From Tijuana on the Pacific Ocean to Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico runs a 1,833-mile border separating the United States from Latin America. Around the halfway point on this border is Ciudad JuÃ¡rez. Flowing southeastwardly from Ciudad JuÃ¡rez to Matamoros is the Rio Grande, literally the Big River.
Ironically, the word “grande” (big) is a misnomer. The river is narrow and shallow in several places, allowing for easy crossing for those who are impoverished and dream of simply surviving in “el Norte,” the North.
The rest of the border, from Ciudad JuÃ¡rez toward the west, comprises of little more than a line drawn upon the ground. Part of this line is demarcated by a 15 foot-high wall. Landing strips used during the First Iraqi War were recycled in 1994 by Immigration and Naturalization Service to construct this wall.
The hope of INS was to stem the flow of mainly Mexican immigrants through the San Diego area and Nogales, Ariz. But the flow continues, only now through miles of hazardous deserts where many fall victims to the elements.
This artificial line is more than just a border between two countries. Some Latino/as have called it a scar caused by where the First and Third World rub-up against each other.
This border is artificial, created immediately after the U.S. territorial conquest of northern Mexico ending with the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The military might of the U.S. created the present 1,833 mile-long line. Prior to the creation of this line, Mexicans living north of it woke up to find themselves in a new country.
In effect, as Virgilio Elizondo reminds us, the border crossed the Mexicans. The same was true for Puerto Ricans, who found their island absorbed into the emerging American empire. Like the Mexicans, the U.S. borders crossed them with the conclusion of the Spanish-American War (1898).
To live on the borders can literally mean living in the cities that are located along this artificial line. According to the Census Bureau, approximately 13 million American and Mexican residents live in the border areas separating these two nations.
But the borderlands are more than just a geographical reality–they also symbolize the existential reality of U.S. Latina/os. Most Hispanics, regardless as to where they are located or how they or their ancestors found themselves in the United States, live on the borders.
Borders separating Latina/os from other Americans exist in every state, every city and almost every community, regardless as to how far away they may be from the 1,833 mile line. Borders are as real in Chicago, Ill., Topeka, Kan., Seattle, Wash., or Chapel Hill, N.C., as they are in Chula Vista, Calif., Douglas, Ariz., or El Paso, Texas.
To be a U.S. Hispanic is to constantly live on the border–that is, the border that separates privilege from disenfranchisement, that separates power from marginalization, and that separates whiteness from “colored.” Most U.S. Hispanics, regardless as to where they live, exist in the borderlands.
To live on the borders throughout the U.S. means separation from the benefits and fruits society has to offer its inhabitants. Exclusion mainly occurs because Hispanics are conceived by the dominant Euroamerican culture as being inferior. They are perceived as inferior partly due to the pervasive race-conscious U.S. culture. For centuries Euroamericans have been taught to equate nonwhites, specifically mixed-race persons, as inferior. Seen derogatorily as “half-breeds,” a mixture of races and ethnicities (Caucasian, African, Amerindian or any combination thereof) means limited access to education and social services.
But while U.S. Hispanics are treated with equal disdain, it would be an error to assume the U.S. Latina/os are some type of monolithic group. Quite the contrary, Hispanics are a mestizaje (mixture) or combination of ethnicities, a mestizaje of races, and a mestizaje of cultures.
Unlike the still common Euroamerican “melting pot” paradigm, which pictures immigrants placed into one pot where they all “melt down” into a new “American” culture that nevertheless remains essentially Eurocentric, Latina/os have been able to retain the differing “flavors” of their culture, and as such, enrich the other elements of society. Unapologetically, Hispanics’ authentic reality, their locus theologicus (theological milieu), becomes the starting point by which wider world is approached.
In an earlier book written by Edwin Aponte and myself, we concluded that “there [was] no such thing as a ‘typical’ Hispanic. They are white with blond hair and blue eyes, they are black with curly hair, and they are everything in between. They have Native American features and/or Asian features. They are Catholics, Protestants, worshipers of the Orishas (African quasi-deities), Jewish, atheists, spiritualists and followers of Amerindian religious traditions. Some speak ‘pure’ Spanish, others speak Spanglish, while others only speak English. Still others converse in Cholo, Mayan, NÃ¡huatl, or Pocho. Some have recently arrived in this country, while the ancestors of others were here centuries before the formation of the United States. They live in the blank despair of the barrio and in the comfortable illusions of the suburbs. Some pick apples and grapes, others pick stocks and bonds.”
Still, it should not be surprising that because many Hispanics are seen as inferior due to their mixture (specifically racial mixture), most find themselves clustered in the lower stratum of the economy, receiving the lowest weekly wages of any major group in the labor market. According to U.S. governmental statistics, Latina/os are more likely to be victims of crime than non-Hispanics; more likely to serve longer prison sentences if convicted of a crime; more likely to live with pollution; have disproportionately lower levels of educational attainment; and are less likely to carry health insurance.
The poverty faced by Hispanics is all-too-often understood by the dominant Euroamerican culture as being the choice of Latina/os. They are often viewed as lazy, backward and mentally underdeveloped. If this was so, then their only hope would rest with the generosity of Euroamericans who might attempt to help them by providing food, affirmative action or charity.
Instead of blaming the victim for their condition, it is important to understand that Hispanics are made poor due to economic forces which cause the prosperity of some to be rooted in the poverty of many. As the wealth of the rich grows, so too does the number of those falling into poverty, making the former dependent on the latter. Thus the main consequence that Hispanics living in the borderlands face is marginalization and disenfranchisement.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.