This is my home this obscene expanse of steel,
was my first thought when I woke from a sickening half sleep somewhere between November 8 and November 9, 2016. In 1987, Gloria Anzaldúa wrote of the US – Mexico border,
“This is my home this thin edge of barbed wire.”[i]
When I was young, the border in much of Arizona’s Sonoran desert was a spiked metal string limply tied between rotting wooden posts. In a few places, it still is. For the most part, however, the barriers have become increasingly formidable. Over the years, hunks of metal have been hauled in. Motion sensors have been implanted in the ground. Cholla cactus drop fat yellow fruit under infrared, watch towers, choppers, drones, and semi-automatics.
And now the barrier is set for another, more expansive iteration. A home bent on exile.
As long as it has existed, the border has been a “1,950 mile-long open wound” hovering between brown land and blue sky.[ii] Although I am a woman who loves striking colors, I wear beige when running the curve of this wound. The hunters are out on a search party. Some of them are in government-issued green polyester. Others have no badges and dress as cowboys protecting the frontier of respectability. All of the self-proclaimed defenders are out for the inauguration of open season. They rumble on ATVs and in SUVs, destroying migratory trails established over thousands of years. They lay traps by sweeping the sand with a large brush hitched to the back of a pick-up truck. It is easier to see footprints that way. I imagine this is what the jaw of a whale looks like, millions of delicate bristles washing over prey.
Surrounding the brutality is a beauty of shattering clarity.
“The land stretched out under me the way a lover would.”[iii]
I like to wrap my family’s red chile in enormous, thin tortillas from Barrio Anita and walk toward the mountains, past wide streets and dirt back yards, past open adobe homes draped in loud tones. Even in the winter, the days are warm and languid until the sun sets in an explosion evacuating heat from the valley floor. The mesquite trees dissolve into one another like a single giant organism.
This is my home. People fry from the inside out. I pull a shoe from the sand and hope a leg does not follow. At abandoned migrant camps there are old clothes, a dirt-caked Elmo backpack, stripped corn cobs, empty cans of roasted beans, a half-finished red sucker stuck to a tree, and the corpses of gallons of Alejandra water. The water jugs I placed earlier in the day have been sliced by the hunters and drained over the ground. There are endless cerulean and cotton swirls above. The hunters sing into the static of a radio. Below me, blood lives in the soil.
People immigrate here through Arizona’s northern border, from Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Sometimes these immigrants buy houses on this land. Sometimes, from their front yard, they rip out ocotillo, aloe vera, and centuries-old creosote bushes. Instead, a lawn is installed in the 116 degree desert. Sometimes, these people stand pouring a hose over the grass daily but deny water to human bodies. They call it adherence to the law.
People immigrate here from the southern border. Sometimes the people from the northern border pay the people from the southern border far below a minimum wage to tear ocotillo, aloe vera, and ancient creosote from front yards. The plants screech as they are torn.
I used to sit in the cab of a un-air conditioned white Chevy truck, the old ones with the gear shift on the steering wheel, watching my father, a lover of land, dig his hands under the root ball, trying to extract the plant intact. For a moment, the soil on the forearms tempered the singe of handcuffs. Sometimes, he was able to salvage the plant and take it home. Other times, the people who employed him insisted it be thrown into the compost pile.
Border Patrol used to interrupt groups of laborers at work with precise regularity, walking down the line of hunched backs to ask, “Where are you from?” It is the same question members of warring neighborhoods ask one another to tease out enemies from allies. It is the same question police officers ask youth they stop for questioning.
Where are you from?
You could see your own reflection in his aviator sunglasses as you pulled your hands from the dirt and rose to answer, acutely aware of the promise of death if you moved too quickly.
Anyone whose response was dressed in an accent was loaded into the white and green van and checked for documents. A driver’s license would not do. A birth certificate or green card were the only acceptable currency here.
I decided then to cherish my anger. Anger has meat to it. No, I would not let anyone hack it out. I would not hack it out of my own wild skin.
“That’s the one thing women are never forgiven for: their anger.”[iv]
During hour one, I try to become more accustomed to the idea,
This is my new home this obscene expanse of steel.
Hour 17 was soft jazz music and the clink of wine glasses, heads thrown back in politely dramatic laughter. I watched things happen to my body from somewhere else, the edges beginning to burn pink. Material things were unreal. I thought I might be able to sink my fingers into the white linen-covered cocktail tables, like meringue. Instead, I pushed both palms down onto the surface, and it held. I tried to focus on the solidity. The curve of the room shifted.
“You put your heart in your back pocket.”[v]
I found the bathroom, threw up twice, and returned to the main foyer to deliver a two minute elevator pitch about my work.
The mingling resumed. The particles of the past 17 hours smothered everyone. There was a good amount of equivocating, a frantic search for the middle ground, “Even though I’m on one side of an issue, and you are on the other, we can all agree that a solution is needed.” It is dangerous to consider opposition to human dignity with relativism. These are not equidistant and equally valid positions.
“The soldiers wear guns, not in their back pockets.”[vi]
I was introduced to an important Latino man. He held my book with his fingertips, as if it were soiled, “I’m more of a law and order kind of guy.” That is good for him I suppose. There is about to be a lot of law and order. It is likely going to be very bad for people who share his skin tone and his last name but not his power. I do not say this at the time. I only stand baffled.
The concept this man uses, “Law and Order,” was developed by Nixon, Goldwater, and Reagan as a racial code word, as a way to target and incarcerate masses of people of color; people who the state did not consider legal or orderly. Law and Order classified racial justice movements as criminal endeavors. Law and Order was – and clearly is – a means to rally a populist conservative base. Law enforcement drove tanks into neighborhoods and took fire hoses to Black people, beat them, murdered them – and still does –for the sake of Law and Order. Stupidity does not make power any less dangerous.
“Do not forget for a minute that the soldiers wear guns.”[vii]
I do not remember my dreams that night, only that they happened in orange, scarlet, and purple.
“Are you a graduate student?”
At hour 36, a voice at my back. I let out a long, audible breath. This is a common and tiresome question. I turn to find an older male colleague, older than my father. He does not yet know that we are colleagues because we have never met.
Now we are meeting.
“No, I am a professor.”
What I do not say is that I am a woman whose name chokes in the throats of those around me. I do not tell him that I have been up for most of the past 24 hours trying to exorcize the visceral memory of threats to the bodies of people I love, hands around necks. Nonetheless, we have been through this before. We have had a dress rehearsal with SB1070.[viii] I am used to standing in line at CVS behind a civilian who has a gun on his hip and a confederate flag on his bicep. The legacy of this panic was passed down ancestrally with the red chile recipe.
“Take your hands off me.”[ix]
“Ah, yes.” Now he knows who I am. You see, there are a very finite number of possible suspects who look like me walking in halls like this. We have a brief conversation, the content of which is not important here.
As I turn to leave, he lowers his voice, “You are a nice-looking Chicana.”
“What? What did you just say to me?”
“What did you say?”[x]
He shakes my hand once again. He is joking, you know, in the harmless way these older guys from a different era will do: “I know we are not supposed to say that, but our new president has opened the door for all the dogs.”
Hour 40 brings some beauty, badly needed beauty for beauty’s sake. Two people who love each other are getting married. Normally, this has no effect on me; it is simply information. But as a result of this union, one of these people, after nearly three decades, will no longer be undocumented. She will not worry about having a work permit snatched from her. She will not worry about how this scarcity will devastate her livelihood and therefore, the survival of mother, father, cousins, uncles, aunts, and friends. She will not have to consider if a minor car accident will result in the police handing her over to an ICE officer.
I help her put on a necklace from her brother, who is not here tonight.
She is twirling in a dress of wildflowers.
“Se hace camino al andar.”[xi]
She makes the path as she walks. What else is there to do when beauty is such a hazard? Keep moving, and follow the mountains.
DACA[xii] will likely be an early sacrifice of January. Hundreds of thousands of people may lose work permits, deportation protection, and their parents. More people will be deported and incarcerated with the speculative labels of “gang member,” “terrorist,” and “criminal” affixed to their foreheads. These labels will encourage complicity in the spectators.
Petitions circulate to have college and university campuses declared sanctuary spaces. There are people who sign without hesitation but dismiss Black student groups’ demand to abolish the presence of police on campus. Border Patrol murdered Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez. Police murdered Amadou Diallo and Jesse Romero before they had a chance to be deported. All of their faces haunt my altar.
As power sings a sermon of Law and Order, I watch Arizona bleed out into the rest of the nation with the knowledge that people will continue to disappear to graves and cells and other geographies. The disappearing act is a natural outcome of policies routinely enacted and replicated without fanfare.
A seasonal batch of gourds has died off littering the sand with perfect devil’s claws. I gather one for every person in my life who I know is hurting. The water on the coast is too warm. There is fog in the desert, moving slowly among the saguaros as if in a time-lapsed film. This should not be.
Once, people ran over borders, past Border Patrol, and kept running, sure they would find security in the interior. But wherever they went, these border crossers ran into ICE and then, into police, sheriffs, highway patrol, DEA, ATF, National Guard, and then, into Minutemen and the Klan.
The border moves inward. It will accelerate in this motion until there is oblivion.
- Dr. Ana Muñiz
November 28, 2016
Dr. Muñiz is a researcher/writer from the borderlands who focuses on state violence.
[i] Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books. (Pg. 3)
[ii] Ibid. (Pg. 2)
[iii] Kingsolver, Barbara. 1990. Animal Dreams. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. (Pg. 321)
[iv] Villanueva, Alma Luz. 1994. Naked Ladies. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue. (Pg. 165)
[v] Moraga, Cherríe. 2000. Loving In the War Years. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. (Pg. 60)
[vi] Ibid. (Pg. 60)
[vii] Ibid. (Pg. 60)
[viii] Arizona Senate Bill 1070 mandated that local law enforcement officers attempt to determine an individual’s immigration status during police stops.
[ix] Cisneros, Sandra. 1992. My Wicked, Wicked Ways. New York, NY: Knopf. (Pg. xi)
[x] Rankine, Claudia. 2014. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press. (Pg. 43)
[xi] Mora, Pat. 1993. Nepantla: Essays from the Land in the Middle. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. (Pg. 68)
[xii] 2012 executive action Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.