Memory, History & Activism on the Mexican Border

Part one: introduction by Luisa Passerini

In the fall of 2008, I taught a course in the Oral History Master of Arts programme at Columbia University. The course was on “The Uses of Oral Sources in the Socio-Historical Sciences and the Arts” and involved readings and discussions on the interpretation of memory. Therefore my teaching focused on subjectivity and intersubjectivity as both general concepts and guides for the understanding of memory. Students came to the class with very different experiences of work and study. All of them were very cautious with subjectivity. For months, they expressed clever doubts and posed thoughtful questions about the meaning and the usefulness of such terms. Lance Thurner was one of the most critical, but in a very positive way, acknowledging from the beginning that the subject is protean – although he was not acquainted with the myth of Proteus, the sea-god which in ancient Greek mythology assumes many shapes. This attitude was fruitful, and helped to situate “subjectivity” in diverse historical contexts. At the same time, irony accompanied us all the way, teasing the illusion of claiming to do too much. At the end of the course, some students produced some t-shirts to be worn at the final seminar, with a small photograph of myself and the slogan: “I am subjectivity, we are inter-subjectivity”.

“Subjectivity” and “intersubjectivity”, understood in the sense in which I have been using them in my work on memory, originated in the context of the new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s in some European countries, such as Italy, France and Germany. These terms indicated the potential of individuals and social groups to be the subjects of their own history, whether they were students, workers or women. When the movements subsided, at the end of the 1970s, a generation of militants migrated to the academia and employed those concepts in socio-historical studies. Of course “subject” and “subjective” had been present in this domain for at least half a century, but the political approach gave them new meaning. Besides implying an active stance of the subject, “subjectivity” and “intersubjectivity” also came to connote the cultural forms of subaltern groups.  All of these issues were given a vigorous re-consideration in my class in the Oral History Masters at Columbia in New York city in 2008, where both the campus and the multicultural composition of the students necessarily involved situating the two concepts in a global perspective.Out of that experience, strong friendships developed between some of the students and between some of them and myself. I had appreciated the use that many had made of what we had read and discussed together, in their oral presentations, final papers and the projects they wrote afterwards for PhD applications and scholarships – for which I often wrote letters of reference. Writing references is a lot of work, but it keeps one in touch with the new projects of young scholars. I found Lance’s research projects challenging: the first on the intersubjectivity between activists and local people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, then a project on the death penalty, and then one on the transnational history of the United States’ political and economic involvement in Latin America throughout the twentieth century, with a focus on the migration of ideas and experiences from Latin America to the United States.

When I taught again a course at Columbia in the Spring of 2010, Lance, who was no longer my student acted as my research assistant in a project on European identity; this proved another field of friendly confrontation between us: Europe too has lived through the experience of political walls and is still a fortress trying to keep migrants off its borders. We also discovered a shared interest in contemporary art with political value, and visited together exhibitions and museums such as the Museo del Barrio in New York City. The intellectual and personal aspects of friendship were thus intertwined, another aspect we had been discussing in the OHMA course, i.e. the changing relationships between public and private. In this context Lance and I have exchanged letters such as the one published here.

In a recent visit to London, while staying with my friend Sally Alexander, I had a heated discussion with her on the legacy of the 1960s and 1970s. Sally maintained that in those times we had naïve illusions and our hopes and ideals did not take into consideration the material problems of social change, while I argued that some of those hopes and ideals should be recuperated, updated and be of inspiration for the future – much along the lines of Lance’s mention of the possibility of a re-enchantment of political struggle. After this debate, I took the liberty of showing his letter to Sally, hoping that this would not displease him.

I agree with Sally that some kinds of enchantment are neither desirable nor useful. When I talked to her about the hopes and ideals of the past decades, I was thinking of a form of enchantment of the political world at that time, which included – in particular – the idea of an intergenerational and interclass global community. The present rigidity of identity politics and of the memory of the leftist legacy of the 1960s and 70s is due not only to our defeat at the time, but also, subsequently, to the insufficient understanding of it and its scope, while the slogans and words of order of 68 have been recuperated in a perverse way by the “new spirit of capitalism”, in the terms used by the French sociologist Luc Boltanski in the book with the same title. I am convinced that an insufficient elaboration of the causes and forms of the defeat is at the basis of the lack of our transmission of values to younger generations.

Strangely enough, after many years during which I felt completely deprived of that sense of enchantment, I have started experiencing a similar feeling, in a more modest and individualised way. It is not that I don’t see the widespread injustice and I don’t feel the impotence of today. And I don’t deny that the scale of the efforts to confront the evils of the situation, both local and global, is inadequate. In spite of all this, I have a returning sense of some continuity in the intellectual tradition of political engagement. One of the components of my emergent structure of feeling is the circulation of ideas and people around the world, with much suffering involved, but also many encounters and products of various types. Another component is the existence of some young or relatively young people (aged between 20 and 40) who are engaged in both militant activities and intellectual research. The newborn keep arriving on the public scene, as Hannah Arendt writes in The Human Condition, and intergenerational relations exist, as Lance mentions, both in activist and in intellectual form. I experience this intergenerational bond as a consolation against death, because it induces in me a sense of community between the old and the young that can be prolonged into a sense of unity between the dead and the living. All this is rather mysterious, but it generates a sort of spiritual landscape without gods, populated both by real people and by memories.

I am always surprised that one can teach something. When it happens, it seems almost miraculous, and of course what is “taught” is not what is transmitted, because it keeps changing in the course of the intersubjective process – which is highly reciprocal. Letters such as Lance’s are precious, but what I find invaluable is the exchange that makes them possible and that for me is part of that landscape.

Part two: letter from Lance Thurner to Luisa Passerini

August 2010

Dear Luisa,

I arrived in the borderlands of southern Arizona a week ago.  After a brief but thorough orientation, the group I’m volunteering with, No More Deaths, brought me directly to the border south of Tucson.  I am only now beginning to collect my thoughts about this place, the migrants and other people I have met, and in many ways the border defies my attempts to capture it in language.  Perhaps reflecting all that you have taught me about oral history, life stories appear to be the only way to understand it. The border extends from sea to sea, but its consequences stretch nearly from pole to pole.  To see the far reaching repercussions of this nation’s border policy means looking beyond the narrow frontier, and examining instead those lives that are forever changed by a brief stint in the borderlands.  There is much to say about this and I am uncertain where to start, so first allow me to describe the scene.

The border separates Nogales (Mexico) from Nogales (USA), the former a giant, lively, gang-ruled city, the latter a dormant, diminutive add-on.  Between the two the American government has built a rusty, four-meter high, corrugated steel wall, topped with barbed wire and other jagged things.  The Mexican side of this is covered with graffiti, most of it scrawled in haste or rage.  Some of the murals though are beautiful; crafted with time, patience and fine materials they are evidence of a wider and perhaps international effort to rethink the border between these countries.  Most striking of all this art are the dozens of white wooden crosses that mourn the desert deaths of so many fortune seekers.  For myself and probably many other visitors, these memorials are haunting – a constant reminder of how grave the current situation is.  But I am also surprised how quotidian the wall rapidly has become in my short time here; it has an insidious way of blending into the urban environment.  On the American side most of the border wall is unapproachable, for the land along it is protected for surveillance.  Above and behind, the Border Patrol’s eyes are always there: in the jeep on the hill, in the floodlights and the cameras, in the helicopters swooping across the city.  Beneath all of this, at the bottom of the valley, the border station serves as a one-way valve: anyone can walk into Mexico unmolested, but no one enters the U.S. without scrutiny.  The station is outfitted with large turnstiles made of heavy steel pipes to ensure a mad rush cannot overtake the armed guards.  Mexican officials are seldom around; all the men and women in uniform wear an American badge, and this further establishes that the U.S. is the inside and Mexico is the outside, and that the border is not the meeting of two sovereign nations.

Wooden crosses on the Mexican side (the organization prohibits photographing migrants and deportees for obvious legal and ethical reasons) 

What first struck me when I approached the border was that only once in my many travels have I witnessed a comparable one, and that is the Green Line that separates Israel and the Palestinian territories.  I arrived in the Middle East as part of a delegation of American peace activists back in 2004.  The wall was still new news then and the Israeli and Palestinian activists we met were struggling to figure out how to continue their efforts toward reconciliation despite the heightened segregation of their societies.  The Israeli wall was horrifying, not only for its sheer concrete immensity and the malicious ways it divides farmers from their lands, but also because it is so much more than a wall: it is a highly sophisticated technological system to monitor and control the movement of people.  Since 2005 the Department of Homeland Security (established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks) has spent 4.6 billion dollars building an equivalent integrated system of hi-tech surveillance, walls and patrols in the American Southwest.  Despite these efforts to inhibit migration, several hundreds of thousands of people still find ways to cross this border to make better lives for themselves.  Nonetheless what was once a very porous border is now becoming heavily militarized, with total segregation as the goal.

Art on the wall

The drug war is the unforgettable backdrop to Nogales.  The violence this year has been particularly intense, and this has had a dramatic affect on the conditions of migration.  I spoke with a priest who travels amongst the churches in the villages south of here, and they report that migrants are avoiding passing through this region out of fear.  In the city, the drug war can be perpetually, viscerally felt in the constant presence of the masked and heavily armed Federal police.  Drug trade related violence and the concomitant corrupt officials fill the headlines of each day’s newspaper and it is clear that anxiety and trepidation are widespread.

The place where I work is simply called la carpa, which is a large red promotional tent beneath which we hide from the sharp rays of the sun. Behind us, maybe 30 meters back, is one of the border stations and beyond that continues a rather empty part of the American desert.  All the land is red, sandy dirt; all the plants have thorns; and all the concrete mirrors the burning surface of our closest star.  This border crossing is primarily a commercial port, and hence on the Mexican side we are in an industrial hinterland on the outer edge of Nogales.  Down the hill our closest neighbor is a giant corral where cattle await their turn to emigrate and above us a new housing development looks north to the United States.  Besides the deportees and volunteers like myself, the only other pedestrians in this odd zone are the fruit and junk food vendors who sell to the truckers waiting to pass through customs.  In the mornings I watch as a whole family of vendors collects to clean their bicycle cart; judging by their care this is their finest possession, their capital investment in the border economy.

At la carpa we await the new deportees and offer them our meagre services.  Most of them were deported after being in prison for a month or more, and often their families don’t know where they are, so they all wish to use our telephones.  Many of them arrive bruised and blistered with stories of police abuse and harsh deserts, and to them we offer first aid.  But the health problems I witnessed were also as severe as untreated epilepsy; in this case we used our networks to secure the necessary prescription drugs.  Without exception, all of the new deportees lack any form of identification or any money: these were confiscated when they were apprehended and then soon disappeared.  I therefore spend much of my time here helping them receive money orders and connecting them with legal services to begin to put together the necessary paperwork of life.  Each person’s situation is different and therefore the volunteers and I spend a lot of time talking, building trust and trying to understand enough of the deportees’ experiences to decide how we can help.

More art on the Mexican side

Over the summer the United States changed its routine and began deporting Mexican nationals to the other Nogales border post, about three-quarters of a mile away.  The area in-between here and there is a mixed neighborhood of small tortilla stores, graveyards and some lower-middle class residences.  Most of the services available to the deportees are along this strip and thus they spend much of their time trailing back and forth along it.  During the day the area is sweltering but safe.  However, the Mexican officials, who have their own migrant aid station, Grupo Beta, advise the deportees to flee the sector at night because of the organized and unorganized criminals who victimize migrants.  It is well known that those aiming to cross the border carry large amounts of cash for their voyage and since they are often alone and in a foreign city, they make for easy targets.  After hearing Grupo Beta’s message and before they make it to la carpa, most of the deportees eat breakfast at the Jesuit comedor farther up the road.  Over this simple meal of rice, beans and tortillas, the priest again warns them about the gangs and other criminals.  “Después de que usted usa el teléfono público, ellos saben como recuperar el número de su familia. Y luego ellos llaman mintiendo y les dicen ‘hemos secuestrado a su esposo…’” (“They know how to retrieve your family’s number from the payphone after you use it.  And then they will call and lie and say ‘we have kidnapped your husband….’”)  After these morsels of fear and nutrition they walk down the hill, where a handful of other volunteers and I offer our telephones and first aid.

The Jesuit Comedor

In the past few months, the pattern of the deportees has been changing.  Over the last couple of years, so I am told, No More Deaths catered its resources to the needs of migrants who were detained somewhere in the vast Arizonan desert as they traveled by foot according to the North Star.  They were, in other words, unsuccessful border crossers who had been through Nogales before.  They knew where they were and had some idea of what to do next. But now – for reasons about which the organization has only uncertain speculations – most of the new deportees in this region were picked up by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) somewhere deep within the United States.  Obama’s “tough on illegal immigration” stance – manifest in the record breaking 400,000 deportations in the last year – certainly contributes to this situation.  In effect, most of the people I meet here have lived the majority of their lives north of the border and very few of them have ever laid eyes on Nogales before.

By all means, each person’s story is different, but patterns are emerging through my experience here.  Take Manuel.  He is a very short man with a strong face but slightly atrophied limbs, perhaps due to a childhood disease, and a limp sustained from a racist attack he suffered one summer in Idaho.  He is 29, and has lived in the U.S. since age fifteen.  A little less than a decade ago he met his wife (who is African American – a legal citizen, that is) while living in Phoenix.  They moved around a bit until they settled together in Minneapolis, where Manuel worked as a musician and they began raising two daughters.  They were living their family life when one day Manuel was stopped for a traffic violation, and then, a month later, the ICE dropped him off in Nogales – a city he has never visited before – without money, ID, or shoelaces at 2:15 in the morning.  I did not see Manuel then, but many of the men I did see at that hour just sat on the curb and sobbed.

Night patrol

Manuel’s situation was not as dire as some: his wife had the means to send a money order for two hundred dollars, which I could retrieve for Manuel using my passport as the required identification.  “So what now?” “Me voy, I’m leaving. Terrified of Nogales, Manuel wanted to escape on the first bus out of town.  To get to the terminal, however, one must traverse the city, and thus he asked me to hand the money over to him only after escorting him to the bus station.  Soon he was safely off for the village of his birth, some 30 hours south in Guanajuato.  There, he said, he will collect himself and figure out how and when he will be able to see his family again.  This is what most of the deportees do, or hope to do if they can get the bus fare together.  Some of the others become the victims of local crime, and then who knows what happens to them.  And others, like a woman I befriended named Leslie and her two partners, despite being middle-aged and older, a bit overweight, in poor health, malnourished, and undersupplied, head back out on the five-day desert trek to Tucson.  I am in awe of their resilience, dignity and resignation.

As chance would have it, one of the men I met early last week lived for some time in the Bronx (New York City), not far from my own home in that borough.  He said that he fell in love with a schoolteacher there, but as an undocumented worker he could find no better job than dishwashing.  The typical story, of course, is that a Mexican marries an American to gain legal citizenship here, but clearly the people I met show this isn’t the only narrative.  Instead, in love but still illegal, the discrimination wore this man down, and so I met him on his journey home to Oaxaca, where his American wife will join him and hopefully they can make a happier life together.  Obviously, my country’s efforts to define what is inside and what is outside, who merits rights and citizenship and who does not, has consequences far beyond the states that touch the frontier with Mexico.  Instead, the border extends right up to New York and almost every other city of this land, where some residents and neighbors are unfortunate enough to be unrecognized and persecuted by our government and citizens.

The desert beyond Nogales

Besides the type of work I was doing in Nogales, No More Deaths volunteers spend most of their time and energy hiking far, far out into the spiny desert to leave life-saving water, first aid supplies and food for passing migrants.  Their self-assigned jurisdiction is some 1,500 sq. miles in the southwestern sector of Arizona, through which  migrants travel from Nogales, Mexico to Tucson (the first U.S. destination for most of them) – a several day trip over a mountainous, treacherous terrain.  In this region alone, at least 231 have died this year on the way. Rattlesnakes are abundant, as are scorpions, but the real dangers are the sun and the 110 degree days.  They say that people die in the desert for an injury as simple as a sprained ankle.  The professional smuggler leads the group onward while the weak one trails behind.  Once alone he is soon fully lost and then the hours start counting down.  Since 2005 the situation for border-crossers has grown steadily worse. The effect of the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to secure the border with the wall has been to redirect the migration routes deeper and deeper into the lethal desert.  In Arizona, at this early point in the year (August), the number of bodies officially noted has already reached an all time record.

For more than two decades a network of various organizations have reacted to this situation (besides No More Deaths, Samaritans and Humane Borders are two of the primary organizations active in the desert, although other groups are engaged in local politics, such as the Coalición de Derechos Humanos in Tucson, AZ).  These groups are heir to the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, when faith groups in the U.S. housed Central American refugees who were fleeing the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador.  These networks still show their religious roots, mostly Christian and Jewish, but in my generation more secular types of humanism mix with faith-based activism.  Some of the old men and women are around; they drive the robust youth to our outposts, where they bring their banjos and sing, and tell us about how the world used to be.  The result of all of this is a remarkably intergenerational movement, and this, Luisa, is the most important discovery to me, something I have never found before.

A new wall is built behind the old

In many ways the young activists in Arizona are much like those I joined in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: college grads and anarchists who move south to dedicate themselves to a movement, to a crisis.  Of course moral outrage attracted us to New Orleans, but coupled with hope for a new New Orleans founded on a vision of racial justice hitherto never achieved in this country.  But in New Orleans, in the chaos of the storm-ravaged city, it was exceedingly difficult to find a proper place: an intergenerational connection was hard to establish when so many grassroots leaders were struggling to piece their lives together and the old local civil rights and justice networks were, for at least the moment, scattered by the floodwaters.  At the same time, many competing interests from within and outside the city were striving for primacy in defining the city’s future.  In such an environment, we would search for something or someone authentic to be an ally with (the authentic black community, the authentic community leader), but authenticity always evaporated.  With dreams of grassroots militancy but without local leadership, we resentfully felt ourselves drawn into the large non-profit organizations that managed much of the recovery efforts.  As we struggled to maintain a radical project, a deep, destructive anxiety set in as to what our role was.  Consequently we wasted much energy uneasily trying to define ourselves against the legions of charity workers in the city and this alienated a lot of young, inspired people.  Buttressing all of this doubt was the residue of identity politics, which was heavy in a city that has long defined itself in black and white terms.  This secured the fear that my own intellect and moral compass could not transcend the subjectivity I have developed through a life of white privilege.  After 18 months I left in search of a new direction, as did others.  Many others stayed, continuing to struggle for a more just New Orleans.

In Tucson things are otherwise.  I have already mentioned the presence and cooperation of two or three generations, but also (as a lifelong atheist I’m sorry to say) the difference is faith.  With what enthusiastic joy those Christians accompany the oppressed!  With such shared sense of purpose they join together here!  With one eye on God’s creation, and one on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, they endeavor the impossible task of improvement of the self – a path on which the journey and not the goal is the sweet part of life.  Oh how I covet the ways their politics are bound up with their sense of being.  Radical atheists – so hard we might pine for re-enchantment – remain shy of a world where such magical possibilities feed our imaginations, where the struggle for social justice is to make human communion.

Luisa, you might recognize in this letter the fears and desires that prompted my work that you advised at Columbia University.  As the elder of our own intergenerational friendship, your guidance has helped me through the arduous and never-ending task of evaluating were we’ve been, what came before us, and what we really want.  Always striving, I now carry these fears and desires into my doctoral work.

Thank you for reading my ramblings, and thank you for showing me your intellectual journeys, which so enlighten mine.

Lance C. Thurner

One Comment

  1. lesser of two evils, no? I just don’t see you’re reasoning, it reminds me of “it’s my ball and I am going home!” But if you want more and more republicans, then play on maestro, play on!

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