The Dark Side of the post

The Dark Side of the post-NAFTA Border: Rationalizing Undocumented Deaths and

Disappearances through the Discourse of Gatekeeping

This section discusses the fourth vignette of Instrucciones, “Muerte y esperanza en la

frontera norte” (Death and Hope on the Northern Border). In “Muerte y esperanza,”

Crosthwaite’s metafictional use of fictive newspaper clippings both undermines the causality of

labor as the sole determinant of border crossing and initiates a critique of the tactical pursuit of

border crossers. In particular, this section demonstrates that labor discourse is intertwined with

the discourses on and use of military technology to hunt those seeking to cross the border of

Tijuana. In addition, the repetition of “Gatekeeper” in the fictive reports foregrounds the critical

link between discourse and border violence. Not insignificantly, the same institutional

mechanism designed to deter immigration—the Department of Homeland Security—is also

responsible for counter-terrorism efforts. Thus, Peter Andreas writes, “[a] once obscure term,

‘homeland security,’ became part of the everyday security discourse” (154).6 Furthermore, the

neoliberal ruse of globalization as a universal good effectively works to legitimate border

militarization protocols such as Operation Gatekeeper. As Joseph Nevins writes, Operation

Gatekeeper is “an enhanced boundary enforcement strategy begun on October 1, 1994, to reduce

unauthorized migrant crossings.” Further, writes Nevins, this strategy “attempts to thwart

migrants from entering the United States . . . through the forward deployment of Border Patrol

agents, and increased use of surveillance technologies and support infrastructure” (2). “Muerte y

esperanza” is thus a critical exposé of the dark underside of neoliberal free trade: in the same

year of the implementation of NAFTA, which would ostensibly fulfill the late capitalist ideal of

open borders, the U.S. mobilizes a strategy to militarize and “secure” the border between the

U.S. and Mexico.7 By analyzing the vignette of border crossers, rendered in the form of

newspaper clippings, this section shows how the discursive representation of border crossers as

aspiring participants in U.S. global capitalist economy corroborates the normative viewpoint that

death by border crossing is the result of Mexico’s failure meet its citizens’s labor demands.

“Muerte y esperanza” first traces the account of Mexican nationals who travel to Tijuana

and hire a coyote, or smuggler, to help them cross the border, except that the coyote abandons the

group to fend for themselves. Next, “Muerte y esperanza” presents a series of fictional news

clippings dated April 3 to April 11. As a result, the vignette is comprised of two distinct sections

that utilize two different discourses in a mode reminiscent of John Dos Passos: the first, a form

of fictional omniscient narration in paragraph form, and the second, documentary style in the

form of dated newspaper headlines from either Mexican or U.S. outlets. In the opening

paragraph, the repetition of the phrase “they had been told” thematically communicates the

promise of the American Dream at the same that it structurally keeps this dream in perpetual

delay. According to this dream, entrance into America, and by extension its economy, is

concurrent with upward mobility. For example, aspiring border-crossers “had been told that in

the United States there were great work opportunities” (45). While the passage’s content makes

it clear that “they” are immigrants it is less clear who “told” them. As the passage continues, the

insistence on “they had been told” gives way to “nobody had mentioned,” and here this phrase is

ambiguous as well. This refusal to attribute “they/nobody” to a specific person, group, or even

geographic area, indicates that the discursive representations of the border exist less as the result

of one site than the interaction between sources, both human and institutional. In other words, the

form of this vignette, a fictional version of news reports, suggests the way in which the discourse

that crossing the border is synonymous with realizing the American Dream is communicated

through word of mouth as well as the institutions of print culture such as newspaper outlets. At

the end of the paragraph, beset with inclement weather, the coyote tells his pollos (the people he

is smuggling) that they will have to return and try again, to which they refuse (46). Like many

others before them, this fictional group decides to keep going, and as often happens, many in this

group die. The tale of border-crossers who die chasing a dream, however, is less an elegy than a

structural analysis. As Javier Cercas writes, Instrucciones is “a collection of stories . . . full of

feeling but orphaned of sentimentality” (31). Therefore, in a documentary style, and via a literary

rendition of the newspaper medium, the text portrays these stories not to mournfully observe that

border crossing means certain death. Instead, these stories suggest that the normalization of

immigrant death is a symptom of the way in which the primary cause of border crossing is

discursively represented as the fundamental desire to realize the promise of the American Dream.

In the second, “documentary” section, the discursive representation of border crossing is

mediated, and critiqued, through the alternating U.S. and Mexican news reports on immigration.

Crosthwaite stages these reports as a response to the paragraphs on border-crossers of the first

half of “Muerte y esperanza.” In total there are eight reports, typographically displayed in

chronological order from “Abril 3. Sabado de Gloria” to “Abril 11.” The reports either come in

pairs, that is, from both the U.S. and Mexico, or from one country alone. To be sure, this

metafictional integration of fictive news reports as pastiche is a common postmodernist aesthetic.

However, unlike Jameson’s assertion that pastiche is a “neutral practice,” the “play of random

stylistic allusion,” in Instrucciones the stylistic is resolutely historical (17, 18). In this regard,

Crosthwaite’s text shares the emphasis of what Hutcheon terms “historiographic metafiction.”

She writes, “what historiographic metafiction suggests is a recognition of a central responsibility

of the historian and the novelist alike: their responsibility as makers of meaning through

representation” (84). Crosthwaite’s metafiction, therefore, shows that the border crossing

presented through the medium of the news report, although premised on objectivity, nonetheless

presents a constructed reality. It is precisely this conception of the real, flawed in its reduction of

complex reasons for population movement into crudely economic terms, which the text critiques.

The evidence of this constructed and U.S.-centric reality is the tautological structure of

“Muerte y esperanza.” From an organizational standpoint, and not insignificantly, the first

section’s opening statements appear verbatim as the final news clipping. In particular, the entire

first paragraph (as well as the opening lines of the second) constitutes the “Abril 11. Sabado”

entry. As a result, the American Dream narrative, a social construction characteristic of

neoliberalism, is given the status of an objective fact in that it appears as a news article.

Furthermore, the illusion that crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to become a laborer is equivalent

with upward mobility is reified as a social reality by a medium that, by definition, reports actual

events. By using this metafictional strategy of transmuting rumors of “great work opportunities”

into journalistic accounts of the Tijuana border, Crosthwaite shows that the complex needs of

local Tijuana citizens are inscribed within a tautological progress narrative. If Tijuanenses want

the American Dream they must cross the border. Crossing the border results in the American

Dream. Except that, as the deaths of the border-crossers makes strikingly plain, it does not. By

enacting this tautology, the text foregrounds the limits of framing border-crossing within a purely

socioeconomic framework of labor demand.

The discursive representation of border-crossing therefore enables and is enabled by a

logic which reduces the need to cross into purely economic terms. This logic is highlighted in the

“Abril 8” news report, for instance, which is presented as an “Editorial” and attributed to the

“North American press.” The report states, “[l]a desesperación hace que los migrantes ignoren

las leyes. Nadie culpa a los trabajadores. Si México no puede satisfacer sus necesidades de

trabajo, los más necesitados recurrirán a los Estados Unidos, desafiando al clima y a la

naturaleza” (“[m]igrants ignore laws out of desperation. Nobody blames the employers. If

Mexico cannot satisfy its labor demands, the most destitute turn to the United States, braving

nature and the elements” [48]). In this metafictional news report, the single cause of border

crossing is the identification of a critical Malthusian breaking point, the “desperation,” which is

purportedly endemic to Mexico. Moreover, in Crosthwaite’s metafictional presentation of the

border, Mexico and the U.S. are diametrically opposed as economically ‘unable’ (“cannot”), and

‘able,’ respectively. In doing so, the effect is not to mirror this dichotomy as the actual social

condition of the Tijuana border. Instead, as Patricia Waugh asserts, metafiction creates the

possibility of exploring “the fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text” (2). In

other words, metafiction provides a critical lens enabling the examination of the discursive and

material conditions through which social realities are forged. In this way, Crosthwaite’s fictive

news reports uncover the duplicity of globalization discourses. Specifically, Crosthwaite shows

how the myth that people cross the border for the abstract American Dream disguises the myriad

historical and social factors which engender border crossing. As a result, the identities available

to Tijuana citizens are circumscribed within a framework where global capitalism is the

preeminent cultural logic. If the border-crosser is reduced to the status of laborer, any semblance

of personhood is entirely dissolved in the process of discursively framing human beings as


The use of the term “indocumentado” in both the Mexican and U.S. metafictional press

bulletins reifies the above-named distorted notion of the legal in addition to creating a discursive

space where lethal violence is permissible in the absence of personhood. Couched in the form of

the news report, this rhetoric of “indocumentados” appears not merely as nationalistic but as the

lived reality of the phenomenal world. That is to say, Crosthwaite’s literary representation of the

medium of print journalism instantiates the nativist ideal that the people crossing the border, so

called “indocumentados,” are actually illegal. Furthermore, this logic stipulates that their very

existence is a qualitatively illicit form of being that reaches its critical threshold in the decisive

moment that they cross the border. As a result, because they are discursively represented as

“indocumentados” in violation of U.S. law, the violence directed at them is not a form of state

terror, since terror presupposes subjectivity.8 According to U.S. immigration law,

“indocumentados” are “aliens,” a term itself which presupposes that they are the abject other.

Consequently, this violence is framed not as a physical process but is abstracted as the

organizational logic of the state. Within this configuration, state power is not concentrated in a

national center but rather is distributed across an imagined cartography of an equally imaginary,

but no less formidable, world-system. The “indocumentado,” therefore, transgresses the

postmodern order not because they are “illegal” but because their very status as border-crossers

highlights the restricted-, and not open-ness, of borders. As a result, these news reports work to

naturalize violence against border-crossers by classifying them as “indocumentados,” in addition

to the repeated mention of “Operativo Gatekeeper.”

The significance of “Muerte y esperanza” is the way in which it reveals the process of

manufacturing national consent via the militarizing discourse of “Operation Gatekeeper.” As

Stuart Hall writes, the modern state “is where the bloc of social forces which dominates over it

not only justifies and maintains its domination but wins by leadership and authority the active

consent over those whom it rules” (19). In this light, the exigency of this particular vignette is

not in its sober presentation of death as a daily possibility for Tijuanenses but in suggesting that

the culpability for these deaths is systemic, shared by political-military forces as well as those

who consent to imagine and thus sustain the border as a barrier against “indocumentados.”

According to “Muerte y esperanza,” one way of doing so is by enacting militarization protocols

such as “Operation Gatekeeper.” As a result, immediately before the last fictional news report

which completes the tautology of “Muerte y esperanza,” the “Abril 9” entry quotes the “director”

of the “INS” as stating, “hemos descubierto los elementos básicos para que funcione nuestra

frontera” (“we have discovered the basic elements for our border to function” [49]). Crucially, as

a means of illustrating these elements vital to the “functioning” border, the report mentions

“thousands of undocumented arrested,” the “majority” of whom are deported. If this is the case,

then by contrast, those not deported are the “muertos” who go unnamed but whose deaths are

announced in nearly every single news report. Despite its rhetorical formulation of a military

engagement where selfless American patriots defend a vulnerable homeland from Mexican

invaders, “Operation Gatekeeper” is fundamentally a surveillance protocol, undergirded by white

supremacy, where lethal force is standard behavior. To clarify, initiatives such as “Gatekeeper”

are no doubt militarization efforts; crucially, however, they frame agents of violence as

defenders, and civilians as aggressors. Even the critical language surrounding the analyses of

such initiatives reflects this dichotomy rooted in an imagined internecine conflict: Nevins’s

definition of “Gatekeeper,” for instance, reflects the “forward deployment of Border Patrol

agents” (2); Peter Andreas refers to it as a “deterrence effort,” an “immigration control

initiative,” (4, 111). Moreover, presented alongside the essentialism of border crosser as both

laborer and combatant is the text’s insistent focus on the deaths caused by Gatekeeper: “siete

indocumentados muertos . . . Ocho muertos de frío . . . Nueve muertos” (“seven undocumented

dead . . . Eight die of exposure . . . Nine dead” [46, 47, 48]). Not insignificantly, in these

examples the death count steadily rises, in contrast to the earlier promises that in America

immigrants will build a new life through labor. In this way, the rhetorical structure of the news

reports is organized around the presence of both those seeking the United States’s “great work

opportunities” and the border militarization protocols of “el operativo.” Crosthwaite’s use of

metafiction, therefore, reveals the pernicious dichotomy which naturalizes border violence: the

American dream is realized by crossing the border and at the same time a ‘functioning’ border is

one in which “indocumentados” are either arrested or “muertos.”

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