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  • The Border Between Us:Contact Zone or Battle Zone?
  • Louis Mendoza (bio)

The language of critique is effective . . . to the extent to which it overcomes the given grounds of opposition and opens up a space of "translation"; a place of hybridity, figuratively speaking, where the construction of a political object that is new, neither the one nor the Other, properly alienates our political expectations. . . .

—Homi Bhabha, "The Commitment to Theory"

The border as metaphor has become hollow. Border aesthetics have been gentrified and border culture as a Utopian model for dialog is temporarily bankrupt. But the border as a region of political injustice and great human suffering still exists. The border re-Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 40, Number 1, Spring 1994. Copyright © by Purdue Research Foundation. All rights to reproduction in any form reserved. mains [End Page 119] an infected wound on the body of the continent, its contradictions more painful than ever; its supremacist groups still hunting migrant workers as sport; its vigilantes pointing their car lights south; its helicopters and police dogs terrorizing Mexican and Central American peasants who come to feed this country. Sadly, the border remains unchanged.

—Guillermo Gómez-Peña, "Death on the Border: A Eulogy to Border Art"

Metaphors abound in literature about the U.S.-Mexico border. It has been called a desert, a scar, a scab, a wasteland, a laboratory of the human condition, a war zone, a tortilla curtain, and a geopolitical wound, among other things. These metaphors reflect the range of attitudes about this international boundary line as either a place of pain, a site of violence, neglect and waste, or an uncontrolled "free" zone of capitalist activity, poverty, and vice, and as a gateway for human traffic into the "land of opportunity." In popular discourse on the border, its residents and migrants are often reduced to stereotypes born from a media-generated hysteria. These people are "terrorists," "drug smugglers and dealers," "international criminals," or, as one editorialist put it in 1988, they are "the dregs of the earth and certainly the enemies of freedom" (San Diego Union, qtd. in Joselit 122).

It is difficult not to use metaphors when talking about the U.S.-Mexico border. Plain, descriptive, everyday terms seem inadequate and inappropriate for articulating the lived material, cultural, and social reality that has emerged around and across this international boundary. Despite the difficulty of "translating" border experience, in the last decade a vast border discourse has emerged whose primary vehicle is language, although many multi-media presentations, particularly those of visual and performance artists, also use imagery to deliver a message about the border. From the hallways of academia, where border studies programs are being rapidly developed throughout Southwestern institutions of higher education, to the offices of legislators and lawyers, who address the tangible human dimension of the consequences of migration and predict or strategize about the benefits or liabilities of free trade, to the streets, where artists and activists from both ends of the political spectrum [End Page 120] attempt to influence public opinion, the border has come to occupy a preeminent place in the national conscience.

This essay brings together works from various narrative and discursive sites and disciplines in order to map out the border as a site of exchange, negotiation, subversion, and violence. The books reviewed here were chosen because they challenge popular wisdom about the people, the culture, and the economy that characterize both sides of the border. In the context of the recently approved econo-centric North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a reading of these texts offers a way to register and mark the emergence of other multinational alliances, including the creation of specialized institutions and bi-national organizations responding to the discourse of cultural and economic development. Many of these texts reveal the failure of NAFTA to take into account the human realities of borders—the particulars of cultural, economic, and social exchange that occur daily. Taking the social and political nature of the border as their subject, the writers, artists, academics, and activists addressed in this review of border narratives have configured the border in a variety of ways. Some of these writings are efforts to speak...


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