Before anything else, there was an idea: an imagined demarcation, long contested but still undefined. So, in 1849, a group of surveyors—half Mexican and half American—set out to finally map the line dividing their two nations. It was, at the time, largely an intellectual exercise: careful measurements toward an ideal, and still more plan than physicality, more symbol than safeguard. But still, there was a need for some kind of map. Treaties, after all, had been signed; decisions had been made. It was time, finally, to formalize the space where one sovereignty ended and another began.
Topography was the easier part to understand: the Rio Grande and the Colorado River. Those generous, physical outlines of division. Gifts from nature, when first one country and then the next decided, finally, on the need for definition. More challenging, though, were the no-man’s lands that refused easy definition: New Mexico and Chihuahua, Arizona and Sonora. Canyons and the Tarahumara who lived there. Snakes and spines and lands so dry the memory of water barely existed.
The United States had appointed a man of letters to the task: John Russell Bartlett. He’d been easy to convince. Already, he was so charmed by it all: native men living in a wild, rough country. He wanted to see how the rugged West worked: the noble savage and the pioneering drive. Having a kind of armchair reading connection to it, he wanted to go witness it, to know what it was like. Because knowing—as so many people in his country believed at the time—translated into ownership. From his studies, he would have known that in Spanish, the word conocer, “to meet” a person or a place, can also mean “to know” them. So Bartlett had come to see the borderlands, to know them, and to lay a claim there for his country.
But the territory was wilder than he’d imagined: endless miles of nameless desert. Cacti and Gila monsters. Ocotillo and grit and spine. The roads were rough; instruments were limited. Some of his men didn’t make it, and what the whole commission left behind—a trail of disparate stone markers—was almost as inconsequential as the maps they sent back to each government. More estimation than declaration. But that, Bartlett and his men assumed, was all that was needed. There had been a war, followed by negotiations, resulting in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. What was required just then was testimony to that plan. Definition, not defense. And so, the border got named well before anyone had thoughts of policing it. At the time, naming the thing had felt like enough.
• • •
When I first encountered the border, it was one hundred years old, and I was ten. My parents took me to San Diego, then Tijuana. We drove the long way down from Seattle, where we lived buttressed up against another, much less visible border. Until then, I had never seen anything like Tijuana: a harried region all its own. I remember crossing the border on foot. I remember small gold chains, dainty and lovely, in shop windows. “How much?” merchants called. “How much do you offer? Tell me, what do you want?” I wanted to buy trinkets, but the men in the shops scared me. And I wanted to turn my face away from the children—all my own age—selling Chiclets at the border crossing, wearing muted acrylic sweaters despite the heat.
I had grown up safe, comfortable, without thinking about either. Before that trip to Tijuana, nothing had felt unsettling. But there it was: the world rousing itself, showing me how varied it could be. Acrylic sweaters on a hot day. The focus of those eyes: expressionless and intent. That bleak insistence: Comprame, comprame! Buy something, buy anything!
Years earlier, my parents had fallen ill in Guadalajara; they didn’t want to take any risks this trip. So, we had dinner at an Americanized restaurant called Señor Frog’s. We ate beef tacos and avoided the sides of carefully washed greens. Caution, familiarity: that was, just then, what they had to teach me. Protecting oneself, it seemed, had something to do with the boundaries between things.
On our way back across the border, as we stood in a stagnant line of tourists, a boy approached me again with his boxes of Chiclets. I shook my head. He stood there. There were holes at the cuffs of his sweater. I felt an ache. The day was warm. “Comprame,” he insisted. I didn’t, though I remember him still; he was just my height.
And then we were crossing again through the patrolled space, tumbling back into the clean, sunny lands of Southern California. I was relieved; I was disturbed. And just then, it made sense to me, that division. A border. I wanted to get far away from Mexico and all that it was showing me. I wanted to go home—to feel, once again, something safely known.
• • •
The border itself was formally erected in 1894, when yet another expedition of men gathered all surveyors’ previous notes and traveled the two thousand miles of frontier to set down 258 large stone monuments. Finally, the border was becoming more physical: a series of posts, indicating the location of the international line. Still, in this state, it was nothing, really, that could be protected or enforced: simply a reminder of the divisions between us. Men standing in the desert took commemorative photographs of themselves by the markers—as though to mark the presence of a thing could be enough to make it real.
But real or not, during the ensuing months and years, people began defacing those monuments, tearing them down, pulling chunks of concrete from their angled sides, chipping away at the foundations of nationhood. So, still more teams of men came to put fences around those stately markers to protect them: a border for the border. Like Bartlett before them, they learned that the creation of a physical division between nations was more rigorous than anyone had hoped.
The longer the border has existed, the more it has needed to be defended. The longer it has existed, the more people have been killed defining it, defending it, crossing over it. And the more permanent a shape it has taken on, the more people have learned to fear it. Borders, whatever else their intentions, hold us to more than just geography or nationhood. They tie us to a belief in the safety of home as much as to the idea of outside threat.
• • •
It was twenty years before I returned to Mexico. By then, I was like Bartlett, an academic, though I had come to Mexico on my own. An education researcher, I lived for a year in a small town halfway down the nation’s western seaboard, studying the lives of migrant children before they leave for the United States. Down there, in that town so filled with coming and going, the border between our nations felt different: a reminder not of distance but of the relative closeness of the two countries.
There, in the state of Michoacán, people talked about going north as though it were a ticket you could buy. But despite NAFTA, despite the failing farms and the empty bank ledgers and the real need for employment, none of the people in the town where I stayed could get a visa. For the application, they would have needed education and property—which, of course, they did not have. And, despite what some people might imagine of Mexicans who migrate to the United States, they don’t often want to leave. “I love my home,” one woman told me. “I love it here.”
And that, she says, is why she would never leave—no matter how bad the economy gets. “They’d ruin our house,” she nodded to the neighboring homes around her, as though the community would wrong her family if they left for a time. So, it was frightening to her to consider passing time away from home. Away from Mexico. Terrifying—the idea that, somehow, home would not be waiting for them when they returned.
• • •
In eastern Texas, a rancher discovers that he owns a border monument from the late nineteenth century. “Is it mine?” he wants to know, asking a man who has come to photograph all of the stone markers along the border. And then he worries: “Is the government coming for my land?” Or, worse: “Don’t they know where the border is? Did they put it in the wrong place? Have they changed their minds?” And his question lingers even further—who would have the permission to decide that now?
• • •
In eastern San Diego, a dozen miles from the sea, the border patrol office inhabits a rather plain-looking building composed of beige paneling and a simple A-frame roof. Inside the waiting area is a whiteboard with ever shifting statistics: the estimated number of illegal entries and the number of deportations by year. Otherwise, it’s just a quiet office with a few signs of American patriotism: an eagle, a soaring set of stars. From here, it is possible to request a free guided tour of the border. One summer afternoon, along with a group of students and teachers, I climb into an unmarked white van. The driver, in his mid-twenties, has ambitions of becoming a law officer. He is friendly and talkative, and tells us stories of the various threats to the border, how officers like him work to keep it safe, like the $50 million dollars his organization spent to fill a canyon with dirt so people couldn’t cross there. And he tells us about a thirteen-year-old boy who sits with binoculars in the bedroom window of his San Diego home, watching for migrants and phoning the border patrol to give them leads. In another breath, he tells us about Mexican mothers tossing their babies over the tops of fences to land in waiting hands on the U.S. side. And he tells us about homes along the Mexican side that are controlled by human trafficking cartels, the families living there—whether they want to or not—quietly housing hopeful migrants for a night before they cross. We nod and listen, and make no comment.
When we arrive at the border, we can see there are actually two fences, and we drive slowly through the rocky fifty yards of desert between them. On the north side, the fencing is tall and silver and topped by barbed wire—so much more than a monument—though the fence on the Mexican side looks different. Quieter. It is made, our driver explains, out of recycled landing pads from the Vietnam War. They look to me like twelve-foot sheets of tough black leather, with windows cut into their surface. “You’ve got to be able to see them,” our driver explains. Then, after another few minutes, he nods: “Look, there they are—staging.”
And out the window of that unmarked van, I can see what he means: a small group of men and boys, hovering behind the black landing strip wall, peering at us through one of those rough holes cut into the thick rubber. They grin as we pass; they do not look particularly afraid. It’s a game of chess. Cat and mouse. Because they know—even our driver admits this—that if they try to cross enough times, they will eventually get in. He shakes his head. “And what I don’t understand,” he says, “is why they don’t just do it the right way. There’s a right way to do it, you know?”
And then we are passing behind the long line of passengers in cars stopped at the border check station, wielding their registration papers and passports: that same crossing where, twenty years earlier, I had looked a boy my age in the eye and refused to buy the box of gum he was selling.
“Why can’t they just do it right?” the driver asks again, and I nod—though it’s not out of sympathy or agreement. What could I try to explain to him? Something about political revolutions and property rights and what it takes to get a visa? And the fact that the people who need it most will never get the chance. None of this history, I worry, would make much of a difference. He has already settled into his way of seeing the world. Because that, in the end, is what borders do: they give shape to things, provide a kind of architecture for the imagination.
“I don’t know,” I hear myself say aloud, shaking my head again. Astounded, though I suppose I shouldn’t be, by the complexity of it all: the danger and the disappointment. Like John Bartlett toeing the line all those decades ago. Like any of us: trying to learn, trying to know. Naming, measuring, defining, defending—as though any of it were ever possible.