The Border in the Classroom: Approaches to Border Studies

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The Middle Ground Journal: World History and Global Studies

Thematic Forum on “The Border in the Classroom: Approaches to Border Studies”

Guest Editors: Benita Heiskanen and Andrae Marak
Research Article
The Socially Polysemantic Border: Positionality and the Meaning of the Fence

This paper documents the experience of teaching college students how to rethink the border by doing fieldwork in El Paso, Texas. Students were asked to encounter the border fence through, for example, personal visits to a part of the borderline, journaling, photography, poetry or multimedia. Classroom discussions before the assignments revealed that many students had not previously taken the time and effort to study their communities from a larger social, theoretical and historical perspective. This article discusses the initial challenges and the overall pedagogical success of this approach by showcasing some of the student work reflecting on the border fence. The paper includes some of the insights that border residents have about the U.S.-Mexico border between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. I then use these reflections and testimonies to show how various individuals create different social meanings about the border region in general and the border fence in particular depending on their own positionality based on age, gender, ethnicity, language, and immigration experience. I show how the border changes form along its distance and how different actors interpret their encounters with it in diametrically different ways. The border is not a moving target but it manifests differently in the lives of border residents.

Keywords: wall, social boundaries, applied research, undergraduate research, participant observation, oral history

In this paper I ask: What do people who actually live in the border region have to say about it? Do residents of the border region have a different sense of what “the border” entails from those who live far from it? Data comes from an exploratory project conducted in a sociology class on Methods of Research in the Spring of 2013, where I asked students who live in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border region to engage with these issues and questions. After the recognition of the importance of questioning and investigating international borders, students began to demonstrate this understanding in their discussion and projects. What emerges is the multiplicity of understandings of the same place and social phenomena that I call “social polysemantics”, i.e. different social understandings of the same object of analysis. I use this term to communicate the parable of the blind men and the elephant, where depending on what part of the elephant the men touched (the leg, trunk, ears, etc.), the different descriptions they would provide. Yet pasted together, these different points of view paint a realistic complex picture of the U.S./Mexico border around the El Paso del Norte Region. By reading about the manner in which their classmates approach the same object of study I hope that students were able to expand their reflexive and critical thinking skills. Despite the socially polysemantic understandings that resulted from this collective research project, it was important for students to engage with the border empirically rather than relying on the popular discourse on the topic (Neuman 2011).

Popular media often conflates Hispanic immigration, border crossings, and crime (Chavez 2001, 2008; Dowling and Inda 2013). For example, the TV series “The Bridge” and Scott Ridley’s “The Counselor” (2013) are placed in El Paso and focus on transborder crime. But as anthropologist Howard Campbell writes, while it is important to study and discuss narco-culture and crime in Ciudad Juarez, this does not represent “Mexican or border culture as a whole”(Campbell 2009). This paper does not focus on border violence or drug trafficking except in the few instances when students mention it. Contrary to what outsiders may imagine, drug trafficking does not impact directly the daily lives of most people in El Paso, Texas.

Yet many college students bring into the classroom the prejudices and normative judgments prevalent in their social circles and are influenced by dominant social discourses regarding migration and the U.S.-Mexico border region. For example, students may hold negative views about undocumented immigrants, and the U.S.-Mexico border itself. This is also the case in classrooms located in the border region; in this case those of the University of Texas at El Paso.

When I teach, one of my goals is to increase students’ understandings of how the situations people find themselves in can be influenced by dynamics outside of their control (Mills 1959), thus increasing both the students’ capacity for empathy as well as their understanding of the complexity of social stratification. Professors in the social sciences often try to develop this understanding by assigning academic readings that include structural, contextual, and historical approaches. But even if students do well on assignments and exams it may be difficult for them to fully grasp these insights and to connect at a human level with the population under study. I have found that the best ways to change preconceptions about stigmatized topics is direct personal interaction with stereotyped “Others” contextualized within a university course. The ultimate goal is to provide the space and tools for students to be critical of given categories and create new understandings and meanings themselves. While I hope to change the stereotypes that people around the world have of the border as a place of high criminality (Castañeda and Heyman 2012), and unregulated immigration, a good place to start is to give the border a more positive connotation for people who live next to it—for a similar discussion on empowering poor people within the prison system see (Larson 2011).

Sociologist Pablo Villa also had as a goal to change the understanding that interviewees in El Paso/Juarez region had of “the Other” (Vila 2000). He did this by first eliciting common perceptions as responses to photographs from the region and then at a later day reinterviewing respondents while having a dialogue where he would confront respondents’ answers about border residents with data that contradicted their views. He often saw how people would indeed change their narratives about “others” cohabiting in the border region, while other times respondents will rely on other common plots and preconceptions to justify their original responses. Vila presented photos to his interviews in order to elicit narratives about identity and the worth, and morality of border residents, however, in this paper students took their own photos in order to show what the border meant to them visually or experientially. This is similar to the photovoice methodology where poor, vulnerable, marginal or stigmatized populations are given disposable cameras to document their everyday life (Hernandez and Grineski 2012; Wang and Burris 1997; De Heer, Moya, and Lacson 2008). In this case most students had access to standalone digital cameras or to cameras in their smart phones, yet the principle is the same as in photovoice, to present photographs of symbolic landscapes or the places they went for this assignment. The subject of study of this paper is not identity, as in the case of Vila, but the meaning that border residents places on the border region and the border fence in particular.

This article draws from a one semester experience teaching college students in a public budding research university, how to better understand the communities they live in; in this particular case, El Paso, Texas. For sociological courses on Migration, and Methods of Research respectively I require students to practice different methods in order to appreciate by themselves, the strengths and weakness of each method. The methods used in assignments include non-participant observation, in-depth interviews, and surveys among vulnerable populations within the local community. The groups studied so far include Hispanics, undocumented immigrants, homeless people, and public housing residents. The research projects include questions concerning the uniqueness of El Paso as a border city, the realities of and barriers to border transnationalism, the experience of being an immigrant in El Paso, barriers and access for Spanish speakers, and how to measure homelessness. As class discussions before the assignments revealed, many students had not previously taken the time and effort to study their communities from a larger social, theoretical and historical perspective. These assignments provide avenues for them to learn how to do so, and for teaching researchers interested in the local community more about it.

The students enrolled at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) are most often Hispanics with family immigration experiences, many of them are first generation college students, and many often work, are older than at private institutions, commute and have families of their own. The demographics of the class that contributed for this paper is the following: 50 students were enrolled in the class, of 49 respondents to a classroom demographics survey 93.9% had been in college for 3 years or more; 20.3% are married, in a marriage-like relationship or divorced; 72.9% of them were born in El Paso and 8.3% in Ciudad Juarez; 79.6% reported speaking Spanish; 81.6% self-classify as Hispanic, 8.2% as non-Hispanic White, 10.2% as other and 0 as black; Although a majority are Hispanic they are very heterogeneous in terms of immigrant generation.

The Border in the Classroom

Teaching about borders in the classroom is not an easy endeavor. First of all, one has to overcome the “common sense” belief that international borders are natural and necessary. International borders are the results of war and historical contention, and they are important for the functioning of modern governments and national projects, but they are historically contingent. Culture, ideas, and people have rarely been kept from traveling by political borders drawn in treaties. Understanding national societies as self-contained boxes with clear boundaries is what Charles Tilly calls one of the “pernicious postulates” of social theory, a widespread conceptualization that hinders rather than advances social scientific analysis (Tilly 1984). Defining and describing what borders truly are is a difficult task. Historically, the U.S.-Mexico border has been framed in the national imagination as “the West,” “the frontier,” a destination for personal wealth and imperial expansion. Contemporarily, the debate surrounding undocumented migrants colors the image of the border. Media coverage in the last decades often reproduces the image of a Mexican-born man jumping over the border fence in a deserted area (Chavez 2001, 2008). The media campaigns by the Minutemen, right-wing extremists, and similar groups further give credence to the fantasy of an immediate need to “secure the border” (Shapira 2013; Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002; Heyman 2013).

Resident Voices

Following are some of the student responses that show how students grappled with the assignment to go to a place where the United States and Mexico’s political boundaries touch. In order to uphold their voices, their statements have been edited only slightly. The passages were selected for heterogeneity and to represent the most common sentiments expressed.

I start with the written response from a 37 year-old White woman, who has lived in El Paso for two years,

“I was surprised when the assignment was given, to realize that we hadn’t even considered the fence as another cultural landmark to visit while we were in El Paso. After some thought I’ve come to the conclusion that I see the fence in a much different way than almost every other landmark. In my experience, the fence has very negative associations. It’s a place to be avoided, an off-limits area. A place associated with those who break the law. Criminals interact with the fence, not law abiding citizens. So I’ll admit that I was a little nervous about taking my children to the fence since it’s a location that is routinely patrolled by law enforcement. However, I realized when the assignment was given, that I had to take my kids. This was a location with a lot of things to teach us, and an opportunity to really test the lessons that I hope I’ve been teaching my kids all their lives. We drove to a spot on the side of the highway where we could pull over and interact with the fence.

The first thing that I noticed when we arrived was the different reactions from my two children. My youngest [10] seemed curious and a little confused. My oldest [13] was very anxious. In this photo he is looking back down the highway and insisting that we should leave. At thirteen he seems to already have the same impression of the fence that I do and is very uncomfortable being there. He is very concerned that the police are going to come and arrest us if we don’t leave. And truly, with a large fence, barbed wire, flood lights every 20 feet, and what looks like a moat, it’s hard to fault his logic. It is not an inviting atmosphere.” Jaime Harris

Photo by Jaime Harris.

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