Heriberto Yépez: “The Post-Borderzone”

by hyphology


What is a border? Is it the imaginary line that divides two countries? Perhaps, it is the width of an object obstructing free passage between two territories. Yet, a border implicates other spaces. At the U.S.-Mexico border, a long line of cars stretches perpendicularly to the border. Attendants at the border refer to it as la línea, the line. In this way, the border is stretched out and its points are multiplied along a two-dimensional surface. The border is really a zone of its own, a transfronterizo or borderzone.

In “Lo post-transfronterizo,” Heriberto Yépez probes deeper into the question concerning the nature of the border. In his investigation, he unravels the popular mythologies that have come to explain the borderzone and the socio-cultural practices that give rise to “border culture.” Yépez’s essay interests us not only for its unique and timely revelations, but also because the borderzone is a territory outside of territory proper, a terra incognita. It is that space which is neither one nor the other, neither North American nor Mexican, and certainly not both. How to approach this space without falling victim to the common mythological trappings (e.g. postmodern “hybridization” of culture) is a strategy we have sought out in various other milieux; this tendency toward the outside is undoubtedly part of the configuration known here as disavowal. For this reason, we offer the following translation of “The Post-Borderzone.”

Translator’s note: I have chosen to translate transfronterizo as “borderzone” when used as a substantive (but as “trans-border” when used as an adjective). “Borderzone,” as the reader will find, has the conceptual benefit of highlighting what Yépez believes is at stake in the transfronterizo. Additionally, I have bolded phrases that appear in English in the original text.


The Post-Borderzone

We could speak of a Canclinization of the border. I mean the paradigmatic function that the book, Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity by Néstor García Canclini (1990), had. Some of Canclini’s ideas (accompanied by a swift and intriguing analysis of Tijuana near the end of the volume) became the official definition of border culture in northwestern Mexico between academics, artists, writers, journalists and other cultural agents. We were Canclinized.

Canclini wrote: “During the two periods during which I studied the intercultural conflicts on the Mexican side of the border, in Tijuana, in 1985 and 1988, several times I thought that this city is, along with New York, one of the biggest laboratories of postmodernity.”* Between those communities interested in discourse about the Mexican border, Tijuana became synonymous with a laboratory of “fusion” and “hybrid culture.”

The thesis was, indubitably, exciting. It was a compliment. And it was also, of course, a way of glamorizing the Mexican border region, of making it cool. It was a very convenient myth: increasing the symbolic capital of natives and foreign Tijuanologies. It became our preferred Tijuanology.

The presence of English in the public street of the Mexican border—the tourists’ Av. Revolución as lingua franca—popular anarchitecture—houses made with North American  waste (everything from sheets to tires) —sweatshops—industrial ships like Space Invaders that reconstructed the territory—daily crossing of thousands of people between Tijuana and San Diego—and the illegal crossing, now consolidated, in this its legendary venue—border art—artistic scene of Tijuana made famous (protagonizada), in large part, by the bi-national festival of works for the site-specific InSite, plus the emergence of a vibrant border art scene lead by artists that used the urban, para-Situationism, recycling and an attitude of do it yourself—and movements like that of (post-Mexican) border literature and Nortec (that fused the sound of popular Northern music and electronica): all of these things seemed to justify that Tijuana and/or the Mexican border were defined as an autonomous zone, a room of its own.

But there was something suspicious in the postulate, which seemed, at least, hyperbolic.

For starters, the Mexican border as “hybrid culture,” was an enthusiastic application of postmodernist theories—closer to Venturi and Lyotard than Jameson or Clifford—and, in this sense, a version more concerned with how it explained the border through constructed models  to explicate other imaginaries and specific environments.

There were those who, for example, signaled that using the work of Guillermo Gómez Peña as representative of border culture (from the Mexican side, in Tijuana) implied, on the one hand, circumventing the literature produced by the zone (we say, the work of Rosina Conde, Luis Humberto Crosthwaite, Roberto Castillo, Rafa Saavedra, only to mention four authors from Tijuanese-border literature). This was the signaling that on multiple occasions I heard in forums about the border literature critic, Humberto Félix Berumen, author of the study Tijuana la horrible: Entre la historia y el mito (2003). Canclini was perceived by some discursive agents of the region as a new chapter from a recurrent discourse that folklorized (in this case with globalistics) the city and a new avatar of the myth (from damned city to hybrid city, from city of perdition to city of fusion).

We went, then, constructing a critical response to Canclini’s thesis that, although proceeding from a serious academic reflection, possessed strong tints of pop or, at least, that is how they were received. As Canclini himself underscored in his book, Tijuana possesses a tenacious spirit of self-definition and re-territorialization through which this definition was submitted to discussion. It was not, precisely, a self-definition and, yet, to many it was gratified, justified, theorized, aestheticized.

The weight of Canclini’s vision imposed itself. The idea of Tijuana as “hybrid,” “postmodern” entity was consolidated for more than a decade. It was an explicative model far too attractive and the “laboratory of postmodernity” figure or the “hybrid culture” expression polysemic or ambiguous enough to lead to diverse interpretations or semiosis, even misunderstandings (as, in effect, occurred in many of those who cited or reminisced about such phraseology linked to Canclini).

Very few warned that despite Canclini’s acuity, his definition involved an aestheticization of the border, hence, a depoliticization.

Furthermore, Canclini’s idea, that was intriguing in his book, was worn out by other authors or references; it became more and more light, trivializing it. “Postmodernity” was understood as an advance (in true Hegelian, synthetic, fusional, global style), a space-time in which one cooked up a new lifestyle formula. Tijuana as city made on demand, self-designed culture.

The Mexican border as “hybrid culture” became a cool, uncritical label used in and out without the analytic context in which it appeared in Canclini. On the other side, those of us who signaled certain weaknesses of the thesis were disqualified and misinterpreted. (Canclini was an authority; supported, even, by the regional academia.) In my case, from a playful-literary (lúdicoliteraria) perspective, in books like Tijuanologías (2006) or Made in Tijuana (2005), in which texts appeared that were reproduced in magazines at the end and beginning of this century, I argued that the cultural logic of Tijuana was a continuation of Mexican cultural logic, it was one of its avatars and not primordially a synthetic or hybrid culture (a “third nation” to utilize the term that Antonio Navalón, the entrepreneur and cultural promoter, employed in connection with an art-advertising and education campaign to understand the city from this model). My question was: laboratory (laboratorio) or abortion clinic (abortorio) of postmodernity? Space of union, amalgam and synthesis of cultures or site where asymmetries, inequalities and repulsion between cultures are made more evident? Fusion or fission?

The typical reception accused me of utilizing a nationalist model (a nationalist defense) of the border, which was not in any way my intention. But it was equated to denying the exactitude of the theory of the hybrid with defending a “purity.” What I argued was that fortunately or unfortunately Tijuanese border culture was part of the process belonging to Mexican cultures and the postmodern theory of hybridization was an involuntary (and new) strategy to blur the contradictions between cultures here in tension, so that hybridization is not more than a confirmation of the most reactionary elements from cultural systems and, therefore, a conservative cultural strategy, rather than an innovative one. I do not pretend to repeat the arguments that I have settled in other texts, I would only like to signal that Canclini’s thesis was of great value to accelerating reflection about the borderzone.

Gradually, my reply to Canclini’s thesis had won certain attention. 9/11 and the increase of drug-related violence made the optimistic theses about (Tijuanese) border culture leave their site for other, less festive, positions. The party of the idea of the hybrid and the laboratory of postmodernity began to be eclipsed. Goodbye, Happy Hybrido.

Recently an urban study by the investigator Tito Algería appeared: “Metrópolis Transfronteriza. Revisión de la hipótesis y evidencias de Tijuana, México y San Diego, Estados Unidos” (2009). That study is a response to other books that became paradigmatic, like Where North Meets South: Cities, Space, and Politics on the U.S.-Mexico Border (1990) or Postborder City: Cultural Spaces of Bajalta California (2003) edited by M. J. Dear and G. Leclerc, whose thesis consisted, fundamentally, in the trans-border or hybrid character of Tijuana.

From the opening pages, Alegría warns:

The general conclusion is that Tijuana and San Diego are different as much in urban form as in their generative mechanisms of forms: both cities are not part of a systemic unit and, therefore, do not conform to a trans-border metropolitan region… When referring to these nearby cities as “trans-border metropolis,” the aforementioned conceptualization is of an impressionistic nature and has a weak theoretical foundation…

As someone said at a presentation in Tijuana, Alegría’s book is a “letdown” to the defenders of the trans-border utopia. In this work there is no mention, which I remember, to Canclini, since it deals with the urban aspect and not the cultural. But the conclusion of this academician ascertained what others had speculated or questioned from philosophical or literary dimensions. The trans-border city was another myth.

Therefore, Alegría’s book alleges that, at least in the economic sense, a trans-border entity does not exist. Each locality on each side of the border works in accord to its own economic structure and model of distinct urban growth/formation. I suspect that this book, whose polemic value is high due less to its tone—it is an academic book, after all—than to its implications—fundamentally seeks to prove with hard data the irrelevance of speaking about the borderzone in this region of the globe. However, the book will have to be set aside, because the borderzone thesis, despite the context of strengthening the division between both sides of the border (the wall, which is not only physical but also increasingly a cultural, social, economic wall), continues being a position that sustains everything from academic careers and disciplinary phraseologies to artistic projects and personal hopes. In the following years we will see what befalls investigations like those of Alegría’s. If they create a counterweight or are neutralized and silenced, as I suspect will occur, it will be due to not only not promoting the persistent myth of the borderzone/hybrid/postmodern, but also not offering another brilliant myth or possible semiotic trend. It is, so to speak, a killjoy (aguafiestas) theory.

But those of us who have postulated the necessity of replacing dominant concepts (and metaphors) in academia and discourse about the U.S.-Mexico border, know that fusion is not the leading dynamic of cultural formation (but other phenomena like fission); it is rather the borderzone or a utopia (and like utopia it will reflect, therefore, the hegemonic paradigms) or we will have to adjust the way in which we define phenomena like that of communities, families or individuals that intersect or conceive their existential realities moving through both nations (and various cultures).

Something is clear, and it is advantageously contradictory: there are not trans-border cities but communities and individuals that live, cross, and interact in cultures divided by borders and heterogeneous structures of both countries.

But the borderzone, as such, is an outdated concept. The borderzone implies a continuity of logics, a shared system or continuous or correlative zone (whether economic or semiotic). But what stands between the two sides of the border are discontinuities, fractures or, as I like to say, failures.

What is the border? This question follows without response.

We have a hint: it is increasingly more certain that we have to think in post-borderzone terms.

* Since this book is already in English, I have used its translation of this passage: Néstor García Canclini, Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity, trans. Christopher L. Chiappari and Silvia L. Lopez (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 233.

Translated (with introduction) by Jake Nabasny.