The Complexities of the U.S.-Mexico Border Explained Through Art and Literature

All of the noise being put around the U.S-Mexico border by American politics has made the border region lose its own identity. Families being separated at the border and border reinforcement laws being put in place have taken away the colorful sides of the region.

Humility, complexity, generosity, tolerance are some of the words used by these writers in a panel organized by the El Paso Times on Thursday. Award-winning journalist Alfredo Corchado, award-winning author Benjamin Alire Saenz, and the director of the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts Kerry Doyle were the participants for this panel. The focus was on how the region is more than an immigration issue and to-be-constructed wall.

“In the border, we’re American, so we’re optimistic, but we also know tragedy. We know death, because it’s all around us,” said Saenz.

Recent political commentary across the country has suggested that the border region is nothing but deaths, poverty, and danger. But, although El Paso, Texas, is neighbors with one of the most dangerous cities in the world, it is also one of the safest cities in the country. The region is full of culture–its own culture–and colors and tastes; it’s not all black and white like everybody else says it is.

“People think that this city is unsophisticated, but it’s not true. We’re rich in art and leadership and dreams,” said Saenz during the panel. “But people think that because you can see poverty everywhere; you can’t escape it anywhere you go.”

Outsiders think all the poverty around the city makes the city ugly, but it actually makes it real, said Saenz. The ugliness and imperfection is what makes it real.

Furthermore, Corchado explained that his experience as a journalist has been about people asking about the security along the border. “The challenge as a reporter is to truly cover both sides, the danger and the safety,” he said. To help this conviction, the job of a journalist, according to Corchado, is to use journalism as a bridge for understanding, to write about the humanity in a way that no matter where you read it, it’ll speak to you.

Ultimately, the border has the responsibility to take back its narrative. According to Saenz, one of the border’s main problems is that everybody there pays too much attention to other people’s perception of them, and people think of the border as just a thing, not a place.

“The border is a place where people live in,” Saenz said. “It’s not just a thing; it’s not just an idea. El Paso is a place that is a great cultural capital and a great artistic place to live, and I don’t think people see it that way.”

Additionally, another problem the border region faces is that both sides of the border–the U.S. and Mexico–seem to hate the region, mainly because they’re not a pure form of either side–people eat tortillas instead of bread, and they speak Spanglish, instead of English or Spanish.

A solution Corchado suggested is that the region needs to be more embracing of both sides. For example, when Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, went through a violence streak between 2006 and 2011, the city of El Paso decided to not get involved. Saenz and Corchado discussed the fact that El Paso should have gotten involved on the issue. Both cities are already financially dependent on each other, so they should also have each other’s backs in other ways, they said, to be more focused on the region rather than just the city.

“For the sake of out own prosperity, we need to embrace each other a lot more,” Corchado said.

Saenz explained it is a matter of stripping down the idea of nations. Borders can’t really exist on this region because of how important they are to each other. “Both of our fates are influenced by each other,” he said.

“The border gives us the opportunity to dismantle the idea of nationalism, or it can make it stronger,” Saenz said. It is not a question about nations, but about relationships.

The panelists believe that if Ciudad Juárez and El Paso were to embrace each other, many of their individual problems could get resolved. It is impossible for both cities to be independent of each other since they are so close. There are hundreds of people that commute from one side of the border to another in order to go to work, thus the problems affecting one side will ultimately affect the other.

“We create poverty with our systems. We create systems where people are poor and we can change that,” said Saenz.

In order for others to understand how the U.S.-Mexico border is really like, the border itself needs to be more assertive of who they are, and start conversations about it with others. The border is more complex than how other people think it is.

“If you tell a story very specifically about one person, it’s amazing how that resonates and mirrors so many other people’s experience,” said Saenz. “To create art and journalism on the border you have to know it, and if you really know it, it’s going to come through.”

By Aimée Santillán

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