Thursday, April 21, 2011

You Know Where You Are Now: A Look Inside Border Lives

There is no faster or more effective way to mainline the feeling of existential vertigo than spending time along the borderlands dividing Mexico from the United States of America. Life along this border is an incongruous, sensory-overloading experience: visions of ludicrous corporate wealth propelled by extreme social poverty; floating, malleable identities and competing histories; no fixed addresses; no clear, concise version of any one lasting truth to tie it all together.

It’s a psychically battering experience, but a rewarding one as well, in terms of expanded insight and cross-cultural empathy, and SDSU Press’s essay collection Border Lives: Personal Essay on the U.S.-Mexico Border/Vidas Fronterizas: La Crónica en la Frontera México-Estados Unidos , has all three—the battery, the insight, and the empathy—in spades.

The ten essays collected in Border Lives (each one presented back-to-back in Spanish and English translations) offer deeply personal and haunting snapshots of life and death along the border, but amidst the varying tones, backgrounds, and approaches employed by the writers here assembled, some common narrative threads emerge to provide the reader with an explosively visceral experience of life along this interzone of cultural, political, and economic conflict.

Strongest amongst these commonalities is the feeling that to live a border life is to experience a sense of disconnect on a daily basis, but a disconnect one cannot disassociate from. It’s always present, a source code of freeway signs and graffiti tags, bible verses and rock lyrics, corporate sloganeering and calls for la revolución, Prozac prescriptions and cocaine addictions, that constantly throw off one’s effort to express a thought as simply cogent as “This is who I am and this is where I’m from.”

In the end, this disconnect is what renders the essay as the perfect literary form to explore the vast complexities of life on the border. As SDSU Press Director Harry Polkinhorn puts it in the collection’s opening piece, essays “provide us with a unique blend of philosophical meditation, travel impressions, character sketch, autobiographical reference, and journalistic observation, all inflected by the wit, irony, or lofty sentiments which color the quality of their writer’s lives.”

The writers of Border Lives present the reader with stories both intimate in emotion and all-encompassing in scale: Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz undertakes a time-traveling dissection of his youth in northern Mexico and coming-of-age as a rock & roll-loving medical student in Jalisco; William Nericcio questions the tenets of memory and truth while exploring the contrast between border towns like Laredo, Texas, where class, not race, is the dominant factor in the social fabric of society, and San Diego, California, where ethnic and political prejudices assign class to each race; Emily Hicks injects a flair of performance art into her story of betrayal, breakdowns, and single motherhood; and James Bradley, amidst his own personal reflections of border life, ruminates on the United States’ shameful history of land-grabs, political power plays, and military interventions in Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Border Lives is an excellent resource for anyone hoping to gain a more comprehensive perspective on life along the U.S-Mexico border, but be warned: You may be thrown off by what you find when you get here. The landscape is jarring, jagged, much of it an industrial wasteland bled dry by corporate interests. People here travel through time-loops and commune with ghosts. The weight of history, and the desperate efforts of those who wish to re-write or wish it away, makes it nearly impossible to know where you’ve been, where you’re going, or who you even are anymore. The only thing that can be known along the border is where you are right now; the rest is up for grabs.