Fugitivos de la Vida imposible Transborders, migrations, and displacements
José Manuel Valenzuela Arce
Migrations, displacements, and migratory caravans express extreme conditions where intense processes of social precariousness articulate with extreme conditions of violence, thus accentuating the vulnerability of migrant populations. Such defenselessness results from the implementation of the devastating strategies of neoliberal necropolises in times of late capitalism, which turn the migratory journey into one of its most painful expressions, while strengthening the centrality of borders as a political and administrative dispositive of power and social classification. Contemporary capitalism expands social inequalities, deepens social precarization in the majority of the population, strips away resources from poor countries, compulsively generates wars and expulsion of millions of people from their lands, creating conditions of displacement in which individuals are confronted with the effects of biopolitics and necropolitics, particularly in border zones.
The debate on transnational, translocal, and cross-border processes must be inscribed within interpretive frameworks wider than those of displacement, in order to understand the structured and structuring spaces that produce and define them. It is necessary to place transnational, translocal, and cross-border matters within the processes of globalization of capital, and take into consideration the needs, plundering, exclusions, and exploitation in the scale imposed by the process of capitalist accumulation. It is also necessary to take into consideration the needs for labor, as well as the interests and political actors that have a role in these processes and define the dispositions that affect border worlds.
Caravans, migrations, and borders
The caravans of Central American migrants are a metaphor of the global migratory journey, since they also include migrants from Africa, particularly the Congo and Senegal, from Asia, from the Middle East, South America, and the Caribbean. Migratory caravans involve those that Eduardo Galeano generate identified as “fugitives of an impossible life,” who exist trapped in deep networks of inequality, precariousness, and violence. They belong to the half of the world's population who live with less than two dollars a day, and of the miserable who hardly survive with less than one dollar, who lack formal employment, or work in informal jobs with incomes that keep them tied to conditions of poverty. They are the recipients of capitalist policies that generate in a mechanical manner untenable and arbitrary inequalities where the poorest possess almost nothing, as noted by Thomas Piketty in his book Capita! in the XXI Century (2014). They are part of the 244 million migrants who, as recognized by the United Nations (ONU), inhabit the most unequal region of the world and live in the poorest and most violent Latin American countries. Inequality and precariousness obliterate the conditions necessary to build viable and livable life projects. On the contrary, these conditions trigger displacement, forced migration, escapes, and forced flirtations with death, exposing people to aggression and varied forms of violence, such as racist and gender violence, supremacists, homophobic, aporophobic, institutional, or instrumental violence.
Eight out of ten countries in the world with the highest indexes of income inequality are located in Latin America. The same can be said of half of the 14 most violent countries in the world: El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Jamaica, and Venezuela. In these countries, the nomadic dramas of human diaspora materialize and advance in migratory caravans, generating multitudes as human shields or bio-cuirasses that protect themselves with the crowd, creating a collective resistance, multitudes that compose a plural corporality in order to take care of each other, that multiply the strength of their voices, and the resonance of their steps. Most of the caravaneros are young persons from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, counties whose populations grew 25% in the United States between 2007 and 2015, reaching three million, half of which are irregular migrants. (Pew Center, December 7,2017). Most of the migrants are young persons whose future - but not their hope - has been expropriated.
For this reason, they escape from misery and violence, assuming great challenges and risks. The so-called North Central American Triangle includes three small countries that together hardly reach 32 million people: El Salvador (population 6,187,271), Guatemala (16,581, 273), and Honduras (9,182,766). In the latter two countries, more than 60% lives in conditions of poverty and mortal violence, which surpasses that of countries in war. In addition. El Salvador and Guatemala have the highest indexes in the world of homicide and murder of persons of less than 20 years of age (Valenzuela 2019). The drama of migrants grew with the Cero Tolerance Law (Donald Trump 2018), since undocumented immigrants are processed and separated from their families. This situation results in 2,350 children and babies separated from their parents and other family members, isolated, and disconnected. They were also drugged, placed in cages, and arraigned in an episode that reminds us of A Universal History of Infamy, by Jorge Luis Borges. About 2,300 girls and boys crossed with the caravan that left San Pedro Sula (Honduras) on October 12, 2018. They have been the most painful part of the poignant story that in some cases touched popular sensitivity, like the case of Valeria Martinez, who drowned with her father when they were attempting to cross the Rio Colorado in Ciudad Juárez, on June 24, 2019. They had almost
Fugitivos de la Vida imposible 29 managed to do it, but the father returned to get his wife, and Valeria threw herself into the water again when she saw that her father was leaving. Oscar Martinez tried to save her but both of them drowned together, since the father covered her with his shirt to keep her from getting lost in the river. Four years ago, the international community also was shocked by the case of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who also drowned, and whose body lay lifeless on the Turkish beach.
Central American migratory caravans express conditions of deep dispossession, which combines the devastation of natural resources, economic and social extractivism, but also the effects of violence related to armed struggles, social conflicts, repression, external interventions, violation of human rights, loss of citizenship, and civil wars that canceled the conditions necessary for social coexistence. Among them, the armed conflict in El Salvador between July 1979 and February 1990 is particularly notorious, with 750,000 deaths and an enormous number of wounded people and orphans. A similar situation is the one in Guatemala between July 1979 and February 1990 with more than 250,000 deaths, in addition to thousands of displaced persons and violated women. It is worthwhile mentioning the case of the coup d ’etat in Honduras against president Jose Manuel Celaya in 2009, and the electoral fraud in 2017, both supported by the United States.
The other actors of violence are the ones that belong to the networks of organized crime. They act with intense articulation with institutional actors, establishing forms of coexistence deeply associated with the traffic of marihuana and cocaine. Those actors turned the region into a strategic space for the relocation and distribution of drugs, while triggering the increase of violence. The same happened in Mexico since the rule of Felipe Calderón in December 2006, and continued during the government of Peña Nieto, with approximately 260,000 murdered persons, 40,000 disappeared people, hundreds of clandestine tombs, thousands of unidentified dead bodies, and a strengthening of the so-called organized crime, controlling a good part of the networks and routes used by migrants to reach the border with the United States.
The other important actor of violence in the Central American North Triangle is formed by groups of young people organized in neighborhoods and recognized as mareros, children and youngsters who emerged from the sectors displaced by violence in their own regions and oriented toward the United States, thus arriving at Los Angeles where they were recruited by local organizations of cholos, before they created their own. After they were deported to Central America, the members of Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 (many of whom were born in the United States and did not speak Spanish) formed gangs and became important figures responsible for social violence and public danger. They were also receivers of the policies of tolerance implemented in Honduras through the Planes Libertad Azul (2002-2003) and Mano Dura (2003-2005) and in Guatemala, with the Plan Escoba (2003-2004). Through these plans, those groups were criminalized, and also became actors of violence and death, displacing hundreds of thousands of persons and families.
The human exodus articulated in migratory caravans has shown the existence of positions and strategies created from supremacist positions of hate and racismin important sectors of American society, inflamed by the government of the United States. Caravans emerged as shields of protection and managed to control violence, since it only incurred in a few cases of physical aggression, while earlier two thirds of Central American migrants who crossed the Mexican territory were attacked, violated, extorted, or murdered, and one third of the women were victims of rape.
The collective shield minimized violence but stimulated criminalization and manipulation of migrants, who were received in the San Isidro border with tear gas, rubber bullets, and sonic weapons. Afterward, the pressures of the American government made the new Mexican presidency change its strategy and use the National Guard to control the entrance of Central American migrants oriented toward the United States. But racist violence against migrants and against latinos in general has also increased in this country where the number of supremacist organizations has augmented, reaching 527 in 2018. This is also the case with symbolic and physical attacks, some extremely cruel, like the one perpetrated by Patrick Crusius in El Paso, Texas, August 2, 2018, who killed 22 persons and wounded 24, inspired by the positions expressed by Donald Trump with the unacceptable objective of “shooting as many Mexicans as possible.” This obliges us to rethink the meaning of borders as dispositifs of power and social classification.
Borders as a dispositive of power and social classification
Borders are thresholds and dispositifs of power that function as political and cultural systems of social classification. Borders are socially and historically constructed, something that allows us to recognize that there “natural” borders do not exist. All borders refer to historically, socially, and culturally constructed delimitations. Borders are also part of the systems of social and territorial classification, delimitation, and organization.
National borders have a double political and socio-spatial implication: the transborder condition and the transnational condition. All transborder relations imply a transnational dimension, and all transnational dimensions imply transborder relations. Recently, the transnational condition has been widely emphasized, thus recuperating many of the elements that have defined in the last 50 years the debates about borders. The most important thing is to understand transborder, transnational, and translocal phenomena taking into consideration the presence and intensity of the processes that are being interpreted. Occasionally, the same phenomenon, such as migration, becomes very dense in the original spaces, during transits, in the border, or in the points of arrival; in other cases, just one of those spaces concentrates the positive and negative force of migratory experiences.
The debate about transnational, transborder, or translocal processes must be inscribed in interpretive frameworks that are wider than the notion of displacement, in order to situate the interpretation in the structured and structuring spaces that produce and define those phenomena. It is necessary to place transborder, transnational, and translocal themes within the processes of globalization of capitalism and its needs, exclusions, and its exploitation in the scale imposed by the
Fugitivos de la Vida imposible 31 process of capitalist accumulation. It is necessary also to consider the needs of labor, as well as the interests and political actors that participate and define the dispositions that affect bordering worlds. Capitalism generates multiple spaces of precarization that influence the decision to emigrate seeking better living conditions.
The interpretive conditions that help us to explore and interpret borders according to what I have been proposing in previous publications (Valenzuela, Intromisiones compartidas, Por las fronteras del norte y Transfronteras) are the following: contact zones, conjunctive conditions, disjunctive conditions, connective, interstitial conditions, injunctive conditions, generative conditions, perform-ative-prefigurative conditions, and bio- and necropolitical conditions.
Contact zones. Recreating the concept developed by Mary Louise Pratt (1997), zones of cultural contact refer to spaces where different sociocultural expressions converge, often structured on the basis of asymmetric power relations where daily forms of social and cultural interaction are established. In the borders, contact zones refer to realities that imply and overcome the implications of some concepts such as vicinity, adjacency, or proximity. Contact zones imply daily transborder relations that define the spaces conceived, lived, and represented by Lefebvre (1991).
Conjunctive conditions. We can think about borders based on a series of analytical axes where borders unite and generate relations between social groups that were separated. The conjunctive dimension refers to the dimension of correlation, incorporation, and integration of processes that were originally separated. This is, then, one of the characteristic qualities of borders. Conjunction implies processes of proximity, vicinity, intense and daily interaction, and livability. In the Mexico-US border, in addition to family relations and friendships, intense economic, commercial, and recreational relations take place, with an occurrence of 182, 871, and 636 annual border crossings (Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2017).1
Disjunctive condition. At the same time, borders have a disjunctive condition. Border demarcations divide villages or cities, ethnic groups, communities, families, and persons. For this reason, borders also separate, disunite, and move away. Although very often the disjunctive condition is presented as the unique and totalizing element in the definition of borders, it should be emphasized that borders are much more than the mere separation or division between countries or social groups. It is important to consider both dimensions, the conjunctive and the disjunctive dimension, in order to construct a clear and more complex perspective of border worlds.
Connective condition. Borders have connective mediations that produce forms of coexistence that go beyond zones of contact or proximity. This condition has strengthened in an unimaginable manner in the last few years through the mass media and the new electronic dispositifs such as telephone, Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, elements that have created new forms of living together, new connective strategies that overcome displacements, since mass media allow for conditions that are much more agile and accessible of displacement. Theconnective dimension, as it establishes new forms of coexistence, also generates strategies and processes of simultaneity through which persons can interact independently on each side of the border. These situations are very attractive if we think, for instance, in Mexican agricultural workers who work exhausting working days in the American fields without any contact with their families and communities in Mexico, except for the letters that arrived after several months or the occasional news brought by relatives or countrymen that came from the homeland. We can recognize that the scenery changed when these workers could listen for the first time to the songs and voices in their own language on the radio, or when many years later they could see programs on TV in their own language. Nowadays, connective co-presence is direct, immediate, through the Internet, Skype, Facetime, and many other forms of production of instant relations that make it possible a daily connection through forms that allow for conditions of simultaneity.
Interstitial condition. Borders also have an interstitial condition, which alludes to the liminal dimension, nepantla or in-between. This is a very important matter, because in addition to the separation and conjunction, there are borderspaces that are different from non-border zones. This interstitial, numinous, or liminal condition implies characteristics that are important to consider because they allow us to understand the features of the border that emerged from the experiences of coexistence and interaction, and that possess a dimension that is different in non-border areas. We can emphasize the existence of certain cultural aspects in border life, such as the use of some colloquial idioms or some behavioral patterns that have a transborder condition, but that do not present themselves in the same manner in non-border spaces. We are talking about a kind of transborder habitus. We use here Bourdieu’s concept in order to define the interiorization and subjectification of sociocultural relations and processes that emerge from the objectified and intersubjective social reality of the borders.
Injunctive condition. Borders are defined not only by horizontal social processes, and do not refer exclusively to forms of coexistence, since, as previously indicated, they are defined by social and political relations and by power relations that function as dispositifs of social classification. The injunctive condition refers to State policies and public policies that are neither horizontal nor democratic. We speak of policies that result in the creation of laws, regulations, but also punitive strategies, strategies of control, strategies of vigilance, and political strategies that imply, in turn, biopolitics and necropolitics that are supported by a broken and questionable concept of sovereignty that defers from the meaning this notion had in the nineteenth century. The disjunctive condition refers to the political dimension of the State, where the nation-State and nationalism have different expressive forms in which we can distinguish self-determinist, legitimating, popular, imperial, and expansive nationalism (Valenzuela, El color de las sombras, y Impecable y diamantina).
On the basis of these conditions, we can recognize elements that define borderpolitics, the same that are inscribed in the characteristics of State politics and the priorities and strategies of the nation-State in relation to the notion of not only
Fugitivos de la Vida imposible 33 sovereignty, commercial relations, or friendly and familiar relations, but also new elements related to national security, which have acquired recently spectacular relevance, until they presented coarse, racist, supremacist, xenophobic, and delirious connotations since the inception of Donald Trump presidency.
We can observe the increase of punitive strategies against migrants; however, it is important to emphasize that during the government of Barak Obama, 2,800 deportations took place, although in only 100 days of government, Donald Tramp generated extremely disturbing situation in connection to the strategies of repression, detention, and deportation of migrants, and frontal attacks to sanctuary cities and dreamers, as demonstrated by his decision of September 2017 to eliminate DACA, and his delirious project to construct another wall in the border with Mexico.
Another fundamental matter related to the injunctive condition and power of the State in the definition of the criteria and strategies of social classification is the migratory policy that has recently acquired huge relevance due to a series of elements that are associated strategically with these policies, such as the role of narcotrafficking and organized crime, whose members have been implied in the migratory networks, thus increasing the occurrence of deaths and violence against migrants.
The injunctive condition implies processes of entrenchment of old and new borders where walls acquire important centrality. We do not only have walls made out of concrete that we can identify clearly in the history of the Chinese Wall, the sad wall of Berlin, or the ignominious wall built by Israel in Palestine land, as well as other walls that continue to indicate important disagreements in the contemporary world. There are also metallic walls, such as those that were established in approximately one third of the 3,164 kilometers of the Mexico-US border. Borders engulfed by metallic panels brought from the Persian Gulf as war emblems were installed in order to demarcate the new codifications that define the relation between both countries or, to put it more widely, the relations between the United States and Latin America.
We also have water walls that have turned the Mediterranean Sea into a huge grave of migrants similar to what happened to Central American migration and Cuban migration toward the United States. I recuperate here the image of water walls from the work of José Revueltas in order to emphasize the condition of separation, the absence and liquid death that has flowed with neither control nor compassion in the last decades, killing thousands of African migrants.
Finally, there are symbolic walls, invisible walls, and naturalized walls that we do not see but that are constructed in different spaces of intolerance, racism, sexism, and homophobia. These are walls nurtured by the construction of a threatening Other.
Generative condition. Borders have a generative condition. Contrary to the widely disseminated images of the border as a cultural desert (Vasconcelos), borders are fertile spaces for the emergence, generation, or appearance of new phenomena and sociocultural processes. These cultural processes rooted in the condition of the border define the creative force of border worlds. The generativecondition, or the condition that generates the border, is constructed through processes of cultural appropriation, which means, through the incorporation of cultural elements that originate in the other side of the border, processes of cultural recreation, redefined and resignified, that acquire new sense when incorporated within the frameworks of meaning and significance of border culture, with its processes of hybridization, where sociocultural innovation results from the intense relationship between different cultures, with its processes of appropriation, recreation, resistance, and conflict. The generative condition implies innovation, and this innovation refers to the processes of construction of new meanings and significance of social and cultural border processes. This refers not only to the emergence of new things and processes. These are emergent and appropriate cultural elements, significance, and meanings that are incorporated into the definition of social and cultural border relations.
Performative and prefigurative condition. Borders have a performative or prefigurative condition, since sociocultural phenomena emerge as part of borderworlds and networks. Many social processes and border phenomena are reproduced and recreated in non-border contexts. We can allude to diverse experiences that help us understand this concept, but I believe that for our purposes, today the following examples may be enough:
4) Pachomas. Something similar happens with youth cultures. We have seen and recognized the emergence of cultural forms related to the identities of border youth, particularly since the end of the 1930s with the appearance of pachucos, the cholos in the 1960s, and Mara Salvatrucha in the 1980s. I have defined these identities with the name ofpachomas, a world created from the first letters of the triad pachucos, cholos, and maras, as cultural expressions and identities rooted in Mexican and Chicano neighborhoods on both sides of the Mexico-US border. These new identities not only generated different aspects of survival and ethical and aesthetic elements defined by these neighborhood figures. They also incorporated codes of initiation into those areas and other aspects related to that daily environment as part of behaviors emerged from an enclosed identity that integrates codes of survival (if you betray me, I will kill you) and trenches where to leave the neighborhood may imply death (Valenzuela, ¡A la brava, ése!, El color de las sombras, Las maras y Transfronteras).
This enclosed identity is constantly tested through conflict and confrontation with other neighborhoods and other gangs. This neighborhood condition also constructs clicas, stronger forms enclosed in their own neighborhoods, that confer significance to space through placazos and murals, elements that define and identify the members of the clica, the neighborhood, or the gang. Language is also a referent for identification through the use of a slang influenced by border language (Valenzuela, ¡A la brava, ése! y Las maras). But they also produce a language of gestures and a strong incorporation of the body, signified through tattoos and outfits that also constitute an aesthetics that emerge from neighborhoods and challenges fashions and aesthetic-dominant criteria.
This situation illustrates the performative or prefigurative condition of border cultures, which has extended to non-border spacers in Mexico, the United States, Central America (e.g., maras), and other countries, but also to Europe (Latino and Latina Queens, and the Netas in Spain). More recently, these organizations have also been recreated in Italy.
5) In the same manner, we can also identify different artistic processes utilized for the recreation of border worlds that have become very relevant in literature but also in the visual arts and in the urban public spaces through the construction of murals. All of this demonstrates the existence of a rich and robust border culture, and its central importance in contemporary cultures (Valenzuela, Nosotros. Arte, cultura).
Biopolitical conditions at the border
Borders are characterized by a biopolitical condition that manifests itself through a variety of dispositifs aimed at migrant control, which allow for the implementation of a series of strategies that utilize power, submission, violence, humiliation, and degradation. Some examples that illustrate this biopolitical condition are the doping and imprisonment of migrant children during Donald Trump’s government, and the fumigation of the bodies and clothing of hired workers during the Bracero Program (1942-1964), as well as the exhaustive revisions of their naked bodies and their belongings, including chemical scanning and X-rays, use of tear gas and sonic weapons, beatings, humiliations, and imprisonment, in addition to sexual aggressions and rapes suffered by many women during their border crossing.
Necropolitical conditions at the border
Very often, borders become necrozones or zones of death, where people lose their lives due to dehydration, hypothermia, attacks by polleros, narcotraffickers, or police agents or border guards who are responsible for multiple cases of murder of migrants due to excessive use of force, torture, or shootings. Necropolitical dispositifs include calculated risks. For example, through migratory strategies, migrants are redirected toward increasingly dangerous routes. Also, the conditions of vulnerability and death that occur in the walls of water, where the hopes of migrants succumb, as it happens in the Mediterranean zone, in the Caribbean, in the Suchiate river, or in the Rio Bravo, where so many lives placed at the limit of their possibilities are wrecked while aiming for a better life, and escaping from violence and a probable death. In addition, militarized border controls, as well as wars and conflicts between neighboring countries, intensify border necropolitics.
Referents and significance of border classification
As we have indicated, borders work as dispositifs for social classification and have a strategic function in the contention or fluidity of the border crossing, in the conditions of transit, and in the possibilities to succeed or to fail in the attempts to trespass border thresholds.
National and social inequalities have an impact on the possibility of succeeding in the crossing of the border. If we think of borders as dispositifs of social classification, it is important to incorporate elements that have an impact on the increment or diminishing of the possibilities to succeed. This has become evident in the studies that show that in cities such as Tijuana, half of the population does not have a passport and cannot cross to the other side.
Social class continues to be a factor that allows obtaining a passport as well as other forms of border crossing, and functions very well as a vehicle for crossing or contention.
Proscribed national identities. We can observe the proscription of some countries whose social, cultural, and political characteristics are considered undesirable from supremacist perspectives that have gained a presence in the United States, where they allow identifying countries whose peoples or residents are considered undesirable and, as a consequence, are denied entry in the United States. This criterion is also prominent in border zones, particularly when there are
Fugitivos de la Vida imposible 37 national inequalities based on a stigmatizing system used for the construction of cultural differences. But we are also speaking of ethnic differences. Ethnicity is a key matter in the constitution of border networks of social classification, because stigmatization and proscription limit the possibilities of border crossing.
Religious aspects are also very important, particularly when they are associated with certain political positions, as in the case of Muslims, who are considered to have homogeneous political and religious beliefs and are identified as terrorists, without any additional considerations.
We can make reference to academic and conservative studies that have supremacist perspectives, such as Choque de civilizaciones (1997) by Samuel Huntington, where this author emphasized that Muslim culture was a threat to the West. Afterward, in Who Are We? (2004), he indicated that due to its cultural, linguistic, and identitarian persistence, Mexican and latino culture constitute the main threat for US security.
Another condition that shapes networks and dispositifs of social classification in border zones has to do with gender. Differential conditions apply for border crossing depending on gender, a key aspect in the formation of border spaces and border worlds.
Cultural dispositifs of classification
Borders function as racialized systems and as systems of racialization, and operate through frameworks organized from fundamentalist perspectives, supremacist orders, and structured positions that block the crossing of certain groups, previously identified or proscribed. Sociocultural dispositifs that have the power to organize these differences are as follows:
As we have indicated before, in border studies, metaphors have replaced research as well as the knowledge of the processes that define life in the border. I am not trying to disqualify or deny recognition of the important role of metaphors as constructions that allow us to think about some aspects of reality. However, the strategic condition of the Mexico-US border, as that of many other borders in the world, requires approaches that facilitate the precise understanding of its intelligibility, its problems and challenges, and its economic, social, and cultural expressions. At the same time, we need to advance beyond limited perspectives that overemphasize some of the features of the border using concepts such as porosity, contingence, and limits.
I have presented here a series of conceptual axes that constitute a theoretical proposal for the interpretation of borders and border worlds. At the same time, these conceptual axes help us construct methodological approaches that mediate between our heuristic platforms and the economic, political, social, and cultural processes that give meaning to our daily reality and border imaginaries, recognizing the complexity of borders and their constitution as political and power constructions that function as dispositifs of social classification, thus increasing the vulnerability and defenseless position of individuals that take recourse to displacements, migration, and migratory caravans as a strategy oriented to the conquest of better living conditions, confronting great risks, aggressions, and, very often, death. Nobody should die for exercising his/ her human right to emigrate.
Translated by Mabel Moraiia
1 These numbers correspond to crossings by foot and crossings in private vehicles in all the ports of entry located in the Mexico-US border during 2016: Tijuana/San Diego, Ciudad Juarez/El Paso, Nogales/ Tucson, Nuevo Laredo/Laredo and Matamoros/Brownsville.
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