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The Map and the Territory

National borders have colonized our imagination

Translated from the Spanish by Ellen Jones 


A long time ago, a dear childhood friend of mine spent many days walking across a huge desert. Not long afterward, he called me from somewhere in the United States and explained that he could now help me finish paying for the degree that I was, at the time, struggling to complete in Mexico City. I was touched by the offer and relieved to know he was alright after a journey I’d tried many times to dissuade him from taking because so many of the stories I’d heard about crossing the northern border involved death and violence. Some years later, my friend was deported. The next time I saw him was in Ayutla, a Mixe town in the Sierra Norte, in Oaxaca, and as we sat drinking mezcal he told me that he had seen snow. I myself had never seen snow––the closest I had ever got was seeing a thin layer of white frost covering the perishing plants at dawn. 

As teenagers we had dreamed of seeing the world, of visiting other places and experiencing the kind of snow we’d seen in the movies, or read about in the Russian novels we borrowed. He told me about the snow, about how they survived up there in the winter, and about how our people’s community spirit was being recreated in U.S. cities. I think it was the first time I’d heard of that—of communities recreated as a way of dealing with the daily challenges of living in  a new place. In my friend’s case, he joined a small community of Mixe speakers who, when he met them, were planning, among other things, the best way of paving a track in Ayutla, Oaxaca, starting on the outskirts of town and heading all the way into the center. When he returned to Mexico, he became actively involved in the project. In a certain sense, the community had traveled with him, and his own plans were sketched out against the backdrop of the whole community’s wishes.

The Romani people’s relationship with the land, established over centuries, poses a radical challenge to one idea that modern nation-states have imposed on the world.

Some years later, the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (IFBO)––coordinated for the first time by a woman, the Zapotecan Odilia Romero––invited me to Los Angeles to a festival of indigenous language literatures that is organized there every year. It was there that I saw and heard for myself about the indigenous communities from here that have recreated themselves over there, and the structures that sustain them––the way communal institutions of the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca are giving new meaning to many indigenous peoples’ understanding of community living. The struggle for linguistic rights with which I am involved is being developed over there too, through forms of direct action that include the training of Los Angeles police to identify, among other things, what linguistic needs migrants might have over and above the jump between Spanish and English. Watching and listening led me to question my own ideas about the importance of territoriality in the process of identity creation, and even my ideas about what a nation is.

The history and very existence of a Romani traveler population has long had me questioning the idea of territory and its relationship to the concepts of nation and indigenous communities. The Romani people’s relationship with the land, established over centuries, poses a radical challenge to one idea that modern nation-states have imposed on the world: that we must establish physical borders in order to then create processes of identity homogenization within them. Being Mexican, Argentine, or from the United States means belonging  in a legal sense to a certain territory delimited by artificially established borders. The Romani, with their constant wandering, clearly challenge that understanding because they are not anchored to any particular land. From what I managed to glimpse in the interesting conversations I had with members of the IFBO, being Zapotec, Mixtec, or Mixe in Los Angeles challenges the existence of borders and the very idea of these indigenous nations’ territoriality. A Zapotec community continues to exist as a Zapotec community in Los Angeles because it has community representatives elected in assembly, because it organizes community festivals, because reciprocal working patterns are constantly weaving and interweaving the fabric of the community. The pillars of “communality” that the Mixe anthropologist Floriberto Díaz and the Zapotec anthropologist Jaime Luna described in the 1980s have found expression many miles from the original communities from which those Zapotec migrants departed. The battles we fight in our communities in Oaxaca are rooted entirely in our conception of territory; however, in view of this new evidence, it seems to me we urgently need to broaden our definition of territory to cover the communities that have been created north of the border.

Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil at the Library of Mexico, Mexico City, 2019. | Wikimedia Commons

The establishment of a world divided into nation-states, known as countries, is very recent in the history of humanity. Nevertheless, the existence of these countries as naturally given entities has been so powerful that it has taken over our imaginations and our identity narratives, and even projected itself onto our past. The  official narrative of Mexico as a country is rooted in a more than two-thousand-year-old “pre-Hispanic” world in which the concept of Mexico did not exist. It’s as though all of human history only happened in order to give rise to the countries currently in existence––as though every country, every nation-state, was always predestined to exist in its current form. Humanity is organized into states and chooses the representatives of those states via a democratic system that narrates itself as the ultimate endpoint of a civilizing process, although the incredibly violent way in which today’s borders are managed negates that idea entirely.

According to data from the United Nations, the world has been divided into approximately two hundred entities. That’s two hundred flags, two hundred nationalities imposed on thousands of different peoples. Generally speaking, each one of those entities has the same model of internal organization, with an executive, a legislature, and a judiciary. Representative democracy has been established as the ideal model under which these states should be governed. This diverse world, with its many nations, peoples, cultures, and languages, is divided into just two hundred entities. All the peoples, languages, and nations that have not constituted their own state remain enclosed within those two hundred legal entities known as countries: they are stateless nations, stateless peoples, stateless languages. Behind each state, there is a homogenizing ideology that tries to have us believe that all the people who share the legal status of Mexican or of U.S.-American have cultural, linguistic, or identity traits in common. But there is no single cultural trait shared by all of us who have the random legal status of Mexican. What is more, those in power who are involved in the formation of states have denied and contested other types of organization, other identities and territories, other languages not used in state administration. The state has consistently shown itself to be founded on the idea of exclusion. The idea that Mexico’s northern border divides two cultures is imprecise: the border divides two states, each of which contains multiple languages, cultures, nations, and identities. A state is not a culture; it is a legal entity that administrates territorialities by means of a violent monopoly.

These state borders were not established instantaneously, but, once they were, they colonized even our imagination.

The first operation necessary for the creation of the modern state was the establishment of borders: its borders are where Mexico starts, whatever Mexico means. A border is, first and foremost, a violent intervention into a given territory on the basis of an ad hoc legal justification. Why were borders laid down in their current configurations? Before establishing physical barriers, nation-states claimed the right to establish boundaries, and this process took a considerable amount of time, which demonstrates the artificiality of the process itself. In Mexico it was the criollos, the whites,  who established the state; in the United States, too, it was the dominant sector of society. Those in power determined who was to be considered a citizen, which gender should have the right to vote, and what color their skin should be. In Canada, in the first half of the twentieth century, First Nations people who wanted to vote in elections had to legally renounce their right to consider themselves indigenous. These fledgling democracies were designed for the convenience of the dominant sector of society. Likewise, it was those in power who oversaw the drawing of borders; arrangements were made between states and their representatives without ever taking into account the territorial dynamics of stateless nations. This explains, for example, how the Yumanos territory was divided in two—half in Mexico, half in the United States. Mexico’s southern border, which cuts across the enormous Mayan territory, is further evidence of borders’ violent imposition. These state borders were not established instantaneously, but, once they were, they colonized even our imagination. To almost anyone, the shape of a country’s territory looks completely natural, but that image, that figure, symbolizes the enactment of multiple violences. A country’s silhouette marks a boundary on the map of the world, but what it really signifies today is the separation of families, death, human trafficking, and torture.

Memorial coffins for those killed crossing the border fence in Tijuana, México. | Tomas Castelazos

I have read the news about the caravans of Central American  migrants who have decided to cross the Guatemala–Mexico border without papers. It pains me to hear of the thousands of comments people in Mexico have made about them, comments so similar to those that anti-immigrant white people have made about Mexican migrants in the United States. Fear becomes hatred, and that hatred is given a legal justification, when in reality it’s nothing more than an administrative offense: coming into Mexico without papers is not a crime. I have read about Mexicans who say that they would happily give their vote in elections to anyone who promised to seal the southern border, and as an attempt to subvert that terrible narrative I draw the map of a state—a country—that existed briefly during the nineteenth century and that included, in addition to what we today know to be Mexico, the countries of Central America, where Nahuatl is still widely spoken today.

If the huge country I have drawn were to exist now, the current southern border wouldn’t exist, nor would those terrible comments about the migrant caravans. The series of historical events that determined the current silhouette of Mexico also determined what we think of as “us,” an artificial “us” that could well have included people born in El Salvador or Guatemala. Historic events shaped by the dynamics of power determined what the word us means and why others cannot pass freely through all the territories they would like to. The same can be said of the northern border, where the voices of stateless peoples and nations did not play a part in its establishment. “They have no reason to enter a country that is not theirs” is a phrase repeatedly tirelessly without anyone ever really questioning how that country came to be “theirs” or why it can no longer belong to someone born in Honduras.

Even as borders are legitimately and legally established, preventing free passage through the world, the ongoing dynamics of colonialism continue to exert their power. Most people have forgotten that it wasn’t long ago that we could move around the world without passports or customs checkpoints. The historical, economic, and social flows that shaped the emergence of states and state borders also gave rise to mass migration. Colonialism, capitalism, and the patriarchy––the macrosystems organizing our world––are administrated by the legal entities known as countries. It is a legal entity intervening in other states, creating unsustainably violent situations that force people to flee, people who are detained at a border established via a legal framework. It is a legal entity that grants mining companies access to indigenous peoples’ territories, thereby impoverishing them until they are forced to migrate elsewhere and to face another legal entity.

The very existence of indigenous peoples, and their defense of their territories, calls into question the legitimacy of state borders.

The announcement of the current president, Donald Trump, that he planned to construct a wall on the southern border of the United States is the physical evidence of these dynamics. I see it as the discursive, almost natural evolution of the ideology that created a world divided into states, because the wall, as many have pointed out, already exists in a legal, figurative, and objective sense. The  physical, totalizing materialization of borders is the most extreme evidence of the violence on which nation-states were built. Donald Trump’s followers find the construction of an immense, impregnable, metal or concrete wall plausible because they already find the existence of national boundaries completely natural, given that those boundaries rest at the heart of nation-states. But they are an arbitrary concept to justify the existence of the U.S. nationality and passports, creating an artificial distinction between “us” and “them” that legalizes fear and consequently hatred. The promised wall is the materialization of the violence on which the idea of the modern nation-state rests.

Within state borders, the powerful people that created them have systematically ignored other legitimate claims to territory from stateless nations. Indigenous peoples’ campaigns have often centered on the struggle to prevent the state from violating their lands. These peoples in the United States and Mexico have had their lands plundered by the states that contain them. However, by migrating to the United States, the indigenous peoples of Mexico challenge the legitimacy of the border the state does recognize. States strengthen and build walls along the borders they have legally established, but ignore the boundaries of stateless, indigenous peoples’ territories. The legitimization of Zapotec territory has not prevented it from being violated by extractivism; Mexico’s northern state border, however, detains and violates the Zapotec population trying to migrate to the United States. From here in the southern Oaxacan mountains, as someone who has not walked through the desert or crossed the northern border, I see that paradox on which Trump’s wall––both an ideological and a physical artifact––rests: the wall constitutes the reinforcing of a border that dreams of being impenetrable while at the same time penetrating into and violating the territories of the nations separated by it. Within its borders, the state undermines indigenous peoples’ territories, plundering them, annexing them to its totalizing and homogenizing project while seeking to seal the borders it forcibly created.

The very existence of indigenous peoples, and their defense of their territories, calls into question the legitimacy of state borders. In the 1980s in Australia, various aboriginal peoples created their own “aboriginal passport”; it is not recognized by the Australian state but has symbolic power, calling attention to aboriginal peoples’ legitimate claim to the land. Similarly, the North American Iroquois people, also known as the Haudenosaunee, have issued their own passports since 1923 as a way of claiming a sovereignty that the state, of course, does not recognize. Having constituted  itself as the main administrator of the idea of the border, the state, at one radical extreme, hopes to give it material shape in the form of a wall, a supposedly impenetrable physical entity: a border taken to its own limit.

Donald Trump’s wall––a wall that in reality already exists but that is made doubly threatening by his words and actions––is perhaps the evolution of nationalism in the extreme, the physical materialization of a border that began simply as a legal declaration. The wall as a physical intervention makes material the continual violence of the systems of oppression that order the world, makes material the idea on which states were created. Undocumented migration therefore seems to me to question the very idea of the state and its control of territoriality. I think about the remittances that nourish, year after year, the shared fabric of the Oaxacan communities from which migrants in the United States originally came. Mexico’s indigenous migrants completely destabilize the impregnable border of Trump’s dreams, and also strengthen, through their participation in the community and the remittances they send, the processes of collective resistance to the Mexican state, such as those we have experienced in my own community.

I am still here, and I have still never seen snow.

To return to my conversation with my childhood friend, he told me about the people he had met who had lost their lives attempting to cross the border. Stories that those of us who have never undertaken such a feat cannot even begin to comprehend. After that conversation, we often heard news stories about the violence on both the northern and the southern borders of the map we call Mexico, about families separated, cages, tear gas, persecution. “I’d go back and do it again if I had the strength, just to be able to show you  something,” my friend said to me one day when we were talking about such things. The first time he saw snow in the United States he was reminded of our shared childhood and adolescence, and so he wrote my name in the snow and took a photograph. All those years later, he handed me the photo: “I would go back just to show you that there is no border, no wall in the world that can stop our desire to see something we have only ever imagined.” I am very fond of that photo, which I keep safe. I am still here, and I have still never seen snow.

Copyright © 2020 by Yasnaya Elena Aguilar Gil; translation © 2020 by Ellen Jones. This excerpt originally appeared in Let’s Talk About Your Wall, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.