Litro #165: Breaking Borders | Moving Borders

Litro #165: Breaking Borders | Moving Borders

Translated by Lorna Scott Fox.

The first border I ever crossed was that between Mexico and the United States; I don’t remember, but I was told about it. My parents took me to Los Angeles where a renowned ophthalmological surgeon would perform an incision in my iris, in hopes that more light might reach the retina of the almost blind eye that I was born with. I crossed that border many times as a child, almost always to visit eye doctors, but also for family reasons: we had close relatives in San Diego and Ciudad Juárez. Along the way we’d see campesinos trudging with their cases or backpacks under the broiling desert sun. My mother always wondered where they came from, and reminded us how lucky we were to be able to travel in an air-conditioned car.

In the US, not only were the streets cleaner, the buildings newer and better kept, but there was also something called science, that goddess my parents worshipped to implore her favours. Every medical consultation took place in English. My parents and the ophthalmologist looked at me, asked each other questions, exchanged opinions about my case. And there was I, seated in the chair with little mirrors and glaring lights, not understanding a single word because no one bothered to translate. Two frontiers stood between me and what was going on there: that of language and that of childhood. The second was the worst. An invisible partition separates the world of children, in which everything arouses curiosity and feelings are overwhelming, from the calloused, preoccupied, sensible world of grown-ups. Children are highly aware of this. Adults less so.

At some point, we left off chasing ophthalmologists. Not that my eyesight had improved in the least; what happened was that the doctors began postponing the solution to some indefinite future. When I grew up, I’d be able to not only cross the border between me and them, but also fulfil my parents’ greatest wish: to escape from the flat and nebulous world I was born in and migrate to the three-dimensional, overpopulated world of people with bifocal vision, the happy ones no doubt, since it was held so worthwhile to join their company. Though nobody said so at the time, I sensed that I’d also be crossing a further border, the one dividing the world of those with “different capacities” from that of “normal”, and hence superior, people. I believed for years in the existence of this border. From my side of it, normality looked like the States looked from Mexico: a place where folks lived free of cares in almost identical houses, seeming to enjoy an incomprehensible peace and wellbeing. At my tender age, I could already distinguish between those who lived on that side of the invisible yet incontrovertible line, and those who didn’t. On this side lived, for instance, the girl with the hare lip, the deaf-and-dumb man next door, and the school director’s autistic son. Secretly, in a way unspoken even among ourselves, we formed a parallel nation. Now and then one of our compatriots made a desperate bid to escape from it: they had the distinctive feature operated, or acquired a prosthesis that mimicked the missing part very well. It felt strange to look at them, slightly embarrassing and yet touching: they’d almost manage to compensate altogether for their physical difference, and when they did, something in their demeanour always gave them away. Some of us saw the attempt at assimilation as a betrayal, but then people on the other side never stopped urging us to try it: Why don’t you have the operation, they’d say to me, or Why don’t you at least wear a cosmetic lens so it’s not so obvious? They’d nag others with, Why don’t you wear high heels? Why don’t you conceal that scar with make-up?

Mexicans are very sensitive to misfortune. Unlike in the US, a society cleanly split between winners and losers, we don’t like people who are too self-satisfied. Being born with a disability attracted extra kindness from everyone. Passers-by smiled at me in the street, teachers explained things over and over without impatience; even today, I get more deferential treatment from Mexican bureaucrats. Their pity is so well meant, it’s impossible to take offence. They reckon my life is hard enough already, and want to lighten my load. Thus I enjoyed a privileged existence until the age of eleven, when my mother had the brilliant idea of moving to Europe.

Some countries are more inclined to uniformity than others, and France is one of them. True, the French attain heights of aesthetic emotion, but their ideal of beauty is also highly restricted, and, in the case of human beauty, almost beyond reach. They can’t stand anyone excessively fat, insane or unhappy, let alone “physically challenged”. Instead of the compassion I’d had to put up with in Mexico, the most common attitude I met there was a discomfort that made them look down, sideways or anywhere that wasn’t my face. Some, making a huge effort, magnanimously played down my defect, saying I had an interesting, rather animal gaze. I’m generalising, of course. The French have many virtues, including some excellent universities that bestow study grants on third-worlders. My mother had obtained one to do a doctorate, which was something to be grateful for. This modest sum obliged us to live in the suburbs, full of immigrants like us, but more settled. Most of our neighbours came from North Africa. Those my age attended my school, but within a couple of years they would head out one by one towards that invisible frontier that separates, especially in France, good students from bad. In view of their poor academic performance the school would strongly encourage them to switch to a vocational institution, where they could train as stylists or bakers.

In adult life, I continued crossing borders on all five continents, and found none so disturbing as those that mark the top and bottom of my native country. The northern border is a wound in every Mexican’s consciousness. Not a day passes without reports on the numbers who disappear en route to the US – Central American children sent by their parents on a journey of no return to escape war or poverty, pregnant women risking their lives for the sake of their unborn child’s. We hear about the train known as The Beast, about the sexual abuse, robbery and extorsion committed against helpless travellers from El Salvador and Nicaragua and Guatemala, and from every corner of Mexico, where we know that entire villages have been emptied of their men. People arriving at that northern border by bus are held for more than two hours; the men have their bowels, as well as their luggage, inspected. It’s usually easier by plane, unless your visa is out of order or you’re out of luck, as I was the last time I went.

It happened a week ago, when I flew to San Francisco for the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley. It was my third visit to the country since intolerance had come to power. I had gone to the airport at the crack of dawn, since Mexicans are no longer allowed to check in online. I didn’t eat the dry biscuit offered on board. Since childhood, I’ve spent so many hours in US customs queues that I know the wait can be long and exhausting, and as the line inches forward I entertain myself with a sadomasochistic game that consists of guessing which of the passengers is shortly going to be led away by security guards for “secondary screening”. Once I’ve picked my candidate, I begin to feel a mounting, unbearable anxiety, together with a protective instinct towards this craftsman, peasant or worker who I believe will be pushed back from the gates of the empire. Whenever my suspicions prove correct, my attachment to the elect becomes such that I can hardly stop myself intervening between them and the cop who has them by the arm. That morning, however, the line was exceptionally short and I had no time to pick anyone; that morning, too, it was my lot to come on a grumpy officer who didn’t ask me the reason for my trip, but why I was here, a subtle but eloquent distinction. I gave the name of the festival and he tapped on his computer. Feeling a bit dizzy, I leaned on the counter, as I always do when questioned at customs anywhere, and the guy in uniform shouted, Get away from there. I stepped in front of the camera, and again he told me rudely to move. He asked what a book festival was, some kind of flea market? That’s when I began to suspect that today’s detainee would be me – a possibility that had never, incredibly, crossed my mind before. Maybe I should have felt affection for myself, but instead I felt like an idiot for having accepted this invitation to the country of Donald Trump, albeit issued by one of its most enlightened and progressive enclaves. I was so nervous that I started giggling, and try as I might to contain it the laughter continued welling up, as irrepressibly as when the physics teacher at school would interrogate me about gravity in front of the whole class. This time, though, I knew the answer and recited it like a swot. I explained to the officer about the festival, unable to hide a certain condescension, just as he couldn’t hide his complete lack of interest in what I was saying. I was still talking when he radioed one of his colleagues, handed him my passport, told me to follow him, and called Next.

I knew a consular rep was waiting for me outside, so while being ushered along an endless corridor I took out my phone to message him. The new officer, who hadn’t even greeted me, gestured that I should turn it off. This is how I arrived at the place popularly known as el cuartito, the “little room” of which I’d heard so often.

It turned out, at least in this airport, to be much bigger than I’d imagined. Around fifty chairs stood in rows, facing a counter with a black tray onto which my escort tossed my passport as we went in. I was immediately struck by the absence of customary American order and efficiency. Two cops were lounging at the counter. From time to time one would grab a passport at random and call out a surname. Everything seemed deliberately designed to foment despair. It’s a lottery, I said to myself, like how the first officer had happened to wake up in a mood that morning. I had no clue as to what would happen to me, or when. Everything went terribly slowly, except for my head, which was whirling by now with hunger and exhaustion. Many detainees spoke no English and didn’t understand when the officers announced rules about the phone or asked who had connecting flights coming up. Most were Latinos from various countries, but there were also quite a few Asians and Muslims. A woman went up to explain something in a language I couldn’t identify, and the policeman yelled at her to go back to her seat. I thought how easy it was to hate policemen, and especially gringos. I could have taken for granted, as many do, that all Americans are bad and all Mexicans their helpless victims, and maybe I’d have thought it that day, but for the memory of a long and instructive trip I took to Guatemala, years ago, with some other students. If the northern border is a wound that pains all Mexicans, the southern border is a shame of which we know little or nothing.

Going in via Tapachula couldn’t have been simpler. The Guatemalan immigration officers didn’t even summon us off our second-class bus. We rolled on to Lake Atitlán without once being asked for ID, not even at the hostal where we stayed. Mexico and Guatemala seemed like a single nation, brothers in Mayan culture and languages. On the way back, however, we ran into all sorts of obstacles. Crossing the Suchiate River, the Mexican police intercepted our boat and, although this was foreign territory, checked the passports and belongings of all the Guatemalans. Two couples were arrested as soon as they set foot in Mexico, for deportation back to El Salvador. The worst incident, though, occurred a few miles after the border. It must have been two or three in the morning when the bus was stopped. A heavily armed, black-clad commando boarded and began waking random passengers, with what seemed totally arbitrary criteria. I watched through the window as they were hustled down and made to show their papers. Then each one had to sing the Mexican national anthem and praises to the flag. The way those migrants were treated filled me with shame as well as pity. Quite obviously, none of them were planning to settle in our country. It became clear to me that our police force acts as the first screening filter on behalf of those who crack down on our own people day after day, but with greater sadism.

In the cuartito, an indigenous boy dozed against another minor’s shoulder, brothers who looked as poor and vulnerable as the kids who work the traffic lights in Mexico City. I remembered myself as a little girl, one who crossed frontiers with the greatest of ease, never suspecting that other kids risked their lives to do the same. I thought of the girls and boys who ride the Beast, and of those Cuban youngsters clinging to rafts without their parents; I remembered Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old from Syria whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, and all the children managing as best they can in refugee camps. What do children know of politics and borders? How is any of this their fault? It’s a lottery, as unpredictable as my customs man’s temper or his aversion to woman writers. Chance determines who gets born in Mexico and who in Syria or El Salvador, and before we can even speak, our life has been mapped out by frontiers. I got out my notebook and wrote this down. Then I started noting everything around me, as they were surely doing too, spying through a hidden camera on people’s every movement and expression. I cheered myself with the thought that I could use this mishap for an article on the various frontiers where I’ve been stopped. It’s a disgrace, I wrote, for a screening area like this to exist, and yet every human being should experience it at least once, so as to know what others go through.

I returned to France as a grown-up, with my own French government grant to do a PhD. By then there was a European Union, meaning that most students didn’t require papers. Only the “extracommunitarians” had to renew their visas annually. This procedure took place in a spacious room reminiscent of the cuartito, located rue Miollis in the XVth arrondissement, and tended to take all morning, if not all day. The clerks’ manner resembled that of the US officials in San Francisco Airport. They were overbearing to anyone speaking poor French, and rarely repeated things twice. I once watched one of these despots tormenting a hapless American girl whose first time it was. She glanced huffily through her papers, and flung her passport so carelessly on the counter that it fell to the floor. When the girl bent to pick it up, her awkwardness made them laugh. It was soon after 9/11; some Americans were wondering, Why do they hate us? And I believe it was a fair question. The student gathered her papers and burst into tears as she fled to the bathroom. My turn came next, and the same clerk behaved far more politely to me; but my adrenaline had kicked in and I lost all composure. I gave the pot plant on the counter the whack I wanted to give that woman. What’s the matter with you? she demanded in a fury. Hitting a poor plant like that! Acting surprised, I responded sweetly: I can’t see why you care so much about a plant, when you obviously don’t give a toss for humans. The woman called the security guard and asked him to see me out, assuring me my visa would never be renewed as long as I lived. I walked out feeling stunned, not so much at the rudeness of the French or the immigration authorities I was familiar with from childhood, but at the fact that I’d put my neck on the block for a gringa. It felt like a short circuit. Without warning, I had crossed what is perhaps the most impregnable border of all: that of my own prejudices.

One of the uniformed men shouted for the boy asleep on his brother’s shoulder. Almost before he could open his eyes the officer was interrogating him in English. The brother kept saying, in barely understandable Spanish, that they had visas. That should be enough not to get harassed, I thought, what are consular services for? But the bullying went on, until the younger boy started crying. Everyone in the room held their breath. The atmosphere was like a pressure cooker. Just then a female officer appeared, who I hadn’t seen before, and asked her colleague to lay off. She searched through the passports until finding their visas, handed them back with unusual courtesy, and opened the door for the pair to leave.

I felt better recording this scene, suddenly confident I’d get my passport back soon, so that I too could leave. I pictured the Americans who were waiting for me in Berkeley, those friendly, somewhat naïve gringos who spare no effort to change things for the better; it occurred to me that while the world’s police forces make up a nation of their own, some cops are bad and others aren’t all that bad. I wrote this down, and added—I’m reading it now—that the only border of them all that makes sense to me is the one between good people and the rest.

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