Sunday, August 18, 2013

Walls Visible and Invisible

The Crystal Frontier: A Novel in Nine Stories by Carlos Fuentes

"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense."

There's one between North and South Korea, and a forbidding one separating Israelis from Palestinians--but the one I've seen, the one closest to home, is this one, this "scar on the earth" that separates North America from Mexico.  Driving from Nogales, Arizona to its "sister city" of Nogales, Sonora, one sees the rusted metal bars rising and falling across the undulating hills that separate two nations, two different worlds, or at least two worlds we are told to believe are wholly different.  When seen through the eyes of Carlos Fuentes, one is not so sure of this difference; what one sees instead is a porous barrier that is more like glass than steel.

Designed to discourage the movement of people from South to North, the Great Wall of Arizona and New Mexico, a wall guarded by thousands of Border Patrol agents, has become a monument to our our determination to hunker down, defend "the homeland" and to keep those "others" out of sight--except, that is, if we require their underpaid labor.  Driving through central California a few weeks ago, I saw strawberry fields full of stooped Mexican workers and wondered about the walls they had lept over to secure their (temporary) employment in the promised land.

"War on the Border" proclaims the headline in today's Times: "The U.S.-Mexican border has become a war zone. It is also a transfer station for sophisticated American military technology and weapons. As our country's foreign wars have begun to wind down, defense contractors look here, on the southern border, to make money."  There are already Blackhawk helicopters patrolling the border, surveillance towers, and, our President's weapon of choice, drone aircraft, all to patrol "the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall." (John McCain) 

How did this happen? Not so many years ago my wife and I were able to stroll back and forth across the border from Columbus, New Mexico to Palomas, Sonora without so much as a glance from the sleepy guards (most days there was no one "guarding" the border at all); schoolchildren from the Mexican side of an invisible line attended school in a tiny buidling on the New Mexico side, sitting in classrooms with their neighbors--no more.

Of course, not all walls are made of steel and concrete, a fact Carlos Fuentes understands well.  In this collection of inter-connected stories, Fuentes examines the walls between North and South that are internalized--cultural and psychological barriers  that we gringos and our Mexican neighbors carry across invisible walls constructed by economics and politics.  Nine tales of misunderstanding, of fear, of yearning.  Fuentes has examined the porousness of the "crystal frontier" since Terra Nostra; his Mexico and our United States are tragically bound together by a shared geography and history and the fact that millions of Americans trace their family origins to Mexico.  In my my own state, the oldest families are Navajo and Zuni; and then there are the Hispanics, peninsularies and mestizos,  who for four centuries have resided in New Mexico mountain pueblos.  The usurpers in this land are the descendants of the English, latecomers, whose arrival in Tidewater Virginia came more than a century after the settlement of the people whose land would be stolen from them in 1848.

The Crystal Frontier recounts stories connected to one another by the presence of Leonardo Barroso, a Sonoran oligarch whose wealth and power insulate him from the more egregious insults leveled by norteamericanos toward their dark-skinned neighbors.  Barroso's acquaintances, employees, children, and lovers provide the material for these beautifully written and deeply political stories.  A young medical student whose residence in Ithaca, New York uncovers a dual alienation--from his Reaganite American hosts and his own fabricated past ("Pain"); a young Mexican woman, poor and without prospects, who enters the walled estates of both Mexican and North American elites thanks to her beauty and sensuality--but who never can escape her sense of not belonging.  ("A Capital Girl") The lives lived in close proximity, but endless distance, from one another on the Rio Grande. ("Rio Grande/Rio Bravo").

The title story, the finest in the collection, describes one of Barroso's business schemes: he will fly poor Mexican laborers to New York City each weekend to clear downtown office towers, thereby saving his gringo contractors "30%, even with airfare."  After all, Barroso argues, cheap labor is Mexico's greatest gift to North American capitalism.  "Crystal Frontier" takes the notion of "migratory worker" to its illogical extreme--cheaply dressed men in straw hats commuting on a commericial airline four times a month to clean the crystal towers of "a brutal, murderous city...where we all recognize ourselves and see our best and our worst."  One of the workers, Lisandro Chavez--handsome, intelligent, "presentable"--understands the absurdity of his employment, of his fate as the son of a well-off man who has lost everything thanks to the vagaries of neo-liberalism.  As he flies to El Norte, Lisandro muses on borders:

"He didn't want to look down for fear of discovering something horrible that could be seen only from the air. There was no homeland anymore, no such thing as Mexico; the country was a fiction or, rather, a dream maintained by a handful of madmen who at one time believed in the existence of Mexico. . . A family like his was not going to be able to withstand twenty years of crisis, debt, bankruptcy, hopes raised only to fall again with a crash . . . [Lisandro] spent twenty years trying to tie together loose ends, to forget the illusions of the past, stripping away ambition for the future, inoculating himself with fatalism, defending himself against resentment, proudly humiliated in his tenacious will to get ahead despite everything."

Wiping down a clear, crystal window in a in New York office building, Lisandro meets a gringa, a woman who is as empty and devoid of illusions as Lisandro himself.  The woman, Audrey, an advertising executive whose office "is the whole world," ironically a woman, like Lisandro, without a country (because capitalism has destroyed all borders), struck by Lisandro's physical beauty, yearning to believe that this stranger could somehow fill the emptiness in her own life, writes her name backward, YERDUA, in lipstick on the crystal frontier.  Lisandro, befuddled, flattered, does not write his own name, "so unusual in English," but only this: NACIXEM.  For that is what he is, that is the way in which he will be seen--as a Mexican, whiter than most, but someone to be kept behind a wall, on the other side of a high and terrible fence.

Carlos Fuentes died last May, age 83.  With Marquez, Vargas-Llosa, and Julio Cortazar, Fuentes was one of the great writers of "El Boom."  

The Crystal Frontier, translated by Alfred Mac Adam, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

George Ovitt (8/18/13)

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