WALLS BEGET WALLS
Standing on the San Diego side of the triple wall that is being constructed between the United States and Mexico, you see a vast collection of land-moving equipment; half the bright yellow Caterpillar equipment familiar to us from the toy trucks of childhood, the other half bearing drab-colored U.S. army camouflage. The presence of this partnership between a private corporation and the military is predictable, given the explosion of transnational corporations’ collusion with national government policies and the armies that police them.
This border area with our southernmost neighbor is the most highly militarized border on earth between a nation and a peaceful neighbor nation. To see the wall going up is a heartache. What a legacy!
At the border near Tijuana, the National Guard is busy filling in deep canyons in order to stretch the wall across the uneven terrain. These actions displace tons of earth that then drain into nearby estuaries choking off their life. To accomplish this, the United States Department of Homeland Security—a misbegotten progeny of our government’s misguided response to 9/11—has been given the authority to breach all environmental protections carefully crafted over decades to protect the fragile wetlands and ecology near Tijuana/San Diego. The wall extends into the Pacific Ocean, as though having the Godgiven right to part the sea into separate national domains (see Fig. 1).
U.S./Mexico Wall at the Pacific Ocean, Tijuana/SanDiego Fig 1: U.S./Mexico Wall at the Pacific Ocean, Tijuana/SanDiego
Our United States’ “Berlin Wall” has affinity with other such walls. Standing on the parched earth looking south toward Tijuana across the wall, for a moment you might think you are in Israel or the Palestinian occupied territories. The same kind of bright yellow equipment constructed the Israeli separation wall that is strangling the Palestinian settlements and refugee camps. Caterpillar is the same company that actually created machinery to specifically demolish houses in Palestine. This demolition is a terrorizing response to whole communities where only a few are responsible for violence. The day I first saw these machines, my stomach turned. You think of comparable equipment building homes and workplaces. Instead, precisely such equipment is being used to efficiently shatter houses, homes where families have enjoyed holidays and weddings, where they have cradled their children and mourned their loved ones, while under occupation.
Walls beget walls. The U.S./Mexico wall has echoes in the increased militarization of Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala—a region where Central American refugees flee lives of untenable poverty and lack of hope for a better future for their families. As you drive in southern Mexico, you are stopped multiple times by police, who look inside the car to see if you look like a refugee. What is this “look?” Tired, poor, dirty, frightened, dark-skinned, indigenous? These internal checkpoints echo northward as well—in Denver and Chicago, Raleigh and Charlotte—places deep within the U.S., where we too have established unpredictable, spontaneous, and moving internal checkpoints that suddenly upset the lives of poor people on their way to work, while picking up their children at school, or sitting in an evening classroom studying English after working two shifts.
Throughout history, cities surrounded themselves with walls to prevent military seizures and occupation by foreign forces. These new walls have a different meaning. The siege that is being protected against is not military; it is not occupation by foreign rulers. It is a siege of people with unfulfilled hunger and desires, of peoples displaced by forces larger than themselves.
Recently in San Diego, I spoke with a Border Patrol spokesperson, now an employee of the Department of Homeland Security. He said that he hosts many governmental delegations from around the world that are interested in learning how to create the kind of wall we are busily constructing: the kind with thousands of ground sensors so that the carefulness of your steps do not matter; the kind with satellite surveillance so you cannot hide; the kind with infrared sensors so that your very body heat betrays you; the kind that is said to require a workforce of 28,000 border agents. Thai government officials came recently to the Border Patrol office in the San Diego sector to see what they could learn. European Union (EU) ministry representatives also came to consult on the building of walls in North Africa to stem the tide of African migration due to genocides, the AIDS epidemic, corrupt and violent governments, and starvation. In an age of unprecedented forced migrations, Americans are getting quite a worldwide reputation for wall building. We have made a huge investment in our southern border: 7.3 billion dollars since 1993.
How initially ironic it sounds linking such walls with freedom: an age of walls is part of an age of “free” trade. But then it begins to make sense. Walls do not impede the passing of computer parts, assembled electronics, toxic waste, or people of means and power. They do not even stop the passage of poor and desperate people. Since the beginning of the construction of the U.S./Mexico wall in 1994, which coincided with the passage of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the flow of migration has not stopped; migratory routes have shifted into the Arizona desert. Walls also beget subterranean tunnels, perilous alternate pathways, subjugation, and fear; walls call for expensive “experts” to guide migrants across the border, drug traffickers who are no strangers to brutality. Over 4000 people have died in the desert trying to cross into the United States in the last twelve years. They died from extremes of heat, cold, and violence. Before 1994 there were so few deaths that there were not even yearly records kept.
So if the wall does not keep out poor migrants—newly re-labeled “potential terrorists” — what does it do? American border policies aim to create a world of low wages and high profits, says Maria Jimenez, a border activist in Texas. The wall and border surveillance achieve two goals. On the one hand, the poor who are immobilized in their country of origin become willing laborers in assembly plants, working for extremely low wages. On the other hand, those who do succeed in crossing, without legal residence, are then available to work at the lowest wages with the fewest benefits and rights.
Walls not only reproduce themselves between nations in an era of massive displacement of impoverished people due to genocide, civil war, and transnational capitalism’s lifting of protective tariffs and environmental regulations. Such walls also snake through our communities, dividing children into poor and affluent schools, separating neighborhoods into those beset by violence and drugs and those walled off by private security. These walls reinforce daily divisions between neighbors with different skin colors, mother tongues, and economic levels. Walls in our social environments insidiously construct psychic walls, and fill psychic space with exclusionary thinking, fear of difference, and polarized divisions. In a tragic circle, such psychological wall-making begets further distance, ensuring stereotyping, and yet more divisions. Walls give some psyches a sense of superiority, entitlement, privilege, and pride, while crushing others with fear, self-doubt, angry frustration, fatalism, and pernicious feelings of inferiority. If followed backwards, in America all such walls pass back into history, to the separation of families on the slave block, to children drinking at separate water fountains. They snake back to the multiple divides of reservations where the displaced and dispossessed survivors of America’s mass genocide of those indigenous to the land were corralled.
The present immigration debate sadly does not even put before citizens whether or not a wall should be built on our 1,950-mile-long border. On a national, governmental level, the wall is under way and will be funded for completion. May we begin to imagine a day when our children and grandchildren gather at what used to be the site of the wall and learn how greed erupted, creating an open wound at our southern border; una herida abierta, where Gloria Anzaldúa says, “the Third World grates against the First and bleeds.” May they learn how corporate and national rights were asserted before and against human rights to shelter, food, education, and healthcare.
The question we must pose to ourselves is whether we will continue to be bystanders to America’s many walls or commit ourselves to their dismantling, to moving across established divides, creating transborder relationships at all levels of our existence: psychic, interpersonal, community, intercommunity, national, international, even interspecies, and between ourselves and the natural and built environments.
Chicano playwright Cabranes-Grant says, “We are each transportable borders, enacting a separation or challenging it. The border is not a distinct geographical location.” Play director Joseph Velasco expands on this point, saying that “[b]orders are not crossed just when one crosses from one country into another—but rather, anytime one enters a new territory. Ethnicity, age, place, language, gender, and social borders are crossed everyday.” Daily, we enact the maintenance and construction of borders and walls between others and ourselves, all the while sectioning off our intrapsychic experience in corresponding ways.