Straddling Borders

It's always exhilarating to cross a border, although the geographies on both sides are identical, and the people and architecture haven't changed all that much. Negotiated with blood, a border is nevertherless an illogical entity, an affront and a tease. Standing on one side, one can't understand why one isn't allowed to just pop over. If someone draws a line on the ground and declares, "This is a border, don't cross," one's first impulse is to march right over. Whatever attitude one has about other people crossing borders, one feels personally entitled to violate them, to go wherever one pleases, especially if one's an artist or a writer. This blog itself is a border crossing, border straddling device.

Bobby Byrd is an American poet who's particularly focused on border issues. Based in El Paso, across the Rio Grande from Juárez, Byrd runs Cinco Puntos Press, the publisher of David Romo's Ringside Seat to a Revolution, and Subcomandante Marcos' Questions & Swords: folktales of the Zapatista Revolution, among other non-mainstream, even unlikely titles. Responding to my email, Byrd writes: "We got to El Paso by accident. Broke in Albuquerque in the mid-70s, thirtyish hipsters from middle-class families not knowing what in the world to do with college degrees and one miserable Masters in English Literature, a poet and fiction writer for god's sake, two kids. Suddenly I was a technical writer and I landed a job at White Sands Missile Base in southern New Mexico. Sweet Jesus, I didn't want to do that, but I did. We needed the money. So I asked Albuquerque friends where to move, Las Cruces or El Paso? With no hesitation, they said Las Cruces. El Paso was in Texas, and New Mexicans hate Texas. And besides (although they didn't say it), El Paso was a dirty blue-collar Mexican city. The only reason to go to El Paso was to pass through (that's what El Paso means) on the way to romantic and cheap Mexico. So we moved to Las Cruces. We were not happy there. Some weekends I'd run away from home and wander around El Paso and Juárez. Go back and forth across the border, eat the Mexican food, listen to the street Spanish, daydream about poems. They were old cities, spooky memories downtown, secrets and sorrows. So we moved down there, not knowing exactly why. Our neighborhood is blue-collar middleclass, many immigrant or first generation Mexicans. For the first 10 years or so, I was happy in a daydreamy sort of way, then I suddenly realized that I was living in a foreign place from my Memphis white boy growing up, and then into my 50s and now, holy shit, into my 60s, I am at home."

Byrd co-edited Puro Border, a fascinating collection of essays by Mexican and American writers. In the introduction, he wrote: "The U.S./Mexico border, with its frantic commerce in drugs, human beings, electronic gadgets, money and other economic units, is a lens into the future of the “new world economy.” But it’s misunderstood, disparaged, cheated and even sentimentalized by the national media portraying it from its Big Brother perspective. [...] In the 80s and 90s, with the militarization and fencing of the border, the United States became the prototype of the world’s largest gated community. The sibling of the militarization was NAFTA, the child of corporate America and bureaucratic America. The headlines are everywhere: U.S. Marines shoot and kill 17-year-old Esequiel Hernandez in Redford, Texas; Donaldo Luis Colossio is assassinated in a Tijuana barrio; gargantuan drug busts and equally huge deliveries of stuff across the line. But underneath the ink are millions of people who live and work in this cultural, linguistic and geographic soup. The indigenous peoples of the region, like the Tohono O’odham, will tell you that the border is a make-believe line. They know because it crosses through the heart of their ancient homeland."
But a border is not just about politics and polemics. From this "vacuum in the collective consciousness," where "anti-heroes flourish in a sort of anti-place," there is also a tense, melancholic poetry. Would you expect any less from the merging of two? Here's one from Bobby Byrd, from his collection, White Panties, Dead Friends:

Body of Christ, Texas
September 1999
A motel room for 45 bucks a night.
The American League Championship Series.
Boston ahead 2-1, bottom of the 7th.
I hate the Yanks.
I fix a martini.
Life is OK thus far.
But Knobloch doubles to left.
Score tied 2-2.
Fuck the Yanks.
There's no hope for the world.
There never was.
Then comes the knock at the door.
A skinny woman wants me to help her with her boat.
The boat sits on a trailer and the trailer is hitched to a red Trans-Am.
The car is old and beat-up.
Yellow Mexican plates.
The woman is taller than I am, wearing those black wedges on her feet.
I like tall women.
Silver toenails.
Brown hair.
Leathery brown skin from too much sun.
She lives near a Mexican beach on a street at the edge of middle age.
She wants to die before she's 50.
She has long legs, and she's so thin
I could put a fist between the flesh of her thighs.
The boat is a white speedboat.
It has two huge Mercury outboard motors perched on the stern.
She uses the boat to smuggle phrophecy and other contraband
into the heart of the American Empire.
I tell her that Mercury was the messenger of the gods.
Also a thief and a capitalist.
Like a good American citizen, she says.
Like George Steinbrenner, I say.
Like the fucking Yankees.
She says I have been selected.
She says we will be going somewhere soon.
My job is to be ready.


Linh Dinh said...

Bobby Byrd sent me this note after my post appeared:

"There are 2 border literatures, one written by the people who have lived here (the fronterizos) and the other by parachutists, folks coming in from elsewhere and writing about the border. This is curious because, oddly enough, the US/Mexican border has always been a peculiar part of the US and Mexican psyche. So you have writers like William Carlos Williams, Kerouac, Graham Greene, Carlos Fuentes, Paco Taibo II , Cormac McCarthy, etcetera, writing about the border, and then you have the fronterizos writing about the border. Going south the border is a place to escape into sort of romantic kerouacian surrealism, going north the border is a place to escape into economic possibility (security). In the movie Perros Amores, when the guy gets on the bus, he tells his girlfriend he’s going to Juárez. And that’s the end of the movie."

Bobby Byrd said...

Linh, the El Paso Times video documenting Subcomandante Marcos visit to Juarez is available again at
It's a very interesting video. The US Homeland Security helicopter rose up over us just as Marcos began to speak.