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Borders of the mind: The privilege and politics of travelling to the U.S.-Mexico border

Essay: Walls are always first built in the imagination—and on a trip to Mexico through the U.S., John Semley finds a prescription for how they can be knocked down
President Trump Signs Memorandum To Deploy National Guard To Mexican Border
TIJUANA, MEXICO - APRIL 06: A wall and fencing run along the U.S (R) and Mexico (L) border on April 6, 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico. President Trump has issued a decree for the National Guard to guard the 3,200 kilometer border between the United States and Mexico. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Like a mighty fortification in a fantasy movie—the Gates of Mordor in Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones’s icy northern stockade, or the euphemistically-named Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart of more recent historical memory—Donald Trump’s wall between the United States and Mexico may not physically exist, but it looms large in the imagination. A wall, to split off America from what he has long insisted are dangerous people, has been promised for years now, and the President claimed at a June rally that construction is already under way: “It’s not build that wall anymore, it’s continue building that wall. Because we’re building it. We’re building it.”

Fact-checkers have debunked Trump’s claim;  the money that’s been set aside so far for wall construction is for repairs and fencing for the barrier that’s already there. But Trump’s wall is there—even if it’s not there there.

It’s there for travellers like my partner and I, ambling southbound down the American west coast in late June, just as much as it is for the Americans who—despite being usually brash and ballsy and confident in a way that’s not entirely un-charming—have become atypically apologetic.

“I’m sorry, man,” offers a barfly in Seattle.

“For what?”

“For Trump.”

He then tells me, repeatedly, in an affected Brooklyn tough-guy tenor, to fuhgeddaboutit.

In San Francisco, a guy at tiki bar asks what we make of Trump before confiding, in a day-drunk slurring stage whisper: “He should be drawn and quartered.” The American people don’t like the president, or the wall, or the child segregation camps—or the American people that talk to visiting Canadians in liberal-leaning cities, anyway.

All of this proves modestly encouraging. In my experience, individual Americans are always the best thing about America. They are gregarious in a hale, hearty, back-slappy way, and genuinely friendly in a fashion that isn’t quite a part of the mythic Canadian politeness, which usually unfolds as a passive-aggressive posture of tolerance, and rarely as legitimate openness and kindness. Yet there is an uncanny sense that something is not altogether right in these appearances—an apprehension that, like in a David Lynch movie, something howlingly evil bubbles just beneath the surface.

The darkness from Trump’s constant and toxic rhetoric is there. And so is the wall, in its own way. It’s there in the shrill bleating of the evening news, in wailing, quasi-coherent tweets, and beat into Americans’ heads, a force that many feel obliged to reckon with, if not apologize for. But just how did it get there—and, wilder still, how did it worm its way into the minds of mere pop-in tourists like us?


As the border edged closer, our rented red Nissan Versa veering toward the Mexico border by way of California’s Pacific Coast Highway and Highway 101, decorative roadside mission bells mark a backward passage in time to an era when all this land belonged to Mexico, and before that Spain, when Franciscan monks settled coastal mission chains to convert and conscript native Californians. And as it does, a worried, low-key anxious mind spirals into paranoia as we reach the CBX, a cross-border airport spanning San Diego and Tijuana that is eerily empty and quiet on a Tuesday afternoon.

The standard worries about border crossings—do we have our passports; do we know exactly where we’re staying, and for how long; are we carrying anything that could, under any imaginable circumstances, constitute “contraband”; do I know my own name—have suddenly become so much more existential. Now we found ourselves wondering, against the backdrop of an ongoing border crisis: Is it potentially dangerous? Is it worth the hassle? Is it moral to gallivant across country lines when others cannot? Is it somehow racist to exploit the entitlement of the relatively easy cross-border travel promised a person with a valid Canadian passport? Is it somehow racist not to?

All of these are the concerns of total privilege—the high-minded worries of people who can afford them, and for whom the pressing threats of crossing an international border are nowhere near the order of potentially being shot, or dying of dehydration, or being separated from my hypothetical child, perhaps forever. Yet I tend to be of the belief that the problem with privilege is not that exists, but that it is not broadly applied. That is: the fact that not everyone enjoys the same privileges is precisely what makes them appear as privileges, rather than basic rights. Still, it was telling, and a bit horrifying, that I, a creature of this totalizing coddled white privilege, found that I had been inadvertently absorbing the racism and paranoia about borders espoused by the rhetoric of the Trump administration.

This is the marker of a scarily effective ideology: instead of someone forcing you to believe it, you come to believe it yourself. Ideology bends hearts and minds into all kinds of bad shapes. Ideology, as it is commonly understood, works to to naturalize, justify and mystify the relations of power. As the British sociologist John B. Thompson put it, to understand ideology is to understand the way in which conventional notions of reason and meaning “sustain relations of domination.” Ideology is a subliminal-level scuffle for how we conceive and parse out and parcel out the world, as well as the relations between people themselves—a battle for the imagination that relies on guerrilla warfare, or what the great philosopher of ideological conditioning Louis Althusser called “looting and camouflage.”

Borders are built first in the mind. And an actual fully constructed, metal-and-concrete border wall that doesn’t even exist is nothing compared to internalizing the anxiety about the people on the other side.

Such concerns are amplified in the mind of the tourist, who is always locked, if they allow themselves to be, inside a knotty paradox. After all, the tourist enters a new place—perhaps especially a foreign place—with some vague expectation of encountering something meaningful or “authentic.” But like the experiment that’s ruined by the subject knowing that it’s being observed, the tourist’s very presence demolishes that chance of authenticity. One of the great things about the late Anthony Bourdain was his almost compulsive acknowledgment of this paradox: He sought out the rare, unmediated, distinctively local experience, all the while full in the knowledge that he could never achieve it, not only by virtue of his celebrity of the camera crew trailing him, but by virtue of his simply being there.

So instead of hunting for the ever-elusive authentic, the tourist becomes willingly dumb. You are hailed as an idiot: waved into tourist-trapping bars, petitioned to take photos with a donkey painted as a zebra, flagged down to peruse ashtrays and chintzy sculptures of copulating cartoon frogs. “Tourism is the march of stupidity,” says the narrator of Don DeLillo’s The Names, a novelistic study of American culture adrift abroad. “You don’t know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level and the norm.”

The tourist endeavours to embrace a culture—or better yet, be embraced by it—but is afflicted by the sense that they are only ever a hapless rube. To be a tourist, DeLillo writes, “is to escape accountability.” Such an escape now—in this place, in these times—felt not only decadent but immoral. Cast as some interloping lummox staring into Google Maps, how can one be expected to attend to real issues, to the paranoia and trepidation produced by history-in-the-making? Even more the point: is the intentional stoking of such trepidation a way of countering the stupidity inherent in being tourist? And also, Jesus Christ, aren’t we supposed to be on vacation?

So I beat back the verbiage about bad hombres, and the long-recirculated platitudes about Mexico being dangerous or strange or otherworldly. There I sat, in a rental car, bartering with my own acquired racism, reaffirming the humanity of Mexican people in my own mind. These are deeply weird times.

The pedestrian border crossing from San Ysidro in San Diego to Tijuana in Mexico. (Photograph by John Semley)

Turns out you can’t actually cross at the San Diego/Tijuana CBX—not unless you have a ticket for a flight out of the Tijuana International Airport, anyway. After a short cab ride to the San Diego’s southernmost San Ysidro district, a more comforting scene emerges: People bustling across the border on foot, or stuck in cars lurching slowly forward. A smiling border guard stamps our passports, recommends a restaurant famous for inventing the Caesar salad, and happily adds some extra days to our tourist visas, in the event that we “drink a bottle of tequila.”

In the city itself, some local kids, upon learning we’re from Toronto, put on songs by Drake and The Weeknd, serve up some shots of whiskey, and teach us to three-step. A dive bar is blasting Iron Maiden and serving litre-plus bottles of Tecate. The food is delicious and plentiful. It is among the more comfortable places I’ve ever been. People are incredibly friendly, and of course they are—why wouldn’t they be? Many more cervezas, some tequila, and two-for-one palomas later, and the nagging reality of a cataclysmic human-rights crisis unfolding along this international border recedes safely to back of mind. All that paranoia, the border anxiety, feels absurd, even a bit embarrassing.

But the initial stress of being dumb tourists in Mexico was not unique to us. By all reports official and anecdotal, the chill resulting from heightened security and paranoia about crime is producing real consequences in tourist-reliant towns like Tijuana. In downtown San Diego, streetcars wrapped in a loud pink colour (officially known as rosa Mexicana) advertise, in all caps, “TIJUANA.” It’s meant as a reminder, to locals and tourists alike, to visit the neighbouring Mexican city. It feels as much like a tourism campaign as an insistent reminder of the very existence of Mexico itself—trolleys screaming “TIJUANA!” at anyone in earshot.

On the south side of the border, things seem considerably more relaxed. Tijuana’s Telefonica Gastropark, an open-air drink-and-eatery popular among tourists, has teamed up with San Diego’s SouthNorte Beer Co., resulting in the first cross-border tap room. Hanging above the Gastropark is a billboard with a cartoonish Donald Trump jamming a taco into his gaping maw, next to the bolded declaration: “FOOD HAS NO WALLS.” Such efforts to break down barriers seem to reflect Tijuana’s attitude toward Trump’s immigration rhetoric. Locals are contemptuous, sure—but also a bit disbelieving.

Tens of thousands cross back-and-forth between Tijuana and San Ysidro every day: to work, to shop, to visit loved ones. When I raise the question of mounting border anxieties with a local bartender—making sure to repeat, compulsively, that we are Canadian and not American—he rolls his eyes, slides us some tequila, and blasts more Luis Miguel YouTube videos. For those who have grown up along the borderline, and in the long southern shadow of American empire, the pressing realities of cross-border tensions relax, dissolving in the long history of such tensions.

To anyone angered or distressed by Trump, by ICE, by the looming threat of the wall, such easy attitudes are intoxicating, revealing a wizened nonchalance. And yet this, too, can be an effect of the current crisis: a deliberate “everything’s okay” charm offensive designed to comfort some dumb, drunk, all-too-easily comforted Canadian tourists. And then even this understanding of tourism absorbs too easily into the solipsistic stupidity of the tourist: as if every experience, every humane gesture of kindness and fellow-feeling, were merely an elaborate charade executed for our benefit. It’s like a three-for-one beer bucket of intellectual, emotional, and existential anguish.

But in the evening, a parade for the Morena party and its leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador—now the country’s president—marches through Tijuana’s Avenida Revolución, the street that bisects its historical downtown. AMLO, as he’s known, is a left-nationalist who is anti-wall, anti-ICE, anti-deportation. And so are the people gathered in the streets, chanting in a language I don’t understand, betting on a better future for Mexicans and Americans.

With its hotels, souvenir shops, bargain pharmacies and bars serving four-for-one beers, Avenida Revolución attracts many dumb tourists. But this celebration is not, I don’t think, for our benefit. Politics may distract or breed ideological crisis, but they can also ground you, and remind you of the stakes of realities in which you don’t really belong.

A poster near the tourist-friendly Telefonica Gastropark in Tijuana. (Photograph by John Semley)

In Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, part of the author’s three-volume trilogy which unfolded along the Mexican-U.S. border, a young Texan cowboy named John Grady finds work at a large ranch in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila. There, he discusses fate, history, and myriad other subjects with Dueña Alfonsa, a sagacious old woman whose grand-niece Grady intends to marry. There is, the dueña tells him, a crucial difference between the world as-it-is, and the world-as-we-want-it, a border between our hopes and matters-of-fact. But there is also a middle-ground between the ideal and reality. As she tells John Grady, “Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.”

It’s a beautiful image for re-conceiving of contemporary border tensions, and certainly more useful than talk of crackdowns, tariffs, trade wars, travel bans—whether governmentally sanctioned or self-imposed. Instead of a dotted line on a map, or a string of fencing, or a metaphorical barrier between peoples and cultures, think of this long liminal space that reaches out between people, cultures and nations, yearning to bind us all, waiting for us to discover it. “Reality is not,” writes the Hungarian historian György Lukács. “It becomes.”

And so to revise McCarthy’s thesis: the world-as-it-is can’t be distinct from our hopes for it, but rather needs to be defined by our conception of it, by our collective desire to will it into existence.

Travel—yes, the journeys of the privileged—can help do this. It is a cliché that travel “broadens the mind” and “nourishes the soul,” and it’s one that seems especially rich when so much travel amounts to eating food and getting drunk and snapping selfies in mildly exotic locales. But like a lot of clichés, it carries the kernel of truth. Borders create division, after all; borders rend the vastness and possibility of space into place. Travel, in its own minor way, can help undo this, by deconstructing the borders that are built up in the mind.

These are, again, cold comforts to anyone who can’t travel because they’re unable cross a border without being detained and dehumanized. The idea is to reapply this privilege more universally, to undo the work of ideological conditioning that bullies and tyrants would beat into us. If borders and walls are always first erected in the imagination, then it’s there that they must be first demolished. As we’ve seen in recent months alone, the human cost of not doing so is monumental, and the potential rewards are unfathomable. The whole world lies waiting.