The Fungibility of Borders
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Nepantla: Views from South 1.1 (2000) 171-190



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Essays

The Fungibility of Borders

Mary Pat Brady *


South American cocaine cartels have transformed this desert town [Nogales, Arizona] and other seemingly bucolic points along the cactus-dotted Mexican border into international drug passageways that now rival those of South Florida.

—“Drug Rings Turn Border into a Vast Route to U.S.:
Drug Rings Reopen Ancient Lanes,”
New York Times, 27 August 1989, A1

A 62-year-old federal-agent-turned-rancher, who, like the others in the room, refused to be identified for fear of reprisals, summed up the desperation. After months of digging surveillance bunkers, plotting aerial maps and patrolling his property by pickup, he concluded: “It’s we private citizens who have upheld the integrity of the border… and we can’t do it anymore. We’re losing America.”

—“Texas Border Ranchers Decry Drug Smugglers,”
Los Angeles Times, 7 July 1996, A11

While anyone familiar with Chicano/a history might stop to wonder where the New York Times got the notion that border towns could ever be characterized as “bucolic‚” they might also realize that this characterization is just one example of a number of ongoing efforts to recast the border within the national cultural imaginary. This particular rendition claims that the “war on drugs” has brought the border into modernity‚ a modernity framed by automatic weapons, x-ray equipment‚ and the shrinking margins of legality. No longer the “bucolic” frontier‚ no longer the threshold for the “advancing kingdom of God‚” the border signifies a locus of terror‚ the staging ground for contamination of the pure inner reaches of “America.” The nostalgia for a “bucolic” border‚ cut by “ancient” footpaths‚ similarly suggests a nostalgia for an earlier period of nation building.1 But more importantly‚ it implies that it is necessary to [End Page 171] construct a notion of the border as formerly nonviolent‚ as formerly content‚ whose former “integrity” is only marginally upheld by “private citizens.” Such a construction not only stabilizes the idea of the nation by invoking a crisis, but also heightens the reliability of the current narrative which suggests that now the border, and by extension‚ the nation‚ is under siege: “We’re losing America.”

While describing Texas ranchers’ anger over the transformation of land management along the U.S.-Mexico border‚ the Los Angeles Times quotes a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who compares the border to the Maginot Line and a U.S. special agent who compares the ranchers to “the last Americans in Vietnam on the embassy roof.” The ranchers are angry not simply because the border zone has become in their eyes something of a free-trade zone for the narcotics industry, but also because that industry has been rapidly buying property on both sides of the border. And hence the border has been transformed into a “dark zone‚” an America “lost‚” as one Border Patrol agent puts it‚ to the “doggone dopers” (A11).

If the Mexico-U.S. border has become a popular focal point for journalists and the publishers of coffee-table books‚ the concept of borders has similarly gained a currency that enables it to perform a variety of theoretical labors; it functions, for example‚ as a term to describe a personality disorder (“borderline”)‚ the effects of navigating multiple subjectivities‚ the liminal space between binary categories‚ or the potential complexities of relationships where difference is central to the narrative of those relationships.2 As Claire Fox (1999‚ 119) notes‚ the border in much cultural theory “is rarely site-specific. Rather‚ it is invoked as a marker of hybrid or liminal subjectivities‚ such as those that would be experienced by persons who negotiate among multiple cultural‚ linguistic‚ racial‚ or sexual systems throughout their lives. When the border is spatialized in these theories‚ the space is almost always universal.”

Although despatialization and universalization are frequently the fate of spatial metaphors (Smith and Katz 1993)‚ analyzing the theoretical uses of border can be revealing‚ less because of a pretense to universalism than for how they allow us to see what borders “do.” That is...