This pathfinding ethnography charts the social categories, metaphors, and narratives that inhabitants of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez use to define their group identity and distinguish themselves from "others."
Series: Inter America Series, Duncan Earle, Howard Campbell, and John Peterson, series editors
Along the U.S.-Mexico frontier, where border crossings are a daily occurrence for many people, reinforcing borders is also a common activity. Not only does the U.S. Border Patrol strive to "hold the line" against illegal immigrants, but many residents on both sides of the border seek to define and bound themselves apart from groups they perceive as "others."
This pathfinding ethnography charts the social categories, metaphors, and narratives that inhabitants of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez use to define their group identity and distinguish themselves from "others." Pablo Vila draws on over 200 group interviews with more than 900 area residents to describe how Mexican nationals, Mexican immigrants, Mexican Americans, African Americans, and Anglos make sense of themselves and perceive their differences from others.
This research uncovers the regionalism by which many northern Mexicans construct their sense of identity, the nationalism that often divides Mexican Americans from Mexican nationals, and the role of ethnicity in setting boundaries among Anglos, Mexicans, and African Americans. Vila also looks at how gender, age, religion, and class intertwine with these factors. He concludes with fascinating excerpts from re-interviews with several informants, who modified their views of other groups when confronted by the author with the narrative character of their identities.
- Chapter 1. The Mexican Side: Discourses of Region
- Chapter 2. The Mexican Side: Discourses of Nation
- Chapter 3. The Emplotment of the Mexican on the U.S. Side of the Border
- Chapter 4. Mexican Immigrants and the "All Poverty Is Mexican" Narrative Plot
- Chapter 5. Operation Blockade, or When Private Narratives Went Public
- Chapter 6. Dialogical Social Science and the Possibility of Narrating Better Stories
- Appendix. Categories, Interpellations, Metaphors, and Narratives: A Brief Theoretical Discussion
On the eve of the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) --which was supposed to improve relations between the United States and Mexico--the U.S. Border Patrol in El Paso implemented a new strategy to deter the influx of undocumented immigrants. The tactic, called "Operation Blockade," strung agents at close intervals, in highly visible positions directly along the international boundary. Conceived of by Silvestre Reyes, a Mexican American who grew up in Canutillo, twenty miles from El Paso, the operation won nearly unanimous support from both Anglo and Mexican American El Pasoans. Various polls indicated an impressive 80 to 90 percent rate of community support for the blockade (78 percent among the Hispanic population of the city ).
Some people were surprised that the border patrol garnered so much support from Mexican American El Pasoans, assuming that Mexican Americans, many of whom are also immigrants, would support Mexican immigration out of ethnic loyalty. We have to remember, though, that the relationship between El Paso and Juárez has long been portrayed as an example of peaceful border coexistence. This portrayal seems accurate when the El Paso-Juárez border is compared to the Tijuana-San Diego border, where the border patrol is given wide support by a well-organized civilian force that wants, at any price, to stop any further illegal northbound immigration. However, as I will try to show throughout the book, below the facade of a smooth relationship, there is an ongoing tension that surfaces here and there, involving many Anglos, Mexican Americans, African Americans, and Mexican nationals.
Events in recent years shed some light on the phenomenon. At first there was the euphoria triggered by the local border patrol's Operation Blockade (analyzed in depth in Chapter 5). That milestone was quickly followed by a heated discussion in the pages of the El Paso Times among interested observers about whether a Mexican flag had been placed correctly on a mural (below, above, to the right or the left of the American flag). A couple of months later, a mariachi group greeted a football team at the airport, and many people complained, "We do not live in Mexico!" And then a city representative got some flak (or approval, depending on whom you talk to) because he asked a citizen to speak English at a city council meeting instead of Spanish. Thus, we are confronted from time to time with the fact that Juárez and El Paso are not really "sister cities"--or at least not sisters of a family without internal conflict.
The point I want to stress here is that not only was Operation Blockade very popular in El Paso, but it also provoked open displays of resentment between many Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals. In fact, it was not uncommon to hear many El Pasoans denounce the latter as the cause of El Paso's most telling social problems: crime, drugs, unemployment, welfare scams, and the like.
The outstanding support received by Operation Blockade does not seem to be an isolated case: a poll conducted by the El Paso Times showed that 62 percent of El Pasoans would support a law similar to California's Proposition 187 (El Paso Times, April 29, 1995). Moreover, when every other city in the United States with a significant Mexican population was protesting against the beatings of two undocumented immigrants in Riverside in April 1996, El Paso not only did not have any major rally, but that same week elected the mastermind of Operation Blockade, Silvestre Reyes, as the Democratic candidate for Congress. Reyes beat his opponent José Luis Sánchez by more than 15 percent in the first round, and beat him again in the second, even though Sánchez was the candidate of the Democratic establishment. Reyes based his campaign on his status as the city's "hero," because, supposedly, he was the one who "finally" stopped illegal immigration from Mexico.
In this book I will attempt to unveil the complicated process of identity construction that underlies how many Mexicans, Mexican Americans, African Americans, and Anglos perceive each other in the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso area. I will present and discuss throughout the book some discursive devices people use to make sense of the "other" and, in the same process, of themselves. I will concentrate on how border residents use social categories, metaphors, and narratives in such construction.
The analysis is based on an extensive series of small group interviews distributed across class, gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, and time of migration. The fieldwork extended from September 1991 to June 1997, and so far I have conducted 254 group meetings, interviewing 932 individuals on both sides of the border. Because I wanted to map differences in the process of identity construction, I interviewed both men and women of different ages, nationality, class backgrounds, ethnicity, and migration experiences. I started interviewing groups using the "classic" sociological categories described above, trying to get at least three or four groups in each country where each of those categories was represented. When the analysis of the material showed that those categories were not adequate for illuminating the process of identity construction, I added new categories to the research project and expanded the sample in that direction. This was what happened, for instance, with religion, a category not present at the beginning of the project that "asked" not only to be included, but also to have a prominent place in the investigation.
The analyzed material flowed from discussions about various sets of photographs which were taken in the border area and which portray various everyday activities in Juárez and El Paso (public interactions, family life, religion, leisure, work, etc.). The interviews were structured as follows: people were first asked to look at the package of photographs to be discussed, then to select those photographs they wanted to talk about with the group. After the entire group had looked at the photos and chosen the shots they felt deserved comment, the first participant was asked to tell the group why he/she decided to select a particular photograph. When the interviewee had finished speaking, the others were asked if they had additional comments and if they agreed or disagreed with their companion. Usually, a discussion followed in which almost all participants expressed opinions about the photo or the issue it addressed. In those discussions people presented verbalized images (categorical ones) triggered by the photographs shown during the interviews. In addition, they told us stories to support the identity claims they were expressing in their categorical ascriptions. Following a wellestablished tradition in anthropology and sociology, I have changed all the names and altered many personal circumstances to protect the privacy of my interviewees.
Like Mishler (1986), I feel that whatever else the stories my interviewees told me were about, they were also a form of self-presentation in which my interviewees were claiming a particular kind of selfidentity. At the same time, I also think that what is said in such stories functions to express, confirm, and validate that particular claimed identity (Mishler 1986, p. 243). The interviews were taped and then transcribed to analyze their content. I think that much of the usefulness of photo-interviewing stems from the fact that people believe photography depicts reality. In commonsense discourse, photography is seen as the model of veracity and objectivity: people "read" a photograph, believing they are "objectively" describing reality (Bourdieu 1990b), while in fact they are projecting their particular understanding of reality onto the scene described. They do this because photography is the locus of two different biases that operate simultaneously. On the one hand, the photographic image is caught in the hegemonic way we have seen reality since the fifteenth century: perspective. On the other hand, individuals "read" that reality through their own prisms, which are totally attached to their understanding of the world that surrounds each of them-to their narrative identities and categorical systems. Because we are almost totally blind to the first bias and automatically equate photography with reality, the second bias also passes unperceived, allowing us to see a particular photograph as the unbiased perception of the referent portrayed by the shot. In this sense, the "quantum of truth" of a particular photograph (Berger 1980) depends heavily on the general categories that are already in the spectator's mind. This is photo-interviewing's noeme (Barthes 1991): by definition, photography requires the interviewee to project his/her narrative identity and categorical systems onto the scene depicted in order to make sense of it within his/her horizon of understanding. If, as I maintained above, the perception of photographs is in some way linked to the narrative plots that guide our general perception of reality, it is no coincidence that my interviewees perceived the same photographs differently, given that those photos "adjusted" to their plots in different ways. As Jerome Bruner comments: ". . . eventually the culturally shaped cognitive and linguistic processes that guide the selftelling of life narratives achieve the power to structure perceptual experience" (1987, p. 15). Therefore, if the ways of telling and the ways of conceptualizing that go with them become so habitual that they finally become recipes for structuring experience itself (Bruner 1987, p. 31), I think that analyzing the different ways my interviewees perceived the same photographs is a good route toward disentangling the different plots that guided their narrative identities.
Throughout the book I will propose that from the point of view of the process of identity construction, it is not an easy thing to live on the U.S.-Mexico border. On the Mexican side of the border this is so because the American influence on Juárez' inhabitants is viewed negatively by many Mexicans from the interior, who claim Juarenses have become agringados [Americanized]. On the American side of the border, although living near Mexico allows many Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans to be in touch with their heritage, the presence of Mexico around the corner is also a constant reminder of the poverty and corruption many people identify with that country. In this book I want to show how, under certain circumstances, the close proximity of Mexico-the origin of Mexican American identity-instead of being a positive foundation upon which to construct a valued social identity, can be a liability to many Mexican Americans, who construct their identities by portraying not only Anglos as the "others," but also Mexican nationals (Vila 1997b).
Thus far, I have been talking about Mexican nationals, Mexican Americans, Chicanos, African Americans, and Anglos. But I wish to put all these labels "under erasure" (to use Derrida's term) because I believe that they conceal broad differentiations in the identity construction process, differentiations that should make us question the usefulness of these terms if we aim to understand attitudes and behaviors on the border.
In questioning the labels, I hope to avoid a common trap in sociology and anthropology: to ascribe directly a particular set of interests to individuals insofar as they are seen as members of social categories, where "making sense of social action ... becomes an exercise in identifying social categories, deriving putative interests from them, and then doing the empirical work of looking at variations on those interests" (Somers 1992, p. 607). Instead, I argue that identity construction is a response to queries that are perceived to have situational expectations or requirements. Consequently, in this book I will use those social categories only as a narrative device, to save the reader from the difficult task of reading a ten-word sentence to identify what particular kind of, for example, Mexican American I am talking about. As Rosenblum and Travis (1996, p. 3) point out: "We have sometimes had to rely on essentialist terms we ourselves find problematic. The irony of simultaneously questioning the idea of race, but still talking about 'blacks,' 'whites,' and 'Asians;' or of rejecting a dualistic approach to sexual identity, while still using the terms 'gay' and 'straight' has not escaped us."
At the same time a particular disclaimer has to be made about the category "Anglo" as it is used here. In Ciudad Juárez and El Paso (and many other parts of the Southwest), Anglo is a "residual" category. For many people anyone who is not from Mexican, African, or Asian origin is an "Anglo" or an "American." This usage, of course, homogenizes a population of very heterogeneous origin, as is demonstrated, for instance, by the existence of an important Jewish community in El Paso. Hence, many of the "Anglo" interviewees I will present throughout the book are Irish Americans, German Americans, Jewish, and the like. However, not only the "others" referred to them as "Anglos," but most of the time they used that category themselves during the interview process. Therefore, for narrative reasons and also to be faithful to the common sense of the region, I will refer to this very heterogeneous people as "Anglos," and in the quotations that follow, they (regardless of their different ethnic origin) will be referred as "Anglos." A more detailed analysis of how the Jewish Americans, Irish Americans, German Americans, and the like construct themselves and the "others" will be the aim of a future research project.
My approach differs from that of those Mexican scholars who have claimed that the main process of identity construction on the Mexican side of the border is the constitution of the Anglos as the "others" (Bustamante 1983; Lozano 1990). I understand the border as a multiple mirror situation where Juarenses construct not only Anglos as the "others," but in many circumstances they portray Southern Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans as "others" as well.
This research also differs in many ways from that of those authors who have described the U.S.-Mexico border using the metaphor of "border crossing," "hybrids," and the like (R. Rosaldo 1989; Anzaldúa 1987; García Canclini 1990). When I decided to do my dissertation on the construction of identity on the U.S.-Mexico border, I was highly influenced by the "border studies" approach. As a matter of fact I was a close witness and a minor participant in its recent developments, because in 1989 I took a seminar at the University of Texas at Austin with Néstor García Canclini, and the seminar was structured around discussion of the manuscript that later became his very influential book, Culturas híbridas (García Canclini 1990). In that seminar I also read Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) and Renato Rosaldo's (1989) pathbreaking books, which not only provided me with important insights about border issues, but also changed completely the way I understood the relationship between culture and identity.
For that reason, 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 were only partially addressing the much more complex process of identity construction in the area. First, because those authors tend to homogenize the border, as if there were only one border identity, border culture, or process of hybridization. On the contrary, I think that on the U.S.-Mexico frontier we have several borders, each of them the possible anchor of a particular process of identity construction. In this sense, I could easily identify at least four different border environments: Tijuana-San Diego-Los Angeles, the Sonora-Arizona border (extensively analyzed by Vélez-Ibáñez 1996), Juárez-El Paso, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley-Tamaulipas border. Each is the locus of very different processes of internal and international migration, ethnic composition, and political identities on both sides of the border. Those differences are related in complex ways to different processes of identity construction; therefore I will write about Ciudad Juárez-El Paso, and not about the U.S.-Mexico border "in general."
In fact, Renato Rosaldo (1994, p. 215), in a recent article, seems to be departing from his previous writings when he points out:
In considering the dynamics of race from both dominant and subordinate positions I have found enlightening a 1990 work called Migrant Souls by the late Chicano novelist Arturo Islas, who died of AIDS on February 15, 1991. Set in Del Sapo, Texas (Del Sapo, "from the toad," is a playful anagram of El Paso), the novel breaks a taboo and addresses matters we, as Chicanos, all know but don't talk about. It speaks of the dynamics of racial differentiation within the Chicano community as well as the categorical divide separating Chicanos and Anglos ... in the absence of other data, the novel can serve as a source of evidence for thinking conceptually about how race works among certain Chicanos.
One of the aims of this book is precisely to talk about matters "Chicanos ... know but don't talk about," in the same location where the novel takes place, El Paso, providing the "other data" (ethnographic material) Rosaldo claims is missing.
Second, I believe that the process of globalization and hybridization is here to stay (Vila 1997b). Money, people, and culture constantly move, allowing people to anchor their identities in the new entities this process creates. Those new identities can range widely. Mixtecos can call themselves a binational indigenous community (and bury their dead also in California); people can be named after an old region whose name acquires a new meaning (Fronterizos is a good example here); "European" takes on a new meaning within the emerging European bloc (Nafteño may be an identity of the future). However, many people feel threatened by the idea of abandoning the kinds of national, racial, and ethnic names (and the culture those names involve) that have identified them for generations: Americans, Mexicans, and the like. Accordingly, some Mexicans are worried because McDonald's is displacing some taquerías (Mexican fast-food restaurants) in Juárez, and Americans are worried because salsa has displaced ketchup in some states--and on some of its missions, the shuttle crew brought tortillas rather than bread (because tortillas do not produce crumbs, a very important consideration in outer space). The problem is that both processes are occurring simultaneously, and different actors in the same region, for different reasons, react differently.
This way of approaching the issue of identity construction explains, for example, why it is no accident that a Fronterizo (i.e., border dweller) identity is used extensively on the Mexican side of the border, but not many people on the American side use that label to identify themselves. Such an identity flourishes in Juárez for two reasons. First, some Juarenses use their proximity to the United States to "upgrade" their Mexican social identity, claiming that it is advantageous to live near a First World country with easy access to its job opportunities, lifestyle, and consumer goods. This discourse is more common among middle-class Juarenses. Not by chance, they are the ones who make the most ostentatious use of the label "Fronterizos," and of the "sister cities" trope that I will discuss below. Middle-class Juarenses do this because they are more able than their lower class counterparts to claim an "American" lifestyle, in a milieu where being middle class is frequently equated with being Americanized.
Second, Juarenses are more likely to identify themselves as Fronterizos because they make extensive use of a regional system of classification to "explain" attitudes and behaviors. This way of understanding action allows them to anchor an identity label to a particular region such as the border. The combination of factors behind the Fronterizo label is present on the northern Mexican border, but not on the southern one. Ergo, it is rare to hear someone calling her-/himself Fronterizo on the Mexico-Guatemala border (Vila 1997b).
Things are different on the U.S. side of the border. There, few people (Mexican Americans included) perceive any "upgrading" of identity in claiming proximity to a Third World country. Moreover, Americans tend to use an ethnic classification system rather than a regional one; this distinguishes them from Mexicans, who tend to use region as a way to anchor identity. Not coincidentally, then, it is very rare to hear an El Pasoan call her-/himself a Fronteriza/o or its virtually unheard-of English equivalent, a "borderite." Of course, many Mexican Americans call themselves "Mexicans," but the polysemous (and contradictory) use of this reference is so extended that it is precisely one of the issues examined in this book. Therefore, I understand Proposition 187, Operation Blockade, the English Only movement, and the like as desperate attempts to separate "us" from "them," when "they" live among "us" (or very close to us) due to the globalization process. And not by chance, at least in El Paso, many Mexican Americans seem as threatened as Anglos by that process (Vila 1997b).
For that reason I suggest that authors who use "crossing borders" metaphors alone do not portray the entire picture. As Wilson and Donnan (1998, p. 6) comment: "Only the idea of the border as an image for cultural juxtaposition has entered wider anthropological discourse." I think that we need to complement these metaphors with another one referring to "reinforcing borders," or something similar, because many people do not want to cross those borders, or to live "on borders and in margins, keeping intact one's shifting and multiple identity and integrity" (Anzaldúa 1987, p. i). On the contrary, many people want to reinforce borders. Looking for a multiple reading of the border situation, I found the different narratives I discuss in this book. Some of them employ the "hybrid" model proposed by Anzaldúa (a model more attuned to Derrida's logic of the supplement, of differance, rather than of identity; a logic of both/and), but other identity narratives reinforce the bold limits--the strict categorical distinctions (the "islands of meaning" [Zerubavel 1991]), the Western logic of identity, the logic of either/or--that are the antipodes of a "hybrid" or "mestiza" way of thinking. Consequently I understand Anzaldúa's beautiful text as representing the utopia we have to appreciate and struggle for on the border, a utopia that because identity is a strange sedimentation of past, present, and future is already present in some border actors (Vila 1997b).
The book is structured as follows. Chapters 1 to 4 discuss important organizers of common sense in the region--that is, those discourses of region, race, ethnicity, and nation that "order" the very complicated border reality. The border offers a unique opportunity to look at the complex process of identity construction and its constant use of arbitrary classification systems to make sense of people's social identities. In Chapters 1 and 2 I discuss the process of identity construction on the Mexican side of the border, where discourses of region and nation predominate and those of race and ethnicity are either secondary or complexly intertwined with the former. I start, in Chapter 1, by addressing the highly developed regional system of classification that many Juarenses use to make sense of their own attitudes and behaviors and those of the "others." In that system, categories like Fronterizos, Juarenses, and Norteños are used to make sense of "us," those who live in Juárez, and categories like Sureños and Chilangos are used to make sense of "them," those who live elsewhere in Mexico. As is the case in many systems of classification, the regional one used in Juárez implies a hierarchical ordering of its different categories. That is why the remainder of the chapter is used to examine the highly stigmatized way in which many Juarenses portray "those who come from the South," where in the account of many interviewees who are native of Juárez, all Juárez' social problems seem to be caused by the despised Sureños. In this regional system of classification, the inhabitants of Mexico City, the Chilangos, occupy center stage, and many of my interviewees are not very kind in their portrayal.
In Chapter 2 I move from regional to national commonsense discourses and address the way in which many Juarenses construct the "Americans" as the "others." Hence if in the first chapter I showed how some Fronterizos construct their identities in relation to other Mexicans using the United States as a point of reference, in this chapter I show how they define their profile in relation to the Americans, drawing heavily on their Mexicanness. In the process of marking their differences from the Americans, many Juarenses point to some features they believe belong to the "others," among the most important being the rampant consumerism that seems to characterize American culture.
Interestingly enough, if all those living on the other side of the border are points of reference in the construction of some Fronterizo and Juarense identities, then Anglos are not the only important mirror to look at in constructing one's identity. In this chapter I show how, for some interviewees, Anglos are less important than other border actors in the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso area, because nearly 70 percent of El Paso's inhabitants are of Mexican origin. Accordingly, in the particular case of Juárez, the Mexican Americans living in El Paso are a constant point of reference in the construction of identity. As in the case of Anglos, for many of my interviewees, the construction of a Juarense identity also requires the simultaneous establishment of closeness and distance in relation to the Mexican Americans. For that reason in Chapter 2 I also analyze the metaphor of the "sister cities" (heavily used in Juárez) to show how the idea of closeness is constructed. At the same time I show how differences are forged to characterize the Mexican American as the "other" in my analysis of how the term "pocho" is used.
In Chapters 3 and 4 I cross the border and take a look at some processes of ethnic, racial, and national identity construction in El Paso. A peculiar characteristic of the U.S.-Mexico border is that people changing countries are not only crossing from one country to another, they are also moving from one national system of classification to another--both systems in which they have a place.
Therefore, in Chapter 3 I show how in El Paso, as in other areas of the country, the discourse of race and ethnicity is pervasive. Nevertheless, here it combines with a discourse of nationality in a volatile mixture that, for many people, marks almost anything that is stigmatized as Mexican. A lot of people on the American side of the border constitute their identities against this backdrop. Needless to say, in this context, the constitution of a valued identity is relatively straightforward for middle-class Anglos and relatively difficult for many people of Mexican descent, regardless of class. Thus, the bulk of the chapter describes the different ways in which those interviewees attuned to the hegemonic discourse of the region construct the "Mexican" as the stigmatized "other." The first part of the chapter explores what I call the "all poverty and social problems are Mexican" thematic plot, and how many of my Anglo, African American, and Mexican American interviewees tend to blur the difference between Mexican ethnics and Mexican nationals to construct a stigmatized "Mexican" other.
I also explore in Chapter 3 other possibilities used by many interviewees in the construction of the "Mexican" other, for instance, the attempt made by some people to build the "Chicanos" as those Mexicans to whom the "all poverty is Mexican" should apply; or the effort made by some of those who call themselves Chicanos to redefine the "all poverty is Mexican" thematic plot, moving its cause from laziness to discrimination; or the construction of the Mexican national as the stigmatized other by many Mexican Americans in an attempt to open a gap inside the Mexican ethnic category, addressing the differences that supposedly separate Mexican Americans from Mexican nationals. In the construction of the Mexican nationals as the "others," tropes of difference are essential; that is why I also analyze the "Third World country versus First World country" trope in this chapter.
In Chapter 4 I show how some poor people of Mexican descent relate to the "all poverty is Mexican" narrative plot. I first discuss the problematic situation of some Mexican immigrants in El Paso. If they are poor they have by necessity to follow a quite distinct path in the constitution of a valued social identity, because they confront an ethnic and racial classification system that denigrates them without the escape hatch of economic success used by many middle-class Mexican Americans to detach themselves from immigrants (the topic of Chapter 3). At the same time, if these interviewees currently maintain family ties with Mexico, they have to make sense of contemporary Mexican poverty without portraying Mexican nationals as the "others."
Some of the most interesting narratives I have found among many Mexican immigrants in El Paso claim that the Mexicans of the "all poverty is Mexican" thematic plot are the Mexican Americans who live off welfare. Other immigrant interviewees claim that the Mexican Americans who discriminate against Mexican immigrants are the real "others." At the same time, because many of these immigrants still use Mexican and/or Fronterizo categories, metaphors, and narratives to construct the "other," mixing frames of reference (sometimes in a single portrayal of the "other") to make sense of their identities, it is not a coincidence that some of the narratives I have found in Juárez repeat themselves on the American side of the border. Among the most prominent of them is the construction of the "American" as the other. Finally, in this chapter I also show how many middle-class Mexican immigrants take advantage of the "all poverty is Mexican" thematic plot to construct a valued identity of immigrants with dignity (those who have "made it") living in the United States.
In Chapter 5 I connect my own research, which can be broadly defined as discursive analysis, with some events experienced by Juarenses and Paseños that show the degree to which the discourses I discovered in my fieldwork are ingrained in attitudes and behaviors. The opportunity to make that connection came when the border patrol launched Operation Blockade in September 1993. The staggering amount of mutual resentment this operation unleashed between many Juarenses and El Pasoans was a surprise not only for local people, but also for border scholars in general. What happened? I think that the nationwide anti-immigrant wave was responsible for part of the support the operation received. But I attribute a great part of the overwhelming support obtained by the border patrol to the fact that the agency was doing physically what many El Pasoans (both Anglo and Mexican Americans) had been doing symbolically before--separating themselves from Mexican nationals in order to construct a narrative identity as people living in the United States.
In this chapter I follow, step by step, the different (and usually positive) reactions Operation Blockade unleashed in El Paso, as well as the more ambiguous reactions in Juárez. Many El Pasoans reacted with what was described by some journalists as "euphoria" because the blockade would supposedly solve all the social problems of the city--because behind those problems, of course, many people saw the shadow of the "illegal aliens." The reaction in Juárez was more ambiguous. On the one hand many Juarenses either discovered for the first time or confirmed what they already knew--that many El Pasoans despise Mexicans. But, on the other hand, because many Juarenses believed that the blockade was not against them (the highly Americanized Mexicans who eagerly support El Paso's commerce), but against the despised Southern Mexicans, who, supposedly, were the only "aliens" trying desperately to cross the border by "illegal" means, they did not take the negative comments as directed toward them.
I also show in this chapter how the more-than-dubious results of the blockade did not change the "euphoric" climate of El Paso about the border patrol strategy. The problem, I think, is that data showing that very few things changed after the blockade are not going to change the narrative identities of people who are totally impermeable to facts. Some individuals, while not acknowledging the narrative character of their own identities, "accuse" facts of having a narrative structure--that is, of being discursively malleable. For these people, facts can be manipulated, but the basic plot behind their own narrative identities cannot. The relationship between "facts" and narratives is a very complex one, and the possibility of accommodating "new," "unexpected," or "contradictory" facts to one's narrative identity seems to depend more on how flexible one's plot is than on how forceful the facts are. In this sense, if people's negative images about the "others" can be changed at all, it will not be by opposing their narrative identities with "facts," but rather by confronting them with the "narrative character-ness" of their identities. That was precisely what I did in a pilot dialogical social science experiment I conducted in the region between 1995 and 1996. The analysis of that exercise is the topic of Chapter 6.
In that chapter I show how I attempted to dialogically engage my interviewees in a discussion of how their own narratives functioned as cultural artifacts that influenced their visions about themselves and the "others." Using a dialogic methodology, I asked people to consider the narrative character of their identities. In this way I introduced them to the idea that, if we are all storytellers, we are also characters in the stories of others. We may usually be the "good guys" in our own scripts, but we frequently end up as "bad guys" in other people's stories. Of course, people usually believe (myself included) they have excellent "reasons" and "data" for describing themselves and other characters the way they do, and for constructing identities accordingly. For this reason, I hoped my interviewees could entertain the possibility that they were playing similar games as everybody else, where Anglos, Mexicans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Chicanos seem to weigh themselves and the "others" on a moral basis to prove who is better. My hope was that by engaging people in negotiating scripts about themselves and "others," their need to portray the "other" so negatively might be diminished. Chapter 6 is the description and the analysis of this more than provisional dialogical endeavor, and shows how most of my interviewees were able to examine and reflect on the themes they were using to organize their lives, and to interpret their own actions and the actions of others. That is, I show how my interviewees were able to make their stories "better," in Rosenwald's (1992) sense: (1) a story that is more comprehensive than the previous one; (2) a story in which one's relation to the world and relationships with others and oneself are recognized as being ambivalent and contradictory, (3) a story that helps to comprehend the earlier, "defective" ones; (4) a story that is structurally more complex, more varied, and contrastive in the events and accompanying feelings portrayed--more interesting and three-dimensional. My bet is that through those "better" stories (but of course not only through those stories), people have more possibilities to construct fuller lives for themselves and the "others."
Finally, the Appendix addresses the theoretical basis of my analysis. I start from the theoretical assumption that identity is not a "thing" that an individual "has" once and forever, but rather, a construct, which undergoes constant negotiation with "others" as its contours are defined and redefined over time. As Bhavnani and Phoenix (1994, p. 9) comment, "[E]ach individual is both located in, and opts for a number of differing, and at times, conflictual, identities, depending on the social, political, economic and ideological aspects of their situation." That is, identities are contextually constructed.
I also note in the Appendix that social identity may not be an "essential inner state," yet neither is it produced solely by the power of external discourses, à la Althusser (1971). Instead, it derives from a complex interplay of categories, metaphors, and narrative identities about ourselves and "others" over time. Thus, while I believe that identities are constructed within a culturally specific system of classification (where the different subject positions that converge to form what appears as a unified and unique self are cultural constructions created by discourses), and that metaphors help to understand who we are, I also believe that people develop a sense of themselves as subjects in part by imagining themselves as protagonists in stories--hence, my interest in the narrative identities of border residents.
What are the implications of all this for the U.S.-Mexico border? Mexicans and Americans belong to national societies that share some aspects of their respective classification systems--both in terms of positions and their attributes. However, they differ greatly in other aspects that also impinge on the everyday attitudes and behaviors of their inhabitants. On the border, these similarities and differences meet, and the result is an unusually complex common sense, in which people are forced to move from one classification system to another, sometimes on a daily basis. Not only do people move from one system to another, but the proliferation of classification systems within which a single person can be placed means that people constantly mix different systems of classification to make sense of the perceived "others."
At the same time, border residents make continuous use of tropes (metaphors, metonymies, etc.) to make sense of themselves and others. The importance of tropes in any process of identity construction is that they help in the meaningful organization of experience. Many times tropes frame narratives and bind the beginning of the narrative inextricably to its conclusion. In this way tropes lend structural coherence to the narrative and suggest how they are bounded, that is, where they begin and end (Riessman 1993, p. 44). But in other circumstances particular narrative plots "ask" for some tropes instead of others.
Finally, I try to prove in the Appendix that narratives about oneself and "others" are crucial to processes of identity construction. My hypothesis is that social occurrences are constructed as "experience" not only in relation to discourses that give them meaning in general but also within plots that organize them coherently. Therefore, it is precisely the plot of my narrative identity that guides the process of selectivity toward the "real" that is part of every identity construction. In this selection of the "real" is also included the relationship that we have established between our own plot and the multiple interpellations and tropes that culture in general (and the classificatory systems in the case of interpellations in particular) offers us for identification. If this is so, the narratives on either side of the border function as themes around which many border residents construct their "coherent" identities. In Juárez, central narratives are that "All social problems are related to Southern Mexicans," "Juarenses have become Americanized," "Fronterizos are losing their Catholic traditions," "Mexican Americans have become Americanized," "Americans are slaves to consumerism," "American women boss their husbands," among other thematic plots. On the American side, pervasive narratives are that "All poverty is Mexican," "Catholic practices are very traditional in Mexico," "All criminality is coming from Juárez," "Mexican males are very macho," and many other scripts. Because of the primacy of these narrative plots, they determine how occurrences are processed and what criteria will be used to prioritize and render meaning to events.
But narratives, in one way or another, have to deal with "structural" conditions (ignoring them, negating them, partially taking them into account, negotiating with them, trying to modify them, etc.). For that reason, I think that knowing some very basic data about the region is important. Ciudad Juárez and El Paso were until 1848 one city, and when the Guadalupe Hidalgo treaty divided it, the treaty did not divide the economic and social relationships between both cities in the same way. This was so because, among other things, the area is isolated; almost nothing can be found for several hundred miles.
The strong relationship between the two cities strengthened during the first part of this century, and the years of Prohibition in the United States not only started the growing tourist industry in Juárez (Martfnez 1994, p. 21), but also allowed the formation of a new bourgeoisie that grew due to its relationships with "the other side." The smuggling of alcoholic beverages from factories installed on the Mexican side of the border favored the "original accumulation" of some Mexicans who, over the years, became major political and economic actors (Lau 1986, p. 11). At the same time, not only has the bourgeoisie established a strong economic relationship with the United States in general and with El Paso in particular, but also almost the entire city is, in some way or another, closely linked to "el otro lado." As Oscar Martínez (1986, p. 148) points out:
... much of the personal income earned by residents in Judrez is generated directly or indirectly by the presence of the American economy ... according to the El Paso Chamber of Commerce Area Fact Book for 1981-82, considerably more than half of the earnings of the Juárez labor force originate in El Paso and in the tourist and maquiladora sectors on the Juárez side.
It is obvious that at the hub of the region is El Paso, a city of 515,342 inhabitants in 1990 (Lorey 1993, p. 49) whose economic output accounts for more than half the entire economy of the region ($8.6 billion). Also, this economy is highly influenced by the boom of the maquila industry in Northern Mexico, and functions as the area's service center. Due to the strong interrelationships that link this city with Juárez, it is not surprising to find that retailing is one of the most important activities in El Paso, and that up to 40 percent of the trade can be attributed to Mexican shoppers.
"If El Paso is the hub of the Paso del Norte trade area, Juárez is the axle" (Institute of Manufacturing and Material Management 1991, p. 4), and the most important reason for the incredible growth in recent decades is, indisputably, the maquiladora industry. That becomes clear when we discover that Juárez has captured more than 15 percent of Mexico's maquila industry, with 290 firms which, at the beginning of the 1990s, employed more than 129,000 workers. For all these reasons, Ciudad Juárez, a city of 789,522 inhabitants according to the 1990 census, is a very especial case on the border.
First of all, Juárez' population is much more homogeneous than those of other major Mexican border cities. On the one hand, the migrant component is very different in Ciudad Juárez than in the other primary cities along the border: in Tijuana more than 58 percent of the population was born outside the state of Baja California, but in Ciudad Juárez the people born outside Chihuahua account for only 34 percent. Hence, the impact of outer migration is felt less in Juárez than in other cities of the border (Lorey 1993, p. 51). In addition, people outside Chihuahua who decide to migrate to Juárez are different from other people on the border. They come from the Northern states closer to Chihuahua: Durango, Zacatecas, and Coahuila. Those who were born in these Northern states accounted for 20 percent of Juárez' population in 1990. In this sense, if we put together Chihuahua and the other Northern states mentioned above, 86 percent of Juárez' population originally came from the North (Lorey 1993, p. 51). This is a very different picture from that offered by Tijuana, for instance, which attracts many migrants from Central and Southern Mexico: in 1990, 40 percent of Tijuana's population was born in Central and Southern Mexico (Lorey 1993, p. 51).
If this is the picture regarding internal migration, Ciudad Juárez stands as a different border city in other aspects, too. Ciudad Juárez-El Paso stands in sharp contrast to Tijuana-San Diego in terms of the type of Mexican immigrants who work on a regular basis on the American side of the border. First, the number of American nationals living in Juárez but working in El Paso is far greater than that in Tijuana-San Diego, with 39 percent and 11 percent, respectively, living on the Mexican side but working on the American side (Alegría Olazábal 1992, p.132). This is so because many Juarenses have their children in El Paso so that those children will become American citizens. Consequently, they are actually Mexicans who have lived all their lives in Juárez, but legally they are U.S. citizens. According to Teschner (1995, pp. 100-101), the main reasons behind this practice are (1) the possibility of the entire family becoming, over time, American citizens due to the "unification of families" provisions of the various immigration and naturalization acts; and (2) the prospect of American-born children attending El Paso schools.
But even more important is the fact that the migration that crosses from Juárez (legal and illegal) to El Paso is basically a local one; that is, people cross to work nearby, either in El Paso itself, or in Western Texas or Southern New Mexico. On the whole they do not migrate to work in other places in the United States that are far from Ciudad Juárez. Nonetheless, the fact that many Mexicans cross the border daily to work in El Paso does not mean that the city offers them very good salaries. On the contrary, although El Paso salaries are much better than those Juarense workers earn, El Paso is still one of the poorest major cities in the United States. Thus, El Paso's per capita annual income at the beginning of the 1990s was only $10,778, which was relatively low compared to the state's average of $16,702. Thus El Paso, like other border communities, has not shared the economic robustness of the state's economy:
In fact, as a percentage of state per capita income, the per capita income for El Paso declined from 72.7 percent to 68.6 percent during the years 1978 to 1988 ... poverty in El Paso is high. While 11.8 percent of Texas families fall below the poverty level, 18.6 percent of families in El Paso are living in poverty. Within the El Paso Hispanic community, 28.6 percent of all households fall below the poverty level. (Institute of Manufacturing and Material Management 1991, p. 39)
And this characteristic of El Paso is not new; during the 1970s, with its $4,733 per capita income, the city was placed 260th among the 266 most important Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSAs), and it was the poorest city with a population over 100,000 in the nation. At the same time, El Paso was ranked 307th among the 313 SMSAs in 1985 (Stoddard and Hedderson 1989, p. 14).
This is the general picture of the city, but in the poor neighborhoods of El Paso, the situation is even worse. Furthermore, the poor neighborhoods are the more "Mexican" ones. A study carried out by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Texas at El Paso (1992) showed that 43 percent of the population living in the poorest neighborhoods of El Paso were born in Mexico. Among these foreign-born respondents, 42 percent arrived in the United States in 1975 or later, 29 percent in 1980 or later, and 15 percent in 1985 or later. At the same time, the level of poverty of these neighborhoods is such that their inhabitants depend heavily on government support, and 47 percent of them receive some kind of income transfer. Particularly important here are food stamps, which are received by 20 percent of the sample.
Another measure that shows the problems of El Paso's economy is unemployment, which in the mid-1970s ranged from 14 percent to 20 percent, placing El Paso at the top of all United States cities with a population over 100,000 (Stoddard and Hedderson 1989, p. 15). In the early 1990s the rate was around 11 percent.
As we can see, these "structural" conditions are related in complex ways to some of the main narratives that I discovered in the region and that I will analyze throughout the book. One of the main narratives on the American side asserts that "all poverty is Mexican national." It is true that Ciudad Juárez is a poor city, but it has a very prosperous bourgeoisie and its middle class supports a big part of El Paso's commerce. Another narrative asserts that "most of Juárez' social problems are due to the humongous migration from Southern Mexico." Yet only 14 percent of Juárez' population comes "from the South." In the book, we will have the opportunity to see how in the "symbolic struggle" between data and narratives, many times the latter win over the former.
So much for the organization of the book and some basic data about the area, what follows is my acknowledgment of the shortcomings of my endeavor. First of all, I am fully aware that absent from this book is my own narrative, or, in other words, the basic plot from which I ordered the complex reality offered by my interviewees in their testimonies (Vila 1997b). Following Riessman (1993), I have basically created a "metastory about what happened by telling what the interview narratives signify, editing and reshaping what was told, and turning it into a hybrid story" (p. 13). Ergo, I present the material as if I were writing a "realistic text." However, the "realistic" tone of the book is a well-thoughtout strategy linked to the "afterlife" I expect for the book and the current academic/political project I am involved with, not my intention to speak, finally and with ultimate authority, for others--an impossible goal due to the problems involved in "representation" (Baudrillard 1983; Probyn 1993; Said 1979; Spivak 1988). I still consider myself part of the recent trend in sociology and anthropology in which many social ethnographers have backed away from totalized truth telling, instead relativizing their partial truths in the distorting glass of biography and partisan, polemical, and suspect authority.
I decided to write a "realistic text" and commit all the mistakes narrative theoreticians ask us to avoid because the story I tell targets particular people; it might have taken a different form if someone else were the listener. As I noted earlier, using a dialogic methodology, I asked some of my interviewees to think about how their identities have a narrative character precisely because I had such serious doubts about the relationship between narratives and facts, that is, the always present possibility of "tailoring" facts to fit a particular narrative. For this reason, I wanted to explore with my interviewees how the ways in which Mexican immigrants, Mexican Americans, Anglos, and African Americans understand their identities on the border are (among other things) well-developed narratives, not "true" descriptions of reality (Vila 1997b). If in this book I emphasize how narratives, categories, and metaphors work in the process of identity construction, it is not because I believe that those are the only devices people use to develop a sense of identity. My emphasis on narratives and the idea of reporting the complex data I am working with as realistic accounts in this research project is "strategic," and derives from my hope that by engaging people in negotiating scripts about themselves and "others," their need to portray the "other" so negatively may be diminished.