A line in the sand

Josh Kun is a professor in USC's Annenberg School of Communications.


The Contemporary U.S.-Mexico Border and Its Future

Fernando Romero

Princeton Architectural Press: 318 pp., $35 paper



187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border

Undocuments 1971-2007

Juan Felipe Herrera


City Lights: 352 pp., $16.95 paper

The U.S.-Mexico border is a 2,000-mile geopolitical line that runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, slicing through 10 states, two deserts, at least four different regional accents and at least three different philosophies on how to cook meat, all while changing shape from rivers to rocks to ranch fences to wooden posts to menacing metal walls rigged with electronic sensors.

Yet the border has never been just a line on a map. CNN’s Lou Dobbs knows this as well as a Tijuana local who wakes up to the smell of U.S. Border Patrol tear gas. It is a machine and a metaphor, a tool and a scapegoat, an entire cosmology and, especially these days, a political quagmire as laden with quicksand as the mention of a Palestinian state at a Passover table. There’s no way to talk about it without getting lost in circuitous, maddening debate.

Take your pick: The border is a problem, its own country, a drug funnel, a sun-baked cemetery, a desert DMZ. It is the death knell of America or its promise. It is a scourge of crime and assassination or the laboratory for Mexico’s booming future. It is the leaden footprint of America’s imperial past or the front line of a Mexican invasion.

No wonder, says Mexico City architect Fernando Romero: It cuts between the planet’s leading immigration nation and its leading emigration nation. Throw in a combined population of more than 12 million people (estimated to double by 2020), a million daily crossings and as many as 20,000 Border Patrol agents by 2009, and you have the makings of what Romero has dubbed the “hyperborder.”

In his new book, “Hyperborder,” Romero attempts to sidestep the debates and lay out an accessible, and handy, gallery of tables, charts, maps and photographs that illustrate the border region’s complexities and its impact on U.S. and Mexican life. For Romero, the hyperborder emerged with the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 1994 tornado that wreaked havoc on the rural Mexican economy and left a flurry of problems in its wake: a dizzying population boom, teetering infrastructures, scarce water supplies, industrial pollution and drug-smuggling violence.

Romero’s goal is not simply to document present conditions but also to strategize for the future. He dreams up 38 prophecies in a playful folio of fake news articles. Dry objectivity suddenly becomes border science fiction: Mexico will be the capital of nursing homes for Americans. It will feed a black market for water. The United States, Canada and Mexico will form a union. The Silicon Valley will be replaced by the Nano Valley in Baja California. The most sought-after college graduates will come from “bi-cultural universities.” Speaking fluent Spanish will be a prerequisite for the U.S. presidency in 2020.

Like all good science fiction, Romero’s scenarios are born of current realities, and for him -- despite massive inequities -- the key reality is interdependence, so much so that “one nation’s future depends on the other,” he argues. More Coca-Cola is consumed per capita in Mexico than in any other country; money sent home from the U.S. exceeds local incomes in five Mexican states, and Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in both countries.


Romero’s statistics could be lines from “Mexican Similarities, Mexican Differences,” a poem that opens Juan Felipe Herrera’s “187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border,” a ferocious collection of the veteran Chicano poet and activist’s work from the past 30 years. “You eat lettuce we irrigate lettuce,” writes Herrera, who spent most of his childhood traveling the fields of California with his migrant worker parents. “You watch Oprah we watch Oprah.”

These poems trade Romero’s hyperborder for the human border, splintering his headlines and policy reports into broken lines of finger-snapped, conga-popped verse that reacts to the 2006 May Day immigration march in downtown Los Angeles, the mounting murders of women in Juarez and the thousands of “desert warriors” who’ve lost their lives trying to cross the line, “so numerous they seemed / like the desert itself / busted black the color of smoke.”

Herrera crosses generations and borderlines, bouncing between English and Spanish, between El Paso and Taos, Chiapas and Santa Monica, San Diego and Tijuana. Whereas “Hyperborder” relies on official data, “187 Reasons” is a dispatch from the people’s border, an anthology of a life lived by a “migrant homelander” with “a triple landscape in my head.”

Herrera’s chapters open with free-form prose diaries he dubs the “Aztlan Chronicles,” quick autobiographical impressions set in such places as a train stop in Riverside (where he now teaches at UC Riverside) and San Francisco’s Mission District (where he wrote poems on an electric typewriter bought with a National Endowment for the Arts grant). He muses on the impact of remittances. “It all dawns on me,” he confesses. “The migrante is the new double-headed warrior like the Sacred Eagle Girl maiz deity of the Huichol-Tatei Werika Wimari -- a double-headed eagle, she refashions borders.” These are new maps we’re living, and Herrera is our poetic cartographer. And he positions his poems not as conventional texts, but as illicit missives, “undocuments” that breeze by checkpoints as fast as wired currency.

Herrera’s take on the hyperborder has a different chronology; it goes back to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the U.S.-Mexico war of 1846-48 and the Chicano movement of the 1960s (when Herrera tossed a Molotov cocktail into a “no Zapatas allowed” UCLA frat house -- it didn’t go off). His poems cast the border as a story with ancient echoes, overflowing with spilled blood (“blood in the border web, the penal colony shed, in the bilingual yard”) and erased memory (a haunting chorus of “seed-voices”).

He writes with a Beat-like torrent of sling-shots and trippy hallucination, equally at home watching Chicanos in “Toyota gangsta monsters” with “oye como va in the engines” as he is imagining himself as a punk half-panther. More than once in “187 Reasons,” his poems read like border-blasted takes on Allen Ginsberg’s epic American spew, “Howl.” Except Herrera’s America is “a grid of inverted serapes” where the best minds of his generation -- angel-headed hipsters in Indian drum circles high on Thelonious Monk and flush with “a Califas glow” -- have been driven mad by the Minutemen, Proposition 187 and miles of new border fencing.

Because Herrera has worked so long in the trenches of border art and politics, it’s easy to imagine that his strategy for an interdependent future would be a lot like his 1968 vision: “a healing net across borders churned with brown clay, rain clouds, open arms, yerbas, a single leaf from the eucalyptus for each one of us. This is all you need. Breathe in, breathe out, this green wind makes you strong.” We all need to take a deep breath. It may not heal the hyperborder, but our mingled breath will pass through it to the other side. *