- All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands by Stephanie Elizondo Griest
While reading the last paragraph of Stephanie Elizondo Griest's All the Agents and Saints, a spare but succinct sentence popped out among the text's generalizing closing remarks: "In a word, a borderline is an injustice" (p. 274). For someone on the precipice of having to synthesize a well-researched, intriguing, and deeply affecting memoir (or compendium of "dispatches") into a takeaway for JLAG readers, this appeared to me as something of a summary statement. It remains so after having thought about it more. After all, this is a book about two far-separated US borderland regions, South Texas and the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory in northern New York/southern Canada, and how borders weave themselves into those people and places. To geographers, an acknowledgement that borders do not just delineate territories but also inscribe injustices in the form of violence, racism, and divisions—whether they be political, familial, or mental for the people who live along them—rings true. This notion fits with contemporary constructions of international borders in academic literature.
What gives this book a unique angle on the "borders are unjust" theme is the humanity and personality of Elizondo Griest's borderlands exploration. The author's specialty is creative non-fiction and her richly depicted vignettes are built from the landscapes she sees, the people she interviews, and participant observations, all situated in thoroughly researched backstories. This book, while adequately touching on the conceptual issues of territory, hybridity, and transnationalism, adds an emotional depth and human side that isn't as apparent or appropriate in more standard academic journal articles on border life. These "dispatches" provide the reader with armchair insight into the cultural and environmental struggles that borders generate.
Structurally, All the Angels and Saints is best described as a cohesive selection of stories divided into thematic categories (e.g., border identities, contraband trade, policing, spirituality, undocumented migration, death, and environmental injustice) divided further into two parts geographically. The first part of the book covers South Texas, a sometimes nebulous regional designation that here means drawing a line from Corpus Christi west to Laredo and heading south to the Río Grande Valley metro area. (Side note: the maps that help define the regional foci in this not-overtly geographical book are excellent and should serve as an inspiration for similar texts.) The author's selection of South Texas isn't merely academic; Elizondo Griest is a native Corpita(o), a geographical appellation for someone from Corpus Christi, who after years of living away reengages with the material and mental space of her home region and the US-Mexico border. Themes explored in this section include spiritualism, activism, environmental injustice, the drug [End Page 251] trade, border patrol, and the Wall (both extant and proposed), ending in coverage of the border-produced violence of migrant exposure deaths. The author ties these stories together to really give a "this is how people live and die here" sense of place amid a sober, balanced treatment of all the actors on both sides of the border and laws it bounds.
The second half (really the latter two-fifths) takes the reader to the less-often mentioned US border with Canada, but throws in an indigenous territorial twist. This latter part covers Elizondo Griest's experiences when she was a visiting professor living near the Mohawk Nation's Akwesasne Territory that straddles the St. Lawrence River in New York State, Ontario, and Quebec. Narratively, the entire book is a study of border parallels, be they latitudes or adaptations to life in liminal spaces. Where the first part deals with trans-border individual human rights through examples of human trafficking and contraband smuggling, the second depicts this same theme through Indian casinos and smoke shops. Regarding the syncretism endemic to borderlands, South Texas's Virgin of Guadalupe and ad-hoc approach...