"Dreams Deferred: The Concept of the US-Mexican Borderlands between the Global North and the South" by Jelena Šesnić
Jelena Šesnić is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb (Croatia). She teaches courses in US-American literature and culture, while her research encompasses more recent methodologies in American studies, feminist and gender theory, and psychoanalytic theory. She is the author of From Shadow to Presence: Representations of Ethnicity in Contemporary American Literature (2007) and, in Croatian, Mračne žene. Prikazi ženstva u američkoj književnosti, 1820-1860 (Dark Ladies: Figures of Femininity in American Literature, 1820-1860 ), and has edited a collection of essays, Siting America/Sighting Modernity (2010). Email:
It is my thesis that the place of the global South in the US imaginary is poignantly examined in recent literary and visual/movie production coming from the Pacific Rim, the West Coast and the so-called borderlands, and that, moreover, it contributes both to the undercutting of American exceptionalism and to the constitution of a new political order. This focus is not surprising since it is precisely these areas in the USA that most conspicuously experience the changing socio-economic landscape caused by globalization. Globalization in its manifold aspects is a force that spares neither the North nor the South, although, needless to say, it only serves to deepen the already extant social, status, and economic differences now being played out in new, more expansive environments. What has been done to the region in question is appropriately summed up by Rachel Adams:
The decades following World War II saw a period of rapid development spurred by the buildup of U.S. military bases, a booming tourist industry, and the arrival of the maquiladoras in the 1960s. The implementation of NAFTA in 1994 turned the region into a primary artery in the global economy, of vital concern to national and international relations. (250)
As a result of the recent fictional and visual reckonings, which I propose to look into within the scope of this text, several preliminary observations arise. Even as globalization deepens the divisions, be they economic, cultural, or national, it is also the case that with each new contact—fictional, virtual, or real—occurring on the borderline between the North and the South, a new socio-cultural experience appears that requires an adjustment of analytical terms. So it is not uniformly the case that the North covers for an immutable set of categories subtended by the tremendous power of the US nation-state, nor is the South always inevitably on the receiving end. If only in terms of the fictional or virtual parameters as set down in my exemplary texts analyzed here, a new model of interaction might be discerned, one which supplements the given geo-politics of globalization.
It is with these ambitions in mind that contemporary US fiction from and on the West, here represented by T.C. Boyle’s bleak epic The Tortilla Curtain (1995) and Karen Tei Yamashita’s serio-comic and experimental Tropic of Orange (1997), grapples with the issues that remain controversial both in economic and political, as well as cultural terms. My third example is a film, Sleep Dealer (2008), an instance of so-called “transborder art,” a US-Mexican co-production directed by Alex Rivera, an independent artist. These artists simultaneously contest and seriously qualify the earlier models of the borderlands, while also challenging a more optimistic vision of the New West (Anzaldúa; Campbell). In fact, we should acknowledge the change of paradigm taking place as these works assume a different kind of directionality for the national imaginary, no longer from East to West, but from North to South, or, rather, vice versa (Arteaga).
What is played out in these recent representations, I would like to argue, is a striking transition in the vocabulary and the attendant imagery of, on the one hand, the USA as a country of immigrants and for the most part of its history welcoming of immigrants, and, on the other hand, what some more recent studies contend, a country which has been forgetful and amnesiac about its exclusionary and restrictive immigration practices. In other words, the contest over immigration as an essential part of globalizing processes becomes a test-case for US democracy and its current self-definition. The images circulating in US visual and literary texts, at least those considered here, will not be very flattering in that respect (Behdad 15). From the notion of the “nation of immigrants,” which in the end was reduced to the idea mostly of white ethnics with the capacity to blend in and turn American, we have come to appreciate historical stakes in immigration policies as a determinant of inclusion and exclusion, within and without the state borders. It is in particular Asian American studies that have revealed the limits of immigration legislation as systematically leveled on that community, while today the focus tends to shift towards immigration from the southern neighbours of the US. This conjunction, however, has much deeper roots, since we are reminded that as Asian immigration had been severely curtailed towards the end of the 19th century, the need arose to import Mexican workforce (Lloyd and Pulido 801).
What I suggest happening in the texts analyzed here is a change in certain favored ways in which the American nation fantasizes about its relationship with the nation-state, where such an underlying fantasy, or, rather, the tangle of fantasies, is seen to sustain the idea of American exceptionalism (Pease 14). With the rise of immigration from the global South, and especially so in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement (all three of the texts are heirs to post-NAFTA socioscapes), the fantasy of sustainable immigration begins to give way to the notion of immigration as a variant of contemporary biopolitics, in its starkest sense. Getting into the country and staying there literally becomes the question of survival, as shown by T.C. Boyle. These several takes on immigration in fact serve to undercut the exceptionalist view of the USA. Let me briefly illustrate what Donald Pease has in mind when he evokes the citizens’ fantasy of the nation state explicitly as their fantasmatic investment is transferred onto the notion of the limits and powers of the nation-state. Given the time-frame of my examination, the starting point of globalizing processes in the early 1990s, it is with George Bush, Sr., and his articulation of the “New World Order” (“President Bush’s Speech to Congress”) in a 1991 address, that a new national fantasy is launched carrying global implications under US signature. This fantasy holds sway at least until 2001, when due to the well-rehearsed developments G. W. Bush refocuses the nation’s attention to another kind of ideological goal set down in his pattern of “the Global War on Terror” (Pease 181-82).
In order to address some of the contradictions and complexities such a shift portends to the national self-image, it is first necessary to outline some of the provisions of the globalizing matrix instituted by NAFTA that was enthusiastically hailed by many, including the then President Bill Clinton, as a magic key opening the markets and alleviating poverty, creating mobility and opening states’ borders (for trade, goods and capital if not exactly for people), when it was signed in 1994. Did NAFTA or, in other words globalization, deliver? (I hasten to add that at this point my question is merely rhetorical, if we remember that as a result of the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, Mexico went bankrupt a few months later. Cf. “North American Free Trade Agreement”)
The answer clearly depends on what and whose status we are attempting to assess. The worlds the two novels evoke is the already globalized West and Southwest with the pockets of the Third World appropriately situated, in Yamashita’s case, in the ghettoized enclaves of the City of Quartz (Los Angeles), and in Boyle’s case, placed in the wilderness of a Californian semi-desert encroached upon by suburban sprawl. The protagonists of the new developments are a sub-class made such by the new global economic order in which they figure only as, what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri term in a similar context, the multitude (62). In other words, the global order, building up on the order of the nation-state, construes some people as permanent underclass, as outcasts and disposables. Rivera’s film, set in Mexico, continues to elaborate on the idea of the global underclass.
Boyle’s novel, The Tortilla Curtain, is an account of several months in the lives of two illegal aliens, Cándido and América from Mexico, barely subsisting on meager, irregular wage and scraping a life in the semi-wilderness in the backyard of a luxury development in the greater LA area. In the course of their ordeals they, by a central plot contrivance, cross paths with a WASP family residing on the estate which, in addition to many other types comprising the present-day Californian society, makes for a complex if maddeningly ambivalent account of the present “immigration shock,” as the term is used by Paul Lauter(2).
Yamashita, of Japanese-American background and carrying a strong Latin American (Brazilian) cultural strain, offers to juxtapose in her novel, Tropic of Orange, the space of Los Angeles with the space of Mexico. However, she does it by means of a magic realist procedure as she makes the geographic boundaries waver by making them travel northwards as the Tropic of Cancer turns into the tropic of orange and is by means of invisible threads dragged by different northward-bound characters pursuing their immigrant routes. This central conceit underwrites other types of movements and trajectories that each of her major characters undertakes as they in turn represent different systems/series (from entertainment to finance, etc.) and pertain to different parts of day. The magic, fantastic frame that Yamashita favors is thus extended also to the temporal dimension of her work as both space and time are looped and warped in order to account for a new moment of globalization.
A somewhat similar, generically hybrid but clearly transformative move, was proposed in the late 1980s by Gloria Anzaldúa in her idea of the borderlands that carried clear positive overtones and communicated the sense of meaningful agency unfettered by borders in the Southwest and beyond.In such a way, Gloria Anzaldúa has made significant contribution in welding a postcolonial approach with American studies from a Chicana perspective as a native and domestic minority finding itself, not infrequently, in almost neo-colonial conditions. In the novels, this layer is tentatively sustained, as it is made clear that each new generation of “natives” and “arrivals” in the borderlands construes their own historical reality and modes of accommodating or refusing to accommodate others, those who come next.
For Rivera, in his film Sleep Dealer, the condition of Chicanismo is displaced as the plot is transferred to Mexico, and only sporadically crosses over to the United States. For his characters, however, the border is internalized, as we shall see. A great part of his film’s bleakness is, as is the case with the novels, due to post-NAFTA circumstances. The borderlands are increasingly crisscrossed by lines that mark the inequalities and imbalances in the exchange and circulation of the resources, goods, people and workers.
As I have suggested above, another disquieting shift has occurred within the globalizing perspective, as from a sense of (postcolonial, minority, ethnic) agency we move towards new categories bespeaking rather the loss or serious curtailment of agency. This is in particular present as we consider how the categories of multitude and even the non-white population within the nation’s borders might stand in for more standard terms in social and political theory. As elaborated in a compendious study by Hardt and Negri, a new form of global and globalizing sovereignty has arisen, which they term somewhat mystifyingly “empire,” while refusing to identify it single-handedly with the USA (384). Just as on one end this new form of political life requires a new governing elite, appropriately deterritorialized but omnipresent, so on the other end it interpolates a new political entity, multitude—itself deterritorialized, makeshift, provisional and incessantly on the move (Hardt and Negri 43). As further elaborated by Paolo Virno, the nation has been turned into multitude in the context of post-Fordist and post-industrial reorganizations (56). As such, it no longer owes any allegiance to the nation-state, nor is it then recognized by that entity. If we assume this to be generally the case, that the present moment, among other things, portends a decomposition of the nation-state, this would also suggest that in a roundabout way the biopolitical role/prerogative and power of the state must be delegated to other agencies, assuming, as we do, that it is not lost. We base that assumption, to say the least, on the evidence provided in the texts considered for analysis here, as we follow manifold instances in which a biopolitical prerogative is taken up by some local, sub-national entity (as in Boyle’s novel) or is menacingly transferred to some invisible, higher spheres of influence (as made clear in Rivera’s film and Yamashita’s novel).
Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain in its neo-realist guise situates itself at the juncture where the abovementioned transfer has been occurring. At one of the key points in the novel, the affluent residents of Arroyo Blanco suburban estates debate whether to reinforce their increasingly jeopardized sense of freedom by erecting a fence around the development. (It is difficult not to read into this the larger debate over the reinforcement and militarization of the US-Mexican border effected by similar means.) One of the protagonists, Delaney, a conservationist, naturalist, and trekker, reminding us of a latter-day Thoreau, strongly opposes the idea not the least on the grounds of liberalism, and the previously effectively deployed narrative of the nation of immigrants. I deliberately want to sequence his argument in at least two intersecting but also diverging forks. The one is, as I have suggested, a liberal, thus universalist appeal to the notion of human rights, among these the right to mobility, opportunities, and self-betterment that immigrants deserve and possess by default. The other segment of his liberal perspective, however, relies on the waning appeal of the nation-state as such formation that is willing to accommodate the mobile, in-coming motley population in the present moment of “immigration shock.” Thus is the idea of liberal political structure made contingent on the performance and the capacity of the state as stabilizer and guarantor of human rights for all those residing within its borders.
However, the fact that the local Californian community in the novel wants to assert its prerogatives over and above those of the nation-state precisely by reinforcing its own, local fence as a boundary suggests that the liberal idea of unlimited exercise of rights and ultimate inclusion has lost its efficacy or appeal, at least for Delaney’s neighbors, who implement their own civic intervention. One of the self-proclaimed liberal co-residents suggests that they need to regain their national sovereignty (suggesting, as has also been argued in Arizona these days, that it has been lost) by redrawing the border, and by keeping the illegal, uneducated, manual workforce out. Even as Delaney’s neighbor articulates these concerns, we already see the change of focus from a statist to a post-statist form of biopolitics exerted through immigration policies. The same cache of arguments has been used in intense debates on the recent stringent anti-immigration law in Arizona. While detractors of immigration made the law implement draconian, extremely retrograde immigration provisions (Bunch 163), they at the same time effectively defied the federal government (the nation-state), denying its role in questions of immigration. Paradoxically, while the borders are in need of ever-increasing protection and vigilance, the sovereignty that extends to them is no longer the purview of the nation-state and thus represents some new type of control. The crumbling of the notion of sovereignty buttressed by the idea of tightly controlled national borders is one of Rivera’s central concerns in the film. In Boyle’s novel, such a shift in the exercise of control is dramatized by the idea of “the tortilla curtain,” a porous, leaky southern border where one of the world’s greatest military powers fails to exercise its full control (101-2; all subsequent references are to this edition and will be provided parenthetically).
According to the students of new political structures such as multitude, the one prerogative that it flaunts is that of mobility. The notion of the mobility of populations across borders, especially arrivals from the South, figures as one key issue in all the debates on globalization. The novels and the film are working with and prefiguring a more constrained and restrictive mobility policy, even while dispersed to different agencies. In that sense the novels concern themselves with the Third World underclass—as suggested above, those not likely to be recognized by the nation-state—that conjoins the social issues with the questions of citizenship and nationality. In a sense they qualify the idea popularized by transnational American studies arising in part from the conceptualization of the borderlands, meaning that somehow in post-Communist and end-of-history capitalist-minded world, the notion of the nation-state as one of key agents will have become obsolete. On the contrary, we see it retaining its prerogatives now being flanked by other sub- or supra-national, globalized structures. But then, nowadays in many respects we live in a world different from the heady 1990s.
Rivera’s sci-fi drama, Sleep Dealer, on the other hand, ironically and satirically offers a vision of the post-industrial, mechanized and automated United States, whose sweatshops or maquiladoras are safely displaced to Mexico, or wherever else in the South technology enables it. In that sense, all-powerful technology makes it possible to avoid even the gritty issue of immigration for the minimum-waged and low-skilled jobs that are nowadays mostly filled by the immigrants from the global South. Technology allows the US to keep the people out, even as it extracts and exploits their labor just as it used to do under the old dispensation.
That these are not just idle questions is shown by recurring debates over immigration, which nowadays is relegated to Homeland Security, and covered, in part, by the post-9/11 USA PATRIOT Act. As we speak, the construction of the fence alongside the US-Mexican border is being completed. A few months earlier, Arizona enacted a highly controversial law that by many is seen as a direct attack on people’s constitutional rights (“Arizona Senate Bill 1070”). But then, as muses Boyle’s protagonist, Delaney, if those targeted by the provisions are not citizens, where does that leave them in terms of legal protection: “even illegals had rights under the Constitution, and what if they were legal, citizens of the U.S.A, what then?” (185). This is just the California Proposition 187 (1994) taken one step further. In the context of the intersecting and conflicting prerogatives that various political bodies assume over immigration, Californian measure intended, as is the case with Arizona, to reinforce the nation-state’s mandate. However, it was not appreciated by the federal authorities since it was eventually challenged and struck down in court; the Arizona law faces similar challenges. Easily, the questions of immigration begin to impinge on some key constitutional and legal, and I would add, ethical and ideological issues in the country. In the din of the debate, the idea of Chicanismo, Aztlán, and the borderlands, articulated by the Chicano Movement, Anzaldúa, and a steady stream of Chicano scholars and activists since the late 1960s is beginning to fade. Their arguments of legitimacy and anti-imperialism, of the previous Hispanic and Chicano cultural and political layer contained in the Southwest, are losing ground to an increasingly vigilante and militant mentality in some border states. Arizona figures as a sorry champion even in this respect, as it has recently added another controversial law on its books which bans the teaching of “chauvinist” and divisive ethnic studies; cf. Saldívar 826. What the old school fails to understand is that in order to claim a new form of sovereignty, it is no longer necessary for the nation-state to exercise control over its borders, so much as to get hold over “global networks,” including the circulation of people (Pease 181).
Without going further into more disturbing and far-ranging implications of some of the recent legislative initiatives, suffice it to say that it brings uncomfortably close the two adversaries to which the embattled nation-state needs to respond, the terrorist and the immigrant. It might not be too far-fetched to suggest, given the already observed range of competencies given to, for one, the INS under the new law (USA PATRIOT Act), that for the contemporary USA, the terrorist or more specifically, the enemy combatant languishes in the same kind of legal and constitutional limbo as is the case with the maddeningly blurred and confusing categories of immigrants, from legal to illegal aliens, from those amenable to amnesty to those fit only to be deported (Behdad 147; Hernández 80; Fusté 811).
As for the globalizing visions of the two novels, it is very important that Boyle prefaces his story of the dissolution of the American dream for the latest wave of immigrants by a sentence from John Steinbeck’s exemplary Great Depression text, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). For Boyle’s protagonists, the hapless, abysmally poor and excruciatingly maltreated illegals, ironically named Cándido (earnest) and América Rincón, the conditions they escape from are a continuing great depression that is never lifted. As they try to negotiate their new position in the United States, none of the old categories apply. There is no generational dynamics as implied for other, usually white or ethnic immigrant groups; the questions of accommodation, not to mention assimilation or acculturation, are a distant memory; the issues of upward mobility or raising up by one’s own bootstraps are outright mockery in the face of adversities the couple encounters. What their American experience amounts to, rather, is almost a Darwinian morality tale (or twenty-first century biopolitical narrative) as they literally fight for survival stripped to the level of brutes. Nor do they figure as human for their US counterparts. They could just as well be either the invisible but inescapable labor force doing work that nobody else wants to do: “they were everywhere, these men, ubiquitous, silently going about their own business” (12) or, even worse, less worthy than animals that invade the Californians’ gated and artificial habitats. So when the white Californian, self-identified “liberal-humanist” Delaney inadvertently hits an undocumented Mexican, who later turns out to be Cándido, he reports the accident to his car-dealer as hitting a dog or a coyote (13). And another parallel between coyotes and illegal immigrants—both groups participate in the local ecological chain by subsisting on garbage (18). Just as the Americans find themselves being swallowed by wilderness and by nature that will not be contained, so do the Mexicans encroach upon the US resources, as the Darwinian perspective would have it (318). By implication, as nature in the end reasserts itself, so will the more resilient species win in the war for resources and space. Not to mention that coyote is also a term describing drug traffickers in border areas.
The only surprising thing, or precisely an indication of a new system arising, is the fact that the battle of the worlds shifts to what is supposed to be a new hyper-real Californian haven, “a private community” of Arroyo Blanco Estates (30), immersed in a “scenic splendor” away from the city (39). It is no longer possible to draw the lines that would effectively segregate what conveniently was kept apart, either in social or in biological terms. Possibly the entire California becomes the tortilla curtain ridden with holes used by the Third World to make its way to the north as a matter of survival played out as biopolitics of globalization. As Kyra, Delaney’s wife and real-estate agent, reminisces on “the Yucatan ruins” from her erstwhile trip to Mexico, they rise as an eerie backdrop to the Californian real-estate boom coming to figure as frontlines in the on-going war (163). Pursuing the metaphor of war, the “siege” (146), and the battle of the species (193), we also follow how Delaney’s hiking grounds, his privileged getaway from the city into nature, turns into a war-turf, as in the final scenes in the novel he turns form the “Pilgrim in Topanga Creek” (his pen-name) into a hunter and a killer on a mission to root out the enemy, succumbing to his own naturalist’s perspective of the contest and competition over grounds and food (347). As he becomes progressively de-humanized and as his liberal-humanist views turn into a pasteboard mask, so América and Cándido in turn take on more prerogatives of critical and feeling agents, who are in the end capable of extending a salvational, singularly human gesture to their white pursuer (355).
The tortilla curtain has become an inverted, and, therefore, negative, mirror-image of the borderlands signaling the total breakdown of social order, and transferring social disarray into the state of nature. Men and women exchange places with animals: “those idiots leaving food out for the coyotes as if they were nothing more than sheep with bushy tails and eyeteeth. . . . Coyotes, gophers, yellow jackets, rattlesnakes even—they were a pain in the ass . . . but nature was the least of their problems. It was humans they were worried about” (39). Furthermore, when the issues of gates, fences and, finally, walls rift the self-contained community, the rationale that finally brings them together is a re-grouping required by the conflict, their “exclusive private community in the hills, composed entirely of Spanish Mission-style homes with orange tile roofs, where the children grew into bigots, the incomes swelled and the property values rose disproportionately” (225).
Boyle presents the story by intertwining chapters following the WASP family of Delaney Mossbacher and juxtaposing it with the plot detailing the vicissitudes of their unlikely and unseen neighbors, the Rincóns. While the Mossbachers and other Arroyo Blanco residents, of course, conveniently disavow both the implications contained in Spanish names of the localities they now claim as their residence, as well as high ecological costs of the suburban sprawl, the Rincóns’ gritty narrative revolves around more prosaic questions—how to find a job, what to eat day in and day out, whether to risk drinking the polluted water, and how to defend themselves from predators in their open-air camp in the canyon next to the Estate. This side of the border, they are literally reduced to what biopolitical theory calls “bare life” (Hardt and Negri 23-24).
Structurally, the immigrants as “bare life,” liminally human and non-citizens, are in a position which in their analysis Lloyd and Pulido apply to the situation of the colonized within the colonizing settler states, among them historically the United States. They rightly contend that both ideologically and economically, the colonized (and I would like to extend it to the immigrant) is indispensable for the nation-state (Lloyd and Pulido 801). Ideologically, since s/he marks precisely the boundary line between belonging and exclusion, inside and outside. Economically, since s/he serves as the system’s silent wheel that is interchangeable, leading up to “the ultimate surplus labor force” (Lloyd and Pulido 802). These insights come to some of Boyle’s characters in their moments of honesty, but are inevitably covered over by the logic of biopolitical necessity. The problem is not simply that they—alternatively termed “transients. . . . Bums. The homeless and displaced. Crazies. Mexicans. Winos” (163)—are there (when the economy is booming), or necessarily that they are illegal (that, in fact, works in favor of their employability); the problem begins when they become too many, or when their “bare life” impinges on social structures in a way that defies control, surveillance, or easy disposability: it is when they claim spaces in a more confident or even impudent manner, it is when they become inconveniently visible (congregating in some public places, demanding access to others), or, as Delaney rancorously notes, when they desecrate the landscape (112). He, of course, needs to forget that previously that same landscape has been turned into a garbage dump or a fenced-in fake park by the generations of gabachos (276). The inevitable and bleak conclusion coming from Boyle’s complex consideration of the stand-off between the North and the South is that the recognition of “bare life” is not enough, unless it be accompanied by a readiness to provide for, what Lloyd and Pulido term, “the costs of social reproduction associated with workers and their families” (802). However, this entails, to begin with, a huge shift in perception and terminology.
The ideas of destabilization of the received categories in the nation’s self-serving image are also considered and applied by Yamashita in her Tropic of Orange. She makes ample use in her transnational palimpsest of magic (or marvelous) realism, introducing the politicized version of the fantastic into the order of the nation-state, created by the shifting but inexorable border. What Boyle illustrates by a fictional version of a new biopolitics of uncontainable immigration from the South to what used to be, but no longer is, one of the most robust economies—that of California, Yamashita approaches from different angles, so that the novel, according to Molly Wallace, “interrogates the cultural, economic, and political borders of the territorial nation-state” (148). The state border is both recognized as a geo-political reality and, simultaneously, lampooned as a contingent creation besieged on all sides, weighed down by manifold implications: “the line—a slender endless serpent of a line—one peering into a private world of dreams and metaphysics, the other into a public place of politics and power” (Yamashita 256; all subsequent references are to this edition and will be provided parenthetically).
Furthermore, Molly Wallace conveniently sums up the text’s agenda as providing “a political intervention in the discourses on globalization produced in the United States” (146), or, as elaborated by Sue-Im Lee, the novel’s critical eye is leveled at “the view that globalization results in the economic, political, and cultural intimacy and shared fate of a primordialist village” (503). The Tropic of Cancer, naming a climatic, thus natural boundary marking the limit of the Sun’s annual course, is here considered as a geo-political entity, a dividing line between the developed North and the underdeveloped South. In the novel the Tropic becomes embodied in an orange, spiked with drugs as it turns out, taken from California to Mexico and then back again to Los Angeles. However, as it moves northwards, so do the people, goods, and places tied to it creating a havoc but also disturbing the settled socio-economic equation.
The interesting transposition in the novel occurs, just as was the case with Boyle’s novel albeit in a different stylistic register, as the tropic settles in Los Angeles, nowadays one of the exemplary “cosmopolitan cities” (Yamashita and Imafuku 3). As “the World City” or “the quintessential postmodern city” (Soja 151), LA becomes a space where the contradictions of a globalized world and its economy come to the fore. The ungovernable, polycentric and sprawling space of the city displaces the idea and the managing capacities of the nation-state, while it also shows emergence of an alternative, no less overbearing social order. Such an order, as suggested by the alignment of novel’s chapters and the arrangement of their key themes, co-opts for its ends everything stretching from the sphere of biopolitics to different geo-political localities to the virtual sphere. In other words, even though there is incessant motion and traffic going on across many different lines, we should not lose sight of the historical and socio-political determinants of these exchanges. Even the symbolic orange from the title is Yamashita’s take on the regulation of trade entailed in NAFTA and targeting agricultural produce (i.e., oranges) in a particularly dramatic way.
According to Edward Soja, LA is somewhat anomalous as a city, in that it is polycentric, while the Central City still emanates the political and administrative power. LA constantly defies description of an orderly urban entity although some facts remain: “an economic order, a nodal structure, an essentially exploitative spatial division of labor” (160). Also, the novel makes clear, especially by specific trajectories of some of its protagonists, how the city is implicated in larger structures, from the Southwest, to global migration flows by way of Asia and South America, making it part of an overarching network of the Pacific Rim. (Rafaela Cortes starts out from Mexico and ends up in LA but then returns; Bobby Ngu gets to LA by way of southern illegal immigration roots, via Singapore and Tijuana; Gabriel Balboa retraces his Chicano roots in Mexico, while the marvelous orange moves across the border, etc.) This might seem like a “romance of transnational mobility” (Gier and Tejeda 9) and a far cry from its biopolitical underbelly in Boyle’s text, until we are reminded by Yamashita that the Pacific Rim economy is fully plugged into globalization (Gier and Tejeda 10). Furthermore, Wallace correctly highlights Yamashita’s interest in NAFTA: “whether it is understood as a purely regional agreement, or as a prelude to a global free trade zone, NAFTA cannot be conceived outside of the larger questions of the globalization of capitalism and of culture” (146).
The city’s spatial grid is, in fact, underwritten precisely by the intersecting demands of different power centers, which regiment the space into ethnic ghettoes (Koreatown, Chinatown, South Central LA), economic units (from garment district to entertainment industry), different residential areas (from East LA, the second greatest barrio after Mexico City, to up-scale western LA), and homeless turfs. This entrenched logic of the city’s hardware can be scrambled only if and when the characters continuously break the boundaries of different zones, or if the narrative creates, as it attempts to do a synchronicity encompassing the separate areas, the city and the spaces beyond. The controlling grid is displaced not only by the characters’ incessant and wayward mobility, but also by the system of freeways imposed on and encircling the city. In the vision of one of the least rooted of the characters, Manzanar, a homeless, deranged conductor, freeways come to figure as spaces of, even if only momentary, freedom and connectivity: “The freeway was a great root system, an organic living entity” (37). Appropriately, Buzzworm, another wandering character, standing in for the inner city’s communities, sets up the homeless “TV in the Free Zone” on a stretch of a freeway (193), at least until removed by the police.
Even different media and technologies compound the image of the city as an oppressive structure. One of the hypertexts, as separate sections are called by Yamashita, belongs to Emi, a Japanese-American media-obsessed TV producer, while it carries this strain. Her vision of reality is, inevitably, highly mediated, and in the end self-serving. The 24/7 coverage enabled by the media-owned choppers flying over the city and churning out endless footage of events, as the saying goes, “in real time,” easily displaces the reality behind the image. Not only that, but Emi allows for previous media conventions (especially the much-evoked noir fiction and film as one of the pre-eminent LA genres; cf. Gier and Tejeda 3) to predetermine and influence her perception and understanding of the present moment and of her own place in it. Just as she is bound to the media construction of the city’s reality, so is her boyfriend, Gabriel Balboa, a Chicano investigative journalist from East LA, held captive to the World Wide Web. His investigation of the criminal and outrageous violations occurring at the border gradually gives way to a virtual reality that he accesses through the Internet (250). Finally, it is precisely by techniques of non-stop surveillance mounted by the police choppers (“dark angels sweeping their giant flashlights across the unpredictable terrain” ) that the space of the city is held together as a version of big-brother society.
Just as specific spatial arrangements work so as to further more disturbing facets of globalization, there are some temporal considerations to be made in this respect. For Yamashita, as she lays out the logic of her book in the contents, spaces and movements are couched in specific long- and short-term time-frames. These frames, as we learn, encompass different temporalities, from the long stretches of history to a single moment in the character’s life; from materially grounded historical referents to an endless, cyclical sequence; from natural to man-made time. If we turn our attention to freeways in this particular context, we see that even as they facilitate movement and engirdle the city, they at the same time tend to elide the materiality and historicity of city spaces, as Bobby learns on his imposed walking tours as he traverses the immensity of Greater LA (“barrio surfing” ). Buzzworm, the character who stands in and for the black ‘hood, rehearses for the reader the pregnant history of the locality as a continuing contest over the city space intersecting with the issues of economy, power and segregation (82-83). The inexorable mapping of the city space continues afoot, as Buzzworm is trying to hold back the most recent zoning scheme meaning yet another land appropriation (81). Still, Manzanar’s encompassing vision looks at freeways as the latest imprint of a historical grid and infrastructure of labor, contingent on native, then Spanish, and, finally, US-American water resources, trade routes, traffic arteries, railroads, and well-trodden migrant trails (238-39).
The novel captures several, what Yamashita terms “hypercontexts” as portentous intersections of subjectivity and natural and social cycles, such as diurnal cycle, finance, media, radio, the LA freeway system, work and life cycle, and so on, each pertaining to one of the seven protagonists. However, I would like to focus for the moment on a hypercontext that dwells on the North-South problematics in allegorical terms, linked to Arcangel. He is a character of unknown age (Raphaela sees an endless life line on his palm ), a performer, actor and, ultimately, the prophet of doomsday (49), who incorporates in his acts and prophecies the history of the entire continent. As he moves up north, the stage is set for possibly the final, conclusive clash between Arcangel as the Great Wetback and his northern antagonist, Supernafta. The wrestling duel is resolved, not surprisingly, by Supernafta overpowering and killing the Wetback by his trick weapon, thus cheating in a fight.
The duel once again draws a spotlight to NAFTA as shorthand for globalization that works its effect primarily on human bodies, especially as it regulates their incentives for mobility and transition. Arcangel is not incidentally a wetback, a stereotypical Mexican (and Southern) immigrant, and a place-holder for the history of the Bronze continent, as labeled by the Chicano Movement. His movements rehearse the last 500 years of America’s history, as it appeared on the map of Western-style globalization. Nothing short of miraculous and mythic is required if the characters are to stand up to the North. Both in Arcangel’s folk, popular, and prophetic streak, as well as in Rafaela’s trickster transformations we see Yamashita’s expanded vision that even though initially assessing the limits of biopolitical condition for her characters, breaks away from it.
Arcangel’s vision and his heroic, even if doomed, stand against Supernafta and all that it implies, taking place within a continental, hemispheric scope, compares to the reach of Rafaela’s magic powers as a curandera, a witch, healer, and a mythic trickster. Her story line starts out as a worst case scenario of border trade as she stumbles upon the smugglers trafficking in human organs (152). This narrative strain eventually expands as Rafaela, just like Arcangel, assumes magic and fantastic prerogatives as an allegorical representation of the entire continent concentrated in a moment of its joint march northwards, its history moving hand in hand with “its relentless geography” (198). However, before this miraculous intervention can occur, she has to find herself reduced to “bare life” as she is kidnapped by the smugglers. At the moment of her rape, taking place in Aztlán, the transformation from a woman to a mighty serpent happens that collapses time layers fixing them in a single moment of catalytic vision as, again, the history of the continent is played out, “the apocalyptic fulfillment of a prophecy” (222). Just like with Arcangel and his repeated visionary interventions, not even Rafaela’s newfound potency could possibly counteract the accumulated weight of history recreating the line in its manifold manifestations, from “a magical world” to “a virtual one” (256). In all versions, Rafaela is defeated.
Despite such bleakness, it is also the case that diverse hypercontexts and magic-realist plot devices effectively communicate the end of the US nation-state as a single meaningful or pertinent frame of reference. Yamashita offers more of a globalized, hemispheric, trans-national but also stringently local, communal perspective. By such focal points her text remains committed to specific spatio-temporal bounds, even as it continuously invites us to consider new social interactions filling them out. While, as pointed out above, some characters succumb to the inexorable logic of history, myth or economy, there are local ways to evade multiple controlling grids. Hobo communities, city gangs, homeboys, local residents, immigrants streaming in and organizing their neighborhoods as beehives of activity, ad-hoc meeting points on freeways, arteries of labor, and temporary “free zones,” taken together might create a new structure, as envisioned by Manzanar: “a new kind of grid, this one not defined by inanimate structures or other living things but by himself and others like him. He found himself at the heart of an expanding symphony of which he was not the only conductor” (239).
As has been suggested, Boyle’s vision is more dependent on real and historical referents, which comes to the fore also in his oblique representation of LA. While for Yamashita there is something captivating in “the babel of Los Angeles” (Yamashita and Imafuku 10), Boyle is more intent on registering the white anxiety and flight from the teeming, dangerous and volatile city in the wake of the 1992 riots that shook the city and the country: “They all wanted something out of the way, something rustic, rural, safe—something removed from people of whatever class, and color, but particularly from the hordes of immigrants pouring in. . .” (107). Again, a strain of political arguments is interlaced with a thread of biopolitical logic here cast as an issue of space and overpopulation. The moving tropic is just a more fantastic way of casting the real-life effects of the tortilla curtain. Boyle’s LA is already lost to the numberless masses, precisely the multitude on its way to claiming the city.
It is as if, after Boyle has depicted why and how at some point the state has gone defunct and how some incipient forces try to capitalize on that, Yamashita intended to show how that diagnosis may entail some vibrant alternatives. Her text locates the moments of production of new citizens, of as yet inchoate and volatile socio-political structures, that are in the process of articulating their position just as they search for new social ties together with other similarly drifting subjects-in-becoming. It is not necessarily that such a position is imbued with some kind of ontological or epistemological superiority but that it marks new possibilities of sociability. This provisional nature of her characters and their identities on the road, in the process of becoming, is reminiscent of a new constitutive moment of immigrants turning into citizens during the 2006 May Day protests against tighter anti-immigration laws that swept across the country from New York City to LA. Who were the protesters, or, in the words of Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler, who evoked those moments, who gets to sing the nation-state? And, more to the point, is the US national anthem the same when it is sung in Spanish (Butler and Spivak 58-59)?
The protesters, we could argue, in the process of demonstrating and protesting, in the moment of singing, chanting and shouting their disapproval of their exclusion or partial inclusion, were making themselves into citizens and subjects within the available political structure. They were for the moment the group who spoke for the nation-state even if the latter was shunning them (Butler and Spivak 60). Such sets of contingencies are constitutive of Yamashita’s multiple codes that are employed in the novel. For Boyle, as suggested above, the notion of biopolitical power that migrates from the state to other non-state agencies is overwhelming, and is cast as an allegorical battle of species.
Finally, let me turn to an example of borderlands, transnational art—the independent movie production Sleep Dealer by the US-Mexican artist Alex Rivera. The film opened at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival (Ramos). This very recent production also testifies to a transnationalized space of cultural production and circulation, while still pointing to high stakes that an artist has to consider in such a context. I would argue that, once again, the transnational and transculturated is for Rivera, just like for Yamashita, refracted through the inescapable lens of post-NAFTA provisions, repeatedly asking what it looks like when seen from the other side of the border (which thus becomes “our” side at least for the moment). This perspective awry is also reinforced by the fact that film is almost entirely in Spanish, with English subtitles.
Before proceeding with the reading of the film, once again I have to register how the concern over immigration, and a discourse on immigration, forms the backdrop of the film. Furthermore, Rivera’s comments and advertising materials in connection with the film make clear his concern over a certain take on current immigration, and his intent to contribute, with his science-fiction and “third world cyberpunk” (Lim 2), to the ongoing debate. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it turns out that as a director Rivera seems intent on retelling a twenty-first century, sci-fi version of the “nation of immigrants” theme: “For all its newfangled trappings Sleep Dealer reasserts a narrative as old as this country” (Lim 3). Without detracting from the message and the edge of Rivera’s work, it is still noteworthy that his concept does not so much dispense with as try to expand the inclusionary paradigm, as pointed out by Rivera himself: “I believe the American story is that this is a nation of immigrants. . . . That’s more powerful than the story that people who come here are threats” (Lim3). I am simply interested to note the retentive power of American ideology, even when the challenge comes from the fringes: cultural, generic, and geographical as is the case with this film.
The title itself plays upon technologically upgraded version of a maquiladora, this time as a sleep dealer, a factory where workers come in equipped by nodes strategically implanted on the inside arm and just below the nape of the neck, by which they plug in to perform all kinds of physical work in the States without having to move across the border. The film is told as a flashback by Memo Cruz, one of the electronic braceros (cybraceros) who cross over in digitalized, high-tech factories. The implantation of nodes is a lucrative business operated by latter-day coyotechs who perform the operation on the black market. Conveniently, there is no more the physical crossing of the border. Behind this displacement and digitalized exploitation of labor is a previous appropriation of natural resources by a US-based international corporation that usurps the water resources and privatizes the water rights of Mexican peasants. This appropriation turns them into landless poor who come to towns, such as Tijuana, touted as the City of the Future and teeming with underemployed people coextensive with the notion of multitude. The key idea dramatized in the film, that of the displaced, outsourced labor, however, points to yet another irresolvable issue of a new biopolitics of labor—its exploitation can take place endlessly and inexhaustibly, fuelled by permanently available bodies. It shows just how specific bounded sovereignty has given way to an imperial dispensation, without any one centre or delimited territory. Its province is not just the body but even the mind and consciousness itself. The colonization comprises also memories that can be digitalized and consequently handled as so many bytes, as well as the most intimate moments—so that when the characters make love, their emotions and sensations are flashed out as a series of screen images.
As another key issue in contemporary debates, terrorism is now threatening not in the United States, where the access of the global population is restricted or made obsolete through sleep dealers, but in the areas of the Third World where corporations hold sway—the state apparatus is now outsourced fighting aqua-terrorists, those who oppose the forceful and illegitimate privatization of resources. Technology has turned the military into an armchair video-games player or an equivalent of sleep dealer, as we follow the plotline of Rudy Ramirez, Memo’s counterpart, a US soldier who operates drones in long-distance military missions.
The NAFTA principle is here brought to perfection as global economic flows are sustained in endless flux through human neurons. Everything is virtual—from labor to sex, from alcohol abuse to memories, as it all flows through nodes or is uploaded, shared and exchanged on the memory market, TruNode. In the final appropriation of the human body, the population or multitude offers their bodies, their neuron networks and their DNA mapping as the ultimate, bottom-line natural resource which literally feeds the hungry circuits of exchange. Being provided by nodes, the human organism loses its self-sufficiency and becomes the extension of technology that requires for its sustenance more or less regular plugging into the system. Since the teeming third-world cities abound with disposable bodies, the steady supply of raw material is not in question. In this perfect counter-version of the American dream, everybody (or almost everybody) gets their way: the Americans, since the work gets done without the nuisance of foreign workers, as well as the workers, since they get paid in greenbacks and get to share in a commodified global virtual culture.
However, just like the Mexican land is drained and laid waste by diverting and damming up water, so is the human body wasting by the daily release of energy transported northward by nodes. Also, the state-of-the-art sleep dealers are in fact contingent on and sustained by the human masses living in squalor and poverty around them, and slowly wasting while selling their energy. The circuit of globalization, the final ideal by NAFTA, the limitless circulation of elements in a global economic loop, is in the film observed in Mexico, from its rural to its urban parts. We are thus reminded of high expenditures in human and natural resources so that some might retain their opulent life-style across the border. Instead of technology serving man, we have come to the turn in the road where humans exist in order to feed technology, which in turn buttresses the powers that be (from nation-state to international corporations and new elites). In other words, the multitude by way of technology is inscribed into a new biopolitical order. The biopolitics of the future, as testified to by TruNode, is so pervasive that it colonizes in advance even your dreams and your fantasies. Still, Rivera allows himself a flight of utopian fancy when he reverses the traffic across the border by making the soldier Ramirez cross into Mexico to find out about the victims of his drone attack, Memo’s father, in fact. Moreover, in the final twist in the film, the Mexicans refuse the automated and life-draining work regime in sleep dealers and set up alternative life-styles in Tijuana slums, at the town’s edges and on the land lots reclaimed for cultivation. The multitude in Rivera’s film fights back, not the least by blowing up a dam and reclaiming the water. In turn, Memo reasserts his claim on memories, of his own and of his family’s agricultural labor that he reactivates in the end.
The tortilla curtain of Boyle’s novel and the moving tropic of Yamashita’s fictional world are in the film replaced by two images of the contested border. One is the automated, nearly empty border crossing from the USA to Mexico, operated by robots and cameras indicating the technological sublime and its dystopian impact so strongly felt in the film. The other is the real-life (with an utterly surrealist effect) fence jutting into the sea at Tijuana, antiquated and rendered superfluous precisely by technological advances. However, this is only in science-fiction. In reality, the construction and reinforcement of the fence—turning into ever more impermeable structures— still goes on alongside the border, says Will Bunch in his overview of the immigration situation (148; Fusté 817; Lloyd and Pulido 795-96; Saldívar 823). The border dynamics seems to continue to require inequalities and these are perpetuated in ever more sophisticated and technologically advanced ways. But the stark reality of the border dividing the global North and the global South remains firmly in place even if seemingly made virtual. These transpositions of the border presented in contemporary American fiction and trans-American film suggest rather the entangled fate of the haves and have-nots that creates irresolvable and fateful conflicts of almost mythic proportions. The conflicts at the border will continue to reflect the contradictions of global distribution of population, resources and opportunities, while the border will, for a long time, remain a site where we observe the uneven impact of globalization. Still, the moment is ripe for one of Boyle’s concerned white middle-class characters to pronounce: “They were like the barbarians outside the gates of Rome, only they were already inside . . . , and where was it going to end?” (311). The question looms large for all the parties concerned.
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