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Project Premises ::
Orlando Lara ::

The purpose of this essay
is to make explicit some of the
conceptual premises that animated
the photo-documentary project.

:: Walkers in the Maze
     Walkers : Land : Water : Objects : Crosses : Hope ::

Since the mid 1990s, at least three significant events have altered the face of southern border enforcement in the United States, the inauguration of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Operation Gatekeeper and its offshoots, and most recently the restructuring of the INS as part of post September 11th national security measures. As a result, now more than ever, the southern border landscape has become a maze of contradictions that nonetheless produce strategic effects, which can be observed in the details of the social landscape, the reiterated practices of surveillance and apprehension, and the objects that produce and are produced by the contemporary U.S.-Mexico border. The photographs and objects that I discuss in this essay are for the most part located on the Arizona side of the Tohono O’odham Nation where the maze has become especially complicated in recent years. Reservation Jugs

The passage of NAFTA in 1994 coincided with the greatest increase in border enforcement in the history of the Border Patrol.[1] To give you an idea, in 1984, about 2,500 agents patrolled the 2,000-mile border while in 1993, that figure increased to 4,000 agents.[2] As of 2005, the number has swollen to a force of 11,000 agents[3] managed under a projected budget of 4.4 billion dollars this year.[4] Admittance into the NAFTA trade circle required that Mexico abolish its system of communal land tenure, called ejidos, and fully privatize land ownership. According to state rubric, rural farm workers would be ‘free' to privately own their land or else sell it to the highest bidder. Unable to compete with goliaths of industrial farming, campesino farmers have most often chosen to sell their land. One effect has been that Mexico now imports most of its corn from the world’s largest exporter of corn product, the United States.[5] Hard Rock Café, Oaxaca

Rural farm workers and indigenous people in Mexico who felt ties to the communal tenure and tilling of land were the ones who felt most threatened by the NAFTA impelled changes in agrarian and trade policy.[6] In the aftermath of a massive devaluation of the Mexican peso, they felt confronted by a stark choice, counter state policies of modernization in the manner of the Zapatista rebellion or begin a journey to odd jobs in Mexican cities, to maquiladoras at the border, or to dólares in the United States. Migration, thus, became a service not only to one's family but also to one's nation, and sending money back home became its most essential ritual.[7] This feeling of being forcefully displaced from one’s homeland and its resonances with the “Trail of Tears” inspired the naming of this photo-documentary project, Sed: A Trail of Thirst , which I exhibited in Houston, TX as part of FotoFest 2004 in collaboration with Delilah Montoya, a professor of photography at the University of Houston.

In 1998, anthropologist Josiah Heyman was one of the first to point out that the oppositional policies of NAFTA and Operation Gatekeeper simultaneously promote and oppose globalization and that this contradiction could be seen in specific interdiction tactics. The Border Patrol, he informs us, sees many more border crossers through its night-vision scopes than it can handle. After agents apprehend those migrants who they choose to pursue, the agents take them to a Border Patrol station where they are quickly questioned and given the option of ‘voluntary departure.' Most take the option and thus waive the right to a deportation trial. Within minutes they are transported back to the U.S.-Mexico border without a formal record of apprehension. This practice saves the U.S. the unwieldy costs of incarcerating millions of Mexican citizens awaiting deportation trials, but allows the migrants to make another attempt, one that will eventually succeed and produce the continuing labor supply that US employers require.[8]

However, as Heyman recognizes, it is not enough to give U.S border enforcement policy the mere diagnosis of failure. Both humanitarian and vigilante groups declare that the ‘flow' of undocumented migration has not been reduced by current strategies. Scholars and human rights groups add that the trails have only been redirected to more dangerous terrain where the deaths continue to accumulate.[9] In this 2003 Humane Borders map , it is clear that migrant deaths have concentrated in the Tohono O’odham Nation and in the Douglas, Arizona area where rancher vigilantes such as the Minute Man project have gained notoriety for their migrant hunting. The assertion, often called the ‘funnel effect” is crucially true, but the question must still be asked, what is served by this failure of border enforcement?

Foucault's study of the birth of the prison is here useful. In his analysis, the repeated failure of the prison system to achieve its goal of reducing crime and reforming criminals was not the most revealing pattern, but rather, it was the repeated attempt to address this failure through a more intense application of the principals of discipline and surveillance that had already 'failed'.[10] Such is the order of business at the U.S.-Mexico border today, the repeated application of border enforcement strategies that fail to reduce illicit migration. Foucault's answer to the failed practice of incarceration is instructive in understanding the effects of this failure:

"It helps to establish an open illegality, irreducible at a certain level and secretly useful, at once refractory and docile; it isolates, outlines, brings out a form of illegality that seems to sum up symbolically all the others, but which makes it possible to leave in the shade those that one wishes to – or must – tolerate (Foucault, 273)."

For Foucault this tolerated illegality forecloses the possibility of a more “popular illegality,” a more direct confrontation of authority, for example, in the context of migration, a massive strike of undocumented laborers in the United States, A Day Without a Mexican (2004). Border enforcement and surveillance thus creates a particular kind of ‘docile body,' one that achieves a useful level of productivity and obedience precisely due to its illegality. According to this theory, the undocumented immigrant imagines himself under the constant glare of surveillance and thus works harder and cheaper. However, the social labor produced under this ‘panoptic' arrangement[11] is alienated from its illegality in such a way that the delinquency of the employer remains tolerated, in the shade of but not outside of the law. In a 1986 film series , The Mexican Tapes: A Chronicle of Life Outside the Law, Louis Hock films a restaurant worker who has a similar insight, “my work is not illegal, only me.”

The question can be asked a different way, how and why is the Border Patrol called upon to participate in the fabrication of an illegality that it is supposed to combat? In Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary, Joseph Nevins, a social geographer, argues that reiterated border enforcement strategies serve to reinstate ‘illegal' entry as a problem of national security and the ever-increasing intensity of border enforcement as the only possible solution to this problem. The recurrent performance of migrant apprehension does not then merely produce docile worker subjectivities, but also recreates the national sense of a safe and coherent ‘American' self.[12] The perceived urgency of this need and the subsequent contraction of what it means to be an ‘American' has only accelerated in the post 9/11 state of national insecurity. Through this reiterated performance of boundary and identity production, the possibility of imagining alternative solutions to alternative problems is almost entirely foreclosed.[13]

Yet since the turn of the millennium, in this decade without a name, several humanitarian and faith-based organizations have worked to reshape the terms of the debate by drawing attention towards the increasing frequency of death on the border . Since 2000, one migrant has died for each day of the year. That's about 350 deaths per year for 4 years and running. But the deaths started earlier. Between 1996 and 2004, more than 3,000 migrants have perished along the border, which only includes those who have been found and identified as undocumented migrants.

These activist organizations have followed three principle strategies, Humane Borders places water stations . at strategic locations, Derechos Humanos documents and makes public the incidents of death, and the Samaritans rove out into the desert and attempt to encounter and assist migrants in distress. The main thrust of the efforts have been to save lives and broadcast the need to create border enforcement policies that are more humane, “to take death out of the migration equation” as Humane Borders assertively declares.

The Border Patrol has responded to the call. It now includes the saving of lives as one of its principle tasks. In 1998, it implemented a Border Safety Initiative and created it's own humanitarian wing, BORSTAR. On average, the Border Patrol claims to save the lives of 4 migrants every day and announces quite proudly those migrants that it notably saves on its website. Afterwards, of course, those migrants are deported. Naturalization

One of the most so-called ‘humane' tactics that the Border Patrol has implemented is the installment of emergency beacons in critical points in the desert. This act followed a much-publicized incident in May 2001 in which 14 men out of a group of 26 were found dead along The Devil's Highway in west Arizona. Literary journalist and poet, Luis Alberto Urrea retraces the trail of these men in his book of the same title in which, we discover, that an eighteen-year old "Rooster Boy" led these men to their deaths. It has become a recurrent narrative in the offices of the Border Patrol. Evil or at best incompetent coyotes draw their clients into the perilous desert, lose their way and take their clients' money promising to return with water or a vehicle but instead leave them to die. If they are lucky, the ‘Pinche Migra' arrives in time to rescue their half-conscious dehydrated bodies.[14] Such was the story of those 14 men, a story that mobilized both humanitarian groups and ‘sentimental' border patrol agents into action. In his book, Urrea describes admiringly an agent's “engineering marvel,” a six thousand dollar “lifesaving tower” through which migrants can activate an emergency rescue.

At first glance it sounds like a paradox, “bleeding heart” Border Patrol agents? But upon closer inspection, we can see that placing water and placing rescue beacons are two different things. The water stations allow the walker to continue on his journey. The beacons along with the interdiction strategies that have led migrants out into the desert, in effect, appropriate the language of humanity even as they execute the very goal that border enforcement is meant to accomplish, the production of the repentant migrant who in his delirious despair chooses the path to safety, the prescribed path away from los dólares gringos. In a moment of heightened emotion, Urrea describes this migrant:

“When Reymundo died and slid from his father's arms, his father lurched away into the desert, away from the trees, crying out in despair. Some of the men said he took the American money he had saved for their trip and tore it into small bits… He was shouting and crying and throwing money into the air, and he walked until he fell, trying to swim in the dirt as if he'd fallen into a cool stream (Urrea, 167)."

What Border Patrol Chief would not love to hear more migrants say after such an ordeal, “it was better never to have come at all” even if in the back of their mind what they really mean is “not that way at least.” It is a triumph of power, when the disciplined subject learns to make the ‘right' decision for himself. Such humanitarian efforts are thus not an anomaly of border enforcement, but their nearest successes.

In the Tohono O'odham Nation, fourteen emergency beacons have been installed in the reservation while 5 water stations maintained by Rev. Mike Wilson , a Tohono O'odham Presbyterian minister, were recently confiscated by tribal police. In his view, the act amounts to no less than sacrilege; “those stations could have saved a lot of people's lives this summer,” he told me over the phone a few weeks ago.

A sand encrusted music tape, a lottery of cards, a jug of border brand water, a torn piece of paper with a name and a phone number. These are some of the things that get left behind like ghost trails of lives that have moved on or merged into the Arizona sand. And they are some of the images that Delilah Montoya and I collected during the weeks of Epiphany in the last half of January when a majority of migrants begin their trips to the United States in order to avoid the heat of the summer sun and to spend the last days of Christmas with their families. During those winter months, the incidence of death drops considerably compared to the summer months when bodies are found in groups of two or three each day. Yet it is during winter, when the landscape is most full of desert walkers, that there is the greatest feeling of absence. This is one reason that the images are so haunting.

When you begin to look more closely at the objects that are left behind through a kind of archeology of the contemporary past,[15] you start to see signs of the hope and dignity that people carry along with them, that help them make it through the journey, even if in this social landscape the rules of what it means to be a human are so inverted that wild horses are freer to move than people without papers.

Through the objects and images that I have shared with you in this presentation, I have attempted to show visible evidence of the power lines and desire lines that traverse the contemporary U.S.-Mexico border, how they converge and diverge, how they shape each other and press themselves into the very landscape that border walkers travel.

Landscape architects first used the concept of desire lines in order to describe the well-trodden paths that pedestrians carve into areas not intended for walking but that nonetheless indicate a reiterated choice to take a disallowed path. Realizing this, the designers are faced with a choice, alter their designs to match the common desire of the people or find a way to force compliance, put up a sign, construct a fence. The U.S. has repeatedly opted the latter at its southern border, and repeatedly, walkers have pressed new desire lines into the borderland soil .

It was United States entrepreneurs who first built the power lines that migrants follow on their journey north, power lines that now transport electricity produced in Mexican energy plants to American homes while skipping over border shanty towns. These power lines signal another kind of yearning, an appetite for the expansion of labor and consumer markets, and for the maintenance of an American comfort that will continue to carve trails through any configuration of border enforcement that the United States may choose to devise. And certainly no border wall can be constructed to discipline those desires.

But the soil has only recently belonged to a demarcated territory. The residents of the Tohono O'odham Nation know this well. The Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo first carved the imaginary line in 1848, leaving the majority of the Tohono O'odham Nation in the present-day state of Sonora. The Gadsden Purchase moved the line further south to its present location in 1854 but it continues to split the Native American / Mexican Indian Nation in two.[16] And so today, that relatively recent act of imagination and conquest has become a hardened reality where divergent cultural memories meet like old relatives unaware of their common ancestry.

But as the images and stories in this presentation show, the cultural landscape that predates the Arizona-Sonora borderline continues to live and to mark itself into the journey, a journey once followed without fear or shame by the desert people themselves. In addition to the power lines, Baboquivari Peak guides the walkers on their path through this maze of contradictions. From the mountain, Elder Brother, a co-creator of mankind who possesses both human deficiencies and superhuman wisdom, patiently watches, himself a walker in the maze.[17]

It is said that the story of Elder Brother is also the story of every human being, “traveling through life as though through a maze, taking many turns while growing stronger and wiser as he inevitably approaches death at the center of the maze.”[18] But in this trail of thirst, another destination awaits the migrant. The more he or she achieves the goal of a better life, the tighter he fits himself within the iron grasp of capitalism. But the question is too rarely asked, is this really a better life?


[1] Heyman, Josiah. 1998. “Why Interdiction? Immigration Control at the United States-Mexico Border.” Regional Studies, Vol. 33.7, p. 626.
[2] Nevins, Joseph. 2002. Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary. New York: Routledge , p. 197.
[6] Saldaña-Portillo, Mária Josefina. 2003. “The Politics of Silence: Development and Difference in Zapatismo.” The Revolutionary Imaginary in the Americas and the Age of Development. London: Duke University Press, p. 229.
[8] Nevins, Joseph. Operation Gatekeeper, p. 195.
[9] Heyman, Josiah. 1998. “Why Interdiction? Immigration Control at the United States-Mexico Border.” p. 623.
[10] Foucault, Michele. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, p. 265.
[11] Foucault, Michele. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, p. 202.
[12] Nevins, Joseph. Operation Gatekeeper, p. 172-180.
[13] Heyman, Josiah. “Why Interdiction? Immigration Control at the United States-Mexico Border,” p. 621.
[14] Urrea, Luis Alberto. 2004. The Devil's Highway: A True Story. Boston: Little Brown and Company.
[15] Rathje, William. 2001. "Integrated archeology: a grabage paradigm." In Archeologies of the Contemporary Past. London: Routledge, p. 63.
[17] It is important to recognize that I do not yet have permission to use the knowledge associated with Baboquivari Peak and I'itoi in this essay. For the moment, I have chosen to include it due to its uncanny relevance to the issue and also because I have been in contact with various members of the Tohono O'odham community in obtaining this information, who I wish to thank here.
[18] Also see Donald Bahr. The Short Swift Time of Gods on Earth: The Hohokam Chronicles. Berkely: University of California Press, 1994.


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