experiences on “performing Selena.” When auditioning for the main role in the movie, I always thought that she would be the perfect match.12
If we consider the efficacy of “la Gaby’s” “artificial” construction of Selena, we can infer analogically that the singer was performing a hyperbolic Latina femininity, perhaps the Latina femme, with all that this notion has of constructedness. Selena was able to perform her body as artifice, not as parody, like Madonna–to whom she is constantly compared–because she lacked (or was not interested in) the US singer’s grasp of conceptualism. While Madonna parodies “woman” as she wishes to convey a critique of the constructedness of gender, Selena’s style is more realistic, it is mimetic: she is able to mimic, to “impersonate” Latina femininity (like prostitutes and burlesque genre’s vedettes, and indeed, as transvestites do) to please the male (and lesbian, and in fact, alleged heterosexual Latina) audience’s gaze too; (no wonder “la Gaby” has a very successful Selena act for Plaza’s “lesbian night” on Mondays). In spite of the fact that Selena’s sexuality was spontaneously exhibited and performed, and even palpable on stage, there was a great degree of calculation, of artifice:
She was this sweet, family-oriented girl who, nevertheless, strutted onstage displaying her body and perfected it using artifice. Yes, we know about that liposuction in Monterrey, and after all, there are limits to what even Wonderbra can lift by itself. Unless you really do believe in miracles, that is. In short, her hallowed image was full of contradictions. (Renaud González 83)
Sacrificing the Rebelling Dutiful Daughter.
A Psychoanalytical Reading
In addition to considering the socio-historical, ethnic, gender and class underpinnings of this cultural phenomenon, it is the crucial to use a psychoanalytical approach to the study of Selena. This perspective will shed light on the anthropological and religious interpretations of Selena’s popularity, making available a psycho-social view of the function of this young, sexy, voluptuous performing body sacrificed in the altar of Corpus Christi. This reading could be advanced by associating the corporeal focus of the Selena phenomenon to the religious approach of her sanctification, and thus facilitate the anthropological (or anthropo-morphical?) connection to the “body of Christ” (Corpus Christi) via René Girard’s theory of the scapegoat mechanism.13
Evita’s case could be interpreted in a similar manner: as the need of a community to construct the deaths of these prominent women as sacrifices that, in some magical sense would redeem the whole membership of the society from the conflicts created by race, class, culture, religion and gender marginalization: the annihilation in the collective unconscious of prominent women as “sacrificial victims.”14
The “surplus” of meaning that (a violent or untimely) death confers on the lives and popular narratives of these prominent women is an element that cannot be underscored enough in these phenomena. Moreover, the mystery involved in this excess of meaning also prompts a release of energy through the ritualized veneration of this “sacrificed flesh,” analogous to the one that their living bodies promoted in their audiences during their public performances. Author Ana Castillo also relates Selena’s tragedy to a sacrifice, and although she resists the correlation, she interestingly compares it with the one suffered by young Iphigenia,
Selena’s end is truly a sad story. It bears, because of her youth and perceived unblemished morality, all the earmarks of a tragedy. Although I would not like to think of her life as a tragedy in the classic sense, that is, inevitably tragic, like the Greek myth of Iphigenia, whose warrior-king father offered her up as a sacrifice to appease the gods, still the time may have come when we would simply have grown bored with Selena. (764)
Beyond the reference to the main role played by a dominant father in Iphigenia’s and Selena’s sacrifice that I will elaborate below, it should be noted that in the context of Latin American liberation theology, which considers each poor and marginalized individual of this continent-predominantly constructed as male–as participating in the physical suffering of Christ, the immolation of a female performer evidently shifts the gender of the victim in order to grant it subjecthood? to give it visibility? to empower it via the sacralization? If it is good enough to be sacrificed, then it exists, it is visible and thus becomes sacred.15
In contrast with the sanitized film version of Selena’s story, a much more complex picture of the singer and her family emerges in light of psychoanalytical theory: her Oedipalized relationship with her father, who becomes symbolically the Law, the Tradition of the patriarchal society within which Selena is raised and succeeds, the position in which she needs to renegotiate in order to fully blossom. Due to Abraham’s zeal to control the dissemination and commercialization of Selena’s image and related merchandise, it is easy to see in the market two distinct types of products: the ones sanctioned by the Oedipal patriarch (like the movie, for example), and the rest (María Celeste Arrards’ controversial book on Selena’s-Secret being the quintessential illustration of an “unauthorized” interpretation of the young woman’s life, utterly rejected by her father).16Quintanilla was the manager assistant of the film and director Nava accepted his “official” version of Selena’s life. While his account may not be false, it was surely biased and should be considered a constructed narrative of a proud father very aware of the importance of maintaining a pristine image of his famous daughter.17
To advance my claim for a psychoanalytic approach to the Selena case, I believe that certain information that Patoski delivers carefully devoid of commentary in her biography should be taken into consideration, for example, that on tour, Selena slept in the room with her father (or parents), while her siblings were lodged in different rooms. (I don’t suggest here an incestuous relationship that has left more than one media person speculating, but we cannot ignore some elements that are in fact relevant in the construction of the narrative of this “sacrifice.”) The importance of this Oedipalized relationship could also be supported by the scene that most affected me in the film: early in the narrative young Selena calls her father’s attention to herself when he decides to teach her older siblings how to play their musical instruments. In order not to be left out, she “seduces” him singing a classical oldie, vicariously satisfying her father’s desire to continue singing. For me this is a primal scene where the Oedipal relationship originates, one that will contaminate Selena’s eagerness to please both her father and her audiences and which will prove to be the key element of her success. (I assume that Nava’s fictionalization has some truth to it in this “official” version; Patoski’s record of the first song she sang for her father at six and a half was “I wanna be loved by you.”)
According to the very detailed account of the trial provided by Maria Celeste Arrards, as journalist for Univisión who covered the case and was able to become close to both families, in her defense, Yolanda Saldívar claimed that there was a “secret” that she would not publicly reveal, but that the journalist filters through her narrative and is related to a possible infatuation of Selena with a middle-aged plastic surgeon of Monterrey, Mexico, and the unhappiness that Selena was experiencing in her married life at the date of her assassination.
These slippages in Abraham’s official version of the Selena story concern the construction of her “materiality.” The film presents this easygoing, “natural girl,” who besides mowing her lawn and living next to her parents’ house in the poor side of town, only ate junk food and refused to work out. This version sanctioned by Quintanilla and fictionalized by Nava, is challenged again by information provided by Arrards and even Patoski, notably the liposuction she underwent in Monterrey–which was performed by Dr. Martínez, the surgeon who had become the “special friend” with whom she consulted about her clothing business and talked about her private life, and who was in fact the last person she called that fateful Friday morning before she went to see Yolanda at the motel. Patoski also mentions how Yolanda was always around in her tours and trips, to hand her Slim Fast, for example. One starts to wonder considering this data, how much junk food she actually ingested, and if Selena could not be seen as another eating disorder junkie, who “binged and purged” in order to construct the perfect “plastic body” (Susan Bordo) that would satisfy the expectations of her Latino/a spectatorship, and eventually, the popes of MTV.18
These “unofficial” reflections challenge the veracity of the “official” image of Selena, authorized and carefully tailored by Quintanilla in order to preserve both the commercial attraction of his daughter’s talents, as well as her reputation as Daddy’s obedient girl. Could this zeal be construed as the guilt of an Oedipal Father commercializing his sexual fetish?
Consequently her death, interpreted within an esoteric psychoanalytic narrative, could be construed as a sacrifice, a punishment inflicted by a surrogate father (Yolanda, bearing the “lesbian phallus”),19 who controlled and “protected” her as much as her own father, and finally eliminated her due to the threat of the imminent autonomy that Selena’s clothing business’ success would eventually grant her. (Remember that she did not even have access to her assets, because her father controlled the business. When compared to Madonna’s financial autonomy and entrepreneurial skills, Selena appears like a dependent child, disempowered due to a lack of financial and artistic freedom, and her efforts in the creation of her boutiques and fashion line should be seen as an evident psychological need to walk away from a stifling situation that had her absolutely at her family’s mercy.)
I don’t want to commit the sin of interpreting this family situation from the anxiety of an imperialistic normative view, that is, prescribing an universalization of the American values of independence in the children’s coming-of-age, but, considering Selena was raised as the all American girl, it is evident that around the time of her death she was missing out on the autonomy that most Anglo girls attain when they grow up. To accept a flawless “obedient daughter” narrative for Selena–which José Limón intriguingly classifies as a “counter-narrative,” and that, according to his analysis, provides the frame within which Selena was able to take her sexuality to full bloom and perform it on stage on behalf of her audiences-is, I respectfully believe, giving up the complexity that a study of her case requires.
Beyond Limón’s suggestion that this is a counter-narrative to dominant Anglo culture, I suspect that the conflict here is not only ethnic or colonial, but generational as well as gender-based, and that recourse to a psychoanalytic interpretation of the Selena phenomenon as a sexual one is imperative. In spite of the fact that her father was very aware of the profitability of his daughter’s tantalizing sexual appeal, Selena’s in-your-face sexuality is in fact a “counter-narrative” to the one the Oedipal patriarch invents in order to advertise and commercialize his daughter in a “clean” way. Even in the controlled screen fictionalization of his daughter’s memory this conflictive experience of Selena’s sexuality is exposed in the scene that represents her father’s shock when while performing, she decides to strip off her vest and uncover her two full breasts attired in what Quintanilla eventually would corrupt in a gibberish term “busticaca” after his benevolent wife reassures him that it is a fashionable “bustier.”
In my opinion, accepting this idealized “obedient daughter” narrative is self-defeating both in the understanding of Selena’s social impact, as well as in upholding the plight of so many other Mexican American lower class young women’s stories and their yearning for independence and challenge of received traditional values that evidently oppress them. I see Selena’s transgression of a puritanical Law of the Father in the spontaneous jouissance with which she exhibited her sexuality to–and ultimately seduced– both her audiences AND her father. Her sexually charged performances made a decidedly more subversive and massive statement to repressed Latinas living in a male-dominated culture than any of the best of Gloria Anzaldúa’s essays.20 Selena’s implicit message was that they did not need to opt between family values and a full enjoyment of their sexuality: they could be “good” as well as “sexual.” There is a very interesting picture illustrating an article titled “¿Santa Selena?” in the Latina magazine that represents in an iconic way what I’m trying to say. It is a collage that portrays a photo of the voluptuous singer attired with the tight pearl sequined dress she wore to accept the Grammy Award, framed by the halo of la Virgen de Guadalupe, referencing, of course, Yolanda López’s jogging Virgin: Selena santa Y puta, tal como Evita!
Following this reading, I see her assassination as a punishment for trying to break away from the Oedipal relationship with both her father and Yolanda. The latter repeatedly accused Abraham for the crime that killed her friend during her hysterical stand-off in her truck after the murder in the parking lot of the Days Inn Motel, an accusation that denied her responsibility in the pulling of the trigger. Nonetheless I think we should pay careful attention to this claim, and of course, also consider that it is coming from a sick person who was risking life in prison (which she finally got) if found guilty. But even in her neurosis and obsession with the singer, Yolanda was able to voice what was being erased from public commentary (at the moment of the crime, but very much a topic of conversation during the trial) due to the censorship imposed by the patriarch: the obsessive parental control la flor was trying to free herself from.
From a Latina feminist standpoint this interpretation is extremely disappointing because if Selena is construed as the ultimate morena body, as the successful Mexican girl who is able to cross-over and seduce not only Anglo audiences, but her peers of both genders and the elders of the community too, the morality play’s message for Latina girls is: “be wary of success/power if you risk disrespecting your Father.” In other words, “You cannot be the obedient daughter and at the same time be in control of your sexuality and finances.” “Power is elusive and should always be controlled by the Fathers.” This message would then serve to reinforce the gender stereotypes so ingrained in the culture, which the delighted performative exhibition of her flamboyant sexuality seemed to ambiguously contest.
Beyond the Passion Play: Dancing Out Cultural Differences
The Selena story could ultimately be read as a morality play. In addition to the acknowledgment of her socio-political impact in the consolidation of a visible Tejano/Latin American identity in the US context, the message is one that replicates the patriarchal Catholic Christian values of the peoples it represents. The guardian of this tradition in this morality play is Abraham, the Oedipal patriarch, and his accomplice, Yolanda, the unconscious sacrificial agent.
Selena, on the other hand, sought in what could be perceived from a Latina perspective the “freedom” of the Anglo culture, the full fruition of her sexuality, including in this concept her “eros”: the pleasure of deciding who she wanted to be and how she was going to conduct her life. It was her father who both commodified and restricted it. From a very early age the singer was her Daddy’s fetish, and it was that sexual fetish that Abraham learned how to commercialize and give an exchange value to. But first she had to seduce her audiences as she was constantly seducing her father (and that is probably where her intense sexuality came from). To seduce her audiences/father (working class Mexican American, traditional folk) she had to use the sanctioned (because successful, because profitable) “free” values of American pop, MTV, Madonna style performing. In a way this would mean that she incarnated in her morena anatomy, the yearning for autonomy, freedom, individualism that this capitalist system offers as socially attainable goals, even to some women!
Ultimately, the importance of Selena’s “materiality” does not preclude religious interpretations of her impact in Greater Mexico, as Limón claims in his unpublished article when he declares that this “materially based, palpable discharge point for her energetic connection to this community [was] based on a received tradition of sexualized music and dance, at some distance from religious idealism” (1997). It seems to me, on the contrary, that Selena’s materiality bridges the traditional conflict of the Catholic doctrine: the dialectic tension between paganism and ascetism,21 between body and soul, the prime illustration of its reconciliation being the incarnation of God in His beloved Son. I see in Selena’s corporeality the synthesis of those two forces that in many Latin American Catholic communities are so dichotomous, that result in a baroque tension of excess and silence, a dance of light and shadow, of flesh and spirit.
Selena, the child of “Corpus Christi” celebrated that name in an intriguing way: not only did she have a strong mythical (or magical or legendary) affiliation with the Passion drama, she also personally enjoyed and publicly performed las pasiones de la carne for the redemption of the Pan American communities which she seductively summoned to dance out their differences: “¡Ven, baila conmigo!”
- I would like to warmly thank the collaboration of Shawn Stephenson in the gathering of materials for this work, and the thorough proofreading of this paper by Kate Mc Carthy; her enlightened comments undoubtedly guided me to improve this piece. I also feel indebted to all those Selena fans who e-mailed me their heartfelt testimonies about their memories of the singer: Reign Voltaire, Sandra Padilla, Cutie Pi, Frank, Melissa Blackwell, Rolando Elizondo, Blinkie and Mark Neat. My thanks go also to my friends Jackie Mitchell, Norma Vega, Jeff Lamb, Walker Flores, who were witnesses to my initiation to Selenamania those Friday nights at Plaza. return to text
- This quote was taken from the readers’ mail published in the “Sound Off’ column of the Caller Time in response to the Corpus Christi city governance’s zeal to honor the singer by renaming several public facilities with the Tejano queen’s name. return to text
- To show the conciliatory nature of this young Tejana’s mission during her brief life, Ilan Stavans reminisces at the beginning of a The New Republic article, “During a recent trip to South Texas, I talked to a respectable old man who told me Selena had died because heaven was desperate for another cherub. Selena was ‘a celestial beauty,’ he sighed, ‘whose time on earth was spent helping the poor and unattended.'” He added that Amalia González, a Los Angeles based Spanish-language radio host, told a journalist that Selena had visited us ‘to unite all creeds and races.'” (24). return to text
- Although the Quintanillas were non-practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses (who nevertheless respected some of the traditions), they shared with their audiences many aspects of the Catholic ethics, aesthetics, values and even practices that inform the dominant Mexican American religiosity. It exceeds the purposes of this article to address this interesting twist in understanding the phenomenon of Selena from a religious point of view. return to text
- Selena’s success would hopefully help set straight the record of the origins of Anglo country music, and prevent from future mistakes like this one: “No one better represented the emerging Tex-Mex culture than Selena, who sang a form of music known a Tejano (Tay-HAH-no), a Mexican version of country music propelled by accordions” (Hull 1A, italics mine). return to text
- “Despite her simple songs and saccharin message, the ninth-grade dropout managed a complex feat. She didn’t morph into an Anglo. She made it clear she was from the barrio. She made the outsiders feel inside”(Hull IA, my italics). Selena is misrepresented in this description: she was not a school drop-out, but a talented student whose father decided that in order to attend to her music responsibilities, she had to quit school; as she was determined to complete her high school education, she did so by correspondence. Moreover, when she became a teen idol, she took the pains to lecture at schools with a very clear message for Latin American kids: “stay in school,” “stay out of drugs,” “be proud of who you are.” return to text
- Malintzin, whose name was corrupted by the Spanish conquistadores into “Malinche,” was an Indian princess offered as a present to Hernán Cortés during the conquest of Mexico. He made her his lover, bore a son with her who is considered the first Latin American mestizo, and due to her trilingualism, was instrumental in the communication between the conquistadores and Moctezuma, the Aztec king. Traditionally she has been perceived by the Mexican people as a betrayer to her culture because she “sold out” to the invaders due to her carnal involvement with the invaders and construed as a treacherous and lustful “Eve,” in opposition to the saintly Virgen de Guadalupe. Feminist Chicanas are now reconsidering this negative interpretation of Malinche and foregrounding the very political role she played as a female “voice” within a male-centered narrative of domination. return to text
- The evident role model function that Selena performed in life is clear in the following testimony of thirty-eight year old Elvira Duences, “We wanted to have somebody to teach our kids that you can accomplish anything if you try (… ) You want to have someone in your life like that. Selena was that person for us” (Hull 1A). Most of Selena’s fans were Latina teens or preteens, and her passing left many of them inconsolable. A way of understanding this adolescent adoration of the Tejana queen is to consider some statistics published by the American Association of University Women, which record an astounding plunge in Latina’s self esteem when they reach puberty. “Among its most intriguing findings, the AAUW survey revealed that, although all girls report consistently lower self-esteem than boys, the severity and the nature of that reduced self-worth vary among ethnic groups. Far more African-American girls retain their overall self-esteem during adolescence than white or Latina girls, maintaining a stronger sense of both personal and familial importance (..) Meanwhile, Latina girls’ self-esteem crisis is in many ways the most profound. Between the ages of nine and fifteen, the number of Latina girls who are ‘happy with the way I am’ plunges by 38 percentage points, compared with a 33 percent drop for white girls and a 7 percent drop for black girls. Family disappears as a source of positive self-worth for Latina teens, and academic confidence, belief in one’s talents, and a sense of personal importance all plummet. In the late 1980s, when the research commissioned by the AAUW to bring attention to the need to include girls in the nation’s education goals was conducted, “urban Latinas left school at a greater rate than any other group, male or female” (xviii). return to text
- As in Selena’s case, it is important to consider the issue of the “body” of Evita–taking into account her very public career and her iconic appeal in the graphic propaganda of Peronism–and what it represented for her constituencies (or what they projected onto it). No wonder the military acknowledged the strong symbolic value of this female body when she died and proceeded to “disappear” the embalmed corpse from the public eye for almost twenty years! Something analogous happened while Selena’s body lay in state at the Bayfront Auditorium and the public started the rumor that she was still alive because the casket was closed and the body could not be seen, prompting her father to order to have it open. Probably he was also the one who had ordered to keep it contradictorily close during the “public viewing,” a precaution that would later prove to have been a good idea, considering the unauthorized commercialization of the t-shirts with Selena’s dead image reproduced in their front. return to text
- In her introductory chapter to Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler argues for a validation of the materiality of bodies. Going back to the origins of Western metaphysics and disclosing a number of exclusions in our received notions of materiality (woman, animal, slaves, property, race, nationality, homosexuality) among which the materiality of the body of woman is underscored, Butler concludes by legitimating an enquiry which she claims would indeed serve as the groundwork for a political action validated by the inclusion of these notions to the Western truth regime.
Later in the book, she studies Slavoj Zizek’s innovative theory of political signifiers as performatives which, as sites of phantasmatic investment, effect the power to mobilize constituencies politically (20-21). This merging of the studies on sexual difference and the one on the performative character of political signifiers, could very well serve to understand the phenomenon of the libidinal attraction of the public figures of Selena and Eva Perón, in addition to the popular following of their seduced audiences. return to text
- A hard-line anti-capitalist approach to the Selena phenomenon certainly reeks of idealism and in my view fails to recognize that nowadays it is very difficult to account for any cultural production spared from capitalism. Consequently, a post-Frankfurtian approach seems to better historicize the dialectic negotiations of popular and mainstream cultures. This post-Adornian perspective that challenges the negative conception of popular culture as a monolithic medium for the unresisted reproduction of the capitalist system is important because in its willingness to perpetuate itself, this system also promotes the creation of contestatory discourses, which, certainly serve to feed the capitalist hunger for the new and original. In the present era the only possible way to disseminate this flamboyant working class female corporeality is via the capitalist media, i.e. radio and recording industries, television, film, etc. My enthusiasm for the potential counterhegemonic value of the media–or rather, of its audiences’ reception- is due to the power of a democratic dissemination of “spectral corporealities” that serve as identifications to the minority sectors of its audiences, erased from dominant iconographies. return to text
- Yvonne Yarbo-Bejarano explains the meaning of malinchismo among Chicanas: “Chicanas who question traditional gender roles and attempt to organize their desire independently run the risk of being labeled malinchistas (traitors). They are perceived as corrupted by ‘foreign’ or ‘bourgeois’ influences that threaten to destroy their people. Under the pressure of this conflation of class, racial and sexual betrayal, the Chicana proves her fidelity to her people by means of a sexual commitment to the Chicano male, ‘putting the male first’ within the heterosexual structures of the family and the culture” (135). Selena’s sexual freedom and bisexual attraction, in addition to her appeal to Anglo audiences. would thus complicate the traditional malinchista model for Chicanas. return to text
- One of the most compelling theatrical productions of Evita’s life was Copi’s 1970 play Eva Perón, also performed by a transvestite). return to text
- In spite of Renato Rosaldo’s uneasiness with respect to some of Girard’s work and the structural functional method he uses (241), I find his scapegoat theories helpful to “explain”– resorting to magical thinking–the unexplainable tragedy of Selena. What interests me the most is his claim of the unconscious nature of the scapegoat mechanism, which would help us understand Yolanda’s role in the whole story: in Girard’s theory her role would be that of the “unconscious persecutor.” I perceive a great degree of irrational veracity in Yolanda’s obsessive claims that she did not mean to kill the singer, and while I am not trying to absolve her or justify her crime, I nevertheless wonder if we should not give credit to some providential design whereby unstable Yolanda was used as a sacrificial agent. return to text
- Coco Fusco has a very interesting installation titled “Better Yet When Dead,” which features her lying inside a coffin during a series of days, each day portraying a different Latin American woman artist venerated after her death: Sor Juana lnés de la Cruz, Frida Kahlo, Ana Mendieta, and curiously, Eva Perón and Selena. return to text
- In spite of the fact that in matrilinear societies, the sacrificers might have been women, according to Joseph Henninger’s entry on “sacrifice” in The Encyclopedia of Religion (vol. 12, 544), Girard believes that “women are never, or rarely, selected as sacrificial victims” (1992: 12). Theater scholars have observed, in contrast, that when staging passion plays during Easter week, in some places (i.e. the Philippines) women perform the role of Christ, who is literally nailed to the cross (Luzuriaga 43). return to text
- In an interview with Mario Quirce, Abraham Quintanilla downplays the veracity of the “secret” that he claims Arrarás does not deliver throughout her book, which he considers a commercial ploy to take advantage of the publicity that the release of the movie gave to the memory of Selena (54). return to text
- In an interview with Mario Quirce, Abraham Quintanilla downplays the veracity of the “secret” that he claims Arrarás does not deliver throughout her book, which he considers a commercial ploy to take advantage of the publicity that the release of the movie gave to the memory of Selena (54). return to text
- Patoski includes the testimony of one of Selena’s school friends, who remembered that “she was so self-conscious about her body-she used to hate her bottom. But she wasn’t fat, She just had a big bottom. The only thing she was shy about was thinking her bottom was too big” (46). Considering this vulnerability in “ready-to-please” Selena, I wonder if she was not prone to eating disorders, belonging to a “high risk category of women who make a living or have an identity based on being thin (… ) gymnasts, dancers, actresses and models. Many acquire eating disorders as an occupational hazard” (Pipher 168). These young women [good girls, the dutiful daughters and high achievers], continues Mary Pipher, are the “ultimate people pleasers. Most are attractive, with good social skills. Often they are the cheerleaders and homecoming queens, the straight-A students and pride of their families (… ) they have lost their true selves. In their eagerness to please, they have developed an addiction that destroys their central core” (170).return to text
- Studying the Oedipal triangle and incest taboo, Judith Butler poses the following questions, “What happens when the primary prohibitions against incest produce displacements and substitutions which do not conform to the [heterosexual] models? Indeed, a woman may find the phantasmatic remainder of her father in another woman or substitute her desire for her mother in a man, at which point a certain crossing of heterosexual and homosexual desires operates at once” (98-9).
In contrast to a Lacanian economy of erotogenic body parts, which privileges the “phallus” as the most important signifier of the Symbolic–an order construed as “the idealized domain of kinship, a set of relationships structured through sanction and taboo, which is governed by the law of the father and the prohibition against incest” (72), Butler’s conception of the “lesbian phallus” as a “possible site of desire, (… ) promote[s] an alternative imaginary,” thus displacing the “hegemonic symbolic of (heterosexist) sexual difference” (91).
What this displacement allowed in the Selena Oedipal narrative is the replacement of the agency of the dominant father and the correlated incest anxiety, with a non-sanctioned eroticized sisterly bonding which backfired on the singer, as Yolanda’s guilt for usurping the place of the “phallus” made of her a vulnerable but Rosaldo, Renato. “Anthropological Commentary.” Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation. Ed. Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987 return to text
- Gloria Anzaldúa is known as one of the first Chicana feminists to openly critique the heterosexism in her Latin American culture, in addition to addressing issues of race and class in feminist criticism, which was monopolized by a traditional white, middle class discourse. She was first known by the pathbreaking collection she co-edited with Cherríe Moraga, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color (1981). In 1987 she published her widely read collection of essays Borderlands, La Frontera: The New Mestiza; and in 1990 she edited and published another anthology, titled Making Face, Making Soul (Haciendo Caras): Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color. return to text
- In her controversial work, the feminist critic Camille Pagliare covers the sensuality and materiality of Catholicism, which she claims outlives paganism. See her Sexual Personnae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Yale University Press, 1990. return to text
Roman, R. and Arregui, E. Now You See It, Now You Don’t: The Different Border Realities for Labor and Capital in the NAFTA Era. Latin American Issues [On-line], 14(4).
NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON’T:
THE DIFFERENT BORDER REALITIES
FOR LABOR AND CAPITAL IN THE NAFTA ERA
University College, University of Toronto
Edur Velasco Arregui
Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana–Azcapotzalco
Borders can be frontiers, zones of ambiguous identity and affiliation. Or they can be real or imaginary lines, which once crossed bring you into another reality. This is the case for the migrant, often leaving village Mexico and entering a shadowy existence in a new linguistic, social and economic milieu. Or the American or Canadian tourist exploring the different realities of Mexico or just enjoying its climate and natural beauty. Borders can also be regions whose symbiotic links give them a social, economic and political reality with distinctive characteristics even as they also share many unique characteristics with the nation-state of which they form a part. Borders are also boundaries within which governments, in theory, have the sovereign right to exert authority on law, taxation, and other matters. The rise of modern state in Europe in the 17th Century involved the transformation of vaguely defined frontier regions into precise boundaries for the assertion of central authority. The centralizing state set the rules for the game for the functioning and boundaries of capital and labor markets. The state, both authoritarian and democratic, came to be perceived and, at times used, as an instrument to mitigate the human consequences of the capitalist system. The threat from popular forces, at times, compelled the capitalist class to make some concessions. As well, at times, enlightened capitalists–concerned with the stability of the system as a whole–realized the necessity of making some concessions both as a co-opting strategy against revolutionary tendencies in the working class and as a Keynesian strategy to mitigate the crisis tendencies of capitalism. The dynamic of political democracy in capitalist democracies–or, in the case of Mexico, popular mobilizations that elites sought to use and contain–interacted with the tendencies of capitalism greater concentration of wealth and greater inequalities of income to give capitalism, in some countries, a human face. The welfare state was born in some countries and various social pacts were made in others. These, at times, mitigated income inequality somewhat. But what they did more generally was to create a social net, a floor of minimum social rights that were not produced by the unregulated character of the market. The state, in fact, was always involved in creating and protecting the unregulated market. The night watchman state of the unregulated market was a state that regulated against interferences with that market, as illustrated in the common banning of “illegal combinations” (unions) because they interfered with the unfettered freedom to buy and sell labor power in a “free” labor market.
These social benefits were more possible in periods of the expansion of capitalism. And, it was the discontents and mobilizations of popular forces with demands for citizenship rights (political, social and economic) that created the pressure to regulate the market and its distributional consequences. But the indispensable condition for the development of social pacts, welfare states, capitalism “with a human face” was the existence of a national government that could act as a countervailing influence to the unregulated dynamics of the capitalist system.
We have discussed borders as more or less porous boundaries through which flow various economic and other exchanges. Within these borders, the modern state has been the instrument for setting these rules as well as the internal rules of capital accumulation, income distribution and social legitimation. In the case of countries like Mexico, the state also became the instrument for the preservation of the very existence of Mexico. For living in the shadow of the powerful and expansionist United States, the very existence of the Mexico was threatened.
Mexico, after all, had lost half of its national territory to the United States in the Mexican-American War of 1848. California, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and part of Colorado were all part of Mexico before 1848. The Mexican Revolution of 19190-1917 and its trajectory of national capitalist development involved the premise of a strong state based on popular support in order to resist complete domination by the United States. It involved state policies that would foster Mexican capitalist development but maintain some degree of social harmony by the rhetoric and sometimes the practice of workers and peasants.1 The state was an instrument for maintaining some balance, albeit unequal, between capital and labor. But neo-liberalism, globalization and continental integration (NAFTA) have largely removed these potential instruments of control by the state. The government of the day can less and less control the conditions for the entry or exit of capital or goods within North America. NAFTA is a new economic constitution of North America and both NAFTA and GATT set rules that limit sharply the rights of states to interfere in capital and commodities markets. They also consolidate neo-liberal strategies which tie the hands of state and populations while issuing a “Declaration of Liberty” for capital. These super-national agreements completely change the character of the border both as boundary and region.
But while the Mexican-US border is being erased for capital and goods and an integrated continental (and eventually hemispheric) capital and merchandise market has been created, the explicitly stated policy of the United States is to prevent the creation of a continental labor market. One of the explicitly station rationales of NAFTA within the U.S. was that it would stop the flow of undocumented workers into the United States. Thus, while the governments of Mexico, Canada and the U.S. are removing the borders a barriers to capital and merchandise, the U.S. has sought to build up its southern border into a bigger and more militarized “Berlin Wall” to block the entry of Mexican labor. As the state recedes from its role as regulator of the social imbalances created by the unregulated capitalist development (and as boundaries disappear), its role as night-watchman re-emerges with a vengeance. The border, as well as the internal ghettoes, are militarized and the prisons overflow in spite of their vast expansion. The night-watchman of laissez-faire capitalism was always there with the fist to keep the “free” market free of interference from collective disruptions by labor. The fist of the night-watchman of laissez-faire was always used to keep labor atomized, weak and vulnerable in order to keep wages low and maximize the power of management to use labor the with the maximum flexibility and managerial discretion.
Neo-liberalism, continental integration, globalization return us to that brutal phase of capitalism. The apparent paradox of the Mexico-US border is “freedom” for capital and goods and a “Berlin Wall” for labor is more apparent than real when we realize that this apparent contradiction is unified by a common, underlying purpose: profit maximization through lowering the wage bill, both the individual wage and the social wage. While neo-liberalism had already contributed to the erosion of the revenue base to pay for the social wage (social benefits, safety net) NAFTA has constitutionalized on a continental scale a vast tax evasion that makes it almost impossible–even if the political will to do so reappears– to restore the social wage. We will first discuss the role of NAFTA in undermining the Social wage both through the Tax loopholes and a downward competitive spiral of cost-incurring condition of investing (health and safety and environment standards as social costs that companies can now evade more readily as local and regional jurisdictions compete for investment). We will then discuss its role in creating a cheap and vulnerable labor force within the United States as well in the maquilas2 in Mexico.
Fiscal Implications of NAFTA and the Social Wage
The fiscal implications of NAFTA in deepening a downward spiral of taxation and loss of ability on the part of any of the governments to tax corporations has been a source for the sharp attack on the social wage. NAFTA not only has created downward pressure on wages from Mexico’s low wage economy but, by allowing corporations to escape taxation, it has undermined the bases for a social wage and a redistributionist government policy. This can be seen clearly if we look at export industry in Mexico. Exports, within NAFTA, cannot be treated differentially by country of origin, even in conditions of the undervaluation of currency, as happened in Mexico after the initiation of the 1994 crisis.
The most telling situation is that of the maquiladoras, that since their creation in 1965, have been under the protection of a “special fiscal scheme,” a protection that has been reinforced and generalized by NAFTA the maquilas are exempt from paying all types of taxation on commercial transactions that they carry out in one or the other direction of the northern frontier, or in the movement of goods from maquilas in the interior across the border. But, furthermore, they are not subject, in fact, to the payment of income tax. As González-Arechiga and Barajas explained in 1988:
The under-invoicing of profits made in Mexico persists in the maquiladora. Services that are done in Mexico are frequently invoiced abroad; this is particularly serious for the rent of land and industrial premises, although it also happens in accounting and legal services, and wages. This escape of income reduces the positive effect on the balance of payments and the gaining of foreign currency. Another element related to the under-invoicing is the amount of taxable income. In the present scheme, the maquiladoras operate as cost centers and don’t retain profits they generate–reducing almost to zero the contribution of value added to capital gains, and, in this way, also to the respective tax contribution–a fiscal review is necessary to retain profits in Mexico (68).
And, as Baird and McCaughan have pointed out, the maquiladoras are able to avoid the declaration of their profits on either side of the border and thus can exempt themselves from taxation completely.3
Maquiladoras employment grew at a dizzying pace during the first three years of NAFTA. It grew from 600,000 to 820,000 from 1994 -1996 and reached one million in January, 1998. But it is also the significant relocation of industrial employment within Mexico that translates into the fact that the employment generated by the five maquiladora states4 –2,150,000 in round figures– is equivalent to the number of jobs in the Federal District. But the revenue derived from income taxes in the five maquiladora states is only one-seventh of that collected in the Federal District: in real terms it amounts only to $1.5 billion. (INEGI, Cuarderno de Información Opertuna Regional 48 and 50, for all the data in this paragraph).
The consequences of the systematic under-invoicing of Mexican exports from the maquila zones can also be vividly illustrated in terms of employment growth and taxes paid. Employment in the five maquiladora states grew significantly from 1994 -1996, although Mexico was in its worst economic crisis since the Depression, with the GNP falling by 7% in this period for the country as a whole. In these same two years employment in the five maquiladora states increased from 1,928,000 to 2,150,000.5 But the income derived from income taxes went in the opposite direction, falling by 10% in real terms, from 5853 million pesos in 1994 to 5405 million pesos in 1996, It’s easy to see that there is a clear tax evasion when employment grows by 12% in two years and tax income declines by one-tenth in the same period. This tax evasion is made easier and more secure by globalization, NAFTA, and all the fraud and deceit that go along with these processes.
One of the most delicate and buried secrets of NAFTA is that it provides an escape hatch for corporate profits in all three countries. The fiscal integrity of all three governments is undermined by this systematic tax avoidance. Globalization is, for the TNCs, a mechanism for evading taxes and socializing costs. The data on the corporate tax totals in the Mexican economy are eloquent testimony to the involution of the fiscal regime as a redistributive mechanism. in 1991, before the development of the new Mexican crisis, corporations made a fiscal contribution of 3.1% of the GNP, in contrast, businesses in the U.S. contributed 7% of GNP through income tax and those in Canada contributed 8.1%. (Aspe Armella) Nevertheless, starting in 1994, various processes coincided to create conditions for tax evasion on a massive scale in Mexico, in maquila and in other export-oriented industries. The devaluation of the peso to the dollar became itself a source of major tax evasion through two key mechanisms. The fist, triangulation, is the maneuver of using a tax-free third country to hide profits in exchanges between two countries. As well, under-and over-invoicing, allows the location of profits to be moved to wherever they are tax-free.
The result was a dramatic drop in income taxes contributed by business to the income of the Mexican government. Taxes from business dropped by 50%–from the 3.1% of GNP in 1991 as pointed out by Pedro Aspe Armella to 1.5% as noted by Banco de México (67) in its last report regarding 1996. This widened even more the gap between taxes paid by the corporations in Mexico as compared to the United States and Canada. Corporate taxes as a percent of FNP were twice as high in the U.S and Canada as compared to Mexico in 1991. By 1996, they had become six times as high! This gap in tax rates for business only refers to income taxes. If we were to add differences in local taxation, the gap between Mexico and its NAFTA partners would become much larger. NAFTA has formalized by treaty the loss of power of the public to tax corporations as part of the bases for sustaining public spending. This has further undermined the ability of the state in three NAFTA countries to use the tax system for income redistribution and has been an important element in the fiscal crisis of the state.
The greater tolerance of Mexican authorities in regard to the management of toxic waste and the lower standards of health and work safety in the industrial export districts of Northern Mexico figures in the calculations on “desired savings” of the maquiladora companies. The impact of NAFTA on the fierce competition among workers to risk life and limb in the search for work, albeit insecure and unsafe and in condition more precarious all the time, can be approximated by the data and tendencies on occupational diseases. Though occupational diseases are always underestimated, their geographic distribution within Mexico tells a significant story. Occupational diseases in the maquiladora states are double their percentage of the national work force. According to the investigations of the Comisión Nacional Consultativa de Seguridad e Higiene en el Trabajo, the maquiladorastates account for 45% of occupational diseases while countering only 22% of the national work force. (INEGI, Estadísticas sobre Medico Ambiente, 170); nine years later, it has reached almost 200,000 annually. The risk rate in manufacturing has increased from 4.5 to 6.5 per hundred workers.
The maquiladora, as a creature and synthesis of the process of globalization, sanctioned and further institutionalized by NAFTA, extends its norms and procedures to Mexican manufacturing industry more generally, as well as to the whole labor marked of the countries involved. Workers who resist are confronted with the real threat of plant relocations to areas without unions. The massive movement of factories from the Frost Belt to the Sun Belt in the United States, is an example of this tendency. But, though less well-known, this redefinition of labor relations by relocation of industry has also taken place within Mexico–from the old industrial heartland of the Center-East to the Northwest of the country. This process of relocation attempts to restrict unions and collective bargaining. In 1995, the number of workers employed in the five maquiladora states was 1.950,000. Nevertheless, the number of workers, both maquila and non-maquila, with a real capacity for collective bargaining in these Northern states only amounted to 120,000, that is, 6.1% (Juntas Locales 311-317). Many of these ” union” contracts are sweetheart contracts signed by phantom or totally corrupt unions, even before plant openings, to prevent genuine and independent unionism. The maquila zone, like the US Southwest is basically an “open shop” area where attempts at real unionism face hostile and repressive employers and governments. One difference, however, is that in Mexico there are officialist union bosses who are willing and able to sell “protection contracts.”
Lowering the Wage Bill: Criminalizing Immigrant Workers
The discovery of dozens of deaf-mute Mexican workers in slave-like conditions in New York City in July, 1997, was a dramatic illustration of the consequences of the anti-immigrant legislation. Anti-immigrants legislation, the illegalization of human beings6 does not stop massive migration. The Mexican economy compels it and many United States employers welcome it. The anti-immigrant legislature stigmatizes and victimizes undocumented immigrant workers and thus submerges them in the worst imaginable conditions of the underground economy. This massive flow of people desperately seeking work can not be contained until Mexico has an integral, job-producing economic development. The major beneficiaries of the devastation of the Mexican economy and society include some of the same forces promoting the adoption by the U.S. Congress of repressive, militaristic responses to contain undocumented immigration. For the measures of economic and social policy insisted on by the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. are the very measures that have made the situation of the mass of the Mexican population increasingly desperate, thus propelling more and more people to leave family and community to seek work in the U.S. The very measures that would lead to growth of jobs and the rise of swages to a livable level and thereby allow Mexicans to stay in Mexico are exactly the measures opposed by the MNCs, the U.S. government and the IMF. They insist on macro-economic policies that put debt repayment ahead of food, jobs, and health for Mexicans. Furthermore, the big MNCs fight in Mexico against genuine unions and decent wages and working conditions.
Each year there are 250 million legal crossings between the two countries. Each year, the immigration police detain 1,500,000 undocumented people crossing the border or in the U.S. It is estimated that for each detained undocumented worker, there are two more who make it into the United States and become integrated into the U.S. labor force. Further, of these latter workers, the estimates are that 10% per year remain permanently in the U.S. while the vast majority return to Mexico after a period of work. In 1994, U.S. official statistics showed 6,200,000 inhabitants of the U.S. who had been born in Mexico. This figure grew to 8 million from 1994 to 1997 due to a great influx of immigrants, being pushed out by the economic crisis. The bottom 60% of Mexican migrants in the U.S. have an average income of $10,000, that is, even lower than the average income of the super-pauperized indigenous people of the U.S. (United States Bureau of Census, 52, for all the data in this paragraph).
The seemingly ambivalent attitude of the United States towards Mexican immigrant labor has along history. Mexican immigrants–documented and undocumented, citizens, residents and sojourns–have been an important part of the American labor force since the late 19th century. And, contrary to popular stereotypes, they have not been–and are not–concentrated mainly in rural and marginal activities. Mexican workers have played key roles in railway buildings and maintenance, in many industries from meat packing to steel and auto, as well as in the service and agri-business sectors. As the big waves of migration took place, encouraged by the active labor recruitment by the U.S. capitalist interests, the newly arrived Mexicans became part of a vast aggregate of cheap labor that was labeled and treated as racial inferior.
The U.S. state played a central role in controlling the ebb and flow of Mexican labor into the U.S. and back to Mexico through recruitment programs and deportations. While the labor needs of particular capitalist interests played a central role, there was an ongoing struggle between these interests (who wanted cheap and insecure labor) on the one hand and restrictionist and racist U.S. trade unions and nativist politicians and lobbies on the other. The ebb and flow of these struggles, the labor supply situation and the dynamics of the U.S. politics would shape the ebb and flow of Mexican labor recruitment and expulsion.
During World War I, when the US faced labor shortages, the government adopted the Temporary Admission Program to import cheap Mexican labor for the U.S. industry and agriculture. In the early 1920’s and most dramatically, in the Depression of the 1930’s, there was massive deportations of the Mexicans by the U.S. Government. Again, with labor shortages during World War II and the Korean War, the “Bracero Program” was enacted, again, to import Mexican labor. And again, in the period of 1954 – 1955, the U.S. government carried out its “Operation Wetback,” in which approximately 3.8 million Mexicans were deported.7 As Juan Gomez-Quinones has put it: “The dual mechanism of deportation and recruitment reinforced the institutional means of providing a constant, intimidated Mexican labor supply…” (208)8
The strategy of capital to lower the wage bill makes Mexican undocumented migration of central importance. Employers want a labor force that will work cheaply and not be able to collectively resist the Third World labor conditions that increasingly exist in the US. Massive migration of cheap and legally vulnerable labor contributes to the goals of lowering wages and working conditions in the U.S. to make U.S. production “more competitive.” Though the goals diverge, there is a complementarity of strategy between the racist currents that wish to exclude Mexicans entirely and the businesses that want to continue the flow of cheap, vulnerable Mexican labor. Both promote legislation that harasses and intimidates workers and breaks up families. Whereas the racist forces want to exclude and expel Mexicans, the employers of this undocumented labor, which include major corporations, their contractors and sub-contractors, want this labor flow to continue but in a docile manner and without children. The attempt to exclude children of undocumented workers from schools and their families from welfare is an attempt to exclude the social wage for a significant part of the labor force. The upshot of it al are policies that permit the massive inflow of cheap Mexican labor but without the baggage of families and social wage. These attacks on the social rights of both documented and undocumented immigrant workers and their families are part of a more general offensive against workers. This offensive includes the attempt to exclude legal immigrant residents of the US from welfare rights and the campaigns around “workfare.” All of these policies are attempts to create a cheaper, and more flexible, and more disposable workforce within the U.S.
The approval of the new immigration law in the US generated large protests of the undocumented workers and Latino organizations in the US. The objective of the legislature, as we alluded to above, is not to stop migration but to restrict labor and social rights of migrants, especially their right and ability to form unions. The anti-immigrant law was accompanied by laws to force poor Americans to accept work without/below the minimum wage in order to preserve certain social benefits. “Workfare” establishes a form of forced cheap labor. It plays the same role as legally and economically insecure immigrant labor. Both act as a reserve army of labor to depress wages and make collective resistance difficult.
This paper has discussed some aspects of the Mexican-US border. The border has been many things: a transitional zone, and invasion route, an open or closed door for labor, capital, and goods. The political border was shifted far south after the Mexico-US war in the 19th century. Now, at the close of the 20th century, the border is dissolving for capital and goods and turning into a porous, militarized wall for labor from the south. We have argued that the seeming contradictions of dissolving the borders as a barrier for capital and goods on the one hand and erecting a porous, militarized wall on the other is not at all a contradiction. What unifies the seeming contradiction is capital’s search for cheap labor on either side of the border. The freeing of capital to produce in Mexico for the North American market has the purpose and effect of ratcheting down labor costs and demands on health and safety. The vast influx of cheap and vulnerable Mexican (and other Latin) labor has the same effect–it both provides cheap labor and exerts a downward pressure on the demands of other labor. The criminalization of undocumented (“illegal”) immigration has the double effect of scapegoating Mexicans for problems of economic restructuring and maintaining Mexican labor in insecurity and precariousness. And, while these measures lower the direct wage bill, the fear of loss of jobs by political jurisdictions leads to increasing hand-outs and tax breaks to corporations. And the maquila arrangement, as we have argued, has amounted to a vast tax dodge. These two sources of tax avoidance–special deals by competing jurisdictions and the maquila arrangement–lead to the decline of tax revenues and the erosion of the income base for the social wage.
Some of these same processes have, of course, taken places within nation-state, e.g. in the shift of industry from the rust belt to the sun belt in the US. But, in the past, the national state has been an actual and/or potential instrument for conditioning the process and mitigating its consequences. NAFTA, GATT, and the proposed Multilateral Agreement in Investment are all aimed at eliminating that potential role of the state within its borders. Thus while the Mexican-U.S. border remains as a line on the map and as a militarized gauntlet for Mexican workers to traverse seeking a living, it is in process of disappearing as a real or potential barrier for capital. Thus while the border is rapidly disappearing in North America for capital and goods, it remains a fundamental fact of life for labor.
- Article 12 of the Mexican Constitution of 1917 put forward the role of the state in creating and maintaining an equilibrium between capital and labor, an equilibrium that would not be produced by the market alone, argued the delegates to the Constitutional Congress. Article 27 reclaimed the nation’s primacy over land and subsoil rights and was the juridical basis for land reform and oil expropriation. Article 27 was changed in 1992 in a neo-liberal manner to foster the break-up of “archaic” ejidos (communal land holdings) and encourage land concentration for export production. Article 123 is presently under review. For discussion of the formation of the Constitution, see Richard Roman, Ideología y Clase en la Revolución Mexicana (México: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1976).
- Maquilas refers to factories in Mexico to which part of the (usually labor-intensive) production profess is farmed out by their U.S. manufacturers. They have sometimes been called twin-plants and were started as part of the Border Industrialization Program between the United States and Mexico. The production is treated as if it were done inside the U.S. and thus exempt from taxes and duties. return to text
- The power of the “maquila lobby” is enormous and, in spite of the obvious need for fiscal reform in Mexico, the opposite has taken place. As Baird and McCaughan have state, “Still another inducement that the Border Industrialization Program offers the transnationals has been a steady diet of tax breaks, and this in a country with the lowest tax rates in the world”(135). The different states within Mexico that host maquilas compete among themselves in offering tax breaks that can last 10-20 years. In 1973, when the maquilas only employed 50,000 workers, they were able to repel a Mexican government attempt to impose a 4% tax on the Mexican components of the final value of the produce. The Mexican court ruled in favor of the companies after an intense campaign by the American Chamber of Commerce, against what they considered to be an illegal measure. NAFTA establishes rules that prevent the Mexican government from imposing taxation on maquilas and sanctions a taxation regime of exemption for companies inscribed in the new out-of-reach territory off Mexamerica, whose legal norms are from those in Mexico, the United States, or Canada. return to text
- Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas. return to text
- From 1994 to 1996, the employment growth by state for the five maquiladora states was as follows: Baja California: from 379,000 to 449,000; Sonora: from 305,000 to 322,000; Chihuahua: from 499,000 to 565,000; Coahuila: from 374,000 to 407,000; and Tamaulipas: from 370,000 to 401,000 (INEGI, Cuaderno de Información Opertuna 84-94). return to text
- The labeling of the undocumented immigrant workers as “illegals” is part of the process of stigmatization and criminalization of vulnerable populations. It creates a popular image of people who are “stealing” jobs and welfare from the American taxpayer, rather than hard-worker and unexploited people, akin to earlier European immigrants. A powerful bumper sticker against this criminalization of workers stated simply: “Ning ún ser humano es ilegal” (No human being is illegal). return to text
- The term “wetback” is a derogatory term used to label Mexicans by U.S. whites, especially in the Southwest. The term refers to an image of Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande River, the border between Texas and Mexico. return to text
- The sentence continues: “and also stimulated efforts toward community defense and undocumented unionization.” return to text
Silva, A; Campbell, H. Colonia-ism and the Culture of the Normals. Latin American Issues [On-line], 14(5).
COLONIA-ISM AND THE CULTURE OF THE NORMALS
Community College of El Paso
University of Texas at El Paso
Since the 1950s the United States/Mexico border has witnessed the sudden proliferation of new settlements which have come to be known as “colonias,” a Spanish word meaning neighborhood. The rapid growth of “colonias” on U.S. soil has spawned keen interest in identifying the conditions which gave rise to these unprecedented social formations.1 This interest in “colonias” by the mass media, academia, and the government has resulted in a specific portrayal and perception.
“Colonias” qua social settlements have been depicted as sites of living conditions not unlike those commonly found in “underdeveloped,” Third World nations. In short, as we will show, “colonias” are now perceived as highly visible poverty pockets dispersed along the U.S./Mexico border with inhabitants who are regionally and ethnically marked. In our view, a relationship has emerged between how “colonias” are socially perceived and the national attention they have received. In other words, the public attention focused on “colonias” on a national scale is directly proportional to the extent to which these communities are viewed as deficient social regions.
The stark contrast between “colonias” and the normative material standards of the surrounding dominant society (SDS)2 has provoked a public discourse whose object is the “colonias”. It is the social meaning of the “colonias” discourse to which we have turned our attention and which is, in our view, grounded in the context of a broader, though largely unconscious, set of “common sense”3 assumptions about “our” contemporary cultural existence in the United States. As we will attempt to show, the emergence of this discursive formation (Foucault) on “colonias” reveals how these communities represent a rupture in an invisible ideological background which functions as the normative common sense structure of the SDS. Thus, when viewed from the context of a society which, despite significant levels of poverty and suffering, hails itself as a highly “developed” country, “colonias” are the antithesis of First World living conditions. For the SDS “colonias” are living symbols of everything that is un-American and, perhaps, even of what is anti-American. “Colonias,” like urban ghettos, now represent in the public imagination social poverty par excellence.
Mainstream society’s need to “develop” colonias is undergirded by what Ferguson calls the “ideology of development,” a set of assumptions, albeit largely unconscious, appropriated by a given society according to which it views itself as having achieved a stage of social and technological development beyond the cultural primitivism which presumably preceded it. Within the broader context of this ideological gestalt, the growing array of textual, verbal, and pictorial portrayals of “colonias” by federal, state, and private agencies has resulted in a new discursive formation which we call “Colonia-ism.” Specifically, Colonia-ism constitutes that corpus of discursivity stemming from descriptions, definitions, and commentaries on “colonias” by the SDS, including the developmental policies and practices they advocate.
Colonia-ism has emerged from two primary conditions: 1) the perception of “colonias” as deficiency sites, and 2) the implementation of “development” strategies putatively designed to remedy such deficiencies. This discourse is composed of a set of themes which can be historically traced to stereotypes attributed to Mexicans as a “racially” distinct group by “Anglos” in the southwestern region of the United States, and in Texas in particular which is our focus here (Montejano). These stereotypes include the idea that Mexicans are “dirty,” that is, that “colonia” populations, sharing a common ethnic origin, are unhygienic and unclean. Given that “colonias” are geographically contiguous to Mexico and thus overwhelmingly populated by “Hispanics”–people of Mexican cultural ancestry–we argue that this ethnic factor has played a role in the social visibility these settlements have acquired in the public imagination.
We contend that Colonia-ism creates, disseminates, and reinforces negative stereotypes of “colonias” and stigmatizes how the people who live in them are perceived by the SDS. In our view, the term “colonia” has itself become a pejorative label connoting a kind of “ethnic poverty,” squalor, and social backwardness. Addressing the issue of the ethnic labeling of the poor, Gans states that “Although most labels for the poor are literally neutral with respect to ethnicity and race, they have actually been meant mainly for immigrants and dark-skinned people in the United States…” (17). Demographic studies concerned with measuring the extent of Hispanic/Mexican presence in “colonias” illustrate this point.4
“Colonias” as Texts
The data for the present analysis were obtained from academic studies, federal agency reports, newspapers, and personal involvement in a “colonias” “development” project. The mode of textual analysis we employed involves identifying the descriptive use of words and phrases applied in “colonia” characterizations. Thus, our approach entailed qualitative content analysis, a method that emphasizes word usage and thematic presence (Wuthnow). Our methodology for understanding Colonia-ism consisted of interpreting the relevant texts in terms of the manifest/latent content distinction developed by Merton. Words and phrases commonly used to describe “colonias” were considered the manifest content of the text, while the broader matrix of meanings which informed them constituted their latent content. Our primary interest lay in identifying the underlying themes of Colonia-ism.
While a different reading of Colonia-ism might suggest that the focus given to economic poverty in “colonias” has been intended to improve life in these settlements, it is not clear there is a beneficial causal link between intention and consequence. On the contrary, we suggest that “colonias” have been stigmatized by a discourse tacitly based on philanthropic sensibilities.
Etiology of Texas “Colonias”5
The proliferation of “colonias” has been the result of a number of economic policies. The lack of affordable (or low-income) housing in Southwestern urban zones has pushed individuals and families beyond city limits in search of inexpensive land upon which to build their homes. Such people typically encountered land “developers” who offered their lands for commercial use.6 Through contracts of deed or sale, land developers have sold land to poor people seeking housing along the border. Under the stipulations of these contractual agreements, land titles do not pass from seller to buyer until the entire cost of the land is paid. Moreover, the seller can repossess the land if even one payment is missed and, until recent reform legislation, owed the buyer nothing for land-improvements made by the initial buyer.
According to an environmental justice case study of “colonias” in Texas, the Maquiladora (or assembly plant) Program undertaken by Mexico in 1965 helped spawn “colonias” in the twin cities located along the U.S./Mexico border. This study traces the genesis of “colonias” in Texas to the early 1920s when Mexicans became a significant percentage of the migrant labor force. Migrants were used to keep American agricultural costs to a minimum. The surplus of cheap labor from Mexico during the 1920s made Mexicans the primary migrant labor force, regardless of their legal status. As a result, the Mexican laborers created an oversupply of farm workers in the U.S. These farm workers, and more recently, workers in maquiladora plants have settled in “colonias” along the U.S./Mexico border. In addition, other “colonia” residents include poor urban dwellers who sought more affordable and desirable living conditions in the outskirts of Southwestern cities.
“Colonias”: Discursive Characterizations
“Colonias” as social sites within U.S. political territory have been defined in various ways by different sources. However, a certain cluster of features has emerged in official and unofficial definitions that provide a thematic unity for understanding “colonias” and colonia-ism. According to a major policy report entitled “Colonias in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas,” a sociological study conducted by the LBJ School of Public Affairs, “colonias” were operationally defined as “poor, rural unincorporated [communities] with 20 or more dwelling units, where home ownership is the rule” (5).7 The report noted that almost all residents were Mexican-Americans. The same report, which focused on water issues and access to sanitary sewage disposal, set the stage for subsequent depictions of “colonias” and as such can be considered a paradigmatic case of Colonia-ism.
In the LBJ School report, colonia residents were referred to as “the poorest of the poor,” and were regarded as having homes which “would be considered substandard by any set of criteria.” Researchers of this study went on to claim that
The colonias are physically isolated from urban areas … Finally, residents of colonias are isolated from urban commercial centers where they might obtain low-cost food, clothing, and other necessities. Besides the physical isolation common to colonias, there is the problem of legal isolation: the colonias are not part of towns and cities and thus cannot benefit from those governmental units’ taxes, nor may they benefit from the many federal and state programs that are administered by towns and cities. Programs aimed at rural areas often are not set up so as to aid the peculiar institution known as the colonia in the solution of its problem…(5).
The report further attributed the “problem of poverty” in “colonias” to six other interrelated sub-problems: low income, poor health, poor education, lack of opportunity, frustration, and alienation. Moreover, “the social milieu formed by the colonia residents and by the physical aspects of colonias is at once the product of these types of problems and also in causing their continuation” (10). In a sarcastic reading, what this report reveals is the tautological claim that “colonias” have problems because they have problems. In a deeper (and more gloomy) reading, “colonias” are regarded as social regions afflicted by the perpetuation of poverty, a condition which Oscar Lewis called the “culture of poverty.” The basic idea behind Lewis’ model of chronic poverty is that underclass poverty tends to perpetuate itself trans-generationally as a result of the values transmitted through the socialization process.
Yet, as Gans has pointed out, the “culture of poverty” thesis may be more of an ideology than a model for explaining trans-generational forms of poverty. This is the case insofar as it posits a direct causal linkage between poverty and culture. Consequently, the “culture of poverty” theory can be interpreted as rendering the poor culpable for remaining poor and thus is a “blaming-the-victim” approach. The “objective,” picturesque descriptions of the kinds of living conditions often found in “colonias” by the LBJ School of Public Affairs report posits a culture of poverty model for explaining the “colonias.”
In addition to the report’s references to the lack of physical infrastructure and abject poverty, “colonias” were identified as contagion sites or as “epidemiological threats” (Gans 88), marked by the common presence of such diseases as viral hepatitis, bacillary, amoebic dysentery and typhoid. Lack of personal hygiene was viewed as a crucial factor responsible for the dissemination of illnesses, and the report stated that “…such diseases may be eliminated… with the introduction of treated drinking water and sanitary sewage treatment [as well as by]…making personal hygiene more convenient” (LBJ 10).
In a research report entitled “Environmental Justice Case Study,” Texas “colonias” were identified as “primarily Hispanic neighborhoods in cities like San Antonio, Texas… which are much less affluent than Anglo or mixed neighborhoods, the word connotes poverty and substandard housing.”8 Texas’ The Office of the Attorney General, which has made it a priority to stop the proliferation of “colonias” along the border, has furnished a more inclusive characterization of “colonias,” describing them as
…unincorporated housing developments that often include illegally built, substandard dwellings that have made millionaires of some developers overnight. It is common for colonias to lack basic services such as water, sewage, electricity, garbage pick-up and paved roads. The conditions lend themselves to the development and spread of Third World diseases.9
While it is clear that some depictions of “colonias” have stressed material conditions, others, including the above, emphasize the prevalence of diseases and ailments associated with “underdeveloped” Third World countries. According to a report issued by HUD: colonias are housing clusters with substandard infrastructures occupied predominantly by Hispanic-American citizens. Colonias are notable by the absence of one or more of the following: paved streets, numbered street addresses, sidewalks, storm drainage, sewers, electricity, potable water, or telephone services.10
In the same vein then-Attorney General Dan Morales addressed the problems generated by “colonias” by invoking a vivid description of physical squalor and nearly subhuman conditions. In an unforgettable passage, he writes:
Imagine a scenario where hundreds of children cannot attend school because the roads by their homes are impassable. Or that these children are so ill from recurring ailments that they continue to miss school over protracted periods of time. The ailments they suffer, such as dysentery, typhoid, diarrhea, tuberculosis, cholera, and even leprosy, keep them out of school and severely hinder their progress in elementary school. It sounds like a story from the Third World, but it’s not. It’s happening right here on Texas soil, up and down the 900 miles of the Texas/Mexico border. The children who live in the colonias, subdivisions that lack basic infrastructure such as potable water and sewage disposal, live in conditions that most of us would consider a public health menace.11
Doubtless, Morales successfully evokes the plight of children who, on a daily basis, are exposed to material conditions many would regard as inadequate or substandard. While concern for children’s safety and wellbeing expressed a profoundly human emotion, it is interesting to note the strong territorial and xenophobic attitudes implied by his statements. Morales’ allusion to the fact that the Third World is “right here on Texas soil” certainly implies that “colonias” represent some sort of aberration to what is deemed culturally “normal” and thus acceptable. The ideological underpinnings of the sort of statements made by Morales are, indeed, not difficult to see.
In another recent article written by the former director of the El Paso City-County Health District, Dr. Laurance Nickey, proclaimed that “colonias” are “…developments without the benefit of water or sewage disposal, many illegal and certainly non-conforming, [which] have evolved on both sides of the Rio Grande and indeed along the entire border.”12 The epidemiological orientation of this article designates “colonias” as dangerous contagion sites typified by the prevalence of Third World diseases. In a similar vein, the University of Texas-Houston Science Center published an article which stated that “Colonias are small, rural shanty-towns on the U.S. side of the Mexican border where diabetes, gallbladder disease and obesity are critical health problems.”13
The recent environmental justice case study alluded to earlier reported that:
The conditions and appearances of the dwellings vary; there are good looking houses, shacks, oddly constructed houses, partially constructed houses, houses moved from other locations and standing on pegs, trailers in good condition and bad. But the appearances of the subdivisions are fairly uniformly bad… Colonia housing differs from typical American slum housing in three ways: most who live in it own rather than rent it, the monthly expense is less, and the living conditions are more primitive.14
Another lietmotif which has surfaced involves the American way of life explanation of “colonias.” Anthropologist Duncan Earle, former director of the Center for InterAmerican and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, wrote that “Colonias are a low-income border family’s American Dream” (Earle and Wang 68). In a recent issue of Buckner Today, an article titled “The Colonias: Living the American Dream” stated that “Colonias originated decades ago as settlements for migrant workers and others who crossed the Rio Grande River looking for a toe-hold on the dream of home ownership.15
An article published by FedDallas reported that “Dilapidated homes, a lack of potable water and sewer and drainage systems, and floodplain locations make many colonias an ideal place for the proliferation of disease. Texas Department of Health data show that hepatitis A, salmonellosis, dysentery, cholera, and other diseases occur at much higher rates than in Texas as a whole…”16
According to a survey of living conditions in the rural areas of South and West Texas conducted by the Texas Department of Human Services, “Conditions in many colonias defy description.” That same report stated that “Already some progress is being made to control the unchecked growth of colonias” (2). In regard to these statements, we might ask, but who is being protected from whom or from what?
As we have seen, much of the discourse concerning “colonias” has centered around the “disclosure” of the social characteristics of “colonia” residents by means of demographic studies. Consequently, a variety of sociological categories have been employed in arriving at statistical pictures of “colonias” and their inhabitants, including such classification schemes as population, family values, languages spoken at home, annual income, ethnicity, educational level, employment characteristics, housing, utility costs, and illnesses. Invariably these categories have been used to emphasize the deficiencies and problems of “colonias.”
But What Are “Colonias”?
The preceding definitions and descriptions of “colonias” are typical examples of Colonia-ism. This corpus of discursivity unequivocally portrays “colonias” as geo-social sites typified by substandard living conditions. Pointing out the value-laden implications of the “development” ideology, Ferguson has shown how “development” as a concept entails at least two distinct meanings, both of which are generally used in an ideological manner. The first meaning equates “development” with the cultural impetus towards a modern, capitalist economy. The second meaning involves alleged improvements in the quality of life and standard of living. In other words, the latter meaning of “development” refers to the reduction or amelioration of poverty and material want (Ferguson 15).
In this case, “colonias” are viewed as lacking physical infrastructure such as potable water, sewage, etc. Because of this lack, “colonias” are considered to be Third World settlements. In short, “colonias” are undeveloped. In the discursive frameworks of many observers, “colonias” are the Third World. It is our contention that this discourse about “colonias” presupposes the ideology of the “First Worldness” of the United States. Thus, to the extent that “colonias” are treated as social regions of underdevelopment, their very presence has engendered a rupture in the ideology of U.S. First Worldness.
In our view, this ideology has become so embedded within contemporary, mainstream U.S. society, that it lies beyond the threshold of critical reflection for most people. Indeed, this ideology constitutes a widely shared Weltanschauung. Specifically, this ideology entails the belief that a certain arrangement of material conditions is indispensable to the kind of living conditions found in a post-industrial, technologically “developed,” First World lifestyle. Such conditions include water hookups, sewage, electricity, paved roads, drainage, and, of course, “standard” housing. In essence, this is a material reversal of the kinds of conditions prevailing in “colonias” before “development.” This reversal comprises the minimal material expectations of a First Worlder and functions as the psychological frame of reference or mental schema constituting the experience and expectation of social “normalcy.”
Here we employ a term used by Goffman in his attempt to understand how “strange” individuals are stigmatized by the larger and more inclusive group he referred to as the “normals,” i.e., “we and those who do not depart negatively from … particular expectations” (5). According to Goffman, people with stigmas “possess an undesired differentness from what we had anticipated” (5). Thus, Goffman’s analysis of stigmatized individuals invokes an us/them distinction, with the former designating those who perceive themselves as belonging to the more inclusive collectivities (the “normal” ones), while the latter designates the social deviants.
In the present context, we argue that Colonia-ism implies the vertical dichotomy drawn by Goffman with the difference that such a distinction operates between groups. We refer to those who, through the general sources of acculturation, have internalized the ideology of First Worldness, as “the normals.” In our view the normals constitutes a trans-class, trans-ethnic category denoting statistical adherence to the ideology of First Worldness. In short, this category designates an exceedingly large, anonymous, and dispersed collectivity of people, i.e., the bulk of the U.S. population.
“Us” and “Them”
We have heretofore argued that Colonia-ism, through physical descriptions, depicts “colonias” as Third World settlements in highly localized geographical regions. An ideological implication behind this collective judgment is that such deplorable living conditions are unacceptable to the ethos of the surrounding and dominant First World culture, that is, these social formations have breached the minimal expectations of the normals.
We suggest that the society of the normals has generated Colonia-ism as a discourse in which “colonias” are interpreted as Third World poverty regions within the First World United States. “Colonias,” then have become the necessary Other against which the normals reinforce their hegemonic sense of cultural normalcy, including the idea that having sewage, potable water, and paved roads constitutes non-primitive normalcy. Moreover, Colonia-ism, is a by-product of the institutions of the normals, since all public descriptions, definitions, statements, and characterizations about “colonias” have been made by “outsiders,” people who are not themselves indigenous to “colonia” settlements.
Insofar as we are inclined to believe that “colonias” are perceived as Other by the normals, it will be helpful to present a theoretical account of how Us/Them dichotomies have operated historically. Edward (Said) has written a seminal account of how the West appropriated the Orient in a xenophobic and colonialist fashion. A similar process has occurred with “colonias,” albeit on a smaller scale.
The normals are the cultural equivalent of the category “European”, while “colonias” are equivalent to the Orient in Said’s analysis. A simple correspondence table can be constructed which represents the three crucial components of this analysis:
The Orient = The Colonias
The European = The Normals
Orientalism = Colonia-ism
Said shows how Orientalism is based on a fundamental dualism: the West and the Orient. Colonia-ism invokes a similar, though unstated social duality: “them” (“colonia” residents) and “us” (the normals).
“Colonias” and Their Social Poverty
It is clear from the discursive cluster of descriptions, definitions, and statements discussed above that one of the themes acts as the primary leitmotif in terms of which “colonias” are viewed in public discourse, and this is lack. What is important to acknowledge is the extent to which features of the ideology of First-Worldness affect how “colonias” qua social formations are constructed through the discourse and its dissemination. To the extent that language shapes public perceptions of social phenomena in, it has political consequences in the Foucaultian sense. In other words, discourse is never just empty language use severed from action; rather, there is only discursive praxis.
As made evident by the discourse outlined above, a myriad of researchers have made “colonias” the targets of their analyses and “colonia” residents have been subjected to interviews, questionnaires, and surveys which have exposed their collective modi vivendi to the normals (i.e., researchers) bestowed with the social authority to embark upon such endeavors. As Foucault would doubtless proclaim, the people of the “colonias,” because they have been socially denuded by scrutinizing practices hidden under the auspices of “harmless” or “benevolent” social research, have been transformed into subjects. This is so to the extent that the normalizing gaze has been set into motion. Adjudications have been made and calculations done, resulting in the notion that “colonias” are geographically visible areas inhabited by people characterized by a material mode of life embedded in an earlier stage of infrastructural primitiveness, of material and social backwardness. Colonia-ism reaches this verdict and expresses it in discursive rhetoric. This rhetoric is itself an exercise in power insofar as it, albeit indirectly, precludes the ability to generate a counter-discourse, that is, one originating from the point of view of the people of the “colonias.”
In the context of Colonia-ism, per Foucault’s notion of panopticism, “colonias” have become socially identifiable collectivities. A natural consequence of this position involves asking the following questions: Who is the gazer and what are the apparatuses through which this gaze operates such that “colonias” have been rendered visible, hence possible objects of knowledge, available for analysis, classification, and social dissection? Insofar as we have invoked the culture of the normals as the dark background against which “colonias” have come into the public light, it is clear that each distinct source of information about “colonias” has produced “vocabularies” (Foucault, Archeology 88-117) of the discursive formation we call Colonia-ism. Universities, federal and state agencies, and newspapers are among the institutions that wield the Colonia-ism discourse. Whether the source of “knowledge” has been a medical report, sociological study, commentary, newspaper article, or philanthropic statement, each source has been an accomplice in the production and deployment of “colonias” as objects of surveillance and ideology.
As we hope to have demonstrated, discourse analysis can reveal much about the political implications of language. In the case of Colonia-ism, we have argued that one dominant world-view or ideology undergirds the depictions of “colonias” as social phenomena, and the ways they are perceived by the surrounding non-colonia society. We have called this the ideology of First Worldness, a perspective expressed through and reinforced by the living conditions characteristic of the surrounding non-colonia society, but generally lacking in “colonias.” The non-colonia society, for which we have adopted the phrase the “culture of the normals,” has been discussed rhetorically to make the reader conscious of that largely invisible but ever-present background of assumptions, values, and perceptions that constitute the schema of hegemonic normalcy, and against which “colonias” are discursively defined.
We are concerned with how the people who live in “colonias” might themselves be imperiled by the implications of Colonia-ism. An obvious implication is that “colonia” residents are viewed as deviants who live in substandard material and social conditions because they are inadequate people. In short, inferior people produce an inferior mode of life. We suggest that Colonia-ism is the result of social perceptions of difference precisely because “colonias” conflict with the ideology of First Worldness. As a result, “colonias” have been stereotyped by the presence of a discourse that has made them visible in terms of their material and social inadequacies. Much of the discourse includes purported concern for the eventual normalization of “colonias” through policies bringing in infrastructure, medical attention, and other services.
The people who live in “colonias” are viewed as constituting a new underclass, but we believe this perspective is theoretically vacuous. Because the sociological literature (Devine and Wright) is replete with analyses of economic forms of poverty, we have refrained from engaging in this type of analysis in the belief that a fresh and uneconomic approach was needed for understanding what “colonias” have come to symbolize. Ironically, this article has not been about “colonias” per se. Sociology has, for too long, been concerned with the detection of deviance and, as a result, “we”–the normal ones–have remained largely invisible to “ourselves.”
The catalyst for this discussion of Colonia-ism was the realization that Alexandro Silva, and his family, grew up in just such “inadequate” living conditions in the poor, rural, outskirts of El Paso, Texas. Lack of such conveniences as potable water, paved roads, and an urban sewer system was part of his normal social background. Despite these material “shortcomings” of his upbringing, in no way did Silva feel abnormal, inferior, or otherwise out-of-place in the face of the normative values of the surrounding dominant society.
- According to a recent study conducted by the LBJ School of Public Affairs of the University of Texas, there are 376,026 people living in 1,526 “colonias” in Texas alone–this figure quoted in http://chud.tamu.edu/chud/colonias/articles/buckner-article2.htm
- In the present context the surrounding dominant society or SDS denotes the numerically dominant non-colonias population.
- The meaning of “common sense” used here is derived from the views of Antonio Gramsci who defined it as, “the conception of the world which is uncritically absorbed by the various social and cultural environments in which the moral individuality of the average man is developed” (Gramsci 419).
- See “Texas Colonias: An Environmental Case Study” (www.ollusa.edu:80).
- This information was obtained from “Texas Colonias: An Environmental Justice Case. ” This source is located on the Internet at www.ollusa.edu/academic/CAS/PHILOSOPHY/cur/p/poldem.htm #OLE-backgrd.
- A recent “60 Minutes” episode documented the perverse collusion between government officials and land “developers” in El Paso, Texas that led to the creation of numerous “colonia” settlements.
- It is interesting to note that poverty and home ownership are included in the same definition of “colonias”.
- This report can be found at the following web site: www.ollusa.edu.
- This description is located at the following: www.oag.state.tx.us/website/texmex/colonias/texmex.htm#colonias
- The source of this quote is: www.oag.state.tex.us/website/news/legalnet/9505nino.tx
- This article is located at www.paho.org/spanish/fep/fep0013l.htm
- The source of this information is: www.uth.tmc.edu/uth-orgs/pub-affairs/uthouston/sep_95/mobile.htm
- The website for this information is: www.ollusa.edu:80/academic/cas/philosophy/cur/q/demog.htm #ole_comp
- The source for this quotation is: http:Hchud.tamu.edu/chud/colonias/articles/buckner-article2.htm
- The location of this information is: www.dallasfed.org/whatsnew/colonias/colonias-issues.htm
Vaquera-Vásquez, S. Wandering in the Borderlands: Mapping an Imaginative Geography of the Border. Latin American Issues [On-line], 14(6). Available: http://sites.allegheny.edu/latinamericanstudies/latin-american-issues/volume-14/
WANDERING IN THE BORDERLANDS:
MAPPING AN IMAGINATIVE GEOGRAPHY OF THE
Texas A&M University
La frontera es… demarcación geográfica, división territorial,
su existencia nos revela otro tiempo, otra época, otro orden.
Y así, la mutabilidad de las cosas.
-Humberto Félix Berumen
In contemporary cultural theory, the metaphor of the Borderlands has become a repository in which all manners of cultural Otherness is contained. The assumption is that “border thinking” posits a contestatory space for emerging cultures; it shapes the concepts of national and cultural authenticity and promotes global and transnational processes. The border has become referred to so often, as Trinh T. Minh-ha notes, that “it already runs the risk of being reduced to yet another harmless catchword expropriated and popularized among progressive thinkers” (2). And yet, the Borderlands metaphor resonates even more at the end of the century, when borders are continually crossed and recrossed.
In focusing on geographic borderlands, more specifically, the borderlands between Mexico and the United States, metaphorical readings often displace the cultural reality of the site in favor of a particular border vision. In cultural discourse on the US/Mexico Borderlands, the dominant inscriptions are most often that of the Chicano and that of a global communal space. The region has been variously encoded as Aztlán–the pre-Columbian mythic past which is the cornerstone of the Chicano movement–and more recently as “Borderlands,” the universal cultural construct representing the encounter of diverse cultures, genders, social classes, and world-views. As observed by Claire Fox, the Borderlands has come to replace Aztlán as “the metaphor of choice to designate a communal space” (61). This favoring of a universal reading of the Borderlands in contemporary criticism tends towards the collapsing of the distinct geographic differences between border regions and the abrogation of the cultural production of writers and critics in that region for an authentication of the border “reality” through a small number of primarily Chicano critics and writers.
In this appropriation of the border, the Mexican perspective is largely silenced; there has been little interest in promoting the vision of the border as viewed from the northern Mexican border provinces.1 As a result, the image of the borderlands that is generally preferred is far removed from the multi-faceted reality of the site, a fact which puts into question the validity of the Borderlands metaphor: To what degree does current discourse on the Borderlands illuminate the border region, and to what degree does it obscure the very region to which much of this discourse is addressed? The present work aims to redress this oversight by focusing on the diverse “imaginative geographies” which arise from the Borderlands. In so doing, the work contributes to the formulation of a more extensive and complete account of border culture in general, and of the US/Mexico border in particular.
From the Borderlands to the Borderlands
Very few places have been subjected to as much verbal abuse as the border between the United States and Mexico.
Rolando J. Romero
Cultural criticism on the Borderlands has created a discursive practice which arises from the meeting of the so-called “First World” with a geographic “Other,” the “Third World.” This type of project, in which a critical field is marked out through a geographic region, is similar to the practice of “Orientalism” critically reviewed by Edward Said. However, where Orientalism becomes a colonialist project by the West to control the East-through a discourse which displaces the geographic differences between the East and West into one single vast imagined territory-Borderlands criticism, and its controlling forces, arises from within the area in question.2Just as Said reads Orientalist works through the “imagined geographies” that the works construct, so too can the borderlands be subjected to a topographical reading. The region that is now the southwestern United States, and formerly Spanish and then Mexican territory, comprises the largest body of work in what we can term a “Borderlands project,” a project which is a discursive field made up of historical chronicles, linguistic documents, artistic and literary works, and distinct political and social realities. This is an ongoing work that has been under construction since the 16th century Spanish chronicles describing the region. However, rather than map the history of this area-such a historical review extends well beyond the purview of this study3 –-the present work presses forward to the twentieth century to note recent formulations of the border as the Borderlands.
This reconfiguration of the border region into the Borderlands is a projection through which various cultural positions are staked out. It is used to invoke hybrid identities as well as configure a sense of home for the Chicano. With the metaphor of the Borderlands, the position of Chicanos in the United States, not just in the Southwest, can also be ventured. Sergio Elizondo asserts:
We understand now the Border between the United States of America and the Estados Unidos Mexicanos; now we would well to consider that Borderlands might be a more appropriate term to designate the entire area over which the Chicano people are spread in this country. In so doing, we would come also to understand that the mere physical extension between the U.S.-Mexico border and, let us say, Chicago, is a fact of human dispersion, and not a diaspora of the Chicano people…. Our migrations north of the old historical border have extended the geography and social fabric of Aztlán northward in all directions; we have been able to expand our communal life and fantasies. (205-206)
There are a number of issues that arise in this citation which inform contemporary Chicano culture: the Borderlands as a region of movement that extends the geography of Aztlán, the relationship to other cultures, and the connection to a fixed place, a home. Chicano culture is posited as a migrant culture, no different from other cultures, Aztlán is not a fixed site, and the Chicano experience is multiple and dynamic. In this position, there is a motioning towards the universal, that is, the negation of a geographic specificity. The citation also lays bare the ways in which the Borderlands has been appropriated in contemporary cultural theory. A reading of recent works on the US/Mexican border leaves the impression that the borderlands of Mexico and the United States are a homogenous region and that it is primarily a Chicano space. This reading most often results in works which promote the borderlands in generalities and encapsulate the border experience into a category of hybrid and largely Chicano acts.
One of the most cited works in this type of configuration is Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La frontera. For Anzaldúa, the borderlands is a critical site of meeting between genders, ethnicities, and social classes: “It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the “normal” (3). Anzaldúa’s work is a personal reflection on life in the borderlands, be they physical (she reflects on the Texas-US Southwest/Mexico border), psychological, sexual, or spiritual. Hers is a call for a border space as a communal living space for marginalized groups. Her Borderlands is also a reconfiguration of Chicano movement concepts, in particular, Aztlán. Where Aztlán served as a symbol of a homeland, an originary terrain, the borderlands represent the multiplicity of the Chicano experience–the region has no real borders. Borderlands/La frontera, is a hybrid work, part theoretical inquiry into the Borderlands, part collection of poetry. The language that Anzaldúa employs is also hybrid as she mixes from Spanish to English to Nahuátl. The structure of the work is built in the interstices, the “intersticios” as Anzaldúa calls the region, the crossroads of the Borderlands.
In configuring the borderlands as a region intersticios, a region of middles” Anzaldúa is also evoking another Aztec trope, that of Nepantla. In “Border Arte,” she reconfigures her borderlands space, foregrounding not merely the notion of dwelling as she does in Borderlands, but further addressing the question of movement inherent in the term Nepantla. In her conception, this term is the “uncertain terrain one crosses when moving from one place to another, when changing from one class, race, or sexual position to another, when traveling from the present identity into a new identity” (110). Pat Mora also speaks of the Borderlands as “Nepantla…. the land in the middle” (5). For both Chicana writers, Nepantla becomes a chronotopic motif, a pre-Columbian inscription in the Borderlands chronotope that Anzaldúa explicitly configures and in which Mora implicitly participates. In appealing to this Aztec conception of limbo, a link to a cultural past is established, and a particular depiction of the borderlands is constructed: the borderlands are generalized into a mythological/metaphorical, and universal, meeting site.
Emily Hicks presents a similar universalist tendency in her work on border cultural production in which she proposes a theoretical “holographic” model for the reading of border writers. In her study, Border Writing. The Multidimensional Text, Hicks suggests that just as holograms can present a three-dimensional simulacrum of an object, offering up the “whole” image, so too does border writing capture the multiple cultural referents into one “holographic plate.” Such writing affords the reader “the opportunity to practice multidimensional perception and nonsynchronous memory” (xxiii). Viewed in this way, border writing is not a definition, but a mode of operation, “an attitude on the part of the writer towards more than one culture” (80). This conception of border writing as a universal practice allows her to consider as examples of “border texts” the works of such writers as Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Franz Kafka, Luisa Valenzuela, and Gina Váldez, among others.4
The borderlands as a universal space also figures prominently in the works of performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña. One of the founding members of the Border Arts Workshop / El Taller de Artes Fronterizos (BAW/TAF), Gómez-Peña revels in the nomadic and the deterritorialized space of the border. His space is the line between Tijuana and San Diego which at one time served as a laboratory for his performance pieces to the nation of what he called the “transterrados,” “los descoyuntados, los que no fuimos porque no cabíamos, los que aúm no llegamos o no sabemos a dónde llegar, o incluso ya no podemos regresar”(389). However, although the border between San Diego and Tijuana was the zone of departure for Gómez-Peña in the 1980’s, the decade of the 1990’s has seen him pack up his border paraphernalia and move far beyond the meeting place of the Californias towards a conception of a global border economy, the New World Border. In doing so, he has also become encoded -by such critics as Homi Bhabha and Néstor García Canclini– as the “authentic” border artist.5 As the consummate migrant in the global borderland, Gómez-Peña presents a vision of the world as a hybridized space, a vast rhyzomatic network in which cultural differences are dissolved: “in fact, there are no longer any visible cultural differences between Toronto, Manhattan, Chicago, Lost Angeles, or México Cida. They all look like downtown Tijuana on a Saturday night” (The New World Border 27).
Inherent in the works discussed thus far is a marking out of a particular notion of space in which the border is spatialized into a universal. The application of the proposed theories is significant, and at once problematic, in that the very border which serves as a convenient point of departure is erased in a universalizing measure that moves well beyond the specific border cultures of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. These authors speak not so much to the borderlands reality as to imagined Borderlands geographies. Nevertheless, their readings have been embraced by contemporary cultural critics as true border representations in an appropriation of the borderlands, which, as Socorro Tabuenca argues, becomes a type of “intellectual colonialism,” “la cual, en ocasiones… da pie para excluir a sus referentes primarios” (“Colonizaje Intelectual”). But the Borderlands as a critical field of study is much more complex and diverse than the collected works of Anzaldúa, Mora, Hicks, and Gómez-Peña.
It merits emphasizing that the metaphorical treatment of the border is not at issue-in fact, alternative metaphorical readings of the borderlands will be proposed herein. What remains at issue is the conceptual essentializing of the border, a complex and highly contested zone. The intent is not to debase the perspectives offered by the aforementioned critics, but rather to position them not as ‘the” border representatives, but as critics functioning within a larger discursive field. Conceived in this way, the Borderlands becomes a dynamic region that is constantly under construction. As such, the method for mapping this space is not singular, but rather multiple.
Binational Border Efforts
La frontera es dual: puente de ida y vuelta.
-Félix Humberto Berumen
While the vision of the border as a metaphor for a hybrid, communal zone may be appealing, it has further advanced the displacement and “invisibilation” of the borderlands reality, and particularly, of northern Mexico. As noted at the outset, and corroborated throughout the present discussion, much of the Chicano cultural discourse has ignored the Mexican perspective.6 If there is a conception of Mexico at all, it is as an echo, a cultural tie in the past-such a trace is evident in the works of Anzaldúa and Mora-or as a zone of poverty and lawlessness, as in much of the media portrayals, the political discourse out of Washington D.C. and Mexico City, and such works as Luis Alberto Urrea’s Across the Wire, in which the author documents the hardships of Tijuana’s lower classes. While the latter work is a powerful testimonial, exposing the terrible conditions of the poor on the border, it also maintains the stereotypical image of Tijuana–and on a larger scale, the perception of the border region–as a zone of corruption.7 A necessary component of the present Borderlands project. then, is the in-depth study of northern Mexican border perspective.
There are a number of problems which arise in taking a binational perspective of the region, for instance, the dissemination of northern Mexican writing and criticism outside and within the border regions. Notwithstanding such difficulties, several binational projects dedicated to the border and studies have taken in the region as a geographic unity. The BAW/TAF, for example, was composed of artists from Mexico and the United States. However, it should be noted that the BAW/TAF was not always a contented binational collective. Several of the Mexican writers rebelled against the border “reality” that the American artists, in particular Gómez-Peña, were presenting. Rosina Conde, for instance, left the workshop because “they wanted to present a border art much different than ours, but this was not the problem since art can be represented in a number of forms. The problem was that they wanted to impose their will. They wanted to turn us into pseudo-Chicano/as, or into a fronterizo/a that did not represent us” (Tabuenca, “Viewing the Border” 164).
One early successful binational encounter was the Primer Festival de Literatura Fronteriza México-Estados Unidos, which took place in 1981 in Tijuana. At this meeting, Luis Leal states of borderlands culture, “en verdad, ambas literatures pueden ser consideradas como dos perfiles de la misma cara…” and that they both examine “las relaciones entre las dos culturas, principalmente con el objeto de llegar a comprenderse mejor exponiendo las diferencias, las causas de los malos entendimientos y lo que cada cultura puede aportar a la otra” (38). His work proposes to view the region not as a homogenous zone, but rather one in which both Mexican and American writers negotiate the borderlands but through different means. It merits noting that this work by Leal is a call for a truly binational study which has yet to be undertaken.
An alternative perspective is offered by Armando Miguélez. In his article, “An analysis of the border as a literary setting,” Miguélez focuses on writers, primarily novelists, from both sides of the border. Though he bases his methodology in Bruce-Novoa’s polemic essay on the space of Chicano literature, and, in so doing, gives primacy to the Chicano perspective, the corpus of works that he discusses includes three Mexican writers.8 In his readings, he notes that due in large part to socioeconomic and cultural factors, the Mexican and Chicano borderlands are developing a common culture. He writes:
The strong impulses of rejection on both sides of the border make this area more and more homogenous, as it turns inward to find a self-definition and to reject in kind, those who reject it. In this way a third avenue is created which is what makes this zone unique, not entirely American and not entirely Mexican, but rather a third party that can claim to be Mexican-American, pocho, or Chicano. (3)
In his naming of this third intercultural border space as “Mexican-American, pocho, or Chicano” reveals once again the way in which the northern Mexican borderlands are subsumed into a Chicano spatiality.
Largely in response to Miguélez, Francisco Lomelí, in his seminal article “En tomo a la literature de la frontera,” posits a vision of the borderlands not only as a third unified space, but as one which is also divergent. As he correctly states, “los pueblos chicano y mexicano funcionan como la cara del otro sin que el primero sea únicamente la ‘otra’ cara del segundo y viceversa. La relación siempre está presente, sólo que cada pueblo se encuentra en vías distintas de tratar con su circunstancia en un ámbito diferente y bajo condiciones variantes” (26). Lomelí sidesteps/circumvents/resists/obviates the inscription of the region under the totalizing view that favors, in the case of Miguélez, the Chicano, and seems to promote the type of binational border study that Leal’s essay calls for. By reviewing criticism from both sides, he is able to discuss the dynamic relationship between the United States and Mexico that exists at the border.
In his work, Lomelí focuses on two perspectives of the border in particular. On the US side, he notes the tendency in Chicano literature to move beyond the border as a limit, to proclaim an interstitial identity, in other words, the border as hybrid, a zone of mestizaje. This type of mestizaje can be manifested in various ways: the Chicano can, “retener su mexicanidad intacta, modificarla, combinarla con otras influencias o transformarla en algo totalmente distinto a lo que conocía en México’ (30). As examples of this type of border mediation, Lomelí mentions the Chicano newspaper, Sin Fronteras, as well as authors such as Miguel Méndez and Aristeo Brito. On the Mexican side, he continues, the border is viewed as a limit between two realities, Mexican and American: simboliza un reto y represents una verdadera amenaza donde se juegan la vida y la muerte, debido a que el pase es menos accesible y mas controlado” (32). Interestingly, he cites as an example of Mexican border writing Murieron a mitad del no by Luis Spota, a writer from central Mexico.9 While it could be argued that at the time that Lomeli’s article was published -1986- there were few northern Mexican writers dedicated to the representation of the border in their work, much more noteworthy is the marked absence of the border as a limit, or even as a presence, in the works of better known northern Mexican writers of the time (e.g. Jesús Gardea, Daniel Sada, or Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo). Perhaps a more fitting and compelling argument in explaining the motive for this selection is that the border as a limit is primarily a central Mexican perception.
Imaginative Geographies of the Border
In the foregoing discussion, we noted the various and diverse border visions elaborated by cultural critics: the border as a universal space, the border as a hybrid zone, the border as a limit. In criticism and literary works from northern Mexico, these visions are seen as operating in tandem, and are further complemented by additional renderings: the border as a line of demarcation, the border as a gateway, the border as a cultural desert, and the border as culturally marginal, each addressed in turn. The aim of the ensuing paragraphs is to address the multiple imaginative geographies of the border.
The border may be read as a line of demarcation, through the prism of transnational cultural negotiations. Such a reading posits an unequal relationship, one of domination and subjugation. Martín Alberto Piña Ortiz, in his study of the border as represented in the works of Miguel Méndez, comments on four characteristics of this relationship. Piña Ortiz notes that not only is the border the demarcation between Mexico and the United States, it is also the limit “prácticamente entre los Estados Unidos y toda la América Latina” (10). It is the border between the “First” and the ‘Third” world as regards political economies, and, as a result, it is a limit between two distinct cultures, “la latina y la anglosajona … las que reciben también el nombre de ‘cultura de la pobreza! y ‘cultura del progreso,’ respectivamente” (10). Finally, it is a border zone in which the cultural interdependence between both countries “se manifiesta como un complejo proceso de intercambio, de asimilación y de contradicciones en todos los órdenes de la vida” (11). For Sergio Gómez Montero, another feature of this border with the United States is that it is, “un límite siempre en peligro, o si se quiere es un límite en tensión continua en donde la presencia avasallante de los Estados Unidos es para México una espada de Damocles desde tiempo atrás” (92-93).
One of the implications of this conception of the border as a line of demarcation is that the northern Mexicans, living on the borderline, can be rendered heroic figures. Heroic in the sense that they are fighting a losing battle in the name of Mexican sovereignty. Víctor Zúñiga sums up this view, “la frontera norte es una trinchera cultural, lo ha sido muchas veces de manera heroíca porque el enemigo cultural es muy poderoso, pero debe seguirlo siendo aunque a veces no cumpla muy bien esta función que la nación le ha encargado” (“lmágenes de la frontera norte” 17). As an example, we can offer Luis Humberto Crosthwaite’s story, “Where have you gone, juan escutia?”. In the story the border is presented as a wall of protection against the invading north. Three soldiers on military leave decide to cross the border to hit the bars and revel in the vices that Tijuana offers. At a bar in the city’s red-light district they hatch out schemes of sleeping with the bar prostitute without paying. Their plans are foiled. as they are knocked out by the one thing they had not counted on: Mexican beer. The next day the three soldiers cross back into the United States, hung over, their wallets stolen, conquered.
Significantly, the story is structured against the national myth of the Niños héroes. Early in the narrative, the narrator states:
Si Winfield Scott, general en jefe del ejército invasor, hubiera entrado por estos rumbos, en lugar de hacerlo por Tamaulipas o Veracruz, tal vez el Castillo de Chapultepec no fuera tan visitado o el xalapeño Santa Anna, fundador de la frontera norte, todavía estuviera en la presidencia (piema de palo sustituida por biónico, made in Japan), hablando sobre el clima capitalino, gozando de salud perfecta. (28)
References abound to the niños héroes throughout the text, and what begins as an all-too familiar scene of the American military on weekend leave in Mexico, is reconfigured into an ironic inversion of a national myth of identity. The story short circuits different mythologies; the niños héroes, the construction of national identity, Tijuana as playground in which everything can be had for cheap or for free, and the border as region ripe for conquest.
Yet, rendering the norteños as national heroes is not the sole reading that can be invoked in this notion. Fabrizio Mejía Madrid, in his 1989 article published in Nexos, “Frontera norte: la línea de tu mano,” compares the borderlands to central Mexico, stating of the former, “parecen construídas de la nada, entre el desierto y el litoral; es el espacio donde lo gabacho reina y el dinero fácil está a flor de tierra” (69). This writer, from the cultural and hegemonic center, presents a specific ideological stance-the border limit must be respected and maintained. But because of the cultural mestizaje that is manifest on the border, the northern Mexicans are not heroes of Mexican nationality; in succumbing to the American aggressor, the northern Mexicans are less Mexican.
In reading northern Mexican writers from the border cities, one comes away with the notion that the border is not so much a limit, but a gateway. In Rosina Conde’s short story “De infancia a adolescencia,” for example, the female protagonist lives in Tijuana, but travels freely between Tijuana and San Diego. Her urban space encompasses two nations. In a related vein, in Federico Campbell’s “Insurgentes Big Sur,” the narrator states of the options on living on the border: “Y uno volvía la vista de un lado a otro, de Los Angeles al DF y viceversa, como en un juego de ping pong. No se decidía uno muy bien hacia cuál de los dos polos dejarse atraer; no quedaba muy claro si las innovaciones en el caló o el bien vestir … procedían de Tepito o del East Side” (170). For this narrator, the option to live in Los Angeles is just as easy as it is to live in Mexico City. He is caught in a ping-pong match bouncing back and forth between both poles. And yet, this perspective of the border offered by these northern Mexican writers is subordinated in the process of intellectual colonialism noted in foregoing discussion.10
In treating the border as gateway, Francisco Hinojosa writes that northern Mexico is “una suerte de limbo cultural donde nada es nada sino apenas un poquito de todo” (32). The implication is that northern Mexico is not any one thing but a multiplicity of them. This reading focuses on the border in relation to not only Mexico but also the United States. That is, it positions the border region in the interstice and as such, the border is remapped as a bridge which gathers and links the diverse cultures.
Still, for the northern Mexican critic, the issue is not simply the conception of the border with the United States, but the relationship of the northern provinces with the cultural center, Mexico City. For as often as the northern Mexican borderlands are defined against the Chicano borderlands culture of the southwestern United States, they are also examined with reference to the central hegemonic culture of Mexico City. Among those engaged in this latter enterprise, one finds critics such as Félix Humberto Berumen and Leobardo Saravia Quiroz, who focus on the decentralization of Mexican culture in the 1970s. Saravia Quiroz has noted how “el centralismo ha sido una realidad que define ámbitos, líneas de conducta y realidades específicas…” (46). In this type of cultural reality, he argues that it is not possible to study northern Mexican border culture in relation to culture on the other side of the border (46). Articulating the border region in this way leads to two other forms of mapping the border, as cultural desert and as culturally liminal.
In mapping the border as a cultural desert the relationship that is stressed is not between nations but between the North and its placement within a national cultural identity. That is to say, what can the North add to Mexican cultural history. The Mexican North is a desert because it is lacking in cultural history and resources; it is lacking in cultural models. As northern Mexican writer Daniel Sada once stated, “en el norte, a diferencia del sur, no hay paisaje; todo se afiora, bay que imaginarlo todo” (Torres 119). Ignacio Solares in a similar vein states, “tenemos que inventarnos nuestro Lope de Vega y nuestro Balzac, nuestro Siglo de Oro o nuestro Surrealismo. Todo está por hacerse” (Zúñiga, “lmágenes de la frontera norte” 18).
As cultural desert, the border region can represent either a space of negativity or of potential.11 In one sense, the border as desert presents northern Mexico as a cultural wasteland, officing little way of a cultural life. As Zúñiga summarizes, “la idea de desierto es una imagen que impide al artista fronterizo la observación de las tradiciones culturales regionales y el díalogo con ellas. Si el desierto es sinónimo de carencias, el artista es conducido a sentirse solo, produciendo desde la nada” (“Imágenes de la frontera norte” 18). However, in another sense, viewing the desert as a space of potential, Sada’s observation on the northern deserts implies a more positive reading of the north: landscape may not exist in the north, but it can be imagined. To imagine a landscape is to fill it with a sense of purpose. As Severino Salazar states of the Mexico’s northern desert, “es un sitio tan enigmático e incommensurable que cualquier historia puede caber en él” (Castro 8) Though the artist may be producing in a cultural vacuum, the artistic production contributes to the construction of a cultural history of a region. As examples, we can turn to the writings of such northern Mexican writers as the aforementioned Sada, Jesús Gardea, and Eduardo Parra, among others, to see how they are adding new and distinct voices to the landscape of contemporary Mexican literature.
In mapping the border region as culturally marginal, the relationship between the center and the periphery is foregrounded. In this conception, the north is marginalized because the center has abandoned it. Humberto Félix Berumen states, “en su doble vertiente de provincia y frontera, desarraigo y abandono, Baja California ha sido por décadas un punto más en la vasta geografía de rezagos nacionales. Una de tantas regiones condenadas a la inercia cultural” (21). Here the emphasis is placed on the relationship between the North and the cultural hegemonic center, Mexico City. The spectre of centralism raises its head, as the North is effaced in the national narrative. What the center returns to the periphery is a transplanted history.
Allied with the concept of centralism is also that of decentralism. The 1970’s witnessed the rise of literary workshops in the northern provinces, and the subsequent foundation of universities and cultural institutions which sprang up around them. The federally subsidized program to institutionalize the literary workshops was viewed as politically motivated. Francisco Luna suggests that the interest in the literary culture of the northern provinces arose from the obsession of the Mexico City authorities to “reforzar el fardo romántico de la identidad nacional” (79). It could also be argued that the motive for the federal policy of decentralization is the protection of the border. That is, federal funding of cultural institutions is akin to a “cinturón de castidad a la nacionalidad que enmascara lo autóctono y lo patriotero … en una suerte de provincianismo y autoencierro para resguardamos de la influencias extranjera” (80).
Borders are danger zones, it is on the border that the notion of a homogenous national identity is rendered an illusion. Those who live in the borderlands are a threat to an “official” culture -represented in the rhetoric of national symbols-, both on the American as well as on the Mexican side. The maintenance of the border is just as important for Mexico as it is for the United States, even in the age of NAFIA. In noting the decentralization of the culture that arises in Mexico since the 1970’s, on the one hand we can speak of centrifugal forces at play in contemporary Mexico. However, as noted above, this cultural decentralization begins at a federal level. How centrifugal can the culture be, then, if it is the center which is promoting the rise of regional literatures?12 The institutionalizing of decentralization by the Mexican federal government can be read as a stratagem or device of a “border machine.” The border machine, as proposed by Deleuze and Guattari, functions as an organ of the official power, hence it is a part of a much larger state apparatus whose goal is to set limits on its national borders. Yet, this machine, as an organizing machine is resisted by the chaotic border itself. Conveyed within the framework proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the borderlands region can be viewed as a smooth space, a “body without organs” which resists the organization of border machines because it “experiences them as an over-all persecuting apparatus” (9). Deleuze and Guattari state that “in order to resist organ-machines, the body without organs presents its smooth, slippery, opaque, taut surface as a barrier”(9).
The imposition of a border machine implies the creation of border subjects who are subordinated to it. The machine attempts to reign in the subject by placing prohibitions on the border. Examples are readily observed in efforts to close off borders, in the strengthening of border patrols, and-in the case of Mexico-by the imposition of a national homogenous culture centered on national myths, and by the aforementioned policy of “official” decentralization which has, as of yet, not set into place an infrastructure for cultural diffusion across the northern Mexican border region.13
The Wandering Border
Me estoy desmexicanizando para mexicomprenderme.
-Guillermo Gómez Peña
In these last two maps for reading the northern Mexican borderlands what is at issue being situated against the border, relegated to the margins of national cultural discourse. In viewing northern Mexico as desert or as marginal does not deny a Mexican nationality, but rather promotes a distinct recontextualization. That is to say, that there is not one Mexico, but many Mexicos.
The four maps that result from the readings of the border outlined here trace the different ways in which cultures move along borders. Yet these “imaginary geographies” traced here are not the only possibilities. The ensuing discussion maps another border geography through the conception of dwelling and wandering. This imaginary geography, admittedly metaphorical, posits a reading of a border consciousness that travels between many different discursive zones: Mexico City, the border, the borderlands, the United States, the rural, the urban, the postmortem, the normal and paranormal, to note a few. In participating in these diverse cultural practices, border culture resists and subverts national hegemonic consciousness, from Mexico and from the United States. The resultant “doubled” code-being a part of the national culture while also standing against it-is structured into cultural artifacts, affording the requisite migrant sensibility for negotiating the open, ambiguous nature of the border. In reading the border as a zone of itinerancy, the perspective is placed on the border itself, as marginal and liminal space.
Border culture “wanders” in the sense that being in the space between countries produces a diversity of cultural effects. Sergio Gómez Montero proposes four structural axes–or dimensions–for studying border cultural production: borderization, intertextuality, vanguardism, and biculturalism-bilingualism (96-98). As culturally specific strategies produced by marginalized communities they express “la necesidad de tomar distancia de la tradición heredada de sus predecesores y a la vez recordarla…” (149). Each one of these structural axes can be analyzed separately as a line of flight to study a text, and each one can be a study in itself: not all of them will always be present in a border text.
These hybrid strategies are also characteristic of liminal cultural identities. As pointed out by Lauro Zavala: “Las culturas liminales, debido a su condición histórica consciente de sí misma, tienden a hacer un uso carnavalesco de las tradiciones y de las fronteras tradicionales, ya sea en términos geográficos, culturales, históricos o politicos, o bien en términos estrictamente lingüisticos o literarios” (149).
This cultural hybridity –especially prominent in the works of such northern Mexican writers and critics as Regina Swain, Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz, and Leobardo Saravia Quiroz, among others–articulates a border culture that is created through migrant practices.
To focus on one example, we can turn to the different conceptions of the border in the stories of Luis Humberto Crosthwaite. Crosthwaite, a writer born in Tijuana in 1962, constructs border stories which not only subvert questions of Mexican national culture but also undermine the notions of cultural sovereignty through the use of parody and irony. The story mentioned above, “Where have you gone, juan escutia” offers one representation of the border. In another, “Marcela y el rey al fin juntos en el paseo costero” the border is positioned as merely an imaginary line. In the story, Marcela is a young woman who works in a maquiladora and feels marginalized within the city. Her displacement from Tijuana is so great that she spends most of her time on its limit, at the beach where she walks. El rey is Elvis, lost in Tijuana and trying to make it back to Las Vegas. He too is marginalized by the city and is forced to wander along the beach. Occasionally he arrives at the border where he is greeted by a large sign: “HEY TÚ. ¡PRECAUCIÓN! ESTAS ENTRANDO A LOS ESTADOS UNIDOS DE AMÉRICA, EL PAÍS MÁS PODEROSO DEL MUNDO. ¡NO LO HAGAS!”(19).
When Marcela and el Rey meet for the first time they realize that they share a common bond in being marginalized by the city. They walk along the beach, talking until they arrive at the border. Without thinking, Marcela decides to cross “el famoso límite que llaman ‘La frontera,’ conocido en otros lugares como la línea de crucecitas dibujada en todos los mapas y que nos enseñan a respetar en la primaria”(20). Elvis follows and soon after so does the border patrol, followed by helicopters with strong searchlights. The couple does not notice, Elvis feels as if he is in a concert illuminated by spotlights and begins to sing to Marcela. Shots are fired to no effect. The couple keep walking because, “la gente tonta nunca comprendió que ni ellos ni sus pistolas existían para Marcela y el Rey, que eran, como la frontera, sólo cruces pequeñas en un mapa quemado hace mucho tiempo” (21). The story lays bare a different border consciousness. When Marcela and el Rey cross the border they cross it out, in effect stepping into another space. In this interstitial space nothing can affect them.
Crosthwaite’s stories are hybrid cultural mixes, and, as such, are representative of a type of writing from the borderlands. In viewing his writing through the prism of wandering, we can see how texts such as these are constantly shifting systems of signs in which the conditions of migrancy and exile are foregrounded. Migrancy and exile, the condition of the border writer who inscribes him- or herself into the border. What needs to be noted is that Wandering does not imply aimlessness, but rather a process of becoming. More specifically, we can focus on Wandering as a deterritorializing strategy. That is, to wander is not to reterritorialize oneself on aimlessness, but rather to deterritorialize the notion of a fixed dwelling. The identity that arises is not one based on territory, rather, the border identity that is proclaimed is fragmented, forged between national cultures, in a migrant movement that is situated in the limen.
“Being in the ‘beyond,'” as Homi Bhabha so aptly states, “is to inhabit an intervening space” (7). The border subject who moves through the smooth space of the borderlands is deterritorialized and transformed in a process not unlike the transition rites surveyed by cultural anthropologist Victor Turner. Transition rites are marked by three phases: separation, margin (limen), and reaggregation (232). In the second phrase, the liminal period, “the state of the ritual subject (‘the passenger,’ or ‘liminar’) becomes ambiguous, neither here nor there, betwixt and between all fixed points of classification…” (Turner 232, emphasis added). Turner further describes people who are not ritual subjects, liminars, but who, like them, are in a liminal state. He calls these types “marginals, “people who “are simultaneously members (by ascription, optation, self-definition, or achievement) of two or more groups whose social definitions and cultural norms are distinct from, and often opposed to, one another” (233). These marginals are different from the liminars in that the latter are moving to a higher plane (reaggregation, the third phrase) while the former have no cultural assurance of such a movement. 14
This “betwixt and between” state of the ritual liminar and the marginal is that of the border dweller: the border is the seam with “the unmentionable,” the borderlands are the liminal region of “the beyond.” Of course, these observations beg the question of the possibility of inhabitance in the undetermined zone which is the borderlands: Can one speak of dwelling in this vague and itinerant region? For Martin Heidegger, dwelling is essential to the human condition.15 It is arrived at through the construction of place, which is evoked in the notions of identity, relations, and time. Identification with a place is one means of constructing identity. According to Marc Augé, “to be born is to be born in a place, to be ‘assigned to residence.’ In this sense the actual place of birth is a constituent of individual identity” (53). Kent Ryden also states, quite correctly, that “if we feel that our present lives are inextricably bound to our pasts-that our lives have historical continuity, that we are the products of our past experiences-and if we tie memory to the landscape, then in contemplating place we contemplate ourselves” (3940). He notes that the language of identity is commonly spatial; we identify with our geography: Mexican, Californian, Southwestern, Tijuanense, etc.
Moreover, a place always adjoins others, it is “an instantaneous configuration of positions” (de Certeau 117). As such, there are relations that are always functioning between places, and there is a shared identity that results from the common occupancy of adjoining sites. Following Augé, “the rules of residence which assign the child to his position (usually with his mother, and therefore also with his father, his maternal uncle or his maternal grandmother) situate him in an overall configuration whose inscription on the soil he shares with others” (54). When identity and relations are combined, place then becomes historical. By inscribing our identities into a place, setting roots, we are arriving at a sense of a place.
Yet, the case for dwelling as rootedness in the migrant borderlands is a difficult one to make. As a region of movement and of tension, the borderlands seem to better reflect more the characteristics of the non-place. As proposed by Augé, the relationship between place and non-place would be that between the point and the line. A place is fixed, the non-place is the movement between places. The non-place is ahistorical, just as it also displaces identity and relations (Augé 78). Itinerancy is a necessary condition for the non-place. This idea of itinerary, of the effect of passing through, is central for Marc Augé’s concept of the non-place:
Los no lugares estarán en el sitio donde pasamos el menor tiempo posible. Imagino que existen no lugares por excelencia, como los grandes hoteles intemacionales donde, sin duda, la mayor parte de la gente no tiene la ocasión incluso de poner un pie. Si se pone un pie es para ver este espacio muy particular donde se puede hacer creer que se está en, y con el mundo entero, pero lo que domina es el efecto de pasar. (Winocur 41)
One dwells in a place, but one wanders in a non-place. Yet, this becomes a tricky division in relation to the borderlands if we conceive of them as a non-place.
Rather than an issue of dwelling in the borderlands, perhaps it is more appropriate to speak of wandering in the borderlands. Here we can turn to Blanchot and Benjamin, two critics who, according to Gabriel Josipovici, argue that “exile, lack of rootedness, is man’s essential condition” (16). Note that this conception of man’s condition need not contradict Heidegger’s similar assertion on dwelling. One need only assume, as proposed here, that dwelling and wandering may be linked: dwelling-as-wandering. Such an assertion finds confirmation in the works of James Clifford.
In his essay, ‘Traveling Cultures,” Clifford develops an ethnography in which the notions of dwelling and travel are comparatively analyzed: “If we rethink culture and its science, anthropology, in terms of travel, then the organic, naturalizing bias of the term culture–seen as a rooted body that grows, lives, dies, etc.–is questioned. Constructed and disputed historicities, sites of displacement, interference, and interaction, come more sharply into view” (101). In fact, one could argue further that the problems of living in a constantly changing space render dwelling and travel inextricably linked. In the infinite journey of the border dweller, dwelling is wandering. Thus, in mapping the border as a zone of itinerancy, wandering becomes the central issue in the discussion of place and identity. This relation implies a mediation between the self and the “Other;” it is a dialogical ethics that is constructed in the approach to the “Other.” In approaching the border, we are also, in a sense, approaching ourselves.
It can be argued quite correctly that this migrant practice can serve as a model in other cultural discourses, for example in the discourse surrounding identity politics in the age of postmodernity and globalization. However, in focusing on the cultural production in the borderlands, such a perspective can be a useful tool for analysis for it participates in both a local and global perspective. In regards to a larger Borderlands consciousness, the migrant perspective is merely another facet of a cultural discourse in which many participate, shifting constantly across borders
In the analysis of the Borderlands, it is necessary to remember that the border is not just one, it represents a different face for different people. To quote, Luis Alberto Urrea, “there are … many Mexican borders, any one of which could fill its own book” (9). In the construction of the Borderlands there will be many maps drawn, some will more closely allied to the region than others. The geographies traced here are just some of the possibilities of a complex and heterogeneous region that offers up a diversity of itineraries in a mapping that will continue, because, as Luis Humberto Crosthwaite writes in a recent story, “es algo natural, cosa de todos los días.”
- This is not to say that criticism from northern Mexico does not exist. There is interest in the cultural production of the border region by northern Mexican critics, however this work is often overshadowed by American and European cultural critics. Critics as Socorro Tabuenca in Ciudad Juarez, and Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz and Humberto Félix Berumen, in Baja California attest to the strength of the cultural scene in northern Mexico.
- This “imagined” borderlands that is constructed in Borderlands discourse can also be seen as a function of a vast organizing border “machine,” as will be discussed.
- See Bruce-Novoa’s “The US-Mexican Border in Chicano Testimonial Writing” for a historical trajectory of crónicas from the borderlands.
- Notably absent from Hicks’s study is Anzaldúa’s seminal borderlands work Borderlands/la frontera; Anzaldúa and her work are mentioned twice in passing.
- See for example, Bhabha’s Locations of Culture, and García Canclini’s Culturas híbridas. María Socorro Tabuenca notes that the latter critic’s work on hybrid cultures focuses on Gómez-Peña’s, work to the exclusion of other writers and artists from Tijuana, in positing Tijuana as the representation of “‘the’ hybrid space” (‘Viewing the Border” 153).
- To illustrate, the Spring 1997 issue of Review: Latin American Literature and Arts is dedicated to Latin American and Latino culture at the border. Though there are some Chicano writers mentioned, there are no critics or writers from northern Mexico discussed.
- The aim here is not to demean Urrea’s important work, but rather to illustrate that personal border portrayals such as these run the danger of being read as faithful representations of border reality, rather than what they are: documents which chronicle a particular experience of the border.
- However, it should be noted that of these three writers, only two -Oscar Monroy and Marco A. Jerez- are from northern Mexico.
- One possibility for this choice could be the theme of the border in Mexican literature, but this is, then, quite a different thing than literatura fronteriza.
- Citing Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Gloria Anzaldúa as examples, Tabuenca warns of cultural critics, primarily from the southwest, who appropriate the borderlands to present authentic border realities, or who are authenticated by other critics as “the” borderlands representative.
- The desert symbolically represents a space of absence. But it is also a space of potential in that to be in the desert is to not merely be apart from the world but also to be free of its demands.
- Another question that can be asked is, if not the federal government then who? There is little history of transregional cooperation, and the various Casas de la Cultura in the northern cities promote primarily their own writers and critics. The problems at arriving at creating a transregional cultural awareness run from geography (mountains, deserts, coasts) to the lack of an infrastructure that allows for discourse across the northern border states. Distribution of literary works by regional writers is also a notable problem. Whereas in the United States there exist a number of small presses dedicated to the diffusion of Chicano writers, there are few small presses in northern Mexico. Luis Humberto Crosthwaite has recently begun a small press, Yoremito, dedicated to publishing northern Mexican writers, to date there have been four books published, with three more coming at the beginning of 1998. But funding remains uncertain.
- There have been moves to rectify this situation. In November, 1997, there was a meeting held in Ciudad Juárez with this topic in mind. Over the course of two days, a number of literary critics and writers from northern Mexico proposed different methods for the distribution of regional works across the borderlands region. This brings up another result of the imposition of a border machine. Following Deleuze and Guattari, some of the effects of the machine–rendering its operation difficult–are hybridization, mixing, and worse, exchange. We can offer up examples as the aforementioned conference in Juárez, Yoremito,and the cultural magazine, San Quintín 106. Of course these efforts always run the risk of disappearing -primarily through financial difficulties- but they offer strategies to subvert a system of domination and control.
- Turner offers migrant foreigners, “second-generation Americans,” persons of mixed ethnic origin, parvenus (upwardly mobile marginals), the déclassés (downwardly mobile marginals), migrants from country to city, and women in a changed, nontraditional role’ as examples of marginals (233).
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Article II – Films Cited
- El Ranger y el mojado. Dir. Jorge Manrique. Perf. Guillermo Rivas, Chuti Rodríguez, and Carlos Poulot. Script Jorge Manrique. Production Miguel Angel Martínez Producciones.
- Alicia en el país del dólar. Dir. Benito Alaraki. Perf. Maribel Fernández, Jorge Ortiz de Pinedo, Leticia Perdigón, Carmen Salinas, and César Bono. Script Miguel Sierra, adapted by Benito Alazraki. Production Televicine S.A. de C.V., 1988.
- Mojado… pero caliente. Dir. Rafael Portillo. Perf. Lalo El Mimo, Polín, and Angélica Ruiz. Script Rafael Portillo and Jeff Spielman. Production MGS Films Inc. 1989.
- Supermojado. Dir. Jon Michael Bishop. Perf. Héctor Kiev, Ana Luisa Peluffo, and Raól Padilla. Script Héctor Kiev. Production Producciones Aguila de Oro, 1992.
- El Tratado me vale… Wilson. Dir. René Cardona III. Perf. Luis de Alba, César Bono. Fernando Saenz, Alfredo Pelon Solares, and Valeria Palmer. Script Alonso Ortiz Lora. Production Video Producciones de Tijuana, 1995.
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