2018 Kearney Lecture Forecast

The Border as Symbol and as Human Reality: An Interview with Josiah (Joe) Heyman

by Sara Wilson, PhD Student at the University of Oklahoma

Dr. Josiah (Joe) Heyman is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. Over the past few months, Dr. Heyman and I have spoken about his thoughts in preparation for the upcoming Kearney lecture, which will be held Thursday afternoon, April 5 at the Loews Hotel in Philadelphia. For those looking to understand the controversies surrounding the Mexican border more deeply, his lecture promises to be both thought-provoking and timely; meanwhile, as this interview demonstrates, Dr. Heyman and his own work embody the inspiring legacy of Michael Kearney.

Sara Wilson: What can you tell us about the content of your upcoming Spring 2018 Kearney lecture in Philadelphia, and what are some of the influences—intellectual, geopolitical, news stories—that might be framing your thinking?

Joe Heyman: Well, I’m trying to grapple with the way that the US-Mexico border has been a one-dimensional symbolic focus of debate. There is a xenophobic tendency to see the border as a place that’s a unique site of threat, and—to elaborate on that—I’m very much trying to understand, to grapple with and reply to the appeal that Donald Trump had with getting crowds to shout, “build the wall! build the wall!” So I’m trying to understand what drives that, but am also trying to understand the other side of the debate: the ways in which the border and the relationship with Mexico is opening up people’s imaginations and ideas about emerging trends.

SW: What’s your methodology for trying to understand this?

JH: We did actually have a systematic review of media studies that a student I supervised last year worked on; using did a random sample and keywords, we pulled up news stories—deliberately got major mainstream sources and also ones on the right wing and the left wing—and particularly identified ways in which the discussion treats all of this as if it’s the emergence of a sudden and therefore scary crisis, rather than a long-term process. Another thing that came out was the importance of the border as a symbol, a one-dimensional symbol. So I’m trying to understand the one-dimensionality as well as another kind of multi-dimensionality, which is the local, or regional, social relations and culture. These are actually kind of complex; it’s not like everybody just loves each other—we’re not in this kind of big, happy hug all the time at the border (although people here do hug each other! It’s part of Mexico). But the point is to try to understand the process by which the border is debated, and interwoven with the idea of there being a debate over this key symbol, to also look at the interaction between being treated in a one-dimensional way as a symbol, which includes people who are pro-immigrant as well as anti-immigrant, and at the same time trying to actually understand the more complex view that emerges from community discussions and community perspectives in the region itself. So one of the things that I see anthropologists being able to really contribute significantly to is the process of developing regional voices and perspectives that are complex but also important in the face of ways that people and places are treated with one single dimension.

So, I’m going to be developing all of this in connection with a notion that the border, instead of being the outer edge of a bounded, coherent, internally-focused nation-state—instead of that, the border is actually a place where key relationships and key interchanges occur. The obvious symbol of this is bilingualism, but there are many others. And so the border is actually a center for relationships, the place that is in the middle of these many relationships involved in debate. If you view the border as periphery, it’s this scary outer edge where unknown things can enter, whereas if you view it as a center, it’s a place that is dynamic and forward-looking, creative.

SW: One of the things you’re asked to do in the Kearney lecture is to triangulate the intersection of migration, human rights, and transnationalism with a specific focus on a contemporary issue or problem. Would you say that the contemporary issue you’ll focus on will be the border as symbol? The border as stereotyped periphery?

JH: Yes, the border as symbol in migration politics counterbalanced with the border as a massive human reality, which is actually the place where millions of people live, who have roles on all sides of it. You know, the border patrol staff live here; the people who give shelter to migrants passing through live here; etc. So on the one hand, we have this complex and debated regional reality, and then on the other hand we have a stereotype. The border itself is inherently transnational and relational because it’s the place where relations are built across bounded nation-states. And the issue that will probably give me the most material to discuss in this talk is going to be migration, both because it is something I have worked on both as a scholar and as a political activist for decades, and also because the border stereotype comes out most powerfully in migration politics. Although I may, depending on length and timing and everything, discuss other things like global export industries which are very important on the Mexican side of the border. I could, if I had an endless amount of time (and if people wouldn’t all completely collapse!), talk about a whole bunch of things that are manifestations of these issues—different dimensions.

SW: If you had to condense all the complexities of the border as symbol, what does the border symbolize? What is it a symbol of, and to whom?

JH: To be clear and schematic about it, I’ll reduce the matter to two contrasting key symbols. On the reactive nationalist side, the border is a perfect wall that can prevent all threats from penetrating the safe womb, or homeland, from outside; important in this kind of thinking is the idea that a major set of threats come from outside and are not actually caused by lines of connection or process that link inside and outside (like our foreign policy). I’ve written clearly and rigorously about this kind of symbolism recently, in the NACLA Border Wars blog, so I will bear on the patience of readers to refer them to that item. The other key symbol is opposite and reactive, which is the border as a symbol of Mexican-origin people in the United States, a symbol of immigrant oppression but also liberation, and a symbol of transformation in terms of breaking that first “us versus them” framework. I’ve criticized describing the actual border this way—it makes for better creativity and organizing than for social science, which is not so neat and nice—but I’ve come to have more and more respect for the border as a counter-symbol to reactive nationalism.

SW: How does the border as symbol benefit certain groups, or certain American narratives? Who benefits from keeping the border a misunderstood region?

JH: Important question! We can see this precisely in the political success (as it were) of Donald Trump. The reactive nationalist symbolism of the border, as in the “big beautiful wall,” combined with the racism against Mexicans (and other immigrants, on other occasions) serves very well to scapegoat others and mobilize a base of emotionally charged support. And we see what came out of that—a big tax cut gift to the rich and corporations. It is a classic example of the use of scapegoating to push a separate agenda. But I’d add another, less obvious example, which is that all this security, law enforcement, etc., representation of the border—and that includes critics—serves to hide from view the remarkable system of low-wage labor exploitation in the maquiladora export factories on the Mexican side of the border. No one talks about them and mostly they are out of academic fashion. Yet their conditions are shocking, and there are millions of people affected, and they’re producing consumer goods we use every day.

SW: Why is it so important to cease viewing the border as a symbol, and instead view it as a “massive human reality,” in your words—a place where many people live and work?

JH: Because symbolic thought—and we can’t avoid using it, we are humans—is a highly effective mechanism for hiding things. It simplifies, reduces, heightens some realities but casts others into darkness. An important role of social science is to demystify, not just to discuss the world of appearances (but we do need to do that). Now, what is mystified here is the everyday realities, good and bad, of millions of people. They just disappear. I mentioned briefly the maquiladoras before. If you just focus on the visible symbol of a wall, pro or con, then you are not asking how the poor wages and working conditions in those factories are the main alternative to migrating without papers. And let’s set aside moral outrage. You have not learned about working youth, women and men, and the families they live with, and how they negotiate money with their parents, and how they use second-hand goods from the United States to survive and thrive, and what it means to grow up on the border with lots of guns and meth and minor league thugs all around. And I can come up with any number of other mystified realities from both sides.

SW: What do you think might be the long-lasting impact if people and policy-makers continue to view the border as a one-dimensional, static space, a periphery?

JH: We really are at risk of this: promoting a social mix dominated by criminal organizations and coercive state enforcement organizations. They feed off of each other, gain profits and budgets and public justifications from each other. We’ve taken some steps in that direction already. Criminal organizations are quite strong and scary in border Mexico (and elsewhere in the country). Unaccountable money and guns are important in the United States. The U.S. federal state (which of course does a lot of things) has a quite unconstitutional, very pervasive surveillance and security apparatus all along the border. It extends into Mexico actually, and so does U.S. immigration and drug policy; control of transportation routes and Mexico’s southern border has intensified a lot. So we are seeing a preview of all this (especially in Mexico but also more quietly and insidiously in the United States) and we should be very concerned.

SW: Would you address the ways that more liberal scholars and thinkers, perhaps friendly to immigrants, might still view the border not only as periphery, but also as a dangerous space, as in those key symbols you outlined above? How would you approach not only Trump’s “build-the-wall” crowd, but also those who are friendly to the plight of immigrants, but who may operate under some of the same problematic ideas?

JH: That’s a very important point, and it’s going to need to be an important point in my lecture. In both cases the views are very simplified and one-dimensional. You get this kind of romantic populism, a notion that there are all of these people who are heroically resisting oppression; at the same time, they’re also the one-dimensional, passive victims of big scary forces. I mean, like every stereotype, there’s actually some truth to that, but it’s very simplistic and doesn’t accord near enough agency to all of the different actors who are part of migration processes and part of global capitalist industrialization in the border region and so forth. And so one part of it is to—anthropologists will all understand this—but an important part of it is to push to get beyond victim narratives, more towards narratives that involve the question, how do we bring active agents together to be able to construct new societies? I think that the kinds of ways we talk about social problems of migration, criminality, and industrialization, as well as other things that happen at the border, should be a discussion that recognizes a complex collective interaction and building-up of a new society rather than something that’s just a victim narrative. So I plan to push against the victim narrative, and I would challenge even people who consider themselves activists to do so.

The other thing I’d say has to come out in this talk somewhere is discussion about becoming tolerant of ambiguity and complexity. I think the border is a place where there’s a lot of acceptance of things that are not moral absolutes, acceptance of partialness and ambiguity. A good example of this is the need to figure out how to have legalization strategies for various types of unauthorized activities like unauthorized migration. Right now, the debate is very much cast in absolute terms—that these people broke the law. A reply to this is to recognize that laws are complex, they get broken, but we can fix them, and the way we can fix them is not by imposing rigid, absolute solutions, but by mutually recognizing more open and shared sorts of solutions, rearrangements. So I’m interested in the theme of mutuality and the theme of rearrangement.

SW: Where do these victim narratives—the idea that immigrants are passive victims of forces larger than themselves—come from? Is this a side effect of news stories, anthropological study, expert opinion, a constellation of stories arising from non-profits and NGOs?

JH: To be fair to anthropologists—we are always poor-mouthing ourselves—I think we rarely contribute to these stereotypes. And most border experts are pretty responsible; I’d disagree sometimes with a given person, but if we do mean expert and not a gun-for-hire propaganda flack (Breitbart has started doing this to the border), most are pretty well-informed.  NGOs and non-profits do try to sell passive victim stories—I was going to say “exaggerated,” but a lot of things happen at the border, like border crossing deaths by the thousands over the years, that are not exaggerated. But many NGOs are quite correct in what they say—it is more like the “take pity please” frame that takes over and reduces the agency of the victims. There are people who know more about this than me. So, this is the long route to the key issue, which is some complicated mutually reinforcing process between media stories and public frameworks of reception. This is really hard to piece apart, and again there are other people who know more than I do. But my sense is that the sudden appearance of shocking news out of context, from far away—even good quality reporting—creates a sense of chaos and crisis, that calls for dramatic responses like sending troops to the border (this happens) and electing a wall-promising President. Jeremy Slack, Emily Guerra, and I have a forthcoming article in Journal of the Southwest on this (and also a Spanish version in Mexico, we anticipate). We focus specifically on the arrival of Central American children and families that even in a humanitarian portrayal also brought out one-dimensional views of the perilous border. But there has to be a longer-term tendency among some (not all!) people to think this way, which in the United States involves racism against Mexicans and Latin Americans generally, and also the exalted and very hard-to-question imaginary perfectionism of geopolitical borders. Those factors feed back and forth with input like news stories and politicians’ words, and create a bond that is very hard to break.

SW: You mentioned above that victim narratives don’t accord “near enough agency to all of the different actors who are part of migration processes and part of global capitalist industrialization in the border region.” How do we begin to understand the different kinds of agency of those who are part of migration processes? What tools of anthropological study help us understand agency, and in what ways might anthropology as a discipline lack an ability to theorize such agency(ies)?

Anthropologists do a basically good job of describing agency in each ethnographic case. We fall down, mostly, when it comes to generalizing about it (and this is the anthropological plus and minus in so many cases). And I’ve not tackled this, unlike some other general issues—I do not yet have a great answer. It is not just about agency of our favorite ethnographic heroes (people with whom we work in the field). Remember, as in what I said, there is an assemblage of different people (in organizations and networks, as well as individuals) and they have very different degrees of material and ideological power—and they all have agency and they are pushing and tugging with and against each other. A migrant with a cell phone, a bit of money, a few contacts, a confused idea about U.S. asylum policy and some basis for requesting asylum—well, that person has a complicated volition and some ability to choose and act, so it is dehumanizing to treat them just as a passive victim, but boy, they are really low on the power hierarchy, compared to criminal operatives (themselves diverse), Catholic priests and lay volunteers, U.S. Border Patrol agents, lawyers (if they are lucky), immigration judges, and so forth. Migration is not just about migrants’ actions; it is a total social process. And that goes beyond the protean human stuff—very active people we know personally—that is revealed in ethnography. That total social process requires a willingness to synthesize, including but beyond ethnography. That’s my approach, which is different from many anthropologists.

This power-saturated view of agency is maybe too pessimistic because it does not account for both change that takes place by means of disruption—as the dominant system is forced to change in order to cope with disruptive protests and organizing (Piven and Cloward, Poor Peoples’ Movements)—and the change that occurs because of accumulated microscopic shifts. Migration from Mexico and Central America is by microscopic action transforming some aspects of the United States, for the better. By the way, I believe very much in disruption. Even in losses, important transformations occur. But far be it from me to claim my own clear theory of social change.

SW: Aside from studying and theorizing on borders, workers, and labor, you have developed an active role in public policy. What does an active role in public policy look like? What is the relationship between politics and theory, in your opinion or as manifested by your own career? And, how have you arrived at this balance between politics/advocacy/applied work and theory?


JH: Actually, there are some questions that seem important to ask before these, which would deal with what has influenced me. The thing that has influenced me is sort of an intersection of, let’s say, two or three different sets of experiences. One of them is actually being grounded in a particular part of the world—a place-based perspective. I think many anthropologists would be used to the idea of being rooted in a place, but I think a lot of the rest of the academic world, the rest of the social sciences, are not good at thinking about places. My place is obviously the US-Mexico border, and I do research in this area and also live in the US-Mexico border. I think it’s important for me to academically give what I’m good at—give to the community—and as a member of the community, it’s important to be engaged and involved. I’m a citizen of the US and I live on the US side, my university is on the US side, so I have some commitment to both sides, to Mexico and the US, but more to the US, and that combination of things has brought me to deal with US border enforcement policy and its human effects.

And then a second thing which I think is important is that I have thought a good deal about what I’m able to contribute. I am in some cases an activist—I’ll go out to a demonstration, etc.—but what I personally can really contribute is figuring out how my knowledge, my ability to accumulate knowledge, and evaluate it and analyze it and communicate it, can contribute to the public discussion of these controversial issues that have to deal with borders and migration.

So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what could be called “role morality,” of my role as an intellectual, as an academic in this broader field of political debate and controversy. And then, I did come from a tradition within anthropology influenced by history and sociology also, of thinking about society not as a given thing, but as the product of a continuous process of formation and re-formation. I mean, even things that appear to be set in place and continuous—the US-Mexico border has been here since 1848—are in fact continually historically re-made or in some cases repeated, reproduced.

I was very fortunate to be introduced to anthropology by Sidney Mintz, and then to do my PhD with Eric Wolf: they’re of course famous for emphasizing to anthropologists from the late 40s onward the importance of history, process, and connection. So to sort of bring some of this stuff together: my work sort of began in a totally nerdy and not necessarily involved, but in an academic, graduate-student way. I mean, I was involved in politics, I used to be part of Central America solidarity associations and other things like that in the early 80s. But, you know, I went off to go do field work and I did it because I was getting ready to do my PhD. I did some initial fieldwork, and then I went back out to do my doctoral dissertation research. But I was interested in a place that was dynamic and transformational, and growing in importance and that had important relationships of power and inequality that were clear. A place that was not simple. I wanted to study a place where there were many different people of many different historical origins, and different languages and different social classes, and so forth, interacting. And I recognized that that characterized the US-Mexico border. I mean, I somewhat accidentally stumbled onto this, but once I saw what that was like, I realized that I could really identify these Wolfian things at the US-Mexico border: but this is a totally nerdy, book sort of thing, right?

SW: Right, it’s all theoretical, kind of idealized, maybe—

JH: Yeah, so I went to the border to do fieldwork, I was interested in thinking about how you could see some of these historical transformations in looking at people’s life histories. And people made me feel very welcome in spite of my halting Spanish and being a stranger and so forth, so…what made the difference was that I decided that I really had a commitment to the people of the border region, that I wasn’t going to let go of that commitment. I wasn’t just going to come in and extract the knowledge for my dissertation, which eventually became a book, and have an academic career and so forth, that I would try to find ways that I could really contribute, return, something to the region. And this region is so obviously a center point for the investment of capital and enormous levels of trade, enormous manufacturing processes. There’s a huge placement of government agencies—the US government is massive—even years ago, before the beginning of the buildup of immigration enforcement in the early 90s, there was a fair amount of it already there, and there was a lot of drug interdiction, and so forth. But there’s also the Mexican state, and there was violence in Mexico already—drug trafficking connects the two sides, of course. So really, I need to figure out how I can not only make my work relevant to this, but also make my skillset as a scholar relevant to this region. Eventually, I had a job in another place, and was perfectly happy there, but I had the opportunity eventually to go to the University of Texas at El Paso in 2002, and I really jumped at the opportunity to do that, so I have been able to have a good sense of relationship to the place that I study and in which I live.

SW: Professor Kearney provided a model for scholars who were as committed to public policy as they were to academic research. The opportunity (indeed, necessity) of using and following his example today is manifest. What do you admire most about his legacy?

JH: Michael Kearney, in whose honor we have this lecture, quite notably spoke to important public issues as a moral voice. He was an advocate in particular for indigenous migrants in the U.S., really an exemplary person, and I think that he’s a good model to follow for trying to figure out how our scholarship can be in interaction with our public moral positions. I got to know Michael Kearney relatively late, and then he died very sadly, shortly after he retired. But Michael Kearney comes at this same set of questions from the process of being with the migrants, whereas my focus is on institutions of power in transborder regions. So first of all, I was really committed to the border region—I don’t want to say that he wasn’t committed to the border region, but his initial fieldwork was in Oaxaca. And when he moves on to work on border issues it’s because there are Mixtec migrants coming from Oaxaca to California, and he’s encountering these folks at the Baja-California border. His analysis of the border is very sophisticated theoretical analysis, but also his applied work on human rights, on expert testimony, on other such issues—this work comes from being with the migrants. And my work comes from being in the region that they’re crossing through.

But the thing about Kearney that I think is really inspiring is that first of all, he had a clear set of values and choices that he made in his work. I think it’s not simple…he had a clear idea of what his values were, what was at stake. And I know in his case, and I think in my case, and I think we all should recognize, that these things are not obvious: that it takes a great deal of introspection in thinking about where the values we’re advocating—where they come from. The second thing is that he was a very sophisticated, very advanced anthropologist, as an intellectual anthropologist. I think maybe it would be better to call that “intellectual” rather than “academic” anthropology. It is academic, I mean that’s the home for almost all intellectual social scientists, but what’s more important is the style of work. Some of the work that’s done is knowledge for its own sake. If we want to take a broad view of the term, we can call it science.

And the third thing about Michael Kearney was that he was always concerned, in a very grounded, practical way, with figuring out how his scholarly abilities could serve the situations, the expressed and unexpressed needs of the Mixtec migrants that he knew originally in Oaxaca, and then later crossed the border. He was grounded in each one of these things. So, I’ve always, you know when I discovered his work, I found this combination of things to be very inspiring, and it helped me understand what I was wrestling with. And maybe I’ll never be the great anthropologist that he was, but he certainly was inspiring to me.