Borderline Fracture

Band-Aids Don't Even Begin To Cover These Wounds.

I FIRST SAW the U.S.-Mexico border 21 years ago as a dumb college kid from the Midwest. Mexico when I was a boy was just a spot on the map in social studies class. It was the Frito Bandito, maracas, a cheap piñata some kid brought in for third grade show-and-tell, and Speedy Gonzalez--the "fastest mouse in all of Mexico" on Saturday-morning cartoons. In dull Hoosier classrooms we learned of LaSalle, Lewis and Clark, the Indy 500 and how Indiana was the "Crossroads of the Nation." We learned nothing of the rest of the world, of the border, the beauty and history of Sonora, the lilting music of the Spanish language, or what a steamy bowl of menudo tasted like.

Years later I came to Arizona and I grew up. Falling hard for the romance and frenzy of the border country, I ate tacos de carne asada, drank horchata, learned Spanish, photographed bullfights and Nogales street life, and dated a dark-eyed beauty from the other side named Leticia.

I spent a large part of my life getting to know this place. Two decades and three or four hundred border crossings later, change has come to my border world in a big way. By most accounts this has not been an improvement.

Miriam Davidson documents this change in a brave and powerfully honest new book called Lives on the Line: Dispatches from the U.S-Mexico Border. I skeptically expected that it would be yet another insipid, sterilized, passionless border book, but this one really is different. Davidson tells the truth about what happened to Nogales, and there is no candy-coating anywhere. She is a professional and has obviously done her time out there in bringing back the story.

What happened is this: In a world economic system where virtually everything that humans lust after is for sale, the U.S.-Mexico border region suddenly became in the 1980s and '90s the object of our desire. Nogales and its cheap labor pool became the metaphor for a place where the unstoppable appetites of the First World slammed up against the dreams of the Third. The sterile hungers of capitalism have descended upon la frontera like a swarm of locusts that will not leave until the region and its people are sucked dry.

There are now about 100 maquiladoras (factories designed to take advantage of Mexico's horrendous unemployment rate, pathetic wage scale, and nonexistent/non-enforced environmental regulations) on the Nogales side of the border. Davidson's book tells five stories illustrating the growth of the maquilas and how they have dramatically affected lives on both sides of the line.

The promise of maquilas attracted hordes of cheap labor to a place where the housing infrastructure was soon overwhelmed, thus forcing people to live in cardboard shacks without water or sewer. Because of environmental regulations that are more fantasy than reality, the factories often dump their hazardous and toxic wastes into the local environment, leading to disease and premature death. These effects show up on the American side also, because "the environment" does not respect international boundaries.

The draw of jobs, however lousy, brought more hordes to the border, further taxing the system and causing people to look elsewhere, meaning north to the United States, for their dreams. Sometimes they found jobs smuggling in substances Americans use to cope with their own troubles but which also technically happen to be illegal. Crime along the border skyrocketed. This led to a dramatic crackdown by law enforcement on the American side of the border, which created a sort of de-constitutionalized war zone in Southern Arizona where people's rights, theirs and ours, are trampled daily.

People are dying, a lot of them. And as always, it is the children who suffer most. The occasional enlightened maquila manager attempts to put his finger in the dike, perhaps winning a battle, but the war appears to be a bit more difficult.

Those are the facts. But Davidson breathes life into them as she allows people to describe with their own words and stories the painful and sometimes fatal wounds that things like maquiladoras, free trade and the global economy leave in their wake. Americans feed at the trough of consumerism and completely ignore the human cost of what we do. This vital book chases away our naiveté and gives us pause to rethink our way of doing business and how we live our lives.

If you spend any time at all along the border, you know that the stories of people are what lie at its heart. The border is an artificial construct of politics, economics and history, an intersection of geography and desire, but it is also a state of mind and a state of the heart. The border is what it is because people love the place. Miriam Davidson clearly loves Nogales, and that love makes this powerful book shine even through the pain and the injustice and the suffering and the poverty that she writes about.

The truth hurts, but along with her tough love she brings hope. I wish her a million readers--this book should be required reading for all of us.