Lessons From the Border

Duke's Charles Thompson discusses his 1,969-mile odyssey along the U.S.-Mexico border

A woman mourns her grandson marking the spot where he was killed by a border agent in 2011.
A woman mourns her grandson marking the spot where he was killed by a border agent in 2011.

In 2010, Duke professor Charles Thompson loaded up a rental car and set out to document the entire 1,969-mile border between the US and Mexico. He left from Boca Chica, the mouth of the Rio Grande in Texas at the Gulf of Mexico, and headed west until his pilgrimage ended at the beach in Tijuana, just south of San Diego. 

A cultural anthropologist and documentary filmmaker and photographer, Thompson turned his trek into the 2015 book Border Odyssey, which examines the border, its peoples and cultures.

This week, Thompson talked with Duke Today about what he found along that border.

After a heavy rain, the Los Ebanos ferry is tied for the day.

Here are excerpts:

Q: You’re a rare person who has actually traveled the entire border. What might surprise people about the border?

A: The first thing that comes to mind is the diverse geography. It ranges from farm land to some of the most barren desert I’ve ever experienced.  The borderline goes over mountains and through rivers.  What also comes to mind is how diverse the people and their towns are – from Los Ebanos, where a hand-drawn ferry crosses the Rio Grande, to a major, eight-lane highway that connects San Diego and Tijuana.

There’s also tremendous diversity of histories at the border – including histories of African-American people, including a poignant history of slavery forced into Mexico by Americans, which in the end helped precipitate the Mexican American War.  And of course there are many different epochs of Mexican American and Latino history intertwined with the story of the U.S.  Other border people that many don’t think about often enough are the native Americans who live on both sides of the border.

For example: Tohono O’odham is a native American tribe of the borderlands whose tribal lands encompass parts of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.  I’m told that many simply can’t imagine having a wall across their homeland. Their sacred mountain straddles the border. There is no sensitive way to run a wall through a sacred site!

These are just some of the ways the border is complicated and full of surprises. It’s certainly not something anyone could ever encapsulate with a few sentences.

Q: Do you think the public narrative has generalized the situation too much?

A: Very much so.  Take the statement that Mexicans are ‘rapists and murderers.  And then there’s the  ‘bad hombres’ reference.  These are just two examples that point to how wrong it is to paint an entire people with any kind of broad brush, and to vilify people across the border as largely bad.  The critique implies that everything on our side of the border is good is to define ourselves by belittling our neighbor.  Borderlines might tempt us to believe in stark contrasts, but reality is not black and white like that.

In fact, there would be no United States without Mexico. You can’t possibly separate our histories into two separate narratives. We are one in so many ways. Start with the fact that half of our territory was once Mexico. And then consider all that we have done with immigrant labor. Beginning over a century ago, some of our best people have come from Mexico and many have built our nation of ideas and structures. Our juxtaposition makes both countries more vibrant. With the first world pushing against the developing world as it does in no other place on the planet, we do experience difficulties, but our proximity provides creativity and possibilities like nowhere else.  The key is that we are neighbors.  When I see our neighbor through this lens, I can never go back to thinking in terms of stark divides.

Q: There are actually more than 700 miles of border wall now. You’ve seen it. What are your impressions?

A: It’s very effective at killing poor people who cross the desert and then run into a wall. They’re misinformed and in many cases have been misled by human traffickers. And it’s very effective at stopping wildlife migration routes, which slowly kills them too. Some animals can cross it and some, like birds, just fly over of course. But there are some kinds of mammals that go up to the wall and stand there confused. It’s a depressing sight.

There’s nothing beautiful about the wall we have. Walls anywhere on the planet are stark statements of unfriendliness and rejection of dialogue and collaboration. I’m not for totally open borders.That would be totally naïve. But I am against vilifying an entire country. I am against putting up a wall between us and an important ally. Because Mexico has shown over and over again they’re willing to work with us – on infrastructure, on fighting terrorism, on curtailing drug trafficking, it is mandatory that we continue working together. To close off dialogue is to say we have all the answers and that we reject the contributions of the people on the other side.  That’s ludicrous. I say take the billions that would be spent on wall building and commit it to building political and cultural bridges!

Border fence opening near Los Indios under electronic surveillance.

Q: You’ve met a lot of people who live on the border. What do you think their reactions would be to the wall proposal?

A: People talked to me about growing up with the border that was crossable in both directions.  Some remember back when even the border at Tijuana was a barbed wire fence. Mexican residents could just pass between the strands of wire to attend a birthday party, purchase something, and then return at night to the same house. Borders are symbols of ownership, but they need not be a weapon. 

In some cases people live in the U.S. and work in Mexico. Families have always lived in this border land on both sides. In certain areas, ranchers actually drive cattle back and forth. How does one curtail an ongoing cultural interdependence?

Q: So what would be a new wall’s greatest impact?

A: I think the greatest effect would be the symbolic rejection of this international friendship that we’ve had over 150 years. Of course it’s not all been roses, and not just in the ways people have been told to think.  Our relationship has been problematic from our side, particularly in how we have exploited Mexican laborers. Despite the history of exploitation, we cannot simply  close off dialogue.

Q. Would the wall have the desired effect in regards to stopping illegal immigration?

A. No. We already have 700 miles of wall and it isn’t solving the problem.

I think it’s pretty clear that this argument is not just about walls.  It’s about our basic freedoms.  Will the wall become the most prominent symbol of who we are?  As for me, I favor the Statue of Liberty as our national symbol to the border wall any day.