ImagiNation: Border Crossing and the Transnational Subject

Kevin Concannon,

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi


In Hidalgo, Mexico, at Park EcoAlberto, the HñaHñu Indians have constructed a simulated US – Mexico border crossing experience that some conservative critics envision as a training site for future undocumented migrants to the US. Whether this interpretation is accurate or not, the very fact that the US-Mexico border has been recreated 600 miles south of the “real” border, highlights the importance of migration in today’s world as it looks to complicate our understanding of national borders and belonging. The simulated border emphasizes an imperialist representation of the US, where the nation is now right outside the door of the workers who make the journey northward. The so-called Nighttime Walk also complicates spatial representations of the transnational experience by underlining temporal representations of crossing. This essay focuses on the development of transnational subjectivity over time, and the challenges faced by migrants in a world where borders are subject to flux and (political) imagination. The result is an uncertain construction of the transnational subject in terms of a crossing that is never accomplished. Ultimately, the fictional experience of the Nighttime Walk becomes seen as a marker of the changing understanding of the nation and the transnational subject in a world where geographic borders have lost their hold and are replaced by ever-changing constructions of difference.

“Funny how it goes: you leave home precisely because you have to return. Or you return because you have to leave. Something like that.”

–Ruben Martinez, Crossing Over

Over 600 miles south of the US-Mexico border, masked figures divide individuals into groups based on physical strength and gender and then explain the challenges they will face crossing into the United States. Before the evening they will traverse tunnels and across open terrain and water, where they will be chased and fired at by the Border Patrol. If they are not captured, they will ultimately climb into waiting trucks for the final leg of the journey. The end is not the US Southwest, though, but Park EcoAlberto, part of the state of Hidalgo, Mexico and their original starting point. The participants are far from disappointed by this outcome, though, since they have paid the equivalent of 20 dollars not to get to the US, but only to simulate the experience of the act of border crossing itself.[1]

According to the park’s web site, this 20 dollar tour is meant to provide a “tribute to migrants” by providing the opportunity “to feel like a real ‘pollito’ with the other[s] tight in the back of a truck” [2] that will ultimately carry everyone across the border. Considered by some a Disney-style theme park, the tour started by the Hñahñu Indians is given the somewhat deceptive name of Caminata Nocturna [Nighttime Walk]. The Walk was begun over four years ago, ironically enough, in an attempt to limit migration from the town. Fearing that the remaining population would disappear north if jobs were not found, the eco-park was founded and the resulting tour created. The eco-park employs close to 100 people for the Nighttime Walk alone, including paramedics and actors, who play coyotes, Border Patrol agents, as well as some of the immigrants themselves. The tour has been credited with causing a 60% increase in the town’s population. Seven years previous El Alberto had almost no population and could not be found on any map; today it has a population close to 5,000.

The popularity of what has been termed socially conscious tourism is on the upswing today. Doctors Without Borders, in 2007, offered a 40-minute tour of a simulated refugee city in an effort to “acquaint comfortable Americans with the rigorous life of millions around the world driven from their homes by war, famine, or natural disaster” (Turner). Other events, such as simulated Holocaust experiences, unsurprisingly, have not fared as well, having been met with strong protests by the Jewish Defense League for demeaning the experience of the Shoah. The Park EcoAlberto simulation has also been held up to criticism, being seen as a training ground for future migrants or for patronizing the migrant experience, since, for instance, the longest “nighttime walk” has been no longer than eight hours, and the average walk is approximately four hours. This criticism taps into fears of the border that associates it with lawlessness and deviation, emphasizing how Park EcoAlberto, by bringing the border experience “closer,” is also bringing closer to home the potential for criminality. [3] The imaginary geography constructed by the tour, moreover, draws on a conflicted history as it creates a vision of the US Southwest as again part of Mexico, with participants purportedly crossing the Rio Grande into the former Northwest Mexico, emphasizing the return of the lost historical homeland of Aztlán. This imaginary transnationalism works to construct a geography that symbolizes the “closeness” of the US to many of the smaller towns in Mexico and Central America, as families find themselves losing many of their children and their traditions to the dreams of opportunity posed across the border.

The transnationalism represented by the park experience becomes understood as a means of complicating traditional constructions of the nation, constructing a US that is at once perceived as exceptional (as the Promised Land for migrants), while at the same time intermeshed with the history, culture, and people of Mexico. It is a transnationalism defined in terms of distance and separation as well as both figurative and literal crossings, as actors who participate in the tour have previously crossed over the “real” US-Mexico border, and use their experience, including their knowledge of the actions of the US Border Patrol, to make the park tour as accurate as possible. The simulated experience, however, still relies heavily on the participant’s imagination not only to construct the terrain as the US-Mexico border, but also to explain the presence of the occasional film crew or reporter who are seen taking the time to interview participants “fleeing” capture. [4]

By focusing attention on these spaces of national and cultural intersection, social, political and literary critics are able to question the construction of the nation and of modern subjectivity. Though the terms transnationalism and transnational subjectivity have gained currency of late in American Studies as a means of questioning national narratives, others have raised criticism about the use of the transnational, wondering whether the term differs from previous paradigms based on immigration and assimilation, and why the transnational often seems to be defined through engagement with the United States. [5] These are important questions that speak to our conceptualizations of the nation and the individual subject, as well as to the place of the US within American Studies. These questions, however, do not consider the more basic concern of what it means to “become” transnational, or, in other words, how one achieves the ability to move across or between national borders. To explore transnational subjectivity as a process of becoming means to recognize what is probably obvious to many, that national borders are porous for some but not for others, that an individual’s race, class or gender has an impact on their capacity to cross over the border. To speak of a transnational subjectivity, then, without also considering these differences means to conceive of this subjectivity only in terms of nation space—as having crossed over a border—without also conceiving of how these differences impact the construction of this subjectivity. To shift from a focus on space means to shift one’s focus more to time, to recognizing the impact of history, of knowing the experiences of those who have gone before, as well as of a seasonal periodicity that draws immigrants across the border. It also means to recognize the differential delays and challenges in crossing that vary from the potential difficulty of getting a birth certificate or passing a physical, if applying for a work permit, to gathering the money necessary to cross the border without the proper documentation.

This shift in focus beyond the nation alone draws on many of the concerns raised by post-nationalist scholars. The label refers to an awareness of the growing exhaustion of the nation as a critical frame within American Studies due to an increase in global movement and international trade. At the same time, the term also casts a critical eye backwards to the ways in which early American Studies scholars of the Myth and Symbol school and later Area Studies programs promoted US nationalism and supported narratives of US exceptionalism. Rather than focusing exclusively within the framework of the national, postnational critics look to explore the “negotiation among local, national, and global frames of analysis” (Curiel et. al. 8), exploring what geographers today have termed the “glocal.” By negotiating through these multiple frames, scholars explore how different formations of race, gender, and culture model concepts of resistance and change. The spatial model remains, however, as David Noble argues in Death of a Nation, one of the primary means of distinguishing postnational critics from their nationalist based predecessors. Attention to history and to the passage of time is deemphasized in a model that presents the global or the international as the critical horizon. By deemphasizing time, it is a paradigm that shows the influence of an exceptionalist myth at its edges, one that sees the Old World as invested in history while the New World exists outside of it, as representing the space of a new start. Postnational American Studies prioritizes the increasing movement across borders and the growing closeness of individuals or communities as a result of technology. This is not to say that there is not an attention to history or time by postnational scholars, as David Noble’s own historical examination of American Studies shows. Rather it is important to see how transnational and postnational scholars, by prioritizing space, struggle sometimes unsuccessfully to extricate themselves from “American” myths, such as notions of exceptionalism, which themselves emphasize the importance of space over time.[6]

In their recently published collection States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies (2009), the editors Russ Castronovo and Susan Gilman react to this emphasis on space by arguing that “[f]or every spatial dimension, we should think in terms of an analogous temporal unit” (5). Though this call for analogical thinking seems slightly cumbersome, it emphasizes the need for contextualizing current American Studies scholarship within a larger temporal frame. Working in terms of recent scholarly interest in the circulation posed by the Black Atlantic, circum-Atlantic and the Trans/Hispanic Atlantic, the editors call for an exploration of transtemporal sites, emphasizing the literal and figurative movement of time (5-6). By looking at the imaginary crossings that occur at Parque EcoAlberto, this essay explores how the Nighttime Walk leads its participants back to where they started as a means of constructing an alternative historical record where border crossings actually result not in a departure but in a return home. In part this is the case for the residents of El Alberto, though it is not the experience for many of the towns in Mexico and Central America whose inhabitants disappear and never return. Seen in this light the act of returning the participants back to their starting point as a means of experiencing the act of crossing over into the United States becomes understood less in spatial and more in temporal terms. The experience is to be read as an attempt to conjure the future return of those migrants who have left the town and not returned, those same migrants to whom each Nighttime Walk is dedicated. The Nighttime Walk, therefore, becomes a means of calling into being future border crossings, but not into the US as conservatives might argue, but back home to El Alberto and beyond, thereby tilting the hemispheric primacy of the US by representing it as a point of departure rather than merely of arrival.

The result is a creation of a historical cycle that does more than reflect the movement and return of migrants across the border based on seasonal changes. The Nighttime Walk looks to intervene within this temporality, using the simulation as a means of conjuring the return of those who have crossed over, as it hopes to encourage others not to cross at all. The transnational spaciousness of the Nighttime Walk thereby draws forth some of the many temporalities at work in the act of crossing, reflecting the town’s own history of departure, while at the same time complicating how this departure is understood by exploring how one defines movement, crossing, and entrance, key terms within an immigration paradigm. By turning migration into a simulation, the Nighttime Walk does not just imagine crossing the US-Mexico border, it imagines how migrants struggle to actually “get” to the United States, challenging the connection that is often made between crossing the border and entrance into the nation. By mixing crossing with return, the Walk complicates spatial constructions of border crossing by understanding it not only as a repetitive movement, but one that struggles to achieve its ultimate goal of entrance into the US.

The Nighttime Walk reimagines hemispheric space by constructing this space in terms of the cultural memory of the Hñahñus. The US is suddenly at their doorstep, a marker as much of the global reach of the nation, as of a proximity emphasized by the US being in “walking” distance. This act of imagination taps into Arjun Appadurai’s conception of the global, of individuals moving from nation to nation, or purchasing goods that are produced around the globe, or, at the very least, watching images that create and encourage these connections. The age of modernity, of what Appadurai calls the “global now,” constructs an imagination that “is neither purely emancipatory nor entirely disciplined but is a space of contestation in which individuals and groups seek to annex the global into their own practices of the modern” (4). The Nighttime Walk becomes seen as this form of annexation by creating a world where the US is always closer than one might think, and where the envisioned promise of the US will provide economic support for the town. But the Walk also imagines the very challenges of crossing, creating a spaciousness where even in one’s imagination one cannot make it to the United States. It is a reimagining that reflects present and past challenges of crossing, emphasizing how the act of imagining of future events and the reimagining of the past cannot be separated from contemporary practice. The Walk in this manner becomes a means of interpreting the global now in terms of national division, representing the perceived homogeneity of global society through the prism of a migratory desire to get across to the other side. The walk in this way constructs a backwards-looking model of the global and the transnational that produces a nostalgia for the nation-state as the gatekeeper of (in)accessibility.

Laura Briggs, Gladys McCormick and J.T. Way argue that transnationalism is “a much abused term” today, seemingly being made to do the work of both conservative and liberal critics alike. Part of this abuse I would argue results from its perceived transparency, having the potential to describe seemingly any person or object that has crossed identifiable national boundaries. This definition takes for granted a specific ideological understanding of nation space: the nation is understood as marked by definable exterior boundaries that both identify its endpoints as well as individual belonging in legal and political terms. This view celebrates a more static, historical view of the nation, where borders are conceived as unchanging and rigid and where immigrants are understood as “becoming” part of the nation through assimilating to its values and traditions (Huntington 2004). In contrast, the work of Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller and Cristina Szanton Blanc look at the ways in which transmigrants are both controlled by, and influence, the hegemonic practices of the nation. In their work, the nation becomes disconnected solely from its geographic and historical context and becomes seen in more transitory terms, as rooted in the discourses of power and politics. Dominant class and racial ideologies describe the boundaries of the nation in their analysis, as does the nation’s place within a larger global community. The transnational subject helps to underscore the uneven application of these discourses of power by drawing attention to their experiences both within and without the nation. Attempts to construct a unified national body are challenged by transmigrants who question their place in-between and by so doing explore the circumscription of minority voices.

In this light, the tour at Park EcoAlberto becomes a somewhat troublesome representation of transnationalism if understood as an act of crossing that goes nowhere, that literally keeps one where one started. Recent scholarship has moved away from focusing predominately on individual movement between nations, and by doing so has developed new ways of conceiving of the term. Bill Ashcroft’s use of the neologism “transnation” undercuts the importance given to movement across borders to explore the possibility of an individual being understood in transnational terms who has never left home. The term draws one to the Nighttime Walk of Park EcoAlberto by emphasizing the internal divisions within nations that can leave even the immobile individual in-between. In his essay, Ashcroft turns to the development of Chicano identity through the call for a return of the nation of Aztlán in the US Southwest as an example. The Chicano nationalist movement emphasized the importance of separating the nation from the state—of seeing the possibility of multiple nations within the same state—and of leaving the individual and community to negotiate these national differences. Ashcroft’s reading relies upon detaching the nation from its often-hyphenated connection with the state by seeing the individual as navigating between plural nations based on ethnic and sexual identity. His discursive construction of multiple nations complicates the importance given to individual movement within transnational scholarship by focusing attention on the ways in which individuals can themselves be crossed by different constructions of citizenship and nationhood.

The truncated migration of Park EcoAlberto reflects this changing understanding of the transnational as it also reflects the real world decline in migration across the US-Mexico border. According to statistics from Jeffrey Passel and D’Vera Cohn of the PEW Hispanic Center, there has been a significant decrease in immigration from Mexico—including undocumented immigration—dropping from an average of 550,000 in the three-year period, from 2003-2006, to an average of 350,000 in 2006-2008. There has also been a matching decline in arrests by the Border Patrol, dipping from a high of 1.1 million in 2004 to 724,000 in 2008. Even with the growing number of Mexicans born in the United States, the number of individuals who return home across the US-Mexico border has remained relatively stable at approximately 433,000. This stability emphasizes a slowing of movement across the US-Mexico border that is probably linked to a weakening of the US economy—where individuals have less money with which find a way home and possibly return—coupled with an increased enforcement presence along the border, including the deployment of National Guard troops and the use of military technology, such as drones, heat sensors, and video cameras for surveillance. These figures support the population numbers of the more conservative research group, The Center for Immigration Studies, which sees a 600 percent increase in immigrant deaths since 1995 along the Southwest border due in part to immigrants trying to cross in forbidding desert areas that were previously avoided, and a decline in the undocumented population in the United States from 12.5 million in 2007 to 10.8 million in 2009.

Even though 600 miles from the border, Park EcoAlberto also finds itself caught within these border issues, as its recent decline in attendance has been attributed to a decrease in remittances being sent home.[7] The irony is clear: people who have crossed the border are sending less money back home, thereby leaving less money available to be spent on simulating the act of border crossing. This interdependency of fact and fiction is emphasized by comments of participants who see their ultimate destination as the United States. One participant who was asked why he was going on the Nighttime Walk responded that he wished to make it to California while another spoke of wanting to make it to Texas, responses that either speak of each individual’s desire to play along with the fictive nature of the tour or to their recognition of the fluidity of borders in contemporary society. In either case, California or Texas seems just across the imaginary border, creating a transnational geography that challenges the boundaries of the nation-state as it poses a world where hop scotching borders is not surprising but expected. Similar to Ashcroft’s vision of different nations within one state, these comments create a world where different nations can seemingly emerge anywhere, within the state and beyond it emphasizing a transnational experience that knows no national boundaries. In the context of the Walk these comments, though, mask a disjuncture between the wish making of these individuals and the impossibility of them ever making it to the Southwest in these simulated terms. The transnational experience, in other words, becomes defined also in terms of the absence of crossing, symbolizing the contemporary decrease in individuals crossing the US-Mexico border, and underscoring the imaginary field constructed by Parque EcoAlberto as itself a symbol of the multiple challenges of navigating borders today. In other words, the very fact that border crossings have to be imagined highlight the recognition of having to do so, of the increased militarization of borders combined with the rise in anti-immigrant discourse and resistance. [8]

Their imaginary journey to the “real” states of California or Texas reflects the definition of modern subjectivity by Appadurai, where modernity emerges out of “a theory of rupture” that is organized around the impact of both the media and migration on “the work of imagination (original italics 3). It is this interaction that Appadurai identifies “as a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity” (3). The Walk signals the importance of migration as a means of defining present-day experience, so much so that people will pay to imagine, and to have others imagine for them, what it means to be a migrant. Rather than seeing imagination as a means of escape, though, which is more akin to fantasy in Appadurai’s terms, imagination becomes a means of navigating one’s place in a world of collapsing borders. In much the same way that goods and cultural images are not limited by national boundaries, neither is one’s imagination, itself sparked by the movement of the very same global images. The structure of the Walk emphasizes the interdependency of this global consumerist image of movement with the individual’s capacity to imagine migrating along the same or similar routes. In this case, the Walk structures the process of one’s imagining, emphasizing a sense of political control over how one imagines that is deemphasized in Appadurai’s description of the modern subject. Through the Walk, one recognizes the ways in which imagination is itself structured by historical and political representations of migratory movement, whether this be of consumer goods, capital or individuals, and as such conceives of imagination in a way that can be seen as less a rupture with the past and more a continuation, where borders remain a force to be navigated and imagined.

The tour, one could argue, highlights the very challenge of crossing as a component of the transnational subject, emphasizing that while the movement of individuals and cultural images occur at a breakneck speed today, the actual navigation of these transnational spaces can never entirely escape a larger pre-modern history where boundaries remain. It becomes a transnational experience that re-imagines the continuing power of the nation-state to impact individual desire, constructing a geography that equates accessibility with the construction of boundaries. These boundaries envision the imaginary intersection of nations that supports a transnational subjectivity, while at the same time being geopolitical sites of separation based upon race, gender and class. The repetitive nature of the Nighttime Walk—the fact that it takes place multiple times a month and always concludes in the same way with the participants returning to their starting points—can be seen as both emphasizing the continuing significance of the border experience today and of conceiving of the crossing in terms of a refusal and return. This in part explains why federal funds were used to support a project that is considered as a means of limiting migration, and why the tour highlights the problems of crossing, emphasizing not only the difficulties of avoiding the Border Patrol but also of navigating the terrain. In other words, the Walk presents the means for the nation to imagine the act of border crossing in this global age in restrictive terms, to represent a migrant imaginary that celebrates the power and importance of the nation. In its focus on the individual’s return to their starting point, the tour presents a nostalgia for the nation-state in this post-national age, imagining the place of the nation along the borders, attempting to construct the ideal migrant as one who never leaves home.

Before departing on the Nighttime Walk, the guides and participants gather together, hold up the Mexican flag and speak of the migrants who have gone before. The prelude emphasizes that an important aspect of the tour is to connect the participants to the nation and to the history of the town by the act of re-creating the past. Strangely enough, the history of the town is one of departure, emphasizing the paradoxical position of the tour as both a means of honoring those who have left the nation as well as underscoring the importance of staying in El Alberto. [9] In this way the town represents the duality of the transnational subject, as both border crosser and yet as a continuing participant in their native homeland through, for instance, the sending home of remittances or through voting. To navigate this duality, the tour creates the opportunity for individuals to step along the path of their predecessors, to perform in an imagined way the actions of past migrants, allowing them to stay home and yet seemingly experience what it is like to be a migrant. This historical aspect is emphasized by the very fact that most of the actors have themselves some “real” experience crossing the border. As mentioned previously, this performance also can be seen as a means of calling those who have crossed the border back home, by seeing the act of border crossing as an act of conjuring the return of those who have left. The Walk seen as a performance is meant to celebrate life in El Alberto even if it also has the unintended consequences of rereading the US as the new home for many who cross and never return to their homes in Mexico or farther south. To focus on the border as the site of return also means to historicize the experience of crossing, since the southbound route in the US is traditionally not patrolled by the Border Patrol, emphasizing a past period before Operation Gatekeeper (1994), and before the militarization and fence-building along the border, when it was much easier to cross north. Through a performance then that is meant to reflect the importance of the local town and the nation, the Walk takes on a global perspective, seeing the border as a site of connection and interdependency. The result is a glocal construction of space, as the performance of the town’s desire for their people to return relies upon a global fashioning of interconnection, where borders provide the pathway for return. As one tribal member states: “Being an immigrant isn’t a source of pride. We abandon the family, the language, the earth. We lose our sense of community. The idea here is to raise people’s consciousness about what immigrants go through” (quoted in Healy).

The tour accomplishes this raising of consciousness by recreating the circular movement of the HñaHñus themselves who often work for years in California or Nevada before returning home and starting their journey across the US-Mexico border again. While away many send home remittances emphasizing their continued connection to their home and their families. The tour directly connects this cycle of money and individual movement, and through the scraped knees, shouting and even a soundtrack of women being attacked attempts to mirror the violence, racism and family separation individuals experience when crossing over. This transhistorical context speaks to the process of “becoming a transnational subject” (34), to borrow from Katarzyna Marciniak, underlining a temporality that also highlights the stops and starts, the struggles and in many cases, the failures that are part of the act of transnational crossing itself. By doing so, one complicates traditional readings of the transnational by recognizing that “for many exiles coded as aliens, especially illegal aliens, transnational positionality is an unattainable space of privilege” (34).

The very fact that the tour itself costs more than many migrants to the United States have to spend emphasizes the discrepancy between how transnational subjectivity is to be understood. In truth many of the participants who take the tour are middle and upper class tourists from Mexico City who want to experience the border from a distance. [10] This re-imagining of the daily migration North as an upper-class vacation underscores the importance of focusing attention on the comparative construction of transnational subjectivity, as it emphasizes the obvious point that for some money allows them a transnational experience unrecognizable to those of different classes. Even if some experience the walk as a means of generating a “solidarity” between the “the two Mexicos—one middle class and thriving, one dirt poor and sinking,” the experience in essence depends upon a separation of the two classes, of the upper and middle classes only wanting to experience (or imagine) the transnational in terms that are less than trying. The Nighttime Walk feeds into this imaginary by deemphasizing the trauma of the journey that is undertaken predominately by members of the lower class, as it constructs a crossing that has stripped away its ever-present dangers. In doing so, the tour disrupts the temporality of the border crossing, emphasizing an accessibility to guides and to a “destination” that the actual migrant does not have. The transnational imaginary looks to compress time as a means of compressing space, creating a world where accessibility to the “other side” deemphasizes an attention to the challenges of actually crossing over. By seeing transnational subjectivity in differential rather than universal terms one emphasizes the complexity of the term by highlighting the role of the nation in determining the construction of the transnational subject. In other words, access to passage across the border is linked to the construction of a national identity, as those in the mainstream often have increased access to visas or passports and to transportation. The transnational in this way seeks to expose the borders internal to the nation, to the ways in which those who are marginalized struggle to develop methods of crossing over available to others.

This is made evident by the soundtrack of a woman’s screams that are heard by the participants during the Walk. Meant to represent the violence that women face from coyotes and from gangs which prey upon those who cross over, female employees of the Park are heard occasionally screaming off in the distance. The scene highlights the obvious disjuncture between this simulation and the reality of the crossing, as this violence needs to be “staged” since this fear is not an actual part of the Nighttime Walk, and as a result does not become a reality for the upper and middle-class tourists. The staging of the violence keeps it at a distance, and links gender and class in such a way that the participants on the tour experience a false sense of security concerning the border for no other reason that they can afford to take the tour. The violent “soundtrack” to the crossing highlights a gendered construction of the transnational subject as it becomes a reminder that “stepping over” a nation’s boundaries does not end the act of crossing. Instead it is a stepping over that is always delayed, as the subject is unsure of achieving their destination when her very guide could be her attacker.  Understood in this way the nation’s border becomes re-experienced as that which is no longer crossed but continuously navigated, challenging immigrant narratives that speak of one’s arrival by emphasizing the challenge of finding a place in the nation beyond the border.

Perceiving of the transnational subject as navigating a borderland rather than crossing a borderline emphasizes the importance of understanding this subjectivity over time and not just in terms of space. The transnational subject who struggles to make it “over” the line challenges a conception of the nation in geographic terms by re-presenting boundaries in fictional terms of access. Unlike the wealthy who “experience” what it means to cross the border through Park EcoAlberto’s representation, the migrants who cross into the United States from Mexico struggle to discover a similar marker that signals the end of their journey. Their journey is perceived as never-ending, as they are perceived as constantly in search of that place of sanctuary, of ultimately achieving the act of crossing over. As a result, the nation becomes re-imagined in terms of differential boundaries, where the geographic US-Mexico border masks the construction of interior borders that work to fragment the nation along racial, class and gender lines. The attention paid to the US-Mexico border through its increasing militarization, for instance, can be read as a means of constructing and maintaining US national borders as imaginary points of access and of deflecting attention from alternate constructions of national belonging. The Nighttime Walk contributes to this imaginary construction, since one of the Walk’s primary functions seems to be to confirm that a real border does exist somewhere beyond, that the tour is a simulation of this border beyond. The eco-park at El Alberto underscores the possibility that US boundaries can appear anywhere there is sufficient money, power and mythic capital. This vision of the US points as much to a global awareness as it does to the more narrow concerns over how national identity for the transnational subject is to be understood.

To see the borders of the US as imaginary constructions that rely upon the presence of the Border Patrol, the National Guard, and militia organizations such as the Minutemen to make them real means that we need to rethink how we conceive of the transnational subject in terms of crossing national borders. Rather than taking border crossing as a given, we should consider following the lead of Ashcroft and others in their development of the transnation. As Ashcroft shows, the state is fragmented by multiple nations, which is another way of saying that the nation-state is determined by multiple borders and not simply by the geo-political line that marks its territorial edge. Within this perspective, the act of border crossing is to be understood in terms of repetition and deferral, where individuals are confronted by different borders and hence by differing understandings of belonging and difference. In this vision, the border is separated from its singular context as a historical line, and instead is seen as that which can emerge anywhere within the nation. Park EcoAlberto supports this image through its Nighttime Walk, but more importantly it is supported by the experience of “real” border crossers who struggle to find their way completely over the line and must continually search to find acceptance within the nation. This vision emphasizes the temporality of the transnational migrant experience, where, as Park EcoAlberto underscores, different classes experience not only the act of crossing differently, but also the act of arriving, as it is surely no coincidence that the wealthy participants find their destination at the end of the Nighttime Walk to literally be their home.


[1] This account is based on Patrick Healy and Ian Gordon’s descriptions of the Nighttime Walk in the New York Times and, respectively.back to text

[2]  This statement can be found on the Parque EcoAlberto website: back to text

[3] Oscar J. Martínez argues, “By nature, border zones, especially those that are far removed from the core, spawn independence, rebellion, cultural deviation, disorder, and even lawlessness” (3).back to text

[4] In one case, the participants on the Walk had to work together to save a BBC correspondent who was in danger of drowning in the river they were trying to cross.back to text

[5] See Laura Briggs, Gladys McCormick, and J.T. Way.  “Transnationalism: A Category of Analysis” (625-628) and Roger Waldinger and David Fitzgerald “Transnationalism in Question” (1177-1193).back to text

[6] In her Presidential Address concerning the transnational “turn” in American Studies, Shelley Fisher Fishkin speaks of the scholarly interest in the field in ways that draw upon myths of American exceptionalism. She states, “one of the reasons many of us were attracted to American studies in the first place was its capaciousness, its eschewal of methodological or ideological dogma, and its openness to fresh syntheses and connections” (my italics, 19).back to text

[7] See Alexander Zaitchik’s article “Alien World” concerning his experience at Parque EcoAlberto.back to text

[8] Leo Chavez speaks of a Latino Threat Narrative that is “part of a grand tradition of alarmist discourse about immigrants and their perceived negative impacts on society” (3). This discourse, much like previous critical discourses concerning immigration, resulted in “alarmist newspaper stories (the media of the day), anti-immigrant riots, restrictive immigration laws, forces internments and acrimonious public debates over government policies” (3).back to text

[9] Part of this accomplished by making the tour difficult, but also by creating opportunities for participants to hike through the park and admire the natural beauty of the area.back to text

[10] Participants, for instance, are described as wearing designer clothing during the Walk. Zaitchik describes how some of the participants were wearing Abercrombie and Fitch clothing as well as expensive sneakers.back to text

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005. Print.

Ashcroft, Bill. “Chicano Transnation.” Imagined Transnationalism: U.S. Latino/a Literature, Culture, and Identity. Ed. Kevin Concannon, Francisco Lomeli and Marc Priewe. New York: Palgrave, 2009. Print.

Basch, Linda, Nina Glick Schiller and Cristina Szanton Blanc. Nations Unbound: Transnational Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments and Deterritorialized Nation-States. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Briggs, Laura, Gladys McCormick and J.T. Way. “Transnationalism: A Category of Analysis.” American Quarterly 60.3 (Sep 2008): 625-648. Print.

Camarota, Steven A. and Karen Jensenius. “A Shifting Tide: Recent Trends in the Illegal Immigrant Population.” Washington DC: Center for Immigration Studies. Jul 2009. Web. Jul 2010.

Castronovo, Russ and Susan Gilman. States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies. Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina P, 2009. Print.

Chavez, Leo R. The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation. Stanford: S U P, 2008. Print.

Curiel, Barbara Brinson “Introduction.” Post-Nationalist American Studies. Ed. John Carlos Rowe. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. Print.

Fishkin, Shelly Fisher. “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies.” American Quarterly 57.1 (2005): 17-57. Print.

Gordon, Ian. “Flight Simulator: When Crossing the Border—Or Pretending to—Is a Walk in the Park.” 26 Dec 2009. Web. Jul 2010.

Healy, Patrick O’Gilfoil. “Run! Hide! The Illegal Border Crossing Experience.” New York Times. 4 Feb 2007. Web. Jul 2010.

Huntington, Samuel P. Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print.

Marciniak, Katarzyna. Alienhood: Citizenship, Exile, and the Logic of Difference. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2006. Print.

Martínez, Oscar J. Troublesome Border. Tucson: The U of Arizona P, 2006. Print.

Martinez, Ruben. Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail. New York: Picador, 2001. Print.

Noble, David W. Death of a Nation: American Culture and the End of Exceptionalism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002. Print.

Passel, Jeffrey S. and D’Vera Cohn. Mexican Immigrants: How Many Come? How Many Leave? Washington DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Jul 2009. Web. Jul 2010.

Turner, Allan. “Doctors Without Borders Pitches Camp Downtown.” Houston Chronicle. 3 Oct 2007. Web. Jul 2010.

Waldinger, Roger and David Fitzgerald. “Transnationalism in Question.” American Journal of Sociology. 109.5 (Mar 2004): 1177-1195. Print.

Zaitchik, Alexander. “Alien World: How Treacherous Border Crossing Became a Theme Park.” Feb 2009. Web. Jul 2010.

This entry was posted in Volume 7.1 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.