Reclaiming the Border Narrative: A Manifesto

The work shared here is our “final report” as ethnographers of Reclaiming the Border Narrative, a three-year effort initiated by the Ford Foundation in partnership with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, Borealis Philanthropy, and the Center for Cultural Power, to support storytelling efforts along the US-Mexico border. In our observations of and interviews with project grantees (artists, journalists, and movement workers), we heard again and again that the entrenched border narratives of chaos and danger obscure the other, more common and beautiful realities of this region. Only by shifting attention to singular specific stories shared in markets and dinner tables and dance halls, to ecosystems and plant knowledge, to artmaking and bread-breaking, to subtlety and marginalia, will we encounter the truths of this place. Inspired by our conversations with artists, journalists, and movement workers, we wrote this manifesto to summarize our findings. Of course, we turned to the artists to help our words sing and shine.

-Dr. Maribel Alvarez & Kimi Eisele

video by Adam Cooper-Terán | visual art by Loisse Ledres | download these materials & distribute widely.

REALITY CHECK: THIS BORDER HAS BEEN SPOKEN FOR. There is a saying in Spanish: ”No se puede tapar el sol con un dedo.” You cannot hide the sun behind one finger. To repair something you have to first assess the full measure of damage. To comprehend what has happened in these borderlands where the walls and the barbed wire and the surveillance and the shipping containers offer up a strange fruit called “safety,” you must scan the media sources, sift through the messages, eavesdrop – then tell yourself the truth. Borders for people but not for tomatoes? Someone’s dinner salad somewhere benefits from all this pain. The stereotypes, cliches, fearmongering, and metaphors of despair and “desmadre” could fill several football stadiums. But do it. Call out all that dark matter. Render the poison audible and visible. Assess the minefields of public perception and shine light on the hungry machine of mass media. This border has been spoken for—and it wasn’t you or your “gente” who did the talking.

THINK AGAIN: POWER AND POLITICS OBSCURE A COMPLEX BEAUTY HERE. Nothing is ever all good or all evil all the time. Turn down the volume. Go beyond the predictable narratives. Get to the heart of it. Go sit in the living rooms, cocinas, tianguis, gardens, theaters, clubs. Stand at the comal. Get inside the detention centers. Enter the courthouses and listen to hearings then ask what the judge doesn’t. Ask what song are you humming, whose photograph do you carry in your pocket, for what and whom do you cross? The hungry machine of us vs. them will tell you beauty doesn’t live in these badlands, but they’re wrong. Ask different questions. Ask the artists, the journalists, the migrant justice workers: What are you seeing and hearing? What beats these hearts, what breathes these lungs, what motivates these movements? What’s beyond the binary? What’s the gray matter? What rude awakening beckons? Cousins, comadres, co-workers: co-writing the experience, the sometimes absurd soap opera of layered threats. There are hundreds and hundreds of stories at the edges, in the margins.  Move the frame to center them. 

AMID THE CONTRADICTIONS OF THIS PLACE, INVOKE A HIGHER STRATEGY. Keep the frame on what is humane against all odds. But don’t go at it alone. Align yourself with other artists, movement workers, journalists and everyday people and together train in building narrative power. Call on us, the artist disruptors who dare say that immigration is natural, beautiful, and an irrevocable human right. Notice the tables we set for the tamalada en ambos lados, the sky blue hues we use to disappear the border wall.  Read our poems, our plays, our manifestos. Implode the lie that we don’t know how to fix this mess. We do. Look to the storyteller wizards who set up butterfly labs to incubate and multiply a new outrageous proposal: No border. Ya basta. Ask your trusted allies: Who has been successful in shifting the border story? Learn from them. Test messages, create symbols, flood the channels with new material. Tell a more complicated love story.  Dissect the contradictions of border policies. Only you and your network of narrators can buck the trends of the media machine. Pan out. Where else do border stories live? New York, Mexico City. Gather stories there. Pan in. Tijuana, Nogales, Brownsville. Gather stories here. Invest in dissenting chronicles. Invest money if you have it, y si no pues, ni modo, invest strategy, actions, truth-telling spells. Gather tools and work it, work it, work it. Until a broad body of work stands tall, above the insidious wall.

NOTE TO SELF: THE WORK MUST ENDURE. Congratulations to you, border narrator, disruptor of the common nonsense, faith-bearing witness, unflagging amplifier, artist of the everyday. Now that you have spoken, swirled, painted, danced, and scrawled your humanizing proposals into the halls of public opinion, it’s time to document, archive, fund, equip. Gather in the energies of your kin, the border narrators in disciplined and strategic cultural formations, and help get that work out to the world. Archive, foster solidarity, train. Didn’t you hear? The work we do today is only the pre-requisite for the work we’ll do tomorrow. Do not fear being at this time in this place in history a rude prophet: Mister, take down this wall. Be bold, demand. Be urgent. As you make visible and louder the neglected border narratives, remember that building narrative power is not a quick fix. Debunking the story of those so-called “invading mobs” and “lawless barren lands” demands what writers call iteration —clickety clack, do not expect Rome to fall in one day. But now, you can be certain: You are not starting from nothing. Note to self: think abundance, not deficit. Be ready to imagine what our day-to-day life would look like if those who make the policies knew what you know, or cared to know. Share, reflect, and look ahead: be ready. This is your story, too. 

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