Borders and Bodies



“The ability to respond is what is meant by responsibility, yet our cultures take away our ability to act— shackle us in the name of protection. Blocked, immobilized, we can’t move forward, can’t move backwards. That writhing serpent movement, the very movement of life, swifter than lightening, frozen…We do not engage fully. We do not make full use of our faculties. We abnegate. And there in front of us is the crossroads and choice: to feel a victim where someone else is in control and therefore responsible and to blame (being a victim and transferring the blame on culture, mother, father, ex-lover, friend, absolves me of responsibility), or to feel strong, and, for the most part, in control.” ~ G. Anzaldúa (1987:20-21)


“In poisoning themselves by breathing toxic, mind-numbing fumes, the inhabitants of Barrio Libre defy sovereign powers and material forms of subjugation of living normal lives, submitting to power and its ends…[It is] an embrace of imminent death as a political act, a pathological, delinquent refusal, a refusal to live life as a normal subject of neoliberalism. Barrio Libre captures one avenue where the grossly dispossessed and grossly marginalized retain some power in conditions of neoliberal governmentality and the accompanying new exercises of sovereignty.” ~G. Rosas (2012:119)


(Image of Nogales sewer lines,


The concept of borders, approached as a biopolitical technology for the management of bodies in the era of global neoliberalism, is a powerfully generative one. That is, the notion of a border, and the lived experience of a borderland as a real and productive spatial entity, constitutes a life and death-defining field of power that is generative of profoundly “Othered” subjectivities, which themselves are made to embody the always-incomplete state of being— what Gloria Anzaldua calls being “the forbidden” (p.3). In the pairing of readings reviewed here (Gilberto Rosas’ 2012 Barrio Libre: Criminalizing States and Delinquent Refusals of the New Frontier and Anzaldua’s 1987 Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza), the violently militarized and policed US-Mexico borderland is examined as a space in which the sovereignty of the neoliberal state, as well as of the individual subject, is necessarily always in a process of producing its own ongoing incompleteness, and in which the ability to exercise power over life and death is a power that is highly contested for.

While the charcter of the two readings are quite different, both ultimately make the same critical interjection through their reflective studies: That the borderland production of forbidden, delinquent, deviant, and criminalized subjectivities, and the subsequent self-conscious embracing of such subjectivities by the very bodies upon which they are imposed, must not be read as pure subjugation, in which the racialized, sexualized, impoverished and brutalized subjects of the border can only be seen as victims— that is, as the necessary price that must be paid for the maintenance of national security. On the contrary, they argue that many subjective embodiments of delinquency, or deviancy, found within the US-Mexico borderlands, must instead be seen as enactments of an explicit refusal of victimhood. While not quite the same as “agency” in its fullest sense, this refusal is nevertheless a product of individuals defying the limits placed upon them by an oppressive neoliberal territorial strategy, insofar as they ascribe new meanings to their deviancy, thereby removing their bodies and lives (even if by means of death) from the totalizing control apparatuses of organized state violence.

More specifically, the deviancy of subjects at the border constitutes what Rosas describes as a political discourse, in which the pathologizing practices of criminality and the bodily practices of self-destruction (exemplified by the delinquent youths of Barrio Libre, who brutally victimize indigenous border-crossers as their “others”, while expediting their own early deaths by recreationally inhaling the toxic fumes of paint or glue products) are neither strictly coping mechanisms nor violent practices of survival. They are, instead, political acts of refusing to be victimized as constructed neoliberal subjects. In other words, the youth of Barrio Libre choose to be criminals, as the alternative to being wrongfully constructed as such through the “nightmarish” white American discourses of terrorism; likewise, these youth also self-consciously deny a militaristic border police the biopolitical power of making them live/letting them die, by taking their own deaths into their own hands. The scenario poses the question of, to what extent “death-producing technologies” are strictly exercised as unchallenged, powerful only from the top-down. What power relations are transformed or generated by subjects’ refusal of state power at the border in this way?

Determining which discourses, and whose discourses dominate, must also be considered in this regard. That increasing militarization and use of advanced surveillence and warfare technologies at the border is seen as successful by policing personnel, while death rates at the border continue to grow, underscores the point that Rosas, in particular, repeatedly draws us to: that sovereignty-making at the border is a violently racist and sexist normalizing biopolitical project at its core, and the nightmarish fears used to justify it cannot precede this fact.

As a final note, it is worth discussing how visual imagery is heavily deployed throughout both texts, as the literary device of choice for evoking the problematic character of the borderlands, or “new frontier” (as Rosas calls it). Terms like “shit”, “oozing”, “nightmarish”, “mongrel”, “naked”, “invisible”, “deformity” are interwoven throughout Rosas’ and Andalzua’s analyses of those who are racialized, gendered, and altogether othered at the border, conveying the powerful imposition of violent discourses on the body, and on the spaces through which the body is disciplined and subjectivity produced. As Rosas writes, “neoliberal sovereignty is forged on people deemed to be on the margins of the state, in the [every-day] practices of policing as sovereignty making” (p.11). Underpinning this are both new and historical discourses of racism and gender, which violently operate in silence, as Mestizaje’s imagined fantasy of anti-racism ideologically “prohibits public discussion of how nightmares about other bodies haunt everyday social relations in Mexico” (Rosas 2012:79). Similarly, as male-dominated “culture…professes to protect” women, “woman” is thus categorically made into, always and unquestionably, “the stranger, the other. She is man’s recognized nightmarish pieces, his Shadow-Beast” (Andalzua 1987:17). That such categorical referents of otherness are constructed and reproduced on and through bodies at the borderland is, in fact, the very nexus through which any meaning of state sovereignty today continues to be sustained as generative.

1. G. Rosas. 2012. “Barrio Libre: Criminalizing States and Delinquent Refusals of the New Frontier”. Durham. Duke University Press.
2. G. Anzaldua. 1987. “The Homeland, Aztlan” & “Movimientos de rebeldia y las cultural que traicionan”, pp.1-23, In “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza”. San Fransisco: Aunt Lute Books.

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