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It Doesn’t Matter the Country: Learning the Meaning of Borders on Raton Pass

By Caroline Tracey.

It Doesn't Matter the Country

It was announced in June that New Mexico is suing adjacent US state Colorado, with the claim that the northern neighbor should be held responsible for the contamination caused by last year’s Gold King Mine spill, and decades of similar toxic runoff.

The Gold King Mine, abandoned since 1923, is located near the town Silverton, in the southwest corner of Colorado, a region where a long slope of green foothills eventually gives way to desert. For years, the Upper Animas River near the Gold King had no fish in it, due largely to acid drainage from the region’s mines. In the 1990s, sections of the Animas were nominated as a Superfund site, a federal program that funds the cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous substances, but the local community feared that such a designation would harm the tourism economy, leaving the Environmental Protection Agency able only to perform minor works.

Last August, an EPA contractor at the Gold King Mine was working on a project to control the water leaking from the mine into the creek nearby. The project was challenging, and he postponed the next steps until a Bureau of Reclamation inspection could take place. But while he was on vacation, his substitute ordered work to continue. Rather than going in from above, workers drilled into the debris that was acting as a wall to the pool of toxic water. Within twenty-four hours, acidic, metal-laden, bright orange water had emptied into the Animas River, which flows south past Durango, Colorado into northwestern New Mexico, and into the San Juan River at Farmington.

Even with serious environmental consequences at stake, it’s rare that one US state would sue another. What helps illuminate the situation in this case is the disparity between the two states in play. Both Colorado’s economic and population growth were ranked fourth in the United States in 2015. The state is thriving by every metric, from a 48 percent drop in teen pregnancy and abortion from 2009-2014 to a 2016 unemployment rate of 3.4%. New Mexico, meanwhile, is the poorest state in America by almost every account, from twenty-one percent of the state’s residents (and thirty percent of children) living in poverty to seventy-five percent of the state’s fourth graders not being proficient in reading.

Until earlier this summer, I was working on a cattle ranch in Raton, New Mexico’s northernmost town on I-25, the Interstate highway that runs north-south along the eastern side of New Mexico and Colorado. This side of both states is high plains—wide, flat yellow grasslands overlooked by flat-topped mountains called “mesas” that are populated by green pine trees, as well as scrub oak and locust whose colors change with the seasons. Everything about Raton’s location pointed to its liminality, down to the ranch’s good grass: the New Mexico, Texas and Colorado species all come together there. My boss said she’d never seen so much diversity in one place.

Raton, New Mexico

I grew up three and a half hours due north of Raton, in Denver. Double-landlocked there, I never thought about borders. Colorado had and has a large, and growing, Mexican population, but we were far away from Mexico and I had little reason to think about anyone’s experience crossing between countries. Taking my citizenship and passport for granted, I had the privilege of putting everyone else’s safely out of mind. It was only with a regular experience of the border between Colorado and New Mexico, a near-invisible line, that I could start to conceive of the significance of the one between the United States and Mexico—the longest barrier between the first and third worlds anywhere.

I arrived to find Raton was an emptied town. The renovation of McDonald’s seemed to be employing more people than anything else. New Mexico’s thriving tourism economy is based on southwestern-themed art (Santa Fe, the state capital, is the second-largest art market in the country, bested only by New York City) and an attendant “Old Spanish” feel, codified in adobe, or mud brick, architecture and ubiquitous turquoise accents—Raton had none of that. Even the two “#NewMexicoTrue” tourism billboards flanking the Interstate through town showed Shiprock and Gallup, both on the far western side of the state, as though Raton’s only contribution was motels on the way.

At first, the border seemed innocuous. The two states, New Mexico and Colorado, are divided at Raton by Raton Pass, which from both approaches comes up out of nowhere, then drops you plummeting down the other side. Both sides have the same yellow and red sandstone rising up to pine and scrub oak forests, then falling again to sandstone; the mesas are the same on both sides. Raton and Trinidad, the Colorado town that mirrors it, both have the same old light-up railway signs displaying their towns’ names on their adjacent mountainsides.

But as I spent more time there, the invisible border started to feel material. I began to observe the boundary in ways that, having ignored borders my whole life, I had no vocabulary for.

The same Spanish-inflected accent is spoken, for instance, by the cashiers at both the towns’ grocery stores, but shop enough weeks at SuperSave in Raton and you’ll never know an oasis like Trinidad’s Safeway. Wal-Mart is on the Colorado side. So is Big R, KFC, a junior college, and the whole legal cannabis economy. We started to joke that going to Colorado was going back to the first world.

My desire to articulate the unease of the border sent me looking for words to do so. I turned first to the book Borderlands/La Frontera, in which 20th-century feminist and poet Gloria Anzaldúa writes about the ways that people contain psychological, sexual, and spiritual borderlands. “1,950 mile-long open wound / dividing a pueblo, a culture, / running down the length of my body, / staking fence rods in my flesh, / splits me    splits me / me raja    me raja,” she writes of the US-Mexico border.

From there I found The Verging Cities by Natalie Scenters-Zapico, a collection of poetry about love and borders—specifically, the US-Mexico border at El Paso and Ciudad Juárez—whose poems are constructed of a reservoir of metaphor that includes woodpeckers, hair, teeth, gums, dust, ants, math, roots, stars, snakes and mouths.

Where Anzaldúa demonstrates the way that the border is inscribed in her, Scenters-Zapico writes about the way that it is also inscribed into the love between her and her partner. “In your hair a crown of border patrol point their guns at me,” she narrates of a sexual encounter haunted by the imagination of surveillance. But by the end, sex has been an act of border crossing: “We ask each other if we’ve carried any foreign items today, barbed wire / fences stapled to our teeth, avocado pits in our back pocket. We say no.”

Layering love over the border in this way models the brave love that James Baldwin famously speaks of in The Fire Next Time: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Love demands difficult encounters with difference; it is a state of being challenged.

The ignorance of borders under which I grew up relies on an ethics of human relations that carries strict limits, on an inherent belief that whatever is on the other side of the border cannot be humanized. The Verging Cities proves it can, and in that way proved instructive for me, who has never been cut through by borders.

Because I disagree with Baldwin on one point: I did not even know the masks I was living within. First I had to recognize them. After that comes the hard work of learning to unlearn, and that of learning a broad, political empathy. Only then could my politics start to shift toward a responsibility that isn’t ignorant of borders, but, rather, transcends them.

The simple act of learning to observe a border helped me to better understand the task of those of us of white European descent in the United States, where our country’s oppressions are deliberately obscured and where we are taught that we have always been exempt from the violence of colonists: to undo the racist and colonial teachings that pervaded our upbringings. From there, it became a process of dilation, of imagining perspectives foreign to me by translating and scaling my feelings to reveal other circumstances. Shuttling between the invisible border that I worked and slept seven open miles from, and the violent, exceptionally visible one written about by Anzaldúa and Scenters-Zapico, I began to understand America’s role as a colonizing force, both domestically and abroad, the way that both those borders fit into those efforts, and how they illuminated one another.

The Verging Cities

Scaling up the Colorado-New Mexico border, I started by picturing what working in New Mexico would be like if the state were not part of the union; if a hard barrier, not a faint line, divided me from my family and the place where I grew up.

At the state line exit at the crest of Raton Pass, for instance, there is a sign that clearly states: “LIVESTOCK HAULERS MUST PULL OVER NEXT EXIT.” But trailering two colts from Colorado, my boss and I drove right by. I asked; he said he’d never noticed the sign. Moreover, we’d realized two hours back that we’d forgotten the brand inspection papers, which are required to cross state lines with animals. But we weren’t worried. We had the privilege for signage to be a curiosity, to fearlessly tune out regulation, to float across boundaries. But what if it were a different kind of border? What if we had a different relationship to it?

I also started to notice non-hypothetical things. How my blue eyes and sun-bleached hair drew strange looks in the supermarket, as though I didn’t belong, but no one was allowed to tell me that. How a hardware store checkout between acquaintances ended, “Bueno.” Spanish smothered, but still present. (“Mouth, it’s true / I speak another language,” writes Scenters-Zapico.) Until I allowed myself to picture an alternative, taking contemporary political geography for granted had blinded me to the visibility of America’s colonization of New Mexico. Once my eyes were trained to it, the border did not even need to be scaled to be a lesson.

Under Spanish governance as part of Mexico, New Mexico was divided into massive land grants, used for settlement, agriculture, and communal sheep and goat pasture. In 1848, however, as Anzaldúa writes, “The border fence that divides the Mexican people was born… [leaving] 100,000 Mexican citizens on this side, annexed by conquest along with the land.”

After America’s war for the southwest and the treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, New Mexico’s land grants underwent a period of largely unlawful speculation by Anglo settlers, reaching a zenith between 1870 and 1890. Since the territory’s white settlers controlled both the capital and the courts, most of the grants ended up in their hands, with exclusive-tenure cattle ranching as their most profitable use. Working-class as the job is, ranching is a colonist’s profession, one that depends on latifundia and access to capital.

In his ‘Discourse on Colonialism,’ Francophone writer Aimé Césaire describes this destruction of traditional economies as one piece of evidence of the effects of colonialism. “I am talking about … harmonious and viable economies adapted to the indigenous population—about food crops destroyed, malnutrition permanently introduced, agricultural development oriented solely toward the benefit of metropolitan countries.”

The United States’ subjugation of New Mexicans and its evisceration of their economies did not end with the nineteenth century, either. It continues in the structural racism and colonialism of the Forest Service, the Department of Defense, and many other actors. It’s visible in racist policing and in the suppression of students’ Spanish in public schools. The fact that no land grant court cases have been won, that pollution from Los Alamos makes eating McDonald’s healthier than shooting an elk in northern New Mexico, that subsistence agriculture ended there at the same time as the region’s towns were emptied by the Vietnam draft, that Anglo Americans can flout treaties with “other” peoples, can dismiss the inequalities their policies have caused as the faults of those others, and continue to profit off of all of it, is that out of fear of losing our power, we’ve convinced ourselves that our supremacy is unassailable, indisputable.

This is also true of the United States at large. The country has naturalized its power over the rest of the world. Césaire writes that American domination is “the only domination from which one never recovers.”


Even after New Mexico territory became a state, there was a period when the state line was treated as a solid border. As New Mexican land grant residents were forced off their grazing lands by their new owners, thousands sought work in Colorado’s sugar beet fields. In April 1936, Colorado governor Edwin Johnson ordered the National Guard to close down the state’s southern border and turn away any non-resident migrants looking for work in the state. The US Department of Immigration sent an agent to the site, but found that only two of the five hundred people turned away in the two weeks the border was sealed were eligible for deportation. Giving New Mexico the contingency of a colony, Colorado—a state that has successfully erased its own non-white history from popular knowledge—blocked out its neighbor residents, US citizens alike, for their color and lack of buying power.

Borders: blocking bodies and allowing capital. A border can be innocuous to me because white Americans are capital embodied. The invisibility of the Colorado-New Mexico border disguises a colonial power relation by making it look natural. The US-Mexico border is visible, but we believe it to be natural too. Prehistoric. Foregone. “We mark the world in lines // and forget the land never knew them,” warns the title poem of The Verging Cities.

“Europe is indefensible,” chants Césaire; so is America, especially white America. How to account for oneself, one’s culture of domination, to begin to make amends? To move away from being guided by fear and greed, it is necessary to let ourselves be assailed. So far, the best way I’ve found is to listen harder; to continually shift my politics to places I once did not know existed.

The EPA claims that water quality levels in the Animas River quickly returned to normal. Colorado sides with the EPA, claiming that it has already been absolved of its responsibility for cleanup. New Mexico’s response is that toxic waste doesn’t just go away. The state is worried about heavy metal buildup in the sediment in and around the river, and the possibility of those metals being regularly agitated by runoff. They are accusing Colorado of being accomplice to negligence committed by the EPA, by condoning it if not more. The Navajo nation, whose nearby reservation, the largest in the country, depends on the San Juan River for raising cattle and growing crops, has also sued the EPA.

Colorado governor John Hickenlooper’s office told the Wall Street Journal that it was “disappointed New Mexico has chosen ‘costly and time-consuming litigation'” as their response to the spill. But neither the construction-orange water nor its hidden contaminants originated in New Mexico. The problem of their presence there has everything to do with the richer northern neighbor—”the live side of the border.”

Once we have embraced a politics that overcomes borders, the impossible—a world without lines cutting through it—becomes imaginable. Scenters-Zapico floods the border, eats it, watches its sides collide. And she constitutes the new world, by cataloguing what else, besides capital, does not know borders. Heat. “Five hundred feet away in Juárez, the maquilas / run all night. In El Paso, we share the same 100 / degrees.” Land. “It doesn’t matter the country—this desert is all the same.” Sky. “Not México, not Canada, not United States, or the coat // made in Honduras, but the cloth of open sky / is what he wants.”

Add water to the list. What is done to water by people upstream necessarily affects their downstream neighbors, whether there is a line between them or not. The Colorado River famously dries up before it reaches Mexico most years, or gets there full of salt, thanks to dams built by the United States, desiccating riparian ecosystems and economies. The Rio Grande, which begins in Colorado’s San Luis Valley and flows south through New Mexico before forming the border between Texas and Mexico, is also overappropriated by the three US states. The situation with the Animas calls for acting in the spirit of responsibility and connection, rather than continuing to live as though there is no worthwhile world outside one’s prosperous home boundaries. Writes Scenters-Zapico:

  1. The river has become the only blue vein left pulsing on the map.
  2. The river is only blue on the map.


Caroline Tracey

Caroline Tracey is a writer and geography PhD student, originally from Colorado and currently studying at the University of California, Berkeley. In the intervening time she graduated from Yale University with a BA in Russian Literature, held a Fulbright research fellowship to Kyrgyzstan, and worked on a cattle ranch. Her writing has been published in The Guardian, Drunken Boat, [PANK], Public Books, Nowhere, and elsewhere. Find her at cetracey.wordpress.com and @seaisrisn.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 6th, 2016.