Big Daddy Does the Border
When paseño poet Ricardo Sanchez died of cancer in 1995, the obituary department of The New York Times called me to talk about Ricardo as man and as poet. The obit-man had that New Yorker attitude that grates against my heart, but I repressed my hostility because I wanted the Times to officially consecrate Ricardo. I wanted them to tell the larger world about this ex-con poet who had roughed up the status quo with his righteous anger and bilingual smartass puns. It would make Teresa happy, his children proud. Besides, Ricardo, who perhaps was still paddling his little boat angrily across the River Styx, might hear a faint murmur of his obituary in the ether.
At the end of the interview, I asked the guy when the obituary would appear.
“Well,” he said, “I don’t know if we’re going to do it yet.”
“Because we haven’t decided yet if Sanchez was a good poet or not.”
That pissed me off. That wasn’t his decision. It was ours! But of course Ricardo’s obituary was at this arrogant fool’s mercy. It made me feel dirty, but I cajoled the obit-man, and the Times eventually announced that pachuco poet Ricardo Sanchez was dead.
I remembered all of this while I was sitting in an auditorium at UT-El Paso, looking down at stage lights and television crews. I usually don’t spend my time this way, but the Big Daddy of U.S. media–Time/CNN/AOL/ABC entwined together like the ravenous snakes on Medusa’s head–had gathered us there to celebrate their recognition of the U.S./Mexico Border as a real place in the national consciousness. Called La Frontera: A Day on the Border, the event was billed as a “Town Hall Meeting.”
Each of the snakes on Big Daddy’s head had their own job to do:
Time had printed “Amexica,” a special Border section in its June 11 issue, snapshoting the miles between Brownsville and Tijuana in Time-speak and dubbing it “The New Frontier”; CNN was doing the same thing with its weeklong coverage of la nueva frontera; ABC’s Peter Jennings was endangering his hair in Laredo; and AOL, that peculiar creation of dollar-technocracy, was making the “sights and sounds of the border come alive on an interactive, geo-cultural map that can be found at the Keyword: Latino.
Holy shit. We haven’t had so much media attention since the FBI trotted over to Juárez with their shovels. Oh well. I should have been thinking about what Marshall McLuhan taught us way back in the ’60s: “The medium is the message.” But I wasn’t thinking about anything. Like everybody else, I was glad all these folks were in town, and followed the smell of publicity.
Big Daddy’s job for the afternoon was to feed the locals some intellectual stimulus. It was a two-course meal. The first course was a panel discussing political issues facing border residents: “The Border in 2010: Do Washington and Mexico want to make the border disappear?” Well, that’s a stupid question. If you have lived in El Paso the last 20 years, you know for a fact that Washington doesn’t want the border to disappear. If they did, then they would be radically liberalizing the drug laws and the immigration laws and tearing down fences and de-militarizing the place. Puro no-brainer.
But the panelists’ job was to be serious, not to poke holes in the basic premise of the gathering. They were a mixture of state and federal bureaucrats and academics from both sides of the border, along with El Paso’s state senator Eliot Shapleigh. Peter Katel, Time’s Mexican Bureau chief, was the moderator. Meaning he mostly asked questions and listened to answers in a bored but whimsical sort of way, like an English professor keeping track of a graduate seminar. The panelists came armed with data. They said life on the border might get worse before it got better, and they told us to vote.
The crowd, for the most part, was unmoved. Somebody had had the bright idea to bus in women activists from the colonias surrounding El Paso. The women got in line behind the microphones and took their turns speaking. They asked for water to drink and to bathe in. They asked for a sewage system. They asked for parks for their kids to play in. They asked for jobs. They asked for streetlights and police protection. They asked for paved streets. They all spoke in Spanish and they spoke with passion. This was not an intellectual exercise for them. They said that this place where they lived was supposed to be the United States of America, but it’s just like Mexico. The leaders in Washington don’t care, the leaders in Austin don’t care, the leaders in Mexico City don’t care. They understood that, as far as Washington and Austin are concerned, the border will always be what it is right now–a guarded alleyway between the rich and the poor.
I had come especially for the second panel, another town hall meeting titled “Culture and Society in the New Frontier: How will it change the U.S. and Mexico?” A silly question also, but not as silly as the first. Besides, Maria Hinojosa was one of the two moderators, and I’ve long listened to her work as anchor for Latino USA, the weekly NPR program reporting on news and culture in the Latino community. Also on the panel were journalist, poet and social activist Rubén Martínez, Pepe Mogt (the techno-music freak from the Nortec Collective in Tijuana), UTEP’s Border Studies wonk Jon Amastae, filmmaker Cesar Alejandro and novelist Denise Chavez. The other moderator was Guy Garcia, Vice President in charge of Content & Programming, AOL Latin America. I figured that the panel might get down to some nitty gritty. Some sparks might fly.
Guy Garcia was simply a smiley face who swallowed any controversy by grinning real big so we could see his perfect white teeth. It was like magic. Little wonder that he materialized as a VP at AOL. Maria Hinojosa, to my sorrow, was not much better. They both worked for Big Daddy (he with AOL and Time before that, she with CNN as well as doing some stuff for Time while maintaining her gig at NPR). Both of them enjoyed telling their own stories which had little or nothing to do with the border. For instance, Maria told how when she first moved to New York City (she grew up in Chicago) she was lonely for Mexicans, pobrecita, but she was lucky to run into Guy at a bar on Broadway.
Of course, there were attempts at real discussion. Pepe Mogt talked about why Tijuana soul grows the roots of his abnormal synthesizing of electronic music and norteña tubas and accordions. Then Rubén Martínez tried to get something going by announcing the border is everywhere. His point is that the border is a racial and economic and cultural line, so when Mexicans make with their diaspora throughout the U.S., they take the border with them. Thus, la frontera ends up in Idaho and St. Paul and little towns in Georgia.
I agree with him-sort of. But the theory makes me mad. Just when everyone is about to notice us, they now have a new reason to ignore us. The talking heads don’t have to get their shoes dirty in our geography. They don’t have to wander around in little Mexican towns like Naco or walk around the dumps on the side of Sierra Juárez. They can talk to the busboys at the French Roast Café on Broadway and do their articles about the border. I wanted to walk down on the stage and say, “Goddamnit, Rubén, finally we got all this media here looking at us and trying to understand us and you go telling them it’s not here anymore!”
But Guy Garcia would have eaten any tension with his Cheshire cat smile because real discussion was not the purpose of the event.
It took me most of the afternoon to figure that out. The real purpose was to advertise the media conglomerate that was putting on the show. The Big Daddy with the snakes on his head had purchased and packaged us, and we hadn’t felt a thing except the slow leak of energy from the room. Indeed, most of the audience had already slunk away. Oblivious to the general ennui, Maria and Guy talked some more about their own lives and led discussions that degenerated into the usual touchy-feely conversations about what it means to be “latino/a in America today.” Of course, nobody mentioned that being latino means something totally different to the activist women who were bussing back to their colonias than it does to talking heads who have landed plush jobs in New York City.
But that is life, I guess. The panel discussions finally ended, and the few of us left in the audience went down on stage to say hello. I introduced myself to Martínez, but the time for talking was finished. He was going to the reception for a few minutes, then a friend was taking him over to Juárez for some Chinese. I decided to crash the reception. Why not? I needed a glass of wine. Maybe two. Outside everybody was mumbling about the panels. They were disappointed because nothing had happened. “Blah, blah, blah,” somebody said. Below us, along our side of the riverbank, was the fence that keeps Mexicans on their side. Two Broncos belonging to the migra had their snouts pointed at Mexico, those first dirt-poor barrios with the dusty streets and adobe houses scattered in disarray. Children were splashing in the muddy water.
Chuck Bowden once asked Juarez photographer Julian Cardona why he didn’t move across the river to El Paso. Julian said he didn’t want to. He said it was too cold in El Paso. Too cold on this side of the river.
I think Julian might have been right.
Bobby Byrd is a poet and co-publisher of Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso. He is the co-editor of The Late Great Mexican Border: Reports from a Disappearing Line. Another version of this article first appeared on http://www.stantonstreet.com