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Border Theater

Image, myth, and reality clash in the spectacle of the U.S.-Mexico border

This is part two of a three-part series on the border by Michelle García. Part one can be found here, and part three can be found here.

The U.S.-Mexico border is a site of our national desires—a site of fantasy and deception. I am not referring to the roughly two-thousand-mile international boundary marked with ports of entry. Not the place that draws migrants, drug traffickers, and impresarios, all of whom satisfy U.S. consumer demands.

These two strands—a familiar narrative of violence and terror on the border, coupled with a redemption of the nation’s moral authority—are at the core of border theater.

The border that concerns me functions in the service of a collective performance of American identity, one where the essential needs of a nation are satisfied. Through the performance of that border, our nation worships (or at least votes for) false heroes and succumbs to the seductions of cruelty. On that border, basic decency and humanity are sacrificed in pursuit of empty promises of valor. The border I refer to is an obsession, a mythology that holds the nation hostage. It is a theater created in the nation’s own violent image.

In July, while I waited to board an airplane bound for the U.S.-Mexico border from New York City, I encountered the workings of border theater, fittingly, on a television monitor. Beginning in 2017, nearly three thousand children, some infants, had been taken from their parents by the U.S. government at the border. Children were locked in cages and funneled into a network of facilities where abuses, including sexual abuse, reportedly occurred. Such abuses were not new; under the Obama administration, documented cases of children abused and drugged while in detention were widespread. Those children had traveled alone. Under Trump, the government has seized children after aggressively enforcing a misdemeanor crime, unlawful entry, against their parents, many of whom were exercising their right to request asylum.

On the television, a CNN reporter was at the scene after a father was reunited with his son, following forty-three days of separation. I saw on the screen a familiar series of images, shot in neat offices or at airport terminals, that had recently dominated social media. In those clips, images of tears and hugs replaced those of children packed into cages and sleeping on floors. Parents and children embraced with tears of gratitude; a new toy was sometimes offered to the child. The nation’s sins were seemingly washed away with tears and a prop. Americans had fixed it. We were, once again, good people.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said as much the previous day when he managed to extract redemption from government-inflicted terror. “One of the great acts of American generosity and charity, what we are doing for these unaccompanied kids . . .” Azar said on CNN, after citing the goodies the children received while detained—education, health care, and even snacks. Yet he ignored the reasons why the children were taken, the terror itself.

These two strands—a familiar narrative of violence and terror on the border, coupled with a redemption of the nation’s moral authority—are at the core of border theater, which has allowed for the construction of an apparatus that now contains 12,800 immigrant children. Since May of 2017, the U.S. government has released fewer children to parents and sponsors, according to the New York Times, resulting in a fivefold increase in the number of children in government custody over last summer. This American gulag is not an overnight creation, a horror brought about by a single election. It is instead the culmination and continuation of a master project, one assembled over time with the public’s support or indifference—a project made palatable through border theater, which has the power to make even the most gruesome terror seem justified or even honorable.

The concept of border theater helps explain why the stripping of U.S. citizenship of border residents, as reported in the Washington Post, can be described as part of an effort to reduce “immigration”; it also helps us to understand why the families who arrive on the border after fleeing violence can be described by a lawmaker and a U.S. general as an “existential threat.” It likewise reframes the vitriolic language used to debate the defense of the homeland, or the invocation of “economic anxiety” against immigration. In a region of distinct national boundaries, perceptions of reality and national fantasy cannot easily be distinguished. 

“This is the present reaching to the past,” Ian Haney Lopez, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told me. “It’s contemporary actors, who have their own agenda, who harness these social practices on the new agenda. We can’t combat this if we can’t understand why they are doing it.”

At its essence, border theater draws inspiration from the nation’s violent campaign against Native Americans and, later, Mexicans. The violence didn’t simply vanish; it instead burrowed deep, fusing with the national genetic code, becoming the essential script of U.S. identity and its expression. Across the ideological spectrum, that violence is celebrated.

“Over the last century there has been an effort by historians, journalists, museums and others to describe racial violence as progress,” Monica Muñoz Martinez, historian and author of the The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, told me. “They put it into films, books, to celebrate, for example, the (Texas) Rangers.” These days, it’s common to see phrases such as “Come and Take It”—the rallying cry of the 1835 uprising against Mexico in present-day Central Texas, which became a symbol used for racial exclusion—slapped on a local yoga shop in Austin. And it’s not unheard of to see a war motto, “Remember the Alamo,” used to sell ice cream.

These phrases and slogans, repackaged for consumer delight, chime with efforts by visual artists, writers, politicians, and the press to construct and perpetuate a mythology contained most prominently in the Western, the border adventure. The influence of such mythology transcends geography or socioeconomic status, gender or race. In its telling, the hero represents the nation and confronts the “savage other” in the far reaches of the “civilized world,” exacting a justifiable and necessary violence before emerging redeemed. Cultural historian Richard Slotkin describes this ritual as “regeneration through violence.” More than mere entertainment, the violence repackaged within border mythology forms the collective prism through which the world is organized and interpreted, including perceived threats. It is, writes Slotkin in Regeneration Through Violence, “the structuring metaphor of the American experience.”

Few places, if any, could rival the U.S.-Mexico border as a theater for the nation’s performance of its violent ritual, always in the name of redemption. This has allowed the border to become a site of perpetual renewal, the perpetual reformation of an identity rooted in exclusion and violence.

In the theater of the border, a man with no previous experience can find a political platform and the language—“build that wall!”—needed to stir up a voter base and become president. He can draw from the border myth, created to preserve and celebrate white supremacy, to construct a perceived enemy—Mexicans and Latinos. And, in doing so, he can receive credit for tapping into an undercurrent of economic and cultural anxiety, namely racism on the part of whites, which cuts across economic boundaries.

But the frontier tale he peddles was not constructed out of a genuine expression of white discontentment. It is instead a tool designed to condition and control the white masses. War with the “savage other” has repeatedly served to quell class grievance. Slotkin, for his part, writes that frontier mythology was a mechanism for transferring the fury of class struggle, white class struggle, onto the Native American, and later Mexican, “savage.” Otto Santa Ana, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, in an article called “The Cowboy and the Goddess: Television news mythmaking about immigrants,” calls the myth a “public dream,” one that inevitably “legitimizes the power of the elite.” Seen through the lens of recent history, the efficacy of this strategy has been confirmed: the present Congress leveraged the “build that wall” mantra before stiffing workers, passing a slate of tax cuts and gutting a program that made health care accessible. 

It seems fitting that the president would call the National Guard after reportedly watching television footage of Central American asylum seekers traveling in caravan.

Taken as a whole, the president’s rhetoric merely reconstructs an unoriginal “savior” narrative about a threat on the frontier. In 2017, professor Santa Ana and a team of student researchers analyzed three hundred speeches and six thousand tweets by Donald Trump; they concluded the tweets formed a single message that mirrored the age-old frontier myth: “America, the once great castle on the hill, is besieged. Its walls are broken, its border lays open, and it is overrun by ruthless invaders.” In this narrative, according to the report “The President’s Intent,” the president is the only party brave enough to “rid the nation of the invaders,” and he will do so “by building a Great Wall to ‘make America great again.’” If the narrative seems reductive, or obvious, remember, too, that it is viciously effective.

Yet border theater amounts to more than merely divisive rhetoric used to rally a base. The report was conducted at the request of a legal team challenging the Trump administration’s effort to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides immigrants brought to the U.S. as children with limited relief from deportation and work authorization. Last year, the report was submitted as a declaration in two other federal DACA cases as supportive evidence of “discriminatory intent,” meaning border theater narratives represented the basis on which policy was formed and reality manufactured.

With this in mind, it seems fitting that the president called the National Guard to the border this April after reportedly watching television footage of Central American asylum seekers traveling in caravans to the border. In these televised images, mothers, fathers, and children are indistinguishable from drug runners, bandits, and the generalized enemy. His supporters seemingly went along with the spectacle all the way to the grand finale. So entrenched is the idea of the border menace that images of children taken from their family did nothing, according to polls, to affect his popularity—viewers and voters looked at children in crying in cages and tipped their hats.

Few symbols represent border theater as effectively as the border wall. Its mere existence fortifies a frontier mythology that has served conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats alike. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s administrations can all claim a piece of the existing wall, an edifice erected to broker an immigration deal, or to otherwise placate political representatives, who have often conflated the 2001 attacks on the U.S. with the perceived threat of savages who loom at the nation’s gate.  

The effectiveness of the border wall in decreasing unauthorized border crossings is debatable, but its usefulness as a piece of set design is unquestionable. On her first week as secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen arrived at the border wall in South Texas with a caravan. Flanked by Border Patrol agents, and with the wall as her backdrop, she stood in strident opposition to the immigration backlog in the courts and the arrival of children to the border—all during a historic low point in unauthorized border crossings. In the theater of the border, the contradictions between optics, words, and facts are dissolved.

This, of course, means the wall is a useful political tool, even from a substantial geographical distance. Last year Alabama Representative Mo Brooks ran for U.S. Senate on the promise to reject any spending bill that didn’t contain funding for the border wall. True to the theme of divinely ordained conquest, he promised to filibuster by reading the Bible.

It works just as well in immediate proximity: Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Ted Cruz each made appearances in front of the wall. Even the late Senator John McCain, possessor of the nation’s coveted hero credential—war hero—embellished his tough guy image with quality border theatrics. In 2010, McCain released a campaign video that featured the “maverick” senator and a law enforcement officer as solitary figures in the vast desert, on the fringes of civilization, before it zoomed in on the men alongside the wall. Next we hear the hero demand the U.S. finish the “dang fence.” Perhaps McCain was inspired by his position in the polls, or the political moment, or the easy access to a readymade battlefield, where even a vetted “hero” must make his mark. 

But just as the frontier battles of the past did not always occur in the barren wilderness, current border theater is hardly restricted to the desolate landscapes often pictured along the border. To construct the border wall, the U.S. government has expropriated hundreds of acres of privately owned land and vast expanses of farms, ranches, and backyards. More land stands to be lost to build Trump’s wall in South Texas. Yet what has and will be taken is not simply property; the land represents belonging, rootedness, and financial independence. Much of the property belonging to Mexican-American families was passed down over generations by ancestors, who survived the arrival of incoming whites and the subsequent violent campaign to wrest their lives away. In other words, Mexican-Americans were not just stripped of property but of a claim to roots in a nation where the citizenship of Latinos is questioned as a matter of expedience and routine.

In its current iteration, the U.S. Border Patrol agent has largely replaced the Ranger as the frontier hero.

This expropriation has of course been joined with violent border activity, which targets immigrants and the more precarious of Latino citizenship. The federal government’s “Operation Wetback” from 1954, for example, was ostensibly designed to deport Mexican immigrants—it’s what folks often call a “round-up,” as if referring to cattle. The reality was a brutal campaign that splintered families and expelled roughly a million people, including thousands of U.S. citizens. In the face of this persisting violence, continued by the present administration, family-owned border land becomes an authentic symbol of survival and resistance against a cruel national project, one carried out by impostor-heroes who offer a cheap imitation of frontier glory.

With Trump’s wall, history is once again subsumed by myth, by theater. The wall will cleave through family farms, backyards and parks, severing access to the meandering river, whose course is always changing. It will obscure or obliterate natural beauty, while reinforcing the public’s distorted mental image of the frontier as ugly, barren, and hostile. Like a movie screen, the border wall receives the ugliest of American-made images.

Meanwhile, symbolic imagery, always central to theater, will continue to circulate. In the frontier theater of the nineteenth century, violent and racist images were disseminated widely through dime novels, magazine articles, and the visual arts. A much-circulated postcard featured Texas Rangers mounted on horseback, the ends of their lassos tied around a group of dead Mexican men, “bandits,” on the ground.

In its current iteration, the U.S. Border Patrol agent has largely replaced the Ranger as the frontier hero. Frequently relied upon images meant to represent the border invariably focus on a group of brown migrants on their knees or stomachs kissing the ground, subdued, with the green-uniformed agents standing above them.

In a yearlong study, Professor Santa Ana found that frontier mythology dominated the narrative framing of the facts in network news coverage of border security and immigration stories situated far from the actual border. In the paper “The Cowboy and the Goddess,” published in 2016, Santa Ana writes that coverage often fit within two mythologies, the immigrant voyage and the American Western, with Border Patrol agents performing the role of hero and cowboy. “Western news stories rearticulate nationalism,” concluded Santa Ana. “Journalists write about immigration to entertain and indoctrinate, as much as to edify.”

It’s true that those wearing the uniforms are often Latinos, and some are women. In border theater, what matters is the green, not the person, just as the cowboy hat and the badge came to represent the border hero of the past. If the notion that border imagery as a recreation of racial dominance, one nearly unquestioned and taken to be almost natural, is beyond comprehension, simply imagine if the men on their knees, or huddled together below the towering image of a man in uniform, were Native American or black. The roots of white supremacy in border imagery may explain why the staunchest opponents of the border wall are black Americans, some of whom are Latinos. (Latino, an ethnicity, can refer to a person of any race.) According to the results of a national poll released by Quinnipiac University in April, 87 percent of black voters opposed the wall, while whites were almost evenly divided, 51 percent opposing to 46 percent in support.

Undoubtedly, the existence of border theater does not preclude criminality; nor does it suggest that U.S. Border Patrol agents are without heroism. It’s true that Border Patrol agents comb through vast ranches in South Texas in the early hours of the morning, searching for lost migrants. Drugs are crossed. Violence occurs.

Yet the distinction between border reality and border theater comes down to the meaning assigned to the agents, to criminality, to facts. The idea of border-as-theater explains why many, perhaps most, local residents do not characterize criminality or immigration as the existential threat feared by folks in the Midwest—seeing the truth firsthand, they are less taken with the circulation of images. And the reality of the border explains why local officials, including law enforcement, frequently dispute characterizations of the border as a lawless netherworld. Just as frequently, however, news reports and pundits note that the tolerance for immigration is inherent to border culture, as if proximity distorted perception.

But to cut through border mythology, we might start listening to those who live on the border itself. Missing from the so-called border security or immigration debate is a basic examination of the border’s meaning. Such a simple question is rarely, if ever, explored by journalists or answered by politicians, who spend tens of billions in taxpayer dollars “securing” the nation. Nevertheless, it’s a question that was posed straightforwardly by border native and college student Victoria Ochoa in an editorial that appeared in the Washington Post in July: 

I wonder what will finally placate the fearful people 1,500 miles away who sent these border agents and National Guard troops to the borderlands. More checkpoints, more families detained, vaster tent cities? Maybe the wall they dream of? For most people, or most open-minded people, a simple visit might be enough to be reassured that this is not a scary place.

Yet border theater is not impervious. It shows signs of wear. The triumphal images of reconciled families have not wholly displaced reality: hundreds of children still have not been reunited with their mothers and fathers, others appear visibly traumatized. The nation has not made it right.

This much was made evident in a CNN report by Ed Lavandera, which featured an interview with Josue Rodriguez, who declared, while holding his three-year-old son: “We’re human, we are not animals. Not even animals are separated from their child.” This was not a faceless enemy, not a bit actor in a moment of theater.

In June, ProPublica obtained an audio recording of separated children crying for their parents, sounds which cut through the noise of border politics.  

And when I traveled to South Texas in July, images of migrants kneeling before the Border Patrol agents were eclipsed, temporarily at least, by the photograph of a two-year-old Honduran girl—her name is Yanela—who stood on her feet, crying, eyes directed in judgment at a border agent.

The images complicated the perception of threat on the border, Ian Haney Lopez told me. In the faces of children, the public confronted a reality. “If we are going to take little children, and they are no threat,” said Lopez, “we are the monsters we thought we were protecting against.”

Neither the process of justice, nor the images circulated on its behalf, tell the whole story.

On the other hand, the reality of the border can be too complex for a single photograph. In the Rio Grande Valley, made-for-TV images of reunited families gave way to a chaotic reality. One late Friday afternoon, I arrived at the offices of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which was representing hundreds of cases. I found attorney Efrén C. Olivares on the telephone. He had received information about families who were possibly being left at a nearby Catholic Cathedral, after his team had already coped with hastily arranged family reunions in the parking lots of detention centers. “The government is literally dumping people on the street,” Olivares told me before taking his next call.     

Later, I walked into a federal courtroom in McAllen; most of the young bodies filling the rows of wooden benches seemed to turn in unison toward the door. Each head, male and female, was plugged into a set of black headphones. And then they turned back to face their accuser, defender, and judge.

This image reminded me of a clandestinely shot photograph, circulated weeks earlier, that showed dozens of shackled immigrants, mainly men, wearing jail-issued orange uniforms standing for a mass trial. The image stoked outrage with its implicit mockery of the notion of a fair hearing. But the accused in front of me were not wearing uniforms; they were not an indistinguishable mass. Most of them, according to court documents, were eighteen years old. Many of the girls wore their hair braided and pulled to the one side, as if they had done each other’s hair while in detention. One girl wore a pretty white blouse and seemed dressed for an afternoon stroll. A boy down the row wore a Western-style shirt with mother-of-pearl clasps that my classmates in South Texas often wore on special occasions.

The prosecutor addressed them individually: “You, being an alien.” The majority were from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, common nationalities of asylum seekers arriving on the border. This group had rafted across the river at different points along the border. All pleaded guilty.

But neither the process of justice, nor the images circulated on its behalf, tell the whole story. Before I attended the hearing, migrant advocates on both sides of the border told me that Mexican immigration officials had removed would-be asylum seekers from the border bridge where they waited to make their claim to U.S. officials, in effect sending migrants from one border crossing to another many miles away. Glady Cañas Aguilar, who lives in Matamoros and who had been assisting asylum seekers on the bridge, told me via Whatsapp that at least one such bridge was closed. She had encountered migrants who had not been permitted onto the bridge near where another group had been forced to raft across. On the same day that migrants declared themselves guilty for unlawfully entering the country, state agents reportedly disallowed others from entering the “right way.”

A month after I left the Rio Grande Valley, the Washington Post reported (on September 1) that the Trump administration is now rejecting passport applications for numerous Latino residents in the area surrounding the new border wall extension, which is located across the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Their method is cruel: they are questioning the authenticity of residents’ birth documents and therefore their citizenship, possibly rendering them stateless. Some of those with U.S. birth certificates, according to the Post, were jailed in immigration detention centers while others had their passports revoked as they tried to re-enter the country.

The policy has been variously described as either part of the administration’s “tough” stance on immigration or as yet another step in a racist agenda. It’s important to add, though, that the area is a Democratic stronghold. Although the revocation of passports preceded the ongoing, hotly contested senate race between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz, the loss of citizenship also results in a reduction in eligible voters. “That it’s about immigration is a red herring,” said Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, the executive director of the Jolt Initiative, which organizes and mobilizes young Latinx Texans to vote. “It is about race and the power of the vote and changing the political outcome. That is truly what they are afraid of.”

Border residents—who have lost farms, parks, and backyards to the border wall—may come to unite with those who tremble at the sight of traumatized migrant children.

Ramirez said the confluence of policies executed in the name of border security has intensified fear among potential Latinx voters, many of whom belong to families of mixed immigration status. In a state where blacks and Latinos are the population majority, this amounts to the silencing of a substantial bloc of residents.

O’Rourke has made a concerted effort to rally support in the Valley, with its multitude of untapped Latino voters. His frequent visits to the region have underscored its potential influence in the upcoming midterm election. The Rio Grande Valley, however, is already beset with low voter turnout in a state that ranks forty-seventh in voter participation. It is certainly possible, considering the nation’s relentless performance of border theater, that citizens will be further discouraged from voting.

But another outcome is also possible: the upending, or at least the revising, of border theater. A nation, after all, needs stories and myths to bring it together. Border residents—who have lost farms, parks, and backyards to the border wall, who have been subjected to a flood of policing and vilification—may come to unite with communities, distant and near, of those who fearfully clutch at their passports, who tremble at the sight of traumatized migrant children or the thought of a hundred shelters holding 12,800 kids. Such a political community could refashion the myth of the frontier, appropriating it for the polls—and not any battlefield. And yet it might seize on the divisive language of the mythic borderland, this time in the spirit of unity and inclusiveness: Come and Take it, Cabrones!