Healing the Open Wound: Imagining Christian Border Ethics with Gloria Anzaldúa

Border at NightBy Justin Ashworth, first published in The Other Journal

Border encounters occur every day in our global and globalizing cities.[1] We consume food touched by people born outside the United States; we purchase things from non-citizens, brush shoulders with them as we go to work. Some of us kiss immigrants goodbye as we head out the door for the day, while others of us are non-citizens ourselves. Our daily lives are filled with border encounters like these, that is, with economic, political, cultural, and personal interactions between citizens and foreigners.[2] But what should be the marks of these encounters? In asking this question, I am not concerned primarily with how cosmopolitan bigwigs interact with each other but rather with how the images of the border that citizens carry around in their heads influence their interactions with border crossers. Are our border images accurate, and what type of ethic do they imply?

These are difficult questions to answer, not only because there are so many different border images—frontier, wall, fortress, skin, face, et cetera—but also because not all borders have the same geopolitical and racial significance, and not all border crossers are created (discursively) equal.[3] Witness, for example, US Americans’ differential treatment of its two borders: the people who cross the US-Canada border garner far less media, financial, technological, and legal attention than those who cross the US-Mexico border. Witness also Europeans’ opposition to Syrians fleeing their civil war in contrast to the freedom of movement granted to fellow Europeans within the EU through the Schengen Agreement. Different borders mean different things to different people and different states. Borders feel to some like creeks to hop over by flashing a passport; to others, they are rushing rivers or raging seas in which they might drown.[4]

Because of the diversity of border imagery and the different meanings of borders, I cannot list every border image, shoot each down, and propose my own alternative. Instead, I limit my scope by focusing on how to conceptualize the US-Mexico border, as this border is called to mind almost naturally when US Americans hear the words border and border crosser. More importantly, I focus on this border because citizen Christians like me must opt for the border crossers who suffer this border, for the crucified God encounters us in the crucified peoples. If we do not see the crucified peoples, we may not see the crucified God. The border images of those who suffer this border should guide the border imaginings of those who rarely notice it.[5]

The border image that guides this essay comes from the late Chicana intellectual-activist Gloria Anzaldúa, a self-described “border woman” from a people with “a tradition of long walks.” She famously called the US-Mexico border “una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” Anzaldúa inhabited and suffered this “open wound,” even as she also was able to find “certain joys” in the “tragic valley” of the US-Mexico borderlands.[6]This image, I argue, is true to real life, grounded in historical and existential reality; and it implies a border ethic that coheres with the gospel of Jesus Christ, an integral part of which is healing. Our border encounters must be marked by healing because the US-Mexico border is an imperially inflicted open wound that scars the earth and wounds its inhabitants, and because Jesus Christ brings healing to bodily and communal wounds.

The Open Wound

Anzaldúa’s major work, Borderlands / La Frontera, is not immigration ethics; nor does it solely consider how the US-Mexico border is imagined. Rather, the book considers how borders feel and are navigated by those who inhabit them, how the border feels when you reside on it, and how it feels when it resides in you. Although Anzaldúa’s use of the term borderlands is complex, I focus here on “[t]he actual physical borderland,” namely, “the Texas-US Southwest/Mexican border,” because Anzaldúa’s history of the physical borderlands helps us see the truth of calling that border an open wound.[7] As long as this wound scars the “seamless skin of the earth,” it will inflict physical, economic, communal, and psychic violence on those who inhabit it.[8]

The US-Mexico border has always been a site of death. Anzaldúa knew this well: “The border fence that divides the Mexican people was born [at the end of the US-Mexico War] on February 2, 1848, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.” The land that “was Mexican once, / was Indian always / and is. / And will be again,” that land became US property in 1848 after blood was spilled to fulfill the United States’ manifest destiny.[9]

Yet the violence of this open wound continues today in the buildup of border budgets, fences, technologies, and agents since the 1990s, which Anzaldúa witnessed in the last ten years of her life. The United States has strategically placed these walls, fences, and other technologies to reroute migrants toward more dangerous areas.[10] The most significant result of this prevention-through-deterrence strategy has not been less migration across that border but rather the death of at least one would-be border crosser per day. And that’s only the number of bodies that are found—scholars estimate that the actual number of deaths could be double that since one cannot find all the bodies that die in the borderlands. Blood continues to flow along this border.[11]

And blood continues to flow, in particular from female bodies who are constantly threatened by gender-based and sexual violence. On the journey across the border, and then on farms, in maquilas, or on domestic jobs, women are easily exploited by male employers given their poverty and need for work. And because undocumented women often fear that they might be deported if they resist violence, they are “doubly threatened” by rape (or other forms of sexual abuse) and “a sense of physical helplessness.”[12] In addition, between 1993 and 2009, over 600 female bodies were found in the Juárez-El Paso borderlands, many brutally murdered and raped, all apparently just because they were women in the wrong place at the wrong time.[13] Theologian Nancy Pineda-Madrid sees this shedding of female blood on the border as a way that men “mark [their] territory and demonstrate [their] power” in an unstable social landscape traversed by competing interests.[14]

The border is an open wound in another sense, namely that it is a site of economic injustice. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had not yet been signed when Anzaldúa wrote Borderlands, but her awareness of the global ambitions of US American corporations indicates that she would not have been surprised to see many people uprooted from small farms as NAFTA allowed US American capital to flow into the cheaper labor markets of Mexico.[15] This pushed people to migrate north in search of work, though not always as far north as the United States, and contributed to the development of “feminized survival” strategies among migrants.[16] In other words, although migrant women are still mostly responsible for social reproduction, they are also increasingly entering labor markets—both formal and informal—because many of their male counterparts lost their jobs in male-dominated industries like small-scale agriculture.

Moreover, the militarized border apparatus enforces distance between transnational family members. This separation began when, after the US-Mexico War, 100,000 Mexicans found themselves part of the United States, as they had been “annexed by conquest along with the land.”[17] But since at least the 1940s, Mexicans have also been recruited by the US government and employers to work for low wages. A consistent traffic of Mexican workers across the border and the remittances they send to Mexico every year have embedded the demand for cheap migrant labor in the US economy and the demand for remittances in the Mexican economy.[18] Although the Mexican “tradition of long walks” was created and has been nurtured by these extensive family and economic connections, hundreds of thousands of families are broken apart every year through deportation.[19]

Finally, as Anzaldúa demonstrated, the physical border creates a psychic borderland: “Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. . . . A [psychic] borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.”[20] Because borders do not exist without guards who hold the line on the exterior and “pursue, arrest, and expel aliens who reside” on the national interior,[21] many of the undocumented migrants who cross the border illegally inhabit the psychic borderland of “illegality,” living daily with “a palpable sense of deportability—the possibility . . . of being removed from the space of the US nation-state,” of being forever separated from family, of never receiving one’s paycheck on time (if at all).[22]

Anzaldúa is certainly right: this border born in blood where blood continues to be spilled, this physical border marked by expropriation and exploitation, this border that separates families and creates a psychic borderland for those who cross it—this border is an open wound. And if this is so, then Christian border ethics must address this wound with the good news of Jesus Christ. Specifically, we must articulate a border ethic of healing, for a crucial aspect of the good news is that God is healing people in Jesus Christ.[23]

Healer Jesus Sends Healing Disciples

In particular, Jesus heals bodies and communities. He provides release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18). He raises the dead and cleanses lepers. He also tells the healed lepers to show themselves to the priests in the temple because then they could be restored to community (Luke 17:11–19). Bringing life to dead bodies and healing the woman with the flow of blood—both of these miracles brought the possibility of ritual purity and communal restoration to people who were alienated from others (Luke 8:40–56).

Moreover, Jesus’s healing is eschatological in that it announces the arrival of the kingdom of God and points to the final healing of all things. When “the blind receive their sight [and] the lame walk [and] the lepers are cleansed, [when] the deaf hear [and] the dead are raised [and] the poor have good news brought to them”—when these things happen, then clearly “the one who is to come,” as John’s disciples put it, has indeed come (Luke 7:19–22). The kingdom of God has drawn near in Jesus. But these healings also point to the promised redemption of all things in the resurrection. After all, the bodies that Jesus healed ended up in the ground, alone and awaiting resurrection and reconciliation.[24] Full healing is yet to come, but the healing ministry of Jesus points to that full healing in the resurrection.

I began with the healing work of Jesus, rather than his teaching about healing in, for example, the parable of the Merciful Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37 to suggest that the border ethic we need is not merely a “go-and-do-likewise” ethic of obedience and imitation. We are indeed told to go and do likewise and to imitate Jesus Christ, but this is so only because imitation is the shape of our participation in the ministry of Jesus Christ.[25] Participation precedes imitation; God’s work in the world is God’s invitation to participate in that work. We are to extend Samaritan mercy because Jesus Christ is already bringing this kind of healing and inviting us to participate in that healing ministry. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” we are told (Luke 6:36). Followers of Jesus are sent out to heal wounds, exorcise demons, and share meals with people because Jesus Christ is already doing this work (Luke 10:9–11).

Putting our participation in God’s work before our imitation of the life of Jesus also suggests that we must allow God to surprise us by tending to wounds through unlikely heroes like the merciful Samaritan and the faithful women (Luke 23:55–56). This presses citizen Christians like me to follow the Holy Spirit in spying out how God is already healing wounds. But it is also a reminder that often the people rejected by the powerful are the ones who bring healing to themselves and others by reaching out to touch Jesus, as did the woman with the flow of blood (Luke 8:43–48). Perhaps the very act of sneaking under this thin edge of barbwire, of transgressing this unnatural boundary, is God’s way of inviting us to participate in God’s healing of wounds. This is an ethic of following God, not so much by helping border sufferers but rather by “following [their] lead.”[26] We can follow the lead of border crossers by recalling that, for Anzaldúa, the wound is the border itself, not border people. To be sure, border people suffer this wound in their bodies and souls, but the barbwire fence first pierces the earth before it pierces those who crawl under it. Perhaps it will be foreigners like the Samaritan who bring healing to the earth; perhaps it will be non-citizens who save citizens from the damnation that awaits those who brush shoulders with the wounded and then keep on walking (Luke 16:19–23).

To speak of the US-Mexico borderlands is increasingly to speak of the whole of North America because migrants from Latin America are increasingly populating the whole of the United States, and the border apparatus increasingly reaches far beyond the border into the interior of the nation. In this continental borderlands, “The only ‘legitimate’ inhabitants are those in power, the whites and those who align themselves with the whites.”[27] Thus, to the extent that citizens of any color do not actively oppose border policies derived from white supremacy, they too “align themselves with the whites” in ignoring or continuing to prod this open wound and the people it wounds.

In this world of globalizing cities and border wounds, our border encounters must be guided by the good news that the Triune God is healing bodies and communities and inviting all people to participate in this work. We who do not seek to heal the open wound that is the US-Mexico border look less like the merciful Samaritan who restored the man he encountered and more like the priestly leaders who passed him by—or worse yet, like the lawyer who, attempting to justify himself, asked about the limits and priorities of neighbor love.

[1] The term global city comes from Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, 2nd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001). I use the term globalizing city to describe the way that since the 1990s, especially, international migrants have gone to so-called non-traditional destinations throughout the United States. According to the American Immigration Council, the immigrant population in North Carolina, for example, grew from 1.7% of the population in 1990 to 7.6% in 2013. See American Immigration Council, “New Americans in North Carolina: The Political and Economic Power of Immigrants, Latinos, and Asians in the Tar Heel State,” January 11, 2013, http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/new-americans-north-carolina.

[2] In this essay I speak mainly of citizens and non-citizens within a country, specifically the United States, but what I say here is relevant to how citizens of different countries encounter each other as well, even when they never see each other.

[3] Two pieces that discuss these images are Luke Bretherton, “The End of Borders: Thinking Ethically in the Face of Mass Migration,” Religion and Ethics, May 20, 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/05/20/4239083.htm; and Roberto S. Goizueta, “Reimagining the Border,” in Christ Our Companion: Toward a Theological Aesthetics of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 126–56. Bretherton and Goizueta opt for the bodily imagery of faces and skins, respectively.

[4] As Étienne Balibar says in Politics and the Other Scene, trans. Christine Jones, James Swenson, and Chris Turner (New York, NY: Verso, 2002), 79: borders are “overdetermined and, in that sense, sanctioned, reduplicated and relativized by other geopolitical divisions” (italics in original). Balibar also notes that, for some, borders feel like “an embarkation formality . . . to be passed at a jog-trot,” whereas for others they feel like a nearly insuperable “obstacle” that they run “up against repeatedly . . . so that it becomes . . . a place where [they] reside” (83).

[5] See Goizueta, Christ Our Companion, 23: “To know the truth is to become a participant in the life of the crucified and risen Christ, which in turn implies a participation in the lives of those peoples who are themselves crucified victims, those whose wounded bodies are the mirrors of our souls.” Also see pages 17 (“we run from the weak and the powerless”) and 115 (“the failure to see the body of Christ as it is, as a crucified and risen Body, ultimately prevents us from truly appreciating, truly taking seriously the lived faith of the poor”). I hope that my focus on this border will inform our conversations about other borders. And a final reason for focusing on this border comes from Gloria Anzaldúa: “Mexico is your [the gringo’s] double, . . . she exists in the shadow of this country, . . . we are irrevocably tied to her” (Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 3rd ed. [San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 2007], 108). The border resides in the minds of all US Americans, though how it resides differs from person to person or group to group.

[6] Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera, 19 and 33; 25; and 19 and 112.

[7] Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera, 19. Most of the people who are influenced by Anzaldúa have focused on “the psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands and the spiritual borderlands” (Borderlands / La Frontera, 19) that occupy so much of that work. See, for example, Bridging: How Gloria Anzaldúa’s Work Transformed Our Own, ed. AnaLouise Keating and Gloria González-López (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011); and Entre Mundos / Among Worlds: New Perspectives on Gloria Anzaldúa, ed. AnaLouise Keating (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

[8] Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera, 25.

[9] Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera, 29 and 25.

[10] Roxanne Lynn Doty, “Bare Life: Border-Crossing Deaths and Spaces of Moral Alibi,” in Governing Immigration through Crime: A Reader, ed. Julie A. Dowling and Jonathan Xavier Inda (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 129–43.

[11] From 2000 to 2014, US Customs and Border Patrol (USCBP) agents found the remains of 2,771 people in the Southern Arizona desert alone (Coalición de Derechos Humanos, “Remembering the Dead,” http://derechoshumanosaz.net/projects/missing-migrant-project/remembering-the-dead/). The number of human remains found near the entire US-Mexico border is far higher: 5,517 bodies were found from 2000 to 2013, amounting to 394 bodies per year, or more than one person per day (USCBP, “Southwest Border Deaths by Fiscal Year,” United States Border Patrol).

[12] Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera, 34–35. See also Kristin E. Heyer, Kinship across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012), 64; and Olivia Ruiz Marrujo, “The Gender of Risk: Sexual Violence against Undocumented Women,” in A Promised Land, a Perilous Journey, ed. Daniel G. Groody and Gioacchino Campese (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 228.

[13] Nancy Pineda-Madrid, Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juárez (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2011), 12–13.

[14] Ibid., Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juárez, 18.

[15] Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera, 31: “In the 1930s, . . . Anglo agribusiness corporations cheated the small Chicano landowners of their land.”

[16] Saskia Sassen, “Strategic Instantiations of Gendering in the Global Economy,” in Gender and US Immigration: Contemporary Trends, ed. Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo (Los Angeles and Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 51–56.

[17] Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera, 29.

[18] Wayne A. Cornelius, “The Structural Embeddedness of Demand for Mexican Immigrant Labor: New Evidence from California,” in Crossings: Mexican Immigration in Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1998), 114–44.

[19] Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera, 33. According to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 315,943 undocumented migrants were removed from the United States in 2014 (see “FY 2014 ICE Immigration Removals,” http://www.ice.gov/removal-statistics).

[20] Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera, 25.

[21] Linda Bosniak, The Citizen and the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 50. For example, 102,224 of the 315,943 (about 32%) deportations in 2014 came on the national interior rather than at the border. One is not safe once one crosses the border.

[22] Nicholas De Genova, “The Legal Production of Mexican/Migrant ‘Illegality,’” Latino Studies 2 (2004): 161. Anzaldúa hints at the anxiety of deportability on Borderlands / La Frontera, 26. See also page 34, where she discusses the hostile context awaiting those who make it across the border.

[23] That such an ethic of healing coheres with Anzaldúa’s view of the border is clear from her many references to the need to heal divisions and bring about peace—though not, of course, by avoiding conflict. See, for example, Borderlands / La Frontera, 102, 108, and 110.

[24] Commenting on Jesus’s post-resurrection words to the disciples who had betrayed him—“Peace be with you” (John 21:19 and 21)—Roberto Goizueta argues that “the resurrection . . . is not simply the victory of individual life over death but the victory of communal life over estrangement” (Christ Our Companion, 28; also see 41).

[25] See Kathryn Tanner’s critique of the ethic of Trinitarian imitation (and proposal of an ethic of participation in the Triune life) in her essay, “Trinity,” in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, ed. Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), 319–32. See also her chapter “The Shape of Human Life” in Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001), 67–96.

[26] Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera, 107.

[27] Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera, 25–26.

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