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Border Identifications

Border Identifications
Narratives of Religion, Gender, and Class on the U.S.-Mexico Border

How the stories people tell about religion, gender, and class define identities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Series: Inter America Series, Duncan Earle, Howard Campbell, and John Peterson, series editors

August 2005
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
312 pages | 6 x 9 | 25 b&w illus. |

From poets to sociologists, many people who write about life on the U.S.-Mexico border use terms such as "border crossing" and "hybridity" which suggest that a unified culture—neither Mexican nor American, but an amalgamation of both—has arisen in the borderlands. But talking to people who actually live on either side of the border reveals no single commonly shared sense of identity, as Pablo Vila demonstrated in his book Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders: Social Categories, Metaphors, and Narrative Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Frontier. Instead, people living near the border, like people everywhere, base their sense of identity on a constellation of interacting factors that includes regional identity, but also nationality, ethnicity, and race.

In this book, Vila continues the exploration of identities he began in Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders by looking at how religion, gender, and class also affect people's identifications of self and "others" among Mexican nationals, Mexican immigrants, Mexican Americans, Anglos, and African Americans in the Cuidad Juárez-El Paso area. Among the many fascinating issues he raises are how the perception that "all Mexicans are Catholic" affects Mexican Protestants and Pentecostals; how the discourse about proper gender roles may feed the violence against women that has made Juárez the "women's murder capital of the world"; and why class consciousness is paradoxically absent in a region with great disparities of wealth. His research underscores the complexity of the process of social identification and confirms that the idealized notion of "hybridity" is only partially adequate to define people's identity on the U.S.-Mexico border.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Catholicism and Mexicanness on the U.S.-Mexico Border
  • Chapter 2. Mexican and Mexican American Protestants
  • Chapter 3. Regionalized Gender Narratives on the Mexican Side of the Border
  • Chapter 4. Gender, Nationality, and Ethnicity on the American Side of the Border
  • Chapter 5. The Problematic Class Discourse on the Border: The Mexican Side
  • Chapter 6. The Problematic Class Discourse on the Border: The American Side
  • Chapter 7. Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Pablo Vila is Professor of Sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia.


In my previous book in the Inter-America series, Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders, I tried to show how the categories and interpellations, the metaphors, and the narratives people use to address themselves and the "others" on the border have a basically regional logic in Juárez and an ethnic/racial one in El Paso (while national logics work on both sides of the border). Of course, I also wanted to show how the peculiar circumstances of the border "ask" people (above all, those of Mexican descent in the American side) to mix, in variable ways, those logics all the time. In this second book I will show how the regional, ethnic, and national logics behind interpellations, metaphors, and narratives are intricately intertwined with other possible identity anchors. I will concentrate on how religion, gender, and class subject positions are made meaningful in the border context when understood, as many people in the area do, through the particular lenses of region, ethnicity, and nation.


If, as Kristeva (1973) points out, texts derive their meanings from other texts, in a continual interplay of readings and interpretations, this book is much more intertextual than others, because in its pages I make continuous references to the first book of the series, Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders. However, that does not mean that this book cannot stand on its own and that it is mandatory to read the first volume to understand this second. On the contrary, I think that the narratives of religion, gender, and class I discuss here can be analyzed and comprehended in their own terms, in other words, as the particular discursive practices border actors enact to understand who they are in an area where particular discourses of region, ethnicity, race, and nationality are hegemonic.


In this book, I rely heavily on the literature that claims that a cumulative effect of sorts emerges from the diverse identities we bear in our everyday lives. As Avtar Brah (1992, p. 131) points out for the specific case of women:


Within...structures of social relations we do not exist simply as women but as differentiated categories such as working-class women, peasant women, migrant women. Each description references a specificity of social condition. And real lives are forged out of a complex articulation of these different womanhoods the noun is only meaningful—indeed only exists—with reference to a fusion of adjectives which symbolize particular historical trajectories, material circumstances and cultural experiences.


Thus, the real lives of residents of Ciudad Juárez (Juarenses) and El Pasoans are forged out of the complex articulation of racial, ethnic, regional, national, religious, gender, sexual orientation, age, and class, among other identity categories. Consequently, in this second book I concentrate on those identity categories the people I interviewed discussed the most in the meetings I had with them (i.e., I try to show how religion, gender, and class subject positions are made meaningful in the border context when combined with such categories as region, race, ethnicity, and nation). At the same time, however, I also try to explain why in some particular cases (Mexican and Mexican American Protestants more prominently, class subjects in other cases) those regional, ethnic, and national categories (and the border itself) almost completely disappear.


Commenting on the work of Laclau and Mouffe, Torfing (1999, pp. 150-151) claims that there are many possible points of identification for the subject.


A single subject may identify with many different things and may thus occupy many different "subject positions." A subjectivated individual is thus a masquerading void. There might be inconsistencies and irresolvable contradictions between the different identifications of the subject; however, these aporias might be perfectly acceptable to the subject. After all, everybody is a little schizophrenic. Nevertheless, a minimal consistency or accommodation between different subject positions is brought about by hegemonic strategies which aim to articulate different struggles and identities around a nodal point.


In my research I have found diverse possibilities working in the process of identification of different subjects. On one hand, it was somewhat but not totally uncommon to hear interviewees advancing completely contradictory identity claims. Much more common, however, was to find interviewees who were looking for a "minimal consistency or accommodation between different subject positions" and used the hegemonic discourses of the region to do so, because that is precisely one of the most important reasons such discourses are hegemonic. In this sense, when the nodal point advanced by one of the most successful Mexican hegemonic discourses, i.e., "Southern Mexicans equal laziness, backwardness, and Indianness" was accepted by many of the people I interviewed, a more or less coherent regional, religious, gender, and class identification was advanced by many of them. The narrative plots "Southerners are lazy," "Southerners are more traditionally Catholic," "Southerners are less modern in gender terms," and "Southerners are not middle-class but blue-collar workers" are linked to such a nodal point and, as we saw in Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders and we will see in the different chapters of this book, all these narrative plots are quite widespread in the region. Something similar occurs on the American side with the nodal point "Mexicans equal poverty."


While complete inconsistency was present but rare, total consistency was difficult to find as well. We will see in Chapter 2 how the Mexican Pentecostal discourse qualifies as one that conveys much more consistency in the process of identification than others. (For a definition of Pentecostals and other religious groups, see Chapter 2, note 1.) It will become clear that such consistency is purchased at the price of reducing the play of differences and extending the systems of equivalence to extremes other discourses do not reach. As Nagata (2001, p. 494) points out, "The fundamentalist mind-set is shown in refusal to find common ground or compromise, seeking differences rather than shared interest with others."


Therefore, in most of the narratives advanced by the people I interviewed, the hegemonic regional, ethnic, racial, and national discourses I presented in Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders functioned as the nodal points around which many people organized their religious, gender, and class identities. However, there were a couple of instances in which such organizational principles did not work as expected and thus caught my attention. These cases are presented in detail in this book in order to shed light on the complicated process of hegemony construction, because they are cases of "failed" hegemonic attempts.


Thus, Mexican Pentecostal narrative identities and some of the narratives advanced by poor Anglos in my sample go against the grain, because people attuned to those discourses look for other types of nodal points to articulate their identities meaningfully. It is not by chance that precisely those types of narrative identities are the ones that resist the hegemonizing effects of the regional, ethnic, racial, and national discourses so widespread on the area. This is so because, from the point of view of some of the most important narrative plots I found on the region, Mexican Protestants and poor Anglos are not possible characters in the narratives of people who organize their identities around the plots that state that "in order to be a Mexican you have to be a Catholic" and that "all poverty is Mexican." Therefore, Mexican Protestants and poor Anglos are "unexpected" characters that do not fit in the narratives of most of the people I interviewed, and for that reason I was intrigued by the way people who do not exist, according to the hegemonic discourses, still managed to construct a valued narrative identity.


This issue does not preclude the fact that some of the unexpected characters are highly valued by some particular discursive formations (ones that could become hegemonic over time), which want to articulate them to other particular floating signifiers (like class, for instance) through distinctive nodal points. I am referring here to what Hernández Hernández (1996, p. 125) has discovered in Ciudad Juárez, that is, how some maquiladora firms prefer to hire workers who are Protestant instead of those who are Catholic. Behind this practice we can easily discover the working of a particular discursive formation that links a particular class identity (that of a "worker"), with a particular moral stance (a "good" worker), and a peculiar religious identity (that of being Protestant and supposedly the performer of the Protestant work ethic).


My approach to the border is distinct from other approaches in several respects. As I stress extensively in Ethnography at the Border (2003), my research differs in many ways from those authors who have described the U.S.-Mexico border using the metaphors "border crossing," "hybrids," and the like (Rosaldo 1989; Anzaldúa 1987; García Canclini 1990; Hicks 1991; Calderón and Saldívar 1991; Saldívar 1997; Gómez-Peña 1988, 1991; Harrison and Montoya 1998). As I explain in the conclusion of that book, I arrived in El Paso in 1991 with the "mission" of validating with an ethnographic work the ideas of García Canclini, Anzaldúa, and Rosaldo (hybridity, border crossing, third country, and the like)—ideas that mostly were developed within a literary criticism framework, not an ethnographic one. Yet as soon as I launched my fieldwork, I discovered that these ideas only partially address the much more complex process of identity construction in the area, above all because those authors tend to homogenize the border, as if there were only one border identity, border culture, or process of hybridization. I think, instead, that the reality of the border (at least the one where I did my ethnographic research for more than seven years, El Paso-Ciudad Juárez) goes well beyond that consecrated figure of border studies, the border crosser. In this regard, my research on border identities wants to avoid the border studies pitfalls I theoretically identify in Ethnography at the Border and ethnographically disclaim in Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders and in this book. That is, the confusion of the American side of the border with the border itself (a confusion that completely obliterates the Mexican side of the border from the picture), the essentialization of the cultures that meet in the border encounter, the failure to pursue the theoretical possibility that fragmentation of experience can lead to reinforcement of borders instead of an invitation to cross them, and the tendency to confuse the sharing of a culture with the sharing of an identity (so that the use of the "third country" metaphor promotes the idea that Fronterizo Mexicans and Mexican Americans construct their social and cultural identities in very similar ways).


Interestingly enough, the hegemonic academic posture on the Mexican side of the border when I started my fieldwork early in the 1990s claimed exactly the opposite of the hegemonic voice of the U.S. border studies approach. That is, Mexican Fronterizos/as were not border crossers, but they represented the epitome of traditional Mexican culture and identity. Clearly influenced by what was occurring in the late 1980s and early 1990s (the passage of NAFTA and the possible deterioration of Mexican culture and identity due to Mexico's alliance with the giant to the North), there was a very interesting academic discussion about the existence (or lack of) a particular "border culture" on the U.S.-Mexico frontier. That discussion was commonly linked to a broader debate about mexicanidad [Mexicanness] and cultural and social identities on the border.


At the beginning of the 1990s, the sides were firmly established, above all on the latter topic. Some Mexican scholars argued that the process of transculturation was very strong on the U.S.-Mexico border (the position assumed by the American border studies approach), but they considered this feature a very negative one instead of praising it as did those in border studies. According to the Mexican scholars supporting this position, the results of this transculturation process were not only the weakening of the national Mexican identity in the region but also the presence of anomie and social disorganization. The most important academicians voicing this position were Carlos Monsiváis (1978) early on—he changed his position by mid-1990s—and Ma. Luisa Rodríguez Sala (1985).


Monsiváis, for instance, claimed that there was no such thing as a "border identity" (1978, p. 66): "Thus Mexican culture along the border comes to represent, in general terms, a loss of identity (identity here meaning a political and cultural force), the dubious mixture of two national life-styles (each at its worst), the deification of technology, and a craze for the new." As we can see, what Monsiváis is proposing is a decadent version of the hybrid so praised by the American border studies metaphor of the "border crosser." Monsiváis' (1981, p. 19) description of the border as "el resumidero de un país" [the garbage disposal of a country] is strong enough to summarize his early ideas about culture and identity on the border.


Other researchers argued, not only that mexicanidad existed on the border, but also that the Mexican national identification was stronger there than in other Mexican regions. In other words, these scholars were talking about border reinforcers instead of border crossers as being the most important border actors. According to Bustamante (1988, p. 9; see also Paredes 1978 and Lozano Rendón 1990): the northern frontier of Mexico the difficulty [in defining what national culture is] secondary, because the national culture is defined in contrast with the cultural otherness of the foreigners with whom people cohabit with and interact with on a daily basis. Culturally speaking, in the northern frontier Mexican anything that can be identified as Mexican [lo mexicano] is anything that is not identified as American [lo gringo]. (my translation)


The goal of my own research on the border was neither to exemplify with a geographical region what the theorists of postmodernization were advancing in their highly abstract writings (the sin of most American border studies practitioners), nor to ease Mexican anxieties about the possible pernicious cultural and identitarian effects of NAFTA; rather, it was to investigate the complex processes of identification that, in some way or another, actually organize the behavior of border actors in the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso area. In that regard, I did not presuppose that either mexicanidad or hybridity was the main organizer of the social practices on the border. What I did was to allow the border actors to advance their own narratives about the complex identities that, in their everyday practices, they believed they had.


In the first two chapters of the book I address the interesting way religious identities intertwine with region, nation, ethnicity, and race in a process where several thematic plots work to center some narrative identities on the border. In my analysis of religion on the border, I try to avoid a common trap in the sociology of religion, i.e.,


the failure to acknowledge that religious motivations have a force and existence independent of more pragmatic worldly interests. The dominant thrust in the sociology of religion has been to emphasize what have come to be known as the latent functions of religion. The emphasis has usually been on the often unintended ways in which religious commitment has met various psychological, emotional, social, political, and material needs of its adherents. However, in pursuing this traditional sociological analysis, we would do well to pay heed to the advice of Bryan Wilson not to neglect the manifest function of religion. (Bowen 1996, p. 17)


In this sense, I consider religion to be one of the most important subject positions people have to deal with on the border in order to construct a more or less coherent self. If, in general, such a religious identification is traversed by different discourses about the deity, in the particular case of Mexican Catholics most of the narratives deal with the differences people perceive in the way distinct types of Mexicans practice the same religious faith. In the case of Mexican Protestants, however, most of the religious discourses concentrate on the issue of salvation.


From a theoretical point of view, the chapters on religion also show, once more, the centrality of narratives in the construction of identity. As Booth (1995, p. 370) points out:


Ask fundamentalists to explain their belief, and they'll almost always tell you a story of a conversion experience, either their own or someone else's, or a story of the founding of the world or the establishment of the one true church—a story with a beginning, middle, and end...And when you ask what precisely they believe in, having experienced that story, they tell you other stories: stories of how the world came to be, or of how their own place in it came to be. Just like those we do not call fundamentalists, they feel compelled to explain their beliefs by telling a story that they find makes sense not just of their personal lives but of the entire scheme of things in which those lives are led. The stories enfold the believer as in a total nurturing medium; they become the true account of nature itself.


We will find in those chapters different stories that both Protestants and Catholics advance to try to understand who they are and who the "others" are.


As has happened in most Latin American societies, Catholicism and national identity (in this particular case, Mexicanness) have become highly intertwined. Thus, it is a widely shared, commonsense assumption on the border that being a Mexican and being a Catholic are almost synonymous. In the case of Mexican identity, the fusion between a particular religion, Catholicism, and nationality was primarily formed around the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and here is where Protestantism clearly becomes the "other" for most Mexicans, because from a Catholic/Mexican point of view, the Evangelical tradition of condemning the worship of the Virgin cannot be considered truly Mexican.


Because Catholicism and Mexicanness are intertwined, the process of identity construction among Mexican Protestants is, to say the least, complicated. Not only must they construct their Mexicanness without the usual help of the Catholic markers of identity that most Mexicans use, but they also have to prove to the Catholic "other" that they still deserve to be called Mexican.


In Chapter 1, I show how the "Juarenses are less Catholic than Southern Mexicans" and "Mexican Americans are less Catholic than Mexican nationals" discourses on the border function as narrative plots around which many border inhabitants construct their "coherent" identities. I propose in this chapter that while Catholic symbols can function as possible spaces for constructing sameness, many Mexicans and Mexican Americans also use them to construct the "other" discursively. In this regard, the "other" for many Mexican Catholics consists, not only of Mexican Protestants who do not share their same faith, but also of Mexican Catholics from other regions or countries, whom they consider less Catholic/Mexican than themselves. Accordingly, many interviewees argued that while Mexicans generally share a faith centered in the Catholic Church, they differ in how they practice their faith; and this difference is linked to how attached they are to traditional Mexican culture; for many people, being more Catholic is equated with being more Mexican.


On the Mexican side of the border, various Catholic practices are used to stress differences between Southern Mexicans and Fronterizas/os. Many of the former consider the latter less traditionally Catholic than themselves, while many Fronterizos/as think that the real departure from Catholic practices is exercised by Mexican Americans.


On the U.S. side of the border, many Catholic Mexican Americans also use religion to emphasize the difference between themselves and Mexican nationals, Mexican American Protestants, and Anglos. They acknowledge that they practice a different kind of Catholicism from that in Mexico. But they also proudly point out that they nevertheless are Catholics (and, by default, deserve to be called Mexicans). The real non-Catholics (and non-Mexicans), they say, are not themselves but Anglos and those Mexican Americans who have converted to Protestantism. Therefore, for many of the Mexicans I interviewed in the border context, the Protestants (either of Mexican origin or Anglos) function as the "others."


This last issue brings about the interesting problem that many people of Mexican descent who identify themselves as Protestants face on the border, where the discourse (and the narrative identities constructed around such a discourse) that claims that "being Mexican means being Catholic" is widespread. This issue is the topic of Chapter 2, where I deal with the "unexpected" character of Mexican Protestantism.


In this chapter I show how, in some cases, Mexican Protestants do not differ whatsoever from their Catholic counterparts in their anti-Southern, anti-Mexican, and anti-American stances, while in other circumstances they seem to assume a much more pious stance. In this regard I found self-defined Mexican Christians who utilized very similar narrative arguments to differentiate themselves from the "others" when those others were defined in regional and national terms on the Mexican side of the border, or in ethnic and national terms when the interviewees constructed their identities on the American side of the international divide. However, a particular feature of the narrative identities of this type of interviewees (quite different from other "anti-Southerner" stances I encountered in Juárez) was its peculiar religious overtones. Therefore, if as I show in the chapter on Mexican Catholics, there is a clear religious innuendo that marks the differences between Southern Mexicans and Fronterizas/os (Southerners are more "traditional" or "fanatical," while Fronterizos/as are more "modern," but both accept the same religion and eventually will be saved if they follow what their common faith prescribes), the religious overtone among many Mexican Protestants is, first, much more pronounced, and, second, centers around a very different set of distinctions from the ones that were prominent among Mexican Catholics. Some of these Mexican Protestant interviewees have a very well developed plot to explain why, in some respects, people in Northern Mexico and in the United States are much better prepared to be part of the "saved ones" than people in Southern and Central Mexico.


At the same time, all of the Mexican or Mexican American Protestants I interviewed were keenly aware of the "unexpected" character of their religious identity. However, these interviewees did not consider themselves to be less Mexican because they were no longer Catholics. How can these interviewees claim that they are still Mexicans while abandoning some of the most cherished Mexican (Catholic) traditions? I show in Chapter 2 how in the construction of their particular narrative identities of self-defined Mexican Christians they first detach their religious identity from their national one, and then they reattach their national identity to the most important secular elements of it.


Many Mexican Protestant interviewees (above all, Pentecostals on both sides of the border) construct a valued identity of Mexicans who are not Catholics in which, not by chance, the border itself acquires a new meaning. For some of the Mexican Protestants I interviewed, the most important border is not the geographical one that separates Mexico from the United States, or the regional one that separates Southerners from Fronterizas/os, or the intraethnic one that separates Mexican nationals from Mexican Americans, but the religious border that separates the "saved" ones from the "condemned" ones. The most important source of their narrative identities (the "sources of the self," according to Taylor or Holstein and Gubrium) is the Bible, which is inerrant, rather than the different artifacts that popular culture (which can be in error) provides them to peruse on the topic. Simultaneously, the border that appears in many comments in the chapter is an internal one, not an external, geographical one, and the people to whom one has to answer questions are not the customs officials or the Border Patrol agents who habitually question Mexican nationals about the reasons for their crossing the international frontier, but God. With this crucial change in their understanding of the border between themselves and the "others," many self-defined Christian interviewees (born-again or not) bring about an entire array of new narrative plots that were absent not only among the Mexican Catholics I interviewed but also among other, less religiously involved Mexican Protestants.


If for many of the Mexican Protestants I interviewed the border is completely resignified and, instead of being a geographical or ethnic one, becomes a religious one, following this same logic, some other self-defined Mexican Christians in our sample also moved in a similar manner. However, they framed that change in historical terms, where the "us" (Protestants who will be saved) versus "them" (Catholics who will not be) is resignified in terms of their own personal histories and becomes "us right now" (people who eventually will be saved because they have finally discovered Jesus Christ) versus "us in the past" (Catholics who were destined to damnation). As a result of this conversionist narrative, where most interviewees in my sample looking at the photographs constructed complex narratives about Southerners, Fronterizos/as, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Anglos, as well as machistas [male chauvinists], mandilones [men whose wives boss them around], and the like, these converted Catholics used the same photographs to construct self-referential temporal narratives. At the same time, while many of the non-Pentecostals I interviewed used particular photographs to "prove" their points about the "natural laziness" of the "other" (depending on the interlocutor, the Southerners, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, or the like), Pentecostal interviewees used the same photos to illustrate their own process of identity change after they converted from Catholicism to Protestantism. That identity change, however, was not framed as a change "from a lazy to a hard-working person," but, once more, as a change in their relationship with God that opened an entire array of new ways to perform their identities among those converted.


Therefore, it is not coincidental that this kind of interviewees (Protestants in general, but most prominently Pentecostals, self-defined born-again Christians in particular) took a look at the photographs (and by extension at the occurrences in their lives) from a very different point of view than most of the non-Protestants I interviewed. They were looking for other clues to interpret their lives, because their narrative plots asked for different signs than other people's signs to construct meaningful stories. Those were the signs that they believed God had left to be interpreted in the same way they were used to reading the Bible to make sense of their lives.


My point here is that while looking at photographs, many times interviewees use them only as excuses to advance their own narrative identities, for these kind of Pentecostal interviewees the photos become more excuses than for most. This provides a very interesting paradox. On the one hand, these ex-Catholics/self-defined born-again Christians have some of the most rigid and nonflexible narrative plots of my sample: they have one religious plot that tints any other subject position they have in terms of nation, race, ethnicity, region, gender, age, or class; they recognize only one authorized "source of the self"—the Bible—and so on. As Holstein and Gubrium (2000, p. 174) point out, these kinds of interviewees are somehow taught to accept the hegemonic discourse advanced by their church as their unique narrative framework. In other words, they learn to govern themselves so that they present biographical particulars in terms of such an institutional discourse, a discourse that offers the "narrative maps" they use to make sense of their experience. That is the reason why their narratives not only appear much more rigid than others but also look alike. This is because "while not identical, these self-presentational stories draw upon similar themes, idioms, and vocabularies; in other words, they employ the same narrative maps" (Holstein and Gubrium 2000, p. 180).


At the same time, many of these same interviewees who presented rigid and similar narrative identities used the photographs in a much more flexible way than most of the non-Protestants I interviewed, going well beyond the referent of the shot to imagine the scenes (usually scenes linked, in one way or another, to something written in the Bible) they want to portray. However, what at firsthand seems a paradox is really not one, because it is precisely the inflexibility of their narrative plots (everything is prewritten in the Bible) that requires the flexibility they show in the way they managed the photos. In this regard, as in any type of inflexible plot we encountered in our fieldwork among other types of interviewees, what these interviewees do is to tailor reality because, in a very profound sense, they cannot change a narrative plot that, after their conversion, was so hard to achieve and develop.


If we agree with Taylor (1989) that one of the reasons people invest so much in the fiction we call "the self" (a fiction that requires transforming the multitude of different identifications we perform into "one and coherent self") is because of the Western religious mandate for "the account" that, at due time, will save or condemn us, people like the self-defined born-again Christians I interviewed have an important advantage regarding other kinds of interviewees. This is because the main source of their narrative identities, the Bible, already prearranges the different identities they can have, so the self can be "coherently" prepared in advance for "the account." If common folk ultimately look at reality from the point of view of the character their narrative identity constructs, and therefore "experience" many times becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, the characters many Mexican Pentecostals construct overdetermines much more the kind of "experience" these people are able to build. In their case, not only the perception is prearranged by their identity plots, but the latter are much more coherent than most of the identity plots of the non-Pentecostals I interviewed. In this way, "coherence" is twice overdetermined in their case.


In Chapters 3 and 4, I address the particular ways gender identities overlap with region, nation, race, and ethnicity on the border. Gender has become, for horrifying reasons, a hot topic in the region in the last ten years or so: the mass murder of girls and young women (some of them maquiladora workers) in Ciudad Juárez has made this border city infamous worldwide. From 1993 to 1999, more than two hundred girls and women were killed in Ciudad Juárez and abandoned in the surrounding desert. Several suspects were jailed during those years, but the killings continued uninterrupted. By the time the shocking situation was finally discovered (around 1996 or 1997), the bulk of my research had already been done and my main hypotheses fully developed. Interestingly enough, due to the character of my findings, I was not surprised by what was going on: a very entrenched debasing discourse regarding women from Juárez in general and female maquiladora workers in particular (equating them with prostitutes) was rampant in my sample. My hypothesis was that, since this discourse was so prominent, perhaps the murderers saw the women they were killing only as prostitutes (women whose lives are less valued in many male discourses) instead of as workers (like themselves) or plain women (like their mothers and sisters) whose lives are more valued, which could have been acted as a deterrent against their cold-blooded murder.


I do not pretend that my approach to gender in the region provides the explanation of why Ciudad Juárez has become the world capital of murdered women. What I am saying, in contradiction to other scholarship on the issue, is that a discourse that equates maquiladora workers with prostitutes is a fertile terrain to construct narrative plots in which to kill a supposed prostitute does not have the same moral weight as killing a female worker or a woman in general. My analysis tries to go beyond positions on the issue that claim, for instance:


...almost by definition Ciudad Juárez is violent, but only a comparative analysis with other cities of the country could confirm for us such an assertion. However, the murder of women is manifested in the gender oppression, in the inequality of relationships between masculine and feminine, in a manifestation of domination, terror, and social extermination...The women [in Ciudad Juárez] are related with a...culture...of gender violence...a culture that is not neutral, a culture that has persisted through the centuries and has established itself in Ciudad Juárez: that of feminicidio [female homicide]. (Monárrez Fragoso 2000, pp. 113-114; my translation)


Perhaps it is true that Juárez is violent, but such a statement introduces hundreds of questions that are worth investigating. Is Ciudad Juárez more violent than Tijuana, for instance? It doesn't seem so and there are no massive female killings in the latter. Is Ciudad Juárez the only city in Mexico in which the culture of feminicidio has installed itself? If the author firmly thinks so, she should at least have advanced a hypothesis of why it is so. Her main explanation is that those poor females were killed because, being independent and trying to live outside patriarchal control, they challenged Juárez's entrenched machismo and they were punished for doing so:


Stigmatized and transformed into a member that should be sacrificed...the woman can belong to the group of "the good women" or to the group of those that are perceived as essentially "bad women," which can be victimized and subject to murder...The women who live alone and outside of patriarchal control are insecure and can end up murdered...Thus, confronted with such murders, the women, post-mortem, are scrutinized in their behavior, and it is said that they deserved such a death, according to the idealized construction of feminine behavior. (Monárrez Fragoso 2000, p. 91; my translation)


Therefore, the "bad women" are the independent ones in this analysis, leaving unanswered, once more, why so many "independent" women are not killed elsewhere in Mexico or in the many border towns where female workers are the majority of maquiladora workers. The author has many clues in her otherwise illustrative article to at least advance a much better hypothesis than to claim that the girls and young females were killed in Juárez because of the existence of a feminicidio culture on the city. While on one hand she quotes several statements in which male interviewees clearly pointed out that the reason the females were killed was because they were prostitutes or they lived like prostitutes, on the other hand she writes things like the following:


[the women who worked in the assembly plant and were murdered] represent a significant incidence of workers in this sector who have been murdered. Our opinion is that their death was due, not to the fact that they were maquiladora employees, but to their being women, and because they were women with a greater risk of, and vulnerability to, being attacked because they were migrants and walking across large tracts of land very late at night. (Monárrez Fragoso, 2000, p. 109; my translation)


I think that my research on gender in the region can clarify, at least a bit, why the culture of feminicidio could flourish in Juárez and not other cities in Mexico that have very similar homicide figures, female participation in the work force, and the like.


In Chapter 3, I analyze how gender narratives are regionalized and nationalized on the Mexican side of the border, where many Southern Mexicans and Fronterizos/as believe that there are particular gender behaviors and attitudes that characterize Fronterizas/os, as distinct from Southern Mexicans on the one hand and Americans on the other. These particular gender behaviors are thematized around several specific discursive formations well developed in the region. First, and the most important in my sample, is the figure of the libertine Fronterizo/a, which easily becomes the libertine prostitute (female or male) associated with the "city of vice" discourse I analyze in Chapter 1 of Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders. Second is the figure of the liberal Fronteriza/o as a discourse that points out that, due to the peculiarities of Juárez as a desert border town in the middle of nowhere, their inhabitants have developed a more tolerant stand regarding gender and sexual behavior. Third is the discourse of the liberal Americans, and this narrative has at least two variants, a negative and a positive one. In the negative one, Americans are depicted as totally lax in their morality, encouraging, for example, little children to use drugs and have sex. In the second, positive variant, Americans are described as being more liberal than Mexicans but not necessarily more libertine. And finally, I also discuss the figure of the "bossy American woman." This kind of discourse develops in two distinct but related ways. On one hand it talks about Mexican machismo, and how men in Mexico supposedly are the head of the household, making the most important decisions and exercising power (sometimes violently) over their wives. On the other hand, the discourse revolves around a reversal of what many Juarenses believe happens in American families, that is, that women supposedly wield power over their husbands.


Many of the same images I discuss about Juárez repeat themselves on the other side of the border. Consequently, the figures of libertine Fronterizos/as, liberal Americans, and bossy females occupied center stage in most of my interviews. In Chapter 4, analyzing two groups of Mexican immigrants that migrated to the United States in very similar circumstances but still have very different gender discourses, I point out the importance of the narrative plots those immigrants brought from Mexico and the subsequent modification of those plots due to their experiences in the United States in the construction of their commonsense discourses about gender relations among Mexicans living on the U.S.-Mexico border. Finally, I dedicate the last part of the chapter to an analysis of Mexican machismo and the redefinition of gender roles on the U.S. side of the border.


Chapters 5 and 6 show how class discourses are mostly absent in the area. The hypothesis I propose in these chapters is that the relative absence of class discourses in the region is linked, at least in part, to a metaphorical displacement through which moving up the social scale is equated by many people with moving from one country (Mexico) to another (United States). In this case, as discussed in earlier chapters in relation to religion and gender characteristics—for example, Catholic practices and "liberal" gender behavior—that were addressed as if they decreased or increased as people moved geographically from South to North, many of the people I interviewed believe that poverty decreases (and some times totally disappears) once one moves from Southern to Northern Mexico, and when one crosses the U.S.-Mexico border. In this kind of discourse, the explanation of poverty (and its opposite, the lack of it) is detached from any reference to class exploitation and framed in regional and/or national terms; that is, some regions and countries are poor or they are not, and so to leave poverty behind is to leave that region or country.


On the U.S. side of the border (the topic of Chapter 6), the absence of class discourse regarding social inequality is linked to the "all poverty is Mexican" narrative theme. Such a narrative can range from the denial of poverty on the American side of the border to the claim that the Mexican immigrants or the Mexican Americans who are still poor, even in the United States, are those who cannot overcome the supposedly cultural deficiencies they brought with them from Mexico. Therefore, if, as one of the most important hegemonic plots of the region claims, "all poverty is Mexican," how do poor whites construct their social identities? Obviously, the process of identity construction in this group is at least tricky, because they have to account for their poverty in the context of a hegemonic discourse that claims that whites are not poor. They live in poverty; therefore, they are something that is not supposed to exist—and still worse, they share their condition of poverty with a variety of social actors covered by the umbrella term "Mexican" who, in many different narrative accounts, are the epitome of all the foibles the construction of the despised "other" can symbolize.


On the other hand, the geographical metaphor of displacement I am arguing, which is behind many discussions about social mobility in the region, does not help this group either. Why? Because they are not immigrants but natives of the Land of Opportunity who nevertheless do not share the prosperity that supposedly comes naturally to those who live long enough north of the Rio Grande. In the process of interviewing poor whites, the first thing that got my attention was their awareness that all poverty is not Mexican. With a consistency that I never expected, most of the interviewees correctly identified all the locations in the photographs, without the bias of the "gaze" that was usually presented by most of other types of interviewees (those who invariably used the "all poverty is Mexican" thematic plot), a bias that made most of them identify the locale of the poverty photographs as Juárez and the site of the middle-class and rich depictions as El Paso, as well as to confuse the location of the cemeteries (they put the poor one—El Paso's Concordia—in Juárez). That does not necessarily mean that they did not have problems with Mexican illegal immigrants, the culture of El Paso, and the widespread use of Spanish as a quasi-lingua franca in the city. My point is that, at least for the poor Anglos I interviewed, the "all poverty is Mexican" thematic plot was foreign to their discourse. At the same time, the metaphor of geographical displacement in lieu of social mobility, so widespread in my sample, did not work for them either. For most of the poor white people I interviewed, poverty does not exist only among Mexican nationals, nor is it linked only to the Mexicans who move from their country to the United States; rather, poverty is "everywhere" in the region, and their main narrative is about how poor people like themselves face similar problems and attempt comparable solutions on both sides of the border. The "others" in this type of narrative are middle-class El Pasoans—Anglos, Mexican Americans, and African Americans alike.


Because the main narrative plot of the poor Anglo interviewees maintains that "not all poverty is Mexican, there is Anglo poverty in El Paso," these interviewees use the economic advantages of "other side" to mitigate their poverty much more than the rest of my sample. Therefore, what we have here is the paradox of poor Anglos taking advantage of the economic situation on the other side of the border (being perhaps the border crossers of the border studies approach?) in order to improve their standard of living, because they do not construct their identities around the "all poverty is Mexican" thematic plot. This is something that those Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans who do use such a plot cannot do, because doing it would jeopardize their identity construction processes. In other words, poor Anglos can go to Juárez and buy medicine three times cheaper, go to doctors and dentists who charge them three time less, and even eventually move there because room and board is cheaper, because nobody will confuse them with the "despised" other of the "all poverty is Mexican" thematic plot. For some Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans, the trip to Juárez, from the point of view of the processes of identification we are talking about here, is less rewarding and much more dangerous.


Regardless of their reluctance to use the hegemonic "all poverty is Mexican" discourse, most of the poor white people I interviewed still had their own negative feelings regarding Mexicans, Mexican culture, and Mexican Americans. However, my point is that those prejudices did not impede them from somehow detaching their narratives from the hegemonic plot of the region and offer a more nuanced version of border life. As one of the homeless I interviewed says, talking about the different photographs showing El Paso's murals (a clear and prominent example of El Paso's Mexican culture): me it feels like if they've been through a lot of pain and the way they release it is by painting and let someone else see what they feel. A lot of times people don't know how to express themselves to someone else, especially to another culture, when they've been raised differently or from another country. So I like the murals because you can look at them and think: "Well, what did the person look like? What was he like?" or "What's his culture?" or "What did they believe in?" It kind of makes you think yourself, "What would I do if I was in that person's shoes for a little while? Would I do the same thing he did or she did?" you know.


I think that Elizabeth summarizes in this brief commentary the spirit of the plot many of the poor Anglos I interviewed used during the interviews: "We are very similar to them; I can easily think of myself being in their shoes." As we can see, this is a plot that is located at the antipodes of the "all poverty is Mexican" hegemonic plot most of the middle-class Anglo, African American, and Mexican Americans I interviewed (regardless of class) were using.


Finally, in the conclusion I give a brief account of the trajectory of the research project that brought me to El Paso-Ciudad Juárez in 1991: my initial thrill with the border studies approach and my subsequent disenchantment when faced with a "real" border, not a literary one. In the last part of the conclusion I advance some theoretical ideas I have developed while writing this second book of the series. I consider them a refinement of what I proposed in the first book. In this regard, I believe that at the level of discursive formations, diverse floating signifiers are conferred a particular identity by the articulatory power of a peculiar master signifier or nodal point. In this way, the nodal point gives "identity" to those floating signifiers within a coherent discursive formation. At the level of people's identity, however, the power to confer identity falls into the sphere of the narrative plot, whose articulatory function consist in transforming happenings into events, that is, meaningful episodes in the story of the character being constructed.


My current thesis is that the diverse discursive formations that try to win the battle for conquering the common sense of a particular setting enter the process of identification through the narrative plot of the character being constructed. In this regard, the narrative plot not only "filters" the interpellations that a particular discursive formation promotes (my thesis in Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders) but also "filters" the discursive formation itself. The filtering process occurs at several levels. First, the narrative plot has the power to decide which nodal point will be central and which one secondary in the construction of the character of the story. Most of the people I interviewed on the border decided to use the nodal points that organize meaning and identity in terms of region, ethnicity, race, and nation as their central narrative plots. This was the reason I started my ethnographic account following those narrative plots in the first book of the series. That many people of the region organized their religious, gender, and class identities around the master signifiers region, ethnicity, race, and nation is the reason this second book deals with these subject positions.


Second, the narrative plot "asks" for an array of different discursive formations to "buttress" the character it is developing. There are innumerable discursive formations in popular culture that offer different ways to understand people's identifications. It is the narrative plot that conjures some of them to help it in the process of identity construction.


Third, once a particular discursive formation is accepted by the narrative plot because it helps it in its identity claims, the narrative plot still exerts a kind of screening power regarding the floating signifiers that can, or cannot (for the particular character being constructed), be quilted by the master signifier into the discursive formation in question. If on one hand the nodal point confers meaning to a vast array of floating signifiers in general, in particular (i.e., in the case of the person who is using that discursive formation to buttress her or his identity claims), the narrative plot somehow "decides," first, which of those floating signifiers will finally be quilted into the discursive formation and which ones will not, and second, the narrative plot also has a say in the quality or strength of the quilting.


Fourth, the narrative plot "helps" the nodal point in its quilting task through it own transforming of happenings into events, that is, limiting the amount of floating signifiers the nodal point has to quilt. If what I believe (following Bruner 1987) is true, that is, that eventually the culturally shaped cognitive and linguistic processes that guide the self-telling of life narratives achieve the power to structure perceptual experience, there are many things the character of the story cannot "see." If the character of the story cannot see things due to the biasing power of the narrative plot, it cannot verbalize those things into floating signifiers that have to be quilted by the nodal point.


My point is that some of the power most theoreticians put on the shoulders of the nodal point as the articulatory master of a particular discursive formation has to shift to the narrative plot instead. I think that certain discursive formations become hegemonic, not because they have been able to fully articulate "more" floating signifiers or the same amount of signifiers a competing articulatory process is also quilting but in a more "logical" way (or something like that), but because they were more successful in being accepted as possible narrative plots than other articulatory attempts. At the same time, if they were more successful in doing so, it is not necessarily because they articulate "better" floating signifiers (though this is not going to hurt its final success), but because (for reasons that should be studied locally) those nodal points can be more easily used by already existing narrative plots.


Having introduced the organization of the book, it is time to go to what people had to say about their identifications in terms of religion, gender, and class, three of the most important subject positions I have encountered in the region after more than seven years of fieldwork.




“This book is a great contribution to different fields: sociology of culture, identity theories, border studies, multiculturalism, gender studies, religious studies, cultural studies, and postmodern theory. It is also an important critique to a current within postcolonial theory that uses hybridity as a central concept.”
Eduardo Barrera, Associate Professor of Communication, University of Texas at El Paso


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