I saw it first under the golden hour, when the sun was setting on the edge of the sea and tossing gold flecks across our hair.
The setting was romantic, with horses carrying their passengers along the beach and hearts in the sand. But there is nothing lovely about the wall.
It stands stark against the ocean's white foam, defiant in it's skeletal demeanor. It stretches out into the sea, but not far enough to truly block anything. It teases and it mocks, even within its structure; small children can slip through in only one section, but adults cannot pass.
It stretches miles between the US and Mexico, separating the what would be the same city of San Diego and Tijuana, but is conveniently divided by a border. Parts are chain linked, parts are made of rusted Vietnam war landing strips, parts are like jail cells where you can see through to the other side. Border police monitor it on cars that never turn off.
The materiality of the wall defies its metaphyiscal effects: displacement, tension, trauma, despair, exclusion.
When you build a wall, you are trying to keep something out, or something in. This wall does neither; instead it rips holes in bodies and minds.
But the wall is just a band aid, "psycho-therapy" for the American southwest. It doesn't stretch the full length of the border; at 10.3 million miles, it'd be almost impossible, particularly with the mountains and terrain that get in the way. It also doesn't block the drugs that come into the US, which typically come through checked ports of entry but sometimes through the "swiss cheese" earth that lays between the two cities.
So why does it exist?
One of my classes this semester is titled Transnational Border Lab and focuses on border politics and theory. During spring break, we went to visit the border at the southwestern most part of the US and the largest binational transit area in the world. Having spent the whole first half of the semester reading typically dense articles and books, the opportunity for a field visit was very much welcomed. We visited UCSD and their work with the Cross Border Initiative, deported veterans and moms, and people fighting to support migrants in any way they can. It was all very heavy.
This took me awhile to write, as it was hard to process immediately after, partially from the constant movement and interactions with others, and partly because questions swirled up in haste. Some of these included: where is the line between scholar and activist? Should there be a distinct line? At what point do (or can) we separate our own attitudes from research? How can a top down and bottom up strategy work at simultaneously in a world of gray?
Many in my class felt the trip was surreal. I honestly didn't see it that way, and wonder if this is due to my work in international development. Having worked in the field, I was constantly faced with poverty, inequality, ethical challenges, greed and power. Having worked in small towns made up of farmers, of people with little to no access to education, to people struggling yet striving, it seemed to me just another example of privilege and power, albeit at a stark juxtaposition. I've worked in some weird scenarios, and haven't had an academic career like many in my class. I'm realizing how powerful that field work is, and how vital it can be to bring these experiences into an academic context.
To me, it was heartbreaking, but common. And I think that's what hit me the most. The mundane everyday aspect of the wall, yet it's impact on large stretches of land, people, and connections. That animals and people were blocked off from similar habitats. That one side flourished while another built up against pushback. Yet the camaraderie between people, the struggle towards a better life, was very human. It makes you realize how resilient humanity is, even as we counterintuitively work against our collective wellbeing.
An estuary sits on the northern side of the wall. It's the home to protected birds, but sits dry and filled with debris. On the other side, the Tecate river runs through Tijuana, collecting the remnants of lives blocked and stagnated. Imagine what could happen if we saw the area as one? If we protected our neighbors like we do ourselves? If there wasn't any border at all?