From time to time, when meeting with my volunteers, we write flash blogs together: 10 minutes to get down our thoughts on a common prompt. We're practicing expressing ourselves and being less scared of blogging.
Forget the borderlands. Think about liminal space.
Liminality, the quality of being on the edge of something. At the threshold.
The borderlands are two thresholds embracing, that space in the middle where you're not quite in one place and not quite the other. When the line between two things is wide enough, where are you when you stand on the line? Imaginary lines, intangible boundaries that fear makes tangible. The wall that hate built.
Gloria Anzaldua called the border "una herida abierta," an open wound. But it's not just about the border itself, the wound itself -- the borderlands are the tender place on either side.
The U.S./Mexico borderlands, a place I love. A place that is neither place. Here, in the Sonoran desert, partially in Mexico and partially in the U.S. Here, on colonized O'odham lands, which stretch across the border on either side, enduring past layers of forced separation. Here, in territory populated by javelina, chiltepin peppers, saguaro cactus, ocotillo, hummingbirds who migrate north and south above the border wall.
The Constitution-free zone, where the 4th Amendment doesn't protect you if Border Patrol decide to search you or your car at a check-point.
A low-intensity conflict zone, where helicopters, drones, ATVs, armed agents, surveillance towers, underground sensors, are all common.
Place of oversaturated sunsets. Of imposing geological formations. Of thorny plants that appear dead, until they leaf out suddenly in the rains.
Come and see.
We are calling to tell you we are free.
I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking about this:
At my church I sit on one side of the long white plastic tables; our guests sit on the other. I ask their names and if they’re traveling with anyone, how old their kids are. I write down their contact’s name and city and then dial their phone number and pass the phone across the table. “If you want to say hello to your relative, tell them how you are, then I can explain how they can buy the tickets for you to arrive to their place.”
People mostly nod, take the phone, and talk with their cousins or brothers-in-law or family friends or whoever it is who will offer them a safe place to stay while they fight for asylum. I try not to listen. Our guests have very little privacy, and it feels like the least I can do is try to give the impression their conversations are their own.
On Wednesday there were three people doing this intake work, while I managed paperwork and made connections. I wasn’t working so hard not to listen. Maybe that’s why I heard it, over and over - we are calling to tell you we are free.
“Hola, tía! Estamos llamando a decir que estamos libre.”
“Cuñado, habla María. Estamos libre.”
“Oye, hermano - estamos en Tucson, Arizona, estamos libre.”
We’re free. We’re free. We’re free.
I’ve been free my whole life and I’ve never once called someone to tell them I’m free.
I sort of work in education.
The partners of this program -- other individuals and organizations, the city of Tucson itself, the border, the desert -- bear the lion’s share of the educational work we do together. My part of our shared work is to set up opportunities for the volunteers, and help them process what they experience. I facilitate encounters with new ideas: with the border, the idea of borders, the single harsh permeable boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, the multiple lines in Tucson that separate race and class, the looming presence of the Border Patrol, the volunteers’ own privilege. I ask volunteers to consider, for instance, how it might feel to inhabit a different body and see the green-slashed white trucks creeping around town. I try to coax or push them into recognition of how institutions and policies impact our bodies, our neighbors’ bodies, our neighborhoods, our lives and deaths.
“Border enforcement” is one way to say, “institutions and policies that kill.” “Militarization” is another way.
Each year, the structure and pace of learning are different. With a new group of people catapulted into this context, I spend the first weeks sussing out what they might be ready to encounter. Some people want to talk during about the harm of white people calling the police during the first week. Others are still struggling with the concept of white privilege in the 10th month. Still others I don’t reach at all, or can’t.
I wonder, every year, how I can best begin this work of concientizacion, continuing from wherever our volunteers are when they arrive. I know that building rapport is key. If my volunteers don’t trust me to stay with them through what is hard, they won’t let me invite them into hard conversations. And yet, if I work too hard to keep them in a safe place, they will remain insulated from the realities I want them to encounter. It’s a balancing act: how can I discomfort and destabilize my volunteers enough that their worldview becomes porous, without pushing them into defensiveness?
Every year I look for new resources, new tools, new experiences, new ways to reach into the lives that have led the volunteers here and gently ask, “Would you consider this other idea? This other way of life? This other view? Let’s work through it together.”
Less than 24 hours after I bought it, I had finished The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu. I devoured this book, this unflinching and profoundly personal story of border life. This is first book I have read that feels like living in the borderlands. A book that helps me to feel -- not just know, but feel -- that I am part of this border paradigm that dehumanizes and destroys beloved human beings.
Cantu is clear: people are being destroyed on both side of the border and both sides of enforcement. He illustrates some of the complexity of the Border Patrol, without excusing or condoning its violence. Instead, he shares the impact that his time in the Border Patrol had on his own heart and spirit, inviting the reader in to see how supporting a dehumanizing institution is itself dehumanizing.
I bought this book hoping it would be a good resource to read and discuss with my incoming volunteers. I read Cantu’s descriptions of the historical construction of the border with gratitude, thankful that he offers the past in an accessible way. I read his graphic depictions of violence and death -- the reality that we live in -- with mourning, and misgiving.
The question I am left with, finishing this vital, luminous, horrifying, heartbreaking, book, is - can my new volunteers handle it? Would it do insuperable harm to our fledgling rapport to introduce this witness to violence? Torn, I wonder: If I protect them from this, if they need protection from this, will they be able to endure these borderlands?
If I protect my volunteers from bearing witness to violence, from having a felt experience of dehumanization, white supremacy, and “moral injury,” am I really protecting them? Or am I protecting their privilege? Where is the line between protection and enabling? How can I begin to disassemble the blinders of citizenship, whiteness, wealth, education, in a way that encourages, nurtures people to reach up and out and begin to peel back for themselves what keeps them blind? What will be too much, what will push them fearfully or angrily back toward ignorance, distance, and comfort?
I talk about my program as a nest, a safe place where people can reflect, grow, experience, explore. True, we have to build the nest new every year, together. It doesn’t exist just because I say it exists.
The point of a nest is to leave it. To jump toward the ground.
We might not read this book in the first month of the program, but it’s too important not to share. We will read it together later in the year, discussing lo dificil y lo duro when my volunteers trust me not to let them fall alone from the nest to the desert floor.
Author, Alison Wood
queer, white, cisgender, U.S. passport-holding, Presbyterian, church-employed, challenged by faith, imagining something better.
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