The Border And Its Bodies: The Embodiment Of Risk Along The U.S.-Mexico Line

Editors: Thomas E. Sheridan and Randall H. McGuire
Publisher: Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2019. 312p.
Reviewer: Russell Crandall | September 2021

In the summer of 2015, María Concepción Ibarra Pérez, a woman in her late twenties from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, achingly desired to reach North Carolina to link up with her sorely missed ten-year-old son. Yet to get to the Carolinas, she would first have to get up, over, and past the ten-yard-high wall that straddles the border community of Ambos Nogales. Like so many of her Mexican and Central American compatriots in similar circumstances, María hired a coyote (“smuggler”) to clamber up the ladder he had located on the Mexican side of the barrier. But the coyote’s ladder was no help in terms of getting down on the gringo side of the wall; she quickly fell and broke her leg in several places. After having her injury treated, the U.S. Border Patrol deported María to the northern provincial city of Nogales.

This sort of torturous account of bodies figuratively and literally impacted at and around the U.S.-Mexico border lies at the heart of this ardent, well-documented edited volume, The Border and Its Bodies. As co-editors Thomas E. Sheridan and Randall H. McGuire explain, the book’s genesis dates back to 2016, when a diverse set of archaeologists and cultural and biological anthropologists convened a symposium—in an intentionally selected location just 50 miles from the border— tasked with defining and analyzing how danger amalgamated in the lives and deaths of unauthorized Mexican and Central American immigrants in the sprawling bi-national region loosely called “the borderlands.” Given the extent of the trauma and suffering facing migrants, the participants understandably started with the physiological and physical trauma of getting across—sometimes repeatedly—an increasingly militarized and lethal international boundary. Painfully, one need not travel but a stone’s throw from the conference site to be able to encounter, say, a memorial cross with this lettering, “Omar García Herrera, Age 28, 06/26/18.”

The symposium project’s goal, as it took shape during and after the event’s isolated yet central convocation locale, was to understand how the cross-border immigrant experience “becomes embedded in individuals, how that embodiment transcends the crossing of the line, and how it varies depending on subject positions and identifying categories, especially race, class, and citizenship.” This ambitious conceptualization, the editors posit, must be seen as part of a variety of structural ills: racism against American Indians; NAFTA’s gutting of vulnerable communities; and civil war in Guatemala — as well as other “push factors” such as drug trafficking and the war against such illicit activity. The various authors ask a number of searing questions: Why do the migrants take such unimaginable risks to travel through Mexico and attempt to enter the U.S.? Why are they terrified to return to their home nations? Why don’t their home nations do more to address the push factors? Most critically, though, the contributors ask why they are dying at the border? Perhaps another question the group might have included is: Why does the United States attempt to push most of the illegal migrants out?

Be that as it may, here the editors offer their own sweeping critique of the border/migrant status quo: “At a larger scale, the embodied experiences of undocumented migrants on the U.S.-Mexico line are part of a global process of immigration from the global south to the global north, a process that kills many more people in other parts of the world like the Mediterranean.”

Russell Crandall, Professor of Latin American Studies, Davidson College

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