LIMIT SITUATIONS, LIMIT ACTS
In our lives we come up against what Alvaro Vieira Pinto and Paulo Freire call “limit-situations,” situations that block our freedom, and which are often initially experienced by us as fetters and insurmountable obstacles. Refusing to accept the usual idea of “limit,” Pinto says that limit-situations can be seen, not as “impassable boundaries where possibilities end, but the real boundaries where all possibilities begin”: they are not “the frontier which separates being from nothingness, but the frontier which separates being from being more.” We can think of the border situations within ourselves, in our communities, and our nation as limit-situations. It is these that we need to dream actively about, transgressing them first in imagination and then in reality.
The U.S.-Mexico border as a limit-situation not only creates misery, but inspires transgression and creativity. Those who embrace such limitsituations engage in what Freire calls the vocation of humanization, the call to move from being objects of a culture by which we are passively used to standing in opposition to dehumanizing processes, taking on the task of creating and claiming a different future. The border as a limit-situation is a potential site of making the world anew through our relationships, and through art and activism (see Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: Border Dynamics—Alberto Morackis and Guadalupe Serrano. The sculpture
Fig. 2: Border Dynamics—Alberto Morackis and Guadalupe Serrano. The sculpture
is the property of the University of Arizona and is a permanent exhibit on their main campus in Tucson, Arizona. Aurora Levins Morales says, “Borders are generally established in order to exercise control, and when we center our attention on the historical empowerment of the oppressed, we inevitably swim rivers, lift barbed wire and violate ‘no trespassing signs.’” The transgression of borders requires particular kinds of selves who grasp the power to create with others, to be part of seeing through and then constructing the world anew. They are selves who search for the history of the borders they encounter, refusing to take them as necessary facts. They inquire into the history of their communities in order to know something of the present and to be able to imagine a different future. Selves-insolidarity-with-others can imagine doorways where walls now stand. COMMUNITIES OF HOSPITALITY In the Old Testament, Moses is asked by God to create six cities of refuge: three in Canaan and three in Jordan. “These six cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them …” (Numbers, 35: 15). In an address to the International Parliament of Writers, the late Jacques Derrida traced the idea of “open cities” or refuge cities, those places where migrants can seek sanctuary from the pressures of persecution, immigration, and exile. In European medieval tradition, according to Derrida, the city had a certain degree of sovereignty by which it could determine its laws of hospitality. The International Parliament of Writers, including Derrida, became interested in these laws of hospitality as migrants and asylum seekers were either turned away from borders or, once inside, treated as having inferior status due to their lack of papers or legal status. In Europe and the United States, some cities are seeking to revive the idea of sovereignty for cities around issues of hospitality. In protest against harsh national immigration and asylum policies, they are seeking to establish themselves as cities of refuge or hospitality. In the United States, over 60 cities have adopted referenda to create more hospitable conditions in their cities for migrants. In particular, they have moved not to adopt national initiatives that would require local police to be involved in the enforcement of immigration laws, and in particular not to ask about the immigration status of those who require police assistance, medical care, or social services (unless federally mandated for particular programs). This could be seen as a small step toward a postnational consciousness, linked to the exercise of the postcolonial imagination (see Fig. 3). At the same time, other cities have moved to greater inhospitality. Under the Counterterrorism Act, local jurisdictions can ask the Attorney General to deputize police as immigration agents. This means that many injured and sick people will not seek care in hospitals and clinics for fear of deportation. It means domestic abuse and neighborhood crime will be under-reported for fear that police will ask for papers and turn those without them over to immigration authorities. It increases an atmosphere of intimidation, harassment, punitiveness, and gross inhospitality. As of this writing in the summer of 2007, national politics has ground to a halt on immigration reform, while the national government has augmented surveillance of immigrant communities and stepped up workplace and home raids that result in deportations and a darkened atmosphere of intimidation and fear. At this political moment, we may be more effective in establishing a humane atmosphere in and through our cities and towns than struggling exclusively on the national front. Many U. S. and European cities are working to extend the sovereignty and autonomy of their cities and towns to enhance justice for immigrants, while interlinking with others nationally and transnationally who are also working to imagine a world without walls. Derrida suggests that new cities of refuge could reorient the politics of the nation: “If we look to the city, rather than to the state, it is because we have given up hope that the state might create a new image for the city.” Fig. 3: “Dream of Taniperla Canyon,” on the Mexican side of the U.S./Mexico Wall, Ambos Nogales, Mexico. This mural was originally painted by Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. It was destroyed by paramilitary forces. Subcomandante Marcos called for it to be repainted throughout the world. It is a depiction of the indigenous communities in Chiapas being able to live in peace, after 500 years of assault by colonialism and neoliberalism. Fig. 3: “Dream of Taniperla Canyon,” on the Mexican side of the U.S./Mexico Wall, Ambos Nogales, Mexico. This mural was originally painted by Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. It was destroyed by paramilitary forces. Subcomandante Marcos called for it to be repainted throughout the world. It is a depiction of the indigenous communities in Chiapas being able to live in peace, after 500 years of assault by colonialism and neoliberalism. This kind of initiative—a politics of hospitality—is an exemplar of a different political strategy, one that is more laterally than vertically oriented, one that decenters centralized power. When the politics of the nation-state loses its ethical compass, it is crucial that it be countered by a combination of initiatives from civil society at both the local and the transnational levels. When a nation goes far astray in the practice of humane conduct—attacking civilian hospitals, torturing detainees, holding people without charges and without recourse to self-defense, preemptively beginning wars—then its citizens must assert and keep alive an empathic concern for our neighbors, particularly those suffering the effect of national mispolicies. Our cities could become more like autonomous zones that differentiate themselves from national agendas driven by corporate greed, thereby recovering the ethic of hospitality that we long for, and in so doing restoring our humanity. A community that aspires to such hospitality requires psychologies that study divides and creates opportunities for meeting across them. Recent adoption of the Kyoto Protocol by several hundred U.S. mayors has shown that cities can at serious times adopt a more visionary stance than that of the national government. At the federal level, the Bush administration rejected regulation of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming on two counts: it had not yet been scientifically proven that humans contribute to the greenhouse effect, and further control of manufacturers’ emissions would jeopardize their competitiveness on the world market. Unfortunately, towns and cities that claim some sovereignty can also contribute to intensifying exclusionary walls within their legal limits. In the absence of national consensus regarding immigration policy, many towns and cities have passed laws that commit landlords to checking the immigration status of potential occupants, that make English the official language, that punish business owners who hire workers without documents, and that sanction police assistance in matters of immigration control, contributing to forced deportations and the splitting of families. For instance, a man in Winchester, Connecticut was pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt. When it was discovered he had no driver’s license, the police called immigration officials who then began deportation proceedings. What is at stake psychologically and ethically? Derrida argues that culture itself is hospitality; that the ethical is hospitality. If this is so, we are but a shadow of our lost humanity in the face of walls between our neighbors and us. He argues that the foreigner or the stranger puts us in question, poses a question to us. The foreigner through his or her very being poses the question: What kind of neighbor are we? The stranger’s presence holds a mirror to us, showing us our own face of disregard, of scorn, of fear, of interest or ignorance, of hospitality. He stresses that the essence of hospitality is its unconditional nature. It does not ask the stranger to speak our language, to visit only on our terms, to be only the wealthy. “Absolute hospitality,” he says, requires that I open up my home and that I give not only to the foreigner (provided with a family name, with the social status of being a foreigner, etc.), but to the absolute, unknown, anonymous other, and that I give place to them, that I let them come, that I let them arrive, and take place in the place I offer them, without asking of them either reciprocity (entering into a pact) or even their names. The law of absolute hospitality commands a break with hospitality by right …. While political policy cannot be directly drawn from such an unconditional proposition, ought not the spirit of it be somewhere visible in the way we live our relations and craft our laws? Divided by nationality, are we not united, as Kant pointed out, by being citizens of the world? Derrida underscores a psychological fact: we are only truly at home with ourselves when we are open to receiving the other. Is a home a home when it keeps the stranger out? The paradox he is working to unveil is that without welcoming the stranger, the host is a hostage in his own home. While the host is inside, without inviting the guest, he is on the outside of the inside. Only the invited guest can host him into the inside of his own home. Derrida urges us: Let us say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant, an invited guest, or an unexpected visitor, whether or not the new arrival is the citizen of another country—a human, animal, or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female. Lest we drift toward an Anglo-Judeo-Protestant sense of righteousness, we must heed a caution regarding the language of hospitality. If we use it, as I am doing, we must hold tight to the shadow of this way of naming the situation, a shadow that introduces crucial and critical complexity. If one people invades and occupies another people’s land, is it hospitality if the descendants of the original inhabitants are allowed to come back to visit or to live? If one people enjoys wealth and high educational and health standards partly from the profits gained from the exploitation of another people, is it hospitality when these benefits are shared? When people work very hard for small reward, while others profit grossly, when they are separated from their loved ones and their community, when they have risked their lives to provide for their families, when they suffer the loneliness of separation from their homeland, their families, and communities, should they be dependent on hospitality instead of enjoying the rights of refuge? As an idea, hospitality is a starting point for relationship. In time, its naïveté will need to be abandoned. From one vantage point on hospitality, a beneficent person gifts to another person who is less fortunate. From another vantage point, the one who could offer hospitality but does not, symbolically loses his own home. The one who might be hospitable needs the stranger in order to come home to him or herself, to live within his or her humanity and to reclaim his or her own shadow. Gloria Anzaldúa advises Anglos thus: “Admit that Mexico is your double, that she exists in the shadow of this country, that we are irrevocably tied to her. Gringo, acccept the doppelganger in your psyche. By taking back your shadow the intracultural split will heal.” We are in need of a different set of ways of being with one another. “ BY TAKING BACK YOUR SHADOW THE INTRACULTURAL SPLIT WILL HEAL” Our borders could be lived as sacred places, as places for creativity and regeneration, as sites for hybridity, where we can imagine and bring into being what is most desired. Such border-work requires explorations of shadow in our local communities, its workplaces, neighborhood community centers, its houses of worship, and our town halls. What is the American shadow that falls across the U.S./Mexico border with such a violent harshness? Is it in part the shadow caused by cultural amnesia regarding slavery, genocide, and the forced displacement of Mexicans after the U.S. conquest of Mexican land? Last month I re-visited Maclovio Rojas, a small community outside of Tijuana, founded in 1988 by a group of visionary women from Oaxaca. They imagined a better life for their families and organized an autonomous community to promote education, healthcare, and local self-governance. Their leaders are now in hiding, following periods of imprisonment by the Mexican government. Their plan for such a community is not part of the master plan for the “free” trade zone. Standing on the hill above this colonia’s simple homes, I looked to the northeast and saw a glittering sea of metal roofs of 5000 tractor truck trailers, ready to load the products from the maquiladores and take them to market. On the southwest I saw a brand new ghetto under construction, rows of new housing for maquiladora workers. Here each family will be confined to a small room, next to hundreds of other families, each in their equally diminutive quarters. I did not see any playgrounds or zocalos, central town plazas for strolling and meeting. These dwellings—springing up by the thousands—are called “pigeon houses” (see Fig. 4). They are a new kind of slave quarters. Jimenez compares the Border Patrol—and the vigilantes that have grown up around it—to the slave patrols before the Civil War. She says their function is to reinforce immobility—and to bring about the conditions that, by ensuring low wages, maximize profits. Human rights activists at the border understand workplace conditions as a contemporary extension of the hacienda plantation system, where workers were virtually indentured and were seen not as human beings worthy of care and compassion but as labor commodities. Jaime Cota, from CITTAC, a human and labor rights organization in Baja California, Mexico, is assisting workers in defending their rights as human beings. In one case against a maquiladore manufacturer, Cota is representing workers who have suffered the amputation of fingers and hands by metal cutting machines. The machine sensors built to protect workers from being cut were intentionally turned off to force workers to move at a quicker pace out of fear of the amputation of fingers and hands. This graphic example shows how human lives are reduced to a mere labor commodity as the greed for profit replaces human regard. Mexico’s history of racism bleeds into that of the United States. Fig. 4: “Pigeon houses” being built around manufacturing plants near Tijuana, Mexico. Fig. 4: “Pigeon houses” being built around manufacturing plants near Tijuana, Mexico. We know about contemporary American slave quarters: the camps for migrant agricultural workers, the city slums that breed horizontal violence among young people, our prisons … especially our prisons. The structure of slavery has not left our bloodstream. Like a renegade gene, it keeps replicating itself, pulling in different ethnic groups to satisfy its cancerous voraciousness for profit. Africans, Irish, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Mexicans. The evil triplets that Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us about—racism, militarism, and capitalism—have shown up at the U.S./Mexico border, and they are busy doing their work. It is impossible to talk with migrants without documents without being reminded of slavery and indentured servitude. Fleeing poverty, civil war, political repression and torture, or genocide, migrants describe how they work multiple menial jobs, often below minimum wage, without workplace safeguards, environmental standards, and workers’ representation through unions. While contributing their labor to the common good and part of their earnings to our social security pools, they and their children will not enjoy the benefits of these pools. They are accused of exhausting local resources for health, policing, and education. In a just world the federal government would transfer these social security contributions to the municipalities where the majority of migrants live, taking the pressure off local budgets. Migrants live in the shadows of our cities, surrendering a voice for justice out of fear of being deported and unable to support their families. As DuBois said of African-Americans before them, they are “shut out from their world by a vast veil” of racism. How ironic the far Right’s discourse on immigration from Mexico sounds when placed in a historical context. “Intruders,” “foreigners,” “parasites,” “illegals,” “carriers of disease.” The historical amnesia is shocking. California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah were the northern part of Mexico 160 years ago. Twenty-five thousand Mexicans died in an effort to retain their national lands. Upon defeat, 100,000 Mexicans became trapped within the new borders of the United States, their families separated by the forcible imposition of a new national border, many forcibly displaced from their land, others lynched and subjected to mob violence.28 Mexicans say, “we did not cross the border, the border crossed us.” How do we engage the shadows of slavery and conquest? In this brief space I can only offer several formal and informal public community initiatives. These are suggestive of multiple available means of bringing history’s legacy in the present into the conversation, so that it can be addressed and redressed.