Bullets Over the Borderlands: Where Do We Memorialize the Dead?  Part I: Dreaming of Free Landscapes

Bullets Over the Borderlands: Where Do We Memorialize the Dead? Part I: Dreaming of Free Landscapes

This essay is the first of a two-part series. Follow the link to read part two.

As bullet wounds still heal and caged children endure confinement in the borderlands, and as we get through the shock of witnessing familiar places abruptly become sites of dying, it is critical that we examine how spaces that unexpectedly become places of remembrance can guide the building of future memorials. Creating ad-hoc places to mourn the dead is an act of compassion, but choosing the right location for mourning and reflection takes time. Tragedy compels reaction, and wherever the location might be, makeshift altars emerge to commemorate the lives sacrificed. Architecture too can bring together in physical form the collective sentiments of survivors who are impelled to remember, respect, and recall those whose lives are lost in traumatic circumstances; but to do this, an ideal site is required.

…this is a continuation of more than a century of acts of hate perpetuated against Mexican-Americans and others on the borderlands

Figure 1: Men assisting with “Operation Wetback,” a 1950s mass deportation program that Donald Trump has praised. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images.

In cases where cities or nation-states defended their independence and blood was spilled, spaces previously unmarked and unremarked have come into focus, bounded by the memory of what transpired. At times the most central of civic sites become palimpsests of tragedy because of their location. This was the case with the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, bombarded by the Argentine Navy and Air Force during the military coup that forced Juan Domingo Perón into exile in 1955, leaving hundreds of civilians dead and the plaza drenched in blood. Twenty-two years later, the same plaza became the place where the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo ritually processed to protest the loss of their “disappeared” children during the Dirty War waged by the military against those they regarded as subversives. The mothers walked from 1977 to 2006; some believed they would never stop. The question for us is how do we begin to process the borderland tragedies currently underway as we find the ideal site to do this? What compels me to write this essay isn’t just the ongoing assaults, but the fact that this is a continuation of more than a century of acts of hate perpetuated against Mexican-Americans and others on the borderlands. How and where do we memorialize the dead when bullets have flown over the borderlands for so long?

Figure 2: Mourning after the El Paso mass shooting. Photo by Peter Svarzbein.

On August 3, 2019, El Paso, Texas joined a list of U.S. cities victimized by today’s blood currency of bullets. Unlike other mass shootings, this act of domestic terrorism was the continuation of multiple assaults against a border landscape targeted by the president of the United States since 2016. Alas, El Paso cannot properly venerate the dead because the targeting continues. Locals find themselves moved to tears as they commute or run errands, and later in the privacy of home they weep. A typical day in the life of a border dweller exacts a heavy visual-emotional toll. Yet, creating sites of mourning, action, and reconciliation allows collective wounds to heal. This process builds a city. This type of emotional reconstruction is needed to move forward, restore collective sanity, and heal the civic soul after tragedy. But how is it even possible to find emotional relief when tragedy in the borderlands is all too familiar?

Figure 3: A World War I era poster recruiting men to patrol the border. Credit: Gordon Grant/Library of Congress.

In the early 1970s, my older sister would take us to play along the Río Grande, just blocks from our home in Laredo, Texas. She egged us on one day to swim across to the Mexican side. Our cousins lived over there, so why not? She swam across and back, had done so before, she said, but this time we told. She was grounded, and lessons were learned that day, including more than what we wanted to know about our history as border Mexican-Americans and about our militarized landscape. “Los Rinches will shoot you, mijos,” mother warned. Los Rinches, the Texas Rangers, had carried out state-sanctioned violence against our people during her youth. In 1914, they shut down our local progressive newspaper and printing press, run by trailblazing journalist Jovita Idár’s family just blocks from our home. This was an affront we knew well because Idár, with my great aunt (and our family matriarch) María Villarreal, founded the Liga Femenil Mexicanista in 1911 to address such aggressions, as Idár also did with her bold revolutionary writings. This bloody period, known as La Matanza (the slaughter), occurred between 1910 and 1920, when Texas Rangers and vigilantes rode free range on brown people along the Rio Grande, killing thousands of Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans, lynching for full visual effect, intimidating everyone, even at the grocery store. For my mother, the assaults happened only yesterday, and they could happen again. In 2019, I find myself thinking: Dear mother, it’s happening again. Today.

Figure 4: Texas Rangers pose with Mexicans after a “bandit raid” in 1915. The Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, Courtesy of the Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Once, in full view of everyone at the local grocery store, a pinche gringa (my sister’s words) referred to me and my younger cousin as “nothing but mud.” Her friend from Dallas laughed at the insult. You don’t forget that kind of racist laughter. This complicity stung most because it gave Anglos license to intimidate publicly. We left thinking… no somos lodo (we are not mud). The shame of wetting one’s feet in the Río Grande, risking the label “wetback,” never left us. How many of us have had the thought all our lives to just lay low, inhale, hold steady, and resist the urge to feel free in your own homeland. With her rituals of ablution, artist Ana Teresa Fernández, confronts this stigma of “wetback.” She reminds us that for over a century, Mexican-American women of the borderlands, as those in my family and hometown, sacrificed so much and often led the charge against racist aggression. ¡Pero basta ya!

Figure 5: “Aquarius,” (oil on canvas) by Ana Teresa Fernández. Documentation of the artist’s performance at the Tijuana/San Diego border. Fernández summons domestic workers, the plights of Mexican women in a male-dominated society, and women who bear the brunt of migration. She states: “I went to the border and mopped the beach with my hair in desperation to clean up the filth and violence…this was my way of combatting the term “wetback.”

The replay of La Matanza that occurred in El Paso with a military-grade rifle on August 3, 2019, did the work of a dozen Texas Rangers in just a few minutes, leaving twenty-two dead and twenty-four injured. This was the largest targeted attack on a Mexican-American community in recent history. Sadly, more targeted attacks against a so-called “Hispanic invasion” (Trump’s words) continue almost every day. Their brutal recurrence has left open wounds in El Paso, not knowing what comes next after one experiences what feels like a modern-day rite of passage. Can anyone guess where the next mass shooting will happen? What algorithms do we use to anticipate future bloodshed, or do we just keep studying tweets and campaign speeches? The borderlands’ assaulted landscape tells us that a call to action is in order. But what kind of site of remembrance this calls for is unfathomable right now. Still unable to exhale, El Paso and the borderlands yearn to bring this bloody story to an end.

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