border classic: review of alan weisman’s la frontera

La Frontera: The United States Border with MexicoLa Frontera: The United States Border with Mexico by Alan Weisman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This sprawling journey along the Mexican border is a classic in borderlands literature: it sings the songs of unsung lives while also crossing into identification with our southern neighbors. Identification can help understanding, yet also risks a multi-culti lifting of non-American cultures above our own, on moral or political grounds.

The author is upfront about his fascination:

…I suddenly felt impelled to embrace that country [Mexico]. I was not satisfied to visit, but I had to live there, absorb its language and colloquialisms, master its local gossip, learn to drive in its cities, to seek Mexican comrades, and fall in Mexican love. [p.xiii]

His visits, accordingly, became more frequent and of longer duration. As I also lead a bi-country life, between the U.S. and Brazil, I understand it when he writes, “I returned to Mexico, and eventually learned that when I was in one country, I missed the other.” [Ibid.]

Lucky for him, and lucky for us, he then moves to the border town of Groom Creek, Arizona, where:

In 1985, I spent a year exploring an area of both nations I’d mostly ignored: the common ground between them. I felt amazingly at home. [Ibid.]

As any good exploration of the border entails, our differing histories is revealing (even if the author’s Pilgrim history is distorted):

Their differences were evident in their response to the discovery that the New World was already inhabited. One, here to enrich a distant kingdom and church, originally came with no women. Its conquistadors bred with the locals, and its missionaries shepherded them into its religion. The other arrived with entire colonies, and either killed the natives who were in the way or fenced them off. [p.5]

The journey starts in Brownsville and goes west. In Brownsville, a local politician is quoted:

“Poverty,” he tells his students, “is a normal by-product as capitalism produces wealth and a high standard of living. But if growth is too fast, poverty may become a direct product.” [p.14]

This tendentious view of growth and capitalism bubbles up throughout the book, as interested outside parties push their agendas, causing confusion as well as pushback. The author visits a community organization along the Rio Grande called Valley Interfaith, whose pamphlet

cover bore the silhouette of a Hasidic Jew, supposedly Alinsky.
“What about this?” Ofelia was asked in a meeting by a worried gardener. “Are we communists?”
“The dictionary,” she answered, “says that word means ‘community.’ I don’t know anything about Castro or Russia and I don’t really care about them. I’m not interested in anybody’s regime. I’m just interested in our community.”

While Ofelia may just be interested in community, her definition of communism is a deceptive one and Saul Alinsky was, indeed, the radical progressive who wrote “Rules for Radicals” which he dedicated to Lucifer. The worried gardener was on to something, but that is not the message the book wishes to get across.

It is a pity. For the author tries to be more balanced by book’s end, including this meditation on unemployment (as the justification for illegal immigration):

But the economics of no hay trabajo is the real struggle, and it is North America’s too. For whatever historic and current reasons, economic systems that do not support their populations proliferate in the hemisphere. At this point, ecology, not ideology, takes over, because organisms seek and move toward resources that will sustain them. [p.142]

A certain fatalism extends elsewhere. For neither is Weisman positive about the logistics or validity of the international border, speaking here about the Rio Grande’s Big Bend:

From this perspective, with Texas and Coahuila equally exquisite and overwhelming, the international boundary is pure fiction. The idea that some human being’s whim in Washington or Mexico City could steal the river that carved all this astounds her. To think that the water could drain away during a tug of war between government reduces the glory of wilderness to the level of a functionary’s warped vision. [p.66]

Besides the human trade, of course, is also the drug one, which Weisman positions this way:

The boundary between morality and depravity intersects la frontera. At their junction, narcotics and weapons pour between the Americas. The political division itself add to their value. Danger heightens and profits increase. As they do, hopes decline and drag the future along with them. [p.81]

On the Mexican side, we get an idea of what facilitates the drug trade, with this quotation of a “military commandante” about governmental corruption:

“You know,” he says, “the system is so rotten that it’s what lets us live in peace. It’s so bad, it’s good. The law doesn’t let you do anything. It encourages you to be crooked. You are guaranteed much more that way.” [p.79]

Yet the author’s enthusiasm for the borderlands and Mexico is still contagious. His detailed and exhaustive journey on both sides of the nearly 2,000 mile border, interviewing dozens of people along the way, is admirable. While I have visited Mexico under a dozen times, and my longest stay was only six weeks, I can smile in agreement when he writes, “Beauty being irrepressible in Mexico, in some places even poverty has a sweetness about it.” [p.11]

About my favorite border-hugging road in existence, Texas Farm Road 170, he writes rhapsodically (if incorrectly in one detail by implying Mexico is not part of North America):

On the Texas side, the road is a dinosaur hide, filled with primeval cracks. Blood veins descend the mountain faces, widening into bleached yellow alluvial fans. Rimrock crops out in organic waves. Above the narrow valley, the wind and runoff carve hoodoo canyons of red and gray clay, filled with cathedrals, minarets, hourglasses, and torsos. Few North Americans ever see this country. They generally avoid these forbidding roads that connect distant segments of nowhere familiar, but Mexicans cherish them as lifelines into regions where no one bothers to come look for them. [p.84]

In the book’s final chapter, he sums up:

The border snaps like a taut band. Its ends fly together and converge in this single issue. Aliens are guilty for invading the United States to earn dollars. Employers are guilty for encouraging them. Congressmen are guilty for failing to pass laws that punish employers for doing this. And everybody is guilty for wanting cheaper vegetables.
Mexico, too corrupt to share its wealth among its own people, is perhaps guiltiest of all. But Mexico blames a legacy contaminated by dictators, churches, kings, viceroys, and Aztec emperors, whose centuries of behavior aren’t easily eradicated overnight. Besides, it reminds critics, American corporations and U.S. Marines created the same kind of plutocracies in a chain of banana republics, which in turn produce more hungry, invading aliens. The United States inherited this disregard for native populations from its own brutal history of manifest destiny.
Everyone – our ancestor and ourselves – is guilty. No law or fence will contain the hungry, devastated people we bring into this world, if there are too many of them to subdue. Blaming this on the communists will not help. It is equally doubtful that visions of nineteenth-century cowboys will solve things, either. [p.181]

His last lines are somewhat ominous:

This frontera is the border between the present and the future. Along it, its people must eventually create yet a newer world. [p.186]

For how exactly are newer worlds created? Cue, Saul Alinsky? La Raza?

But don’t be put off by the mildly biased reporting. This classic of border literature is well worth it if only for the abundant history and beautiful black & white photos, many of the them portraits, by Jay Dusard.

[La Frontera, The United States Border with Mexico, Alan Weisman & Jay Dusard, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, NY, 1986]

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