Beinvenidos to Borderland

Anaïs Ortega Bartet

Article,  Issue Two

If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water

Extract, The Waste Land
By T. S. Eliot

I decided to make a road-trip along the Mexican/United States border because there is something fascinating about the contemporary perception of this line in the sand. Frontiers are physical instances of authority but they are also symbolic and emotional territories. I drove from Miami, Florida, to a small town called Eagle Pass in Texas, and from there to San Diego, California, whilst trying to stay as close as possible to the border.

I met Ricardo Dominguez at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). As an artist, activist, and cyber activist, Ricardo had launched a project called the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT), a technology that uses GPS on a cheap cell phone to help migrants cross the border between Mexico and the United States. It contained experimental poetry aimed at providing not only inspiration for survival, but also sources of food and water caches, security activities, and directions to potentially safer routes. Through his ideas and my journey across part of the southwest, I have been invited to retrospectively grasp another sense of the border whether it is seen as a militarized place for people in transit, a symbol of division, or just as part of the landscape.

The first major walls I encountered were composed of metal left over from the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, built during three operations that took place in the nineties:  Operation Gatekeeper in California, Operation Hold-the-Line in Texas, and Operation Safeguard in Arizona. In Eagle Pass, I saw for the first time a section of the border fence. This part was constructed in 2008, two years after the US Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, which mandated the construction of 760 miles of fencing along the border. Chad Foster, Mayor of Eagle Pass at the time, worried the barrier would harm relations with Mexico and decimate local businesses in a city that depended on shoppers from Piedras Negras, the twin town on the Mexican side of the border. Since most people also had family members living on both sides of the wall, it would also separate communities.

“I remember being in the middle of this little town of 28,000 souls, looking at that metallic, sinusoidal scar surrounded by the Chihuahuan Desert, and contemplating the bodies of migrants’ moving north, their coordinates tracing their long journey towards where I stood.

The flow of undocumented migrants moving through dangerous territories is a long one. Many people get lost, or die from dehydration on their journey.”

The Transborder Immigrant Tool incorporates experimental radical poetry within its platform structure. Ricardo Dominguez considered poetry as a primal form of aesthetics, which in turn became a primal position for investigation, research and intervention. Hacking and poetry belong together because poetic disturbance helped to create a formal structure that allowed something new to emerge. In that sense Dominguez thought radical, experimental poetry would help to shift the conversation, fighting against the image of undocumented migrants as sort of empty vessels, dehumanising them.

For the next stop on my way west, I decided to visit Marfa, a small town of 2000 residents, and a major centre of minimalist art. Marfa is located in the middle of the West Texas desert, a prairie of gravel and grasses 60 miles from the Mexican border. It is a strange, gentrified place with the resonance of a big city, yet is smaller than a rural English village. This strange island stands in the midst of a majestic landscape, framing the traumatic experiences of migrants heading north. In 2016, the remains of 54 undocumented immigrants were found in one South Texas county. Corpses of dead migrants plague the border. The human smugglers, known as Coyotes, leave behind at the border those that cannot keep pace. It is easy to twist an ankle or knee, and the soft sand makes one mile feel like three or four. Considering the poisonous snakes, scorpions, cacti, and thorny brush, you have a recipe for disaster. People attempting the crossing become quickly exhausted in they don’t get help or find safe drinking water.

El Paso, Texas seemed huge after Marfa. It unfolds beyond the fence towards Ciudad Juarez, the largest city in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Juarez has almost double the population as its North American neighbour, and suffers from a bad reputation linked to the presence of the Juarez cartel, notorious not only for drug trafficking and people smuggling, but also the war with their rivals, the Sinaloa cartel. I drove to a point where the view was spectacular, and the two cities blend into each other, obliterating the horizon. From where I stood, I could not see the frontier: the end of one city or the beginning of the other. I thought that maybe a way consider the border is as a blurring our own system, disrupting lines, and disobeying.

The Transborder Immigrant Tool was not purely logistical: the poetry within its structure was in itself a form of encryption, containing opaque, perverse corners. By combining art and activism in this way, Ricardo suggests a method to disturb the regular, rigid categories that govern our social, political and technological spaces. Art has the power to shift and dislocate what is often seen as the centers of constituted power around traditional law, implementation and deployment of governmentality; the wall, who can cross, who cannot cross. It is difficult to govern poetry.

I decided to cross the border for the first time at the end of my journey in California. I left my car in a parking lot close by. It was the busiest checkpoint in the world, but it took me only ten minutes to walk through the San Isidro Port of entry from San Diego, CA to Tijuana, Mexico. There I took a taxi to Avenida del Pacifico, and walked along the beach. When I saw the fence diving into the Pacific Ocean, I knew it was the end of my journey. I watched families and friends talking to each other through the fence. If art can make displacement and division visible in a way that is understood by all, then perhaps where language fails, art can break through.


Writing & Photography
Anaïs Ortega Bartet

Syrup 2022