Sociopolitical and Cultural Spaces: Analyzing and Validating the Experiential U.S./Mexico Border

Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies: Chicana Literature and the Urgency of Space. Brady, Mary Pat. 2002. Duke UP; Durham; 1-274, appendix and index included; $45.00, hardback; $22.75 paperback; hardback.

Originally published 13 August 2015

Part of a series of texts which take critical aim at the intersections of sociopolitical, cultural, and ethnicity as they exist in Latin America, Mary Pat Brady’s Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies: Chicana Literature and the Urgency of Space is an important addition in the exploration of the diverse fabric which makes up the idea of Latinidad. Brady’s book excises the deep, complex notions of sociopolitical, cultural norms, centered in the geopolitical spatiality of la frontera—the unique and sometimes volatile landscape where the notions of race, gender, class, ethnicity, culture, and sexuality, are problematized via the geographical and temporal spaces in which they occupy. Brady provides readers with an authentic perspective of what it means to be Latin@, focusing on how Latina/o cultural identity is not only tempered by time and space, but also by how these elements are created, normalized, and regulated by the dominant (and dominated) “social and cultural groups and institutions” (7). Although these sociopolitical phenomena might be difficult for the lay person—those without prior exposure to the works of Henri Lefebvre, Doreen Massey, and Edward Soja, scholars whose focus is the production and meaning of space and place, Brady does not completely abandon readers who are new to the subjects of phenomenology and sociopolitical spatiality (basically, the study of experiences as they are tempered by real/metaphorical space, place, and time). The author’s ability to clearly expand, discuss, and illustrate concepts central to a discussion of what it means to live on the border, is but one of the positive aspects of Extinct Lands, and she begins with a proper discussion of what la frontera is.

Brady notes that la frontera (the border) is much more than a border, more than a demarcation dividing the United States from Mexico. The frontera has been defined in many ways and in many forms: literally, cinematically, poetically, and metaphorically, and no one single interpretation can quite thoroughly express the complex multiplicities, and dense amalgamation of metaphorical, symbolic, and historical cultural meanings that this particular geographical and metaphysical landscape represents. La frontera, or the U.S./Mexico border, is a spatial and temporal, living metaphor, a contact zone where the rhetoric of political, cultural, and socioeconomic consciousness is mutated and exchanged. In essence, the border’s salience in relation to the concept of identity is as a site of alterity, tempering agency, experience, and consciousness. With its far reaching abilities of influence, the metaphorical border transforms from something ethereal, into something very substantial. At best, la frontera can be best defined as an entity retaining an alterity complicating life on both sides of the border, most notably affecting those who are susceptible to the experience, and Brady explains this when she discusses the multiplicitous nature of borderlands existence. 

The borderland functions as a place of heterogeneity, of fluidity, flux, and intercultural exchanges.  This spatiolocation is a place where language and social customs, continually interplay with struggles of power and privilege, of memory, and a complicated, often debatable history. Its influence is difficult to ignore, as it permeates every facet of daily existence for residents living on both side of la frontera.  The capacity for this spatiolocation, to surpass dichotomous tendencies and evolve into a complex, multifaceted space, is epitomized when we regard the geographical Texas landmark, the Rio Grande/el Rio Bravo, as something much more than simply a river dividing one country from another. Brady’s examination of la frontera, which is loosely defined here as: any location—real or metaphorical, which are counter to one another, yet also intimately connected, looks closely at the (dis)connect and différance border people feel; they are one source of the anxiety la frontera produces, because it severs and melds simultaneously. Brady explores this phenomena by focusing on several scholars who focus on the notion of space and place. For example, Brady focuses on the premier scholar/author/poet, Gloria Anzaldúa, who in 1987, broke literary and theoretical grounds with Borderlands, La frontera: The New Mestiza (Aunt Lute Press), is especially insightful and a great place for newcomers to begin looking more closely at Borderlands studies.

Synonymous with borderland cultural theory is Anzaldúa’s Borderlands, a book of poetry, criticism, and narrative focusing on the painfully confusing but also beautiful borderland existence. Borderlands has been called a “socio-politically specific elaboration of late twentieth century feminista Chicana epistemology” ( Saldivar-Hull 1), and it is an insightful, sensitive discourse about life on the cultural peripheries, an intimate examination of the contradictory “psychology of the borderlands.” Anzaldúa explores la frontera as a space and place which forges language, identity, memory, and a dizzying array of opposition. Both Brady and Anzladúa regard la frontera as an entity where the past/future, rich/poor/First World/Third World/power/powerless, transcend back and forth across a dirty river of brown: The Rio Grande. However, where Anzladúa’s Borderlands, focuses on Texas and Mexico, Brady devotes her lens in Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies to Arizona and Mexico; and where there is a frontera, there is a border. Brady regards the Rio Grande River as a permeable, fixed membrane where the United States and Mexico slowly churn in murky waters, where they mix and combine with one another, until their identities are as invisible as the undercurrents, and it is this (in)visibility which is one reason why la frontera creates both security and anxiety. Just how a geographical, topographical entity perpetuates such power is discussed as the phenomena of space and place, or what theorists call sociopolitical spatiality. The border’s power is in its ability to transcend people’s imaginations of what it is like to be one side of the border or the other. On this/our--side of the U.S./Mexico border you are legal, clean, and welcome in America; on the other/their, you are an “’alien, an illegal, undocumented, a wetback’” (Brady 151). How can people who share an intimate space such as the border suddenly transform into something else once they cross the border? Where does the power lie in this trick?

The answer is complex, but possibly lies in what Tim Wise, author of White Like Me, calls “implicit racism.” Popular (mis)conceptions regard people of minority status—black, Latina/o, poor, gay, etc., as an Othered population; that is, not members of the cultural and racial status quo (i.e white). This warped sense of reality is actually made pervasive via media images which disproportionately feature people of color and of lower socioeconomic status as central figures in less desirable social or illegal activities, such as welfare recipients living in tenement housing who commit crimes—this despite the fact that whites are the majority of public assistance. However, it is not white faces we see during an evening news story about drug-testing for welfare recipients, it’s poor and black. Thus, the general public makes implied connections between certain cultural, racial, and socioeconomic groups and nefarious activities; it’s the popular culture politicization of racial profiling in America, and it is a powerful force.

Brady discusses this racial and cultural politicization in Chapter 6 of Extinct Lands, Temporal Geography where she focuses on how drugs have “transformed” the borderlands (186). The prevalence of illicit drug activity on the border, as it is featured in the news, in art, literature, cinema, and even in song (the narco-corridos of the Southwest, for example), are all sites of spatial production; they are places where the status quo picks up on the drug culture motif, and makes implicit stereotyped statements about residents caught up in the firestorm that drug activity creates. Again, Brady manages to carefully balance, explain, and illustrate the already complex ideology inherent in any study of the borderlands, and her discussion of the border as a site of culture contact, where it functions as a complex system of codes simultaneously influencing and creating the production and reproduction of identities is by far the book’s greatest achievement, but this understanding is in itself divisive. For those seeking some form of distillation of the complex waters of la frontera, because they are borderlanders themselves, or because they want to better appreciate the unique space and place that is la frontera, Brady’s book can offer such readers a deeper examination of the sociological forces which shape this area of our country. 

However, for others who have not arrived at regarding the border for what it is, la frontera is a line that should not be crossed, that should be kept pristine and immune from drugs, “illegal aliens” or anything impure that might infiltrate the United States of America and taint the purity and sanctity of a great country. For some, the U.S./Mexico border is like a state line separating two states, or even four like The Four Corners in the heart of the southwestern U.S., where traveling from, say, Utah into Colorado by car is like crossing a traffic light burning steady on green. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of national and border security, after reading Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies readers will have forged a new appreciation for U.S./Mexico border and look at this diverse area for so much more. Brady’s book, for all its in-depth discussion of the philosophical and theoretical, personalizes la frontera, as a metaphor representing the broken-ness many, countless Americans feel about the validity of a definite sense of a cultural self, and the incompleteness and confusion regarding an “authentic” cultural consciousness. 

Author James Diego Vigil states in From Indians to Chicanos: The Dynamics of Mexican-American Culture, that the “Chicano people now compromise the second-largest ethnic minority in the United States,” and that it is estimated that “by the year 2020” people of Mexican decent “will have surpassed blacks in numbers; at present the population is anywhere from 18 million to 25 million, if one includes undocumented immigrant workers” (xi). As the visibility of Mexican-Americans and other Latinos increase the multiethnic and globalization presence in significant sociopolitical and cultural areas of private and public American life, it is logical to reassess the emergence a 21st century Mexican-American population has on the changing face of a “typical” American. Shouldn’t we, as a nation, begin regarding the border as something more than a wound in the ground, which keeps us divided? As a country, maintaining a divided consensus about the largest minority group in the nation will always keep the U.S. away from being indivisible, and ensuring justice for all.

Rosemary Briseño, PhD, Assistant Professor of English

Sul Ross State University