Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Geography of Customs and Border Security

In reading Borderlands and its description of the Mexican/US border region, I was struck how the age of aviation has changed the physical geography of our borders and what that geography – and those who populate it – says about the culture of the place one is about to enter. Take our country, for instance: When one enters the United States from a foreign nation by air, one inevitably undergoes the arduous task of navigating the serpentine Customs and Border Security line. The terminal is painted antiseptic white, and the route along the way is peppered with identical “motivational placards” depicting unknown, smiling Border Security Agents over what is apparently their motto: “We are the face of our Nation.” One is received with caution; the Agent scrutinizes your documents, asks you the necessary questions, gives you the discriminatory once-over, and either flags you for further inspection or allows you to proceed. The whole affair lasts less than a minute. The face of our nation is arguably cold and devoid of human contact. There is a disconnect between the vibrant culture that is America and the first face an immigrant entering by plane sees. I think Anzaldua would agree a border is more than a line on a map.
My experience with Italian border security while studying abroad could not have been more different. There was no white-washed, sterile environment with cliché slogans but a well-trod avenue lined with posters depicting the many historical sites of Rome. There was, in fact, no formal line; individuals actually had to interact with each other in order to form an orderly group. The Italian official was far from cold and calculating. The conversation, in Italian, went something like this:
Official: Good morning. Passport?
Me: Good morning.
Official: Procaccini, you’re Italian?
Me: Yes, Italian American.
Official: Where’s your family from?
Me: Lazio and Puglia.
Official: Ha! Wonderful. Go ahead!
He never even looked to see if I had a visa. Now, what Italians may lack in serious border security they clearly make up for in enthusiasm and gregariousness; in my opinion, the “face” of that culture is better reflected in their border than in ours.
Despite their difference, the phenomenon of the Customs terminal in any country is a no-man’s land. The travelers inside it are in a state of limbo between one culture and the next. The lens through which we view our own and other cultures can subsequently lead to conflict. Border agents are forced to discriminate through these cultural lenses and stereotypes, as are the individuals stuck in the terminal. This idea is something that Anzaldua emphasizes in the first half of Borderlands. As she says, “Culture forms our beliefs. We perceive the version of reality it tries to communicate” (38). When reality itself differs from the map that culture has given us, conflict erupts. The Spanish conquistadores entered Latin America and unexpectedly found natives, leading to their slaughter. More interesting, however, is the conflict that occurs when individuals break with the “cultural map” that stereotypes them and depart from cultural norms. An example of such an occurrence is Anzaldua’s break with her own tribe by declaring herself a lesbian and not a nun or a mother (41). Where Ihimaera reinforces the importance of the tribe and of unity, Anzaldua lashes out at it: “The welfare of the community, and the tribe is more important than the welfare of the individual. The individual exists first as kin – as sister, as father, as padrino – and last as self” (40). Maps, especially those of societal stereotypes, inevitably lose the significance of the individual unit; they plot the forest but lose the trees. She values the abnormal and the unique as opposed to the general and commonplace. The geography of Borderlands seems to synthesize these two different aspects.

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