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Border Imaginary: Borderland Narratives and the Identity of Landscape

By Gabriel Boudali.

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The borderlands between Mexico and the United States is a space defined by fantasy. For migrants it serves as a site of both liberation and detention. For those who live in the region it is the point of demarcation separating national identities and values. For anyone visiting, it is a hostile and overwhelming landscape which inspires fear and wonder, containing a culture that is uniquely North American. Its historical geography has been severely impacted by conquest and political maneuvering. From Spanish rule to Mexican independence to American intervention and annexation, the identity of the region is complex, concussed from generations of violence, surviving with either painful memories or outright amnesia. Perhaps most importantly, today the region has become the site of a unique imagination. Beyond the typical western genre of yore, the borderlands are now the subject of a new narrative desire. The most telling portraits of the area obviously come from those who live there and who have developed a keen contemporary insight into the strangeness surrounding the deserts and mountains. Meanwhile, current events and recent literature have cast a harsh spotlight on the region, illuminating the shadows of severe experience that inspires a wild invention.

In Javier Zamora’s collection, Unaccompanied the poet recounts his experience traveling alone through Mexico and into the borderlands as a young boy. His story, like so many others, is one of both escaping violence and encountering violence. One of the opening poems, “Saguaros” uses this quintessential cactus of the region as a metaphor for brutality, “I also scraped needles, then carved / those tall torsos for water, then spotlights drove me / and thirty others dashing into paloverdes; / green-striped trucks surrounded us and our empty bottles / rattled. When the trucks left, a cold cell swallowed us.” This powerful ending to one of the first poems of the book evokes those stories which have become commonplace in media and in the everyday imagination. As one of the most heavily surveilled areas in the world, the borderlands between Mexico and the U.S. have become increasingly a land of extremes. Anyone can see this just by looking at the landscape, but only a poet can disentangle that harshness from the personal realities of navigating a space that serves as both deliverance and unwelcome.

At a later point in his essential collection, Zamora opines about the loss of place. Leaving El Slavador to reach the relative safety of the United States causes the poet to feel a sense of regret or shame. In the poem “Vows,” the speaker mourns, “you can’t know what it’s like to have that place / disappear, those brown waves, those bright-orange crabs, / what I really mean when I say I can never go back // is I wish to lie next to you every morning.” The characterization of place in Zamora’s poems is a striking part of the collection. It holds a strong influence over those who have been forced to actively navigate shifting landscapes.

Javier Zamora, Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon Press, 2019)

When U.S. immigration policy forced migrants away from cities and out into the inhospitable environments of remote areas along the border, the landscape became an enforcer of hostility. In literature, place often operates as character, and rarely is this more evident than in that which is set within the borderlands. For migrants anywhere, traversing vast swaths of land or sea is a quest of epic proportions. Immigration and migration is one of the defining aspects of contemporary identity. The stories of those who have experienced that quest firsthand deserve to be elevated. In the US we have somehow gone from the Statue of Liberty to the border Wall. Understanding this shift is one of the critical projects of the current era.

The intention to write an essay such as this, one in which the socio-political and historical realities of a region might be examined and illuminated via works of imaginative literature, remains a difficult task. This is in part due to personal distance from the identity and realities under discussion, but more importantly, the task remains complex due to the unstable critical framework upon which one might consider the complex nature of the US-Mexico borderlands. John D. Riofrio advances the notion, among others, for a larger critical paradigm in his book Continental Shifts. The idea of “hemispheric studies” recognizes the imbalance of power between the US and Latin America, and considers the history of influence and invasion when interpreting a given text. It’s the order of the day to analyze art in the context of the concrete view of the way space and capital have been ordered throughout history. This essay does not contend to contribute to a discourse of area studies, but rather looks to decipher interpretations of experience through the works of artists directly connected to such history. The literature discussed here might be considered “Hemispheric” in that they expose the dynamism of a region that has been a frontline for global development.

The new novel, Tears of the Truffle-Pig by Fernando A. Flores offers a riotous vision of the US-Mexico borderlands. Born in Mexico and raised in South Texas, Flores portrays the near future of his homeland as an epicenter of illicit trade and organized crime. There is little mention of the world outside the borderlands within the novel, evoking an isolation that is a very present reality today. The main character of the novel, Esteban Bellacosa, a man who in fact is not very bellicose, lives in a border town and travels between the US and Mexico freely throughout the novel. His ability to exist on both sides of the border, while not explicitly mentioned, seems a privilege he’s gained through familial roots in the region, though his crossings are not exempt from the common stresses of passing through what is one of the most heavily fortified borders, with three walls and other earthen barriers. Bellacosa, whose wife and young daughter have died years before the novel opens, navigates the hostile region much as one might today, conducting business while witnessing the turmoil that exists on either side of the border.

Peculiar to the world of Flores’ imagination is the existence of a clandestine process of creating genetically modified organisms: “In the wake of the food shortage, ‘filtering’—the artificial production of an organic substance—had been explored to speed up the growth not only of fruits and vegetables but also of animals for corporate farming.” At this time, drugs have been legalized and their trade is no longer viable on the black market, so this new technology has been co-opted by the leader of a crime organization and become part of a nefarious network of illegal trade among wealthy clientele. The novel’s filtered Truffle-Pig, an ancient, mystical beast that has been genetically engineered along with other various extinct and imagined creatures to supply buyers with fancy meals featuring exotic fare—all of this in a world suffering from food shortages. An even more disturbing aspect of this network is the manufacture of shrunken heads. Sold as expensive relics, these items are crafted from the heads of individuals with indigenous ancestry, obtained from an actual ancient artifact or by killing a living person.

Flores’ novel both reimagines and memorializes the borderland region as a space of brutal hostility. Its vast stretches of rural desert continue to serve as an ideal locus for illicit trade. The novel reveals an especially pessimistic view of the region’s future. A history of violence repeating itself. But like the best speculative fiction, Flores also makes room for optimism, with a respect for the ancient culture rooted in the region. One of the ending salvos of the novel finds the protagonist at the edge of the desert:

the land many people claimed God had yet to finish. Looking at the gold, glittered sand and blurry horizon, Bellacosa was sure that not only was the land finished, but that God had destroyed it many times over.

He laments the disappearance of native peoples and, having seen the ills of his contemporary world close at hand, he despairs over his lost family and the life he might have had.

Fernando A. Flores, Tears of the Truffle-Pig (FSG Originals, 2019)

David Toscana, The Enlightened Army, Translated by David William Foster (University of Texas Press, 2019)

Tears of the Truffle-Pig is a thrilling read that deals head on with the catastrophes of a region’s history of subjugation and consumption. Flores deals with these issues smartly, imagining a world not too distant from ours, where the argument over immigration and border security continues to haunt the landscape. The novel is very punk in its outlook; its wisdom reads as if it could be drawn from a tarot deck—a quality that feels both out of place yet justified, like one single veneer overlaying a cultural space brimming with complexity.

Another recent novel takes on an even more humorous, if less surreal, look at the borderlands. Turning to the not too distant past, The Enlightened Army by David Toscana, translated by David William Foster, deals with the history of American invasion and annexation of Mexican land. The unlovable protagonist, Ignacio Matus, is a school teacher in Monterrey in the 1960s. Matus is a derisible nationalist who despises the United States so much that he recruits a group of schoolchildren, the so-called “enlightened ones”, to embark on a mission to cross the Rio Grande and reclaim Texas for Mexico. The delusional General Matus is portrayed as a Mexican Don Quixote, hellbent on his mission, and preserving an honor only he knows he possesses. Intrinsic to the folly of the tale is the absurdity represented by the history of the US-Mexico border. The precocious enlightened ones take on the seriousness of their mission with the zeal of their twelve-year-old imaginations. They carry guns as they march through the desert towards the border, taking turns riding a mule-drawn cart, eventually and unwittingly abandoning their general, believing him to have been slain, when he had actually left for a nearby bar.

When they reach at the Rio Grande, Fatso Comodoro, who vies for both honor and respect within the small band of kids, makes a telling observation:

Comodoro looks at the ground he’s walking on, looks at the ground on the other side, and it’s hard for him to imagine that each piece of terrain belongs to a different country. Matus is right, he says. What’s on the other side is also Mexico, it will always be Mexico, no matter what wars get lost. Or get won, Milagro says to him, because I didn’t come this far to lose.

To a child, the consistency of the terrain makes the concept of a border hard to understand. But his comments also demonstrate how easily a tendency towards nationalism can be taught to children, especially those who play imaginary war games. It illustrates both the arbitrariness and the danger of a border that bisects what is and has long been a most homogenous regional culture.

A moment later, another young enlightened one, the naïve Milagro, smacks the mule and orders it to move forward. “Come on, don’t stop until our country is behind us, forget about home and move forward, head up, show us the vigor in your stride, run toward the American dream.” Of course, Milagro has the concept of the American dream backwards. The group is crossing the river on their way to the Alamo so that they might storm the fortress and reclaim Texas for the fatherland. Toscana is lampooning all of those who’ve been in the very same circumstance, about to cross the river hoping to experience the liberation of the so-called American dream. Surely the children have heard the term in its proper context, which is why Milagro’s misuse of it is so hillarious. Toscana’s novel pokes fun at the history of the US-Mexican border, lambasting those who cling to either side of it.

The most striking feature of these works of literature is the way they play with a regional narrative. Each author navigates the psychological space of the region in a different way, each with a unique take on how the landscape has captured the hemispheric imagination. Zamora’s poetry in Unaccompanied is a love letter to his native El Salvador from the other side of the US-Mexico border. Tears of the Truffle-Pig acts as warning about the consequences of the borderlands continuing to remain a hostile place in the future. The Enlightened Army satirizes the tension between Mexico and the US and the struggle for control over a dynamic region. Reading these books in English is an illustration of “the inward folding of the Americas,” as described by Riofrio, whose work seeks “a theoretical grounding that sees the two hemispheres as more intimately entwined demographically, culturally, and ideologically.” The current migration occurring across the US-Mexico border has necessarily been sensationalized in the media because of this very idea. The hemispheric integration at play represents a global trend of spatial reckoning. Especially in the western hemisphere where the history of conquest has led to the globalization and crisis of late capitalism. Latent within these works though, is a reclaiming of creative power. With voices like these, we can feel a little less hopeless, even when they portray despair and folly. American readers should take note of how this unique landscape is shifting the cultural identity of both the place itself and society at-large.

Gabriel Boudali is a writer living in Richmond, VA.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 15th, 2019.