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Historical Perspective

A View of Freedom in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

September 16, 2008

By Robert F. Castro

Robert F. Castro

The freedom represented by Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16) stands in stark contrast to the liberty-denying conditions that exist in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands today.

These conditions are animated by the ever present violence percolating in the borderlands. The U.S.-Mexico borderlands seem permanently inscribed with the hostilities that have punctuated so much of its evolution. It is a place whose genesis is tied to crude ideas involving conquest, expansionism and domination. The violence of the borderlands world seems truly inescapable. Its very history bespeaks intense ethnic conflict between Anglos and Mexicans, as well as ubiquitous violence resulting from this conflict.

The writer Gloria Anzaldua has described the borderlands as a geopolitical space where “the third world grates against the first and bleeds.” In the 20th century, this violence has become institutionalized and disproportionately affects migrant crossers. Early immigration legislation meant to regulate and stabilize border regions has ultimately proven restrictive and unforgiving to nonwhite populations seeking entry into the nation. Further, organizations, like the border patrol, that were originally created to enforce immigration laws, have frequently added to the lawlessness permeating the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

Lawlessness in the borderlands can take many forms. For instance, the rapid militarization of border regions has increased the likelihood that human rights abuses will occur at the expense of migrant crossers. Lawlessness often begets violence and the kind of violence that frequently erupts in the borderlands can assault the soul as well as the physical body.

Through both formal and informal means, undocumented persons are routinely criminalized through stinging rhetoric that summarily dehumanizes them while also transforming them into an alien caste. Harsh anti-immigrant sentiment can be both expansive and unrelenting – pervasively scarring other groups as well.

Sometimes, anti-immigrant sentiment spills over onto legal populations making them a pariah class despite the fact that they have broken no laws. Frequently, the criminalization of undocumented persons often scars Latina and Latino citizens: materially branding them with the illegalities associated with the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. All foreign-looking and foreign-sounding individuals come under suspicion and their activities are closely scrutinized regardless of a person’s actual legal status. Alternatively, anti-immigration activities can disparately impact the daily interactions of Latina/o citizens.

Ultimately, such scarring progressively weakens Latina and Latino populations by making them more vulnerable to the kinds of discrimination that our political and legal institutions are supposed to discourage. In the end, such liberty-denying conditions make the freedom memorialized in Mexican Independence more illusory, than reality.

Robert F. Castro is an assistant professor of Chicana and Chicano studies and an expert on U.S.-Mexico borderlands issues. This column also appeared in Spanish in Excelsior.

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