entering the borderlands

learning to live in complicated places

entering the borderlands

I think a lot about borders and what they promise vs what they do, and I think about it in all kinds of ways because borders are more than just geographic lines in the sand. Borders act differently on people depending on who they are. I live near the US/Canada border and for us it is more of an inconvenience than a barrier. We cross once a week or so to pick up mail at a US PO box (the rental of which costs less than the accumulated shipping of many items into Canada), get some cheap beer, and fill the gas tank. I got my social work degree in the US and became so familiar to the border staff that they often asked if I’d done the readings for that day. Once, noticing my prof in line behind me, I admitted that I hadn’t and asked them not to tell him when he came through next. He also crossed daily because although he lived in the US, his daughter attended a specialized school in Canada so he crossed the border to drop her off and then again to pick her up. And for almost 20 years my spouse worked in the US, crossing regularly to go to work, feeling anxiety every time he needed to renew his work visa which always came through without a hitch.

This kind of freedom isn’t available for all travellers, many of whom must apply for travel visas, nor is it available for migrant workers for whom borders are containment systems both at home and abroad. In her book Border & Rule, Harsha Walia describes the various ways that bordering regimes act globally to create and control migrant labour stripping them of opportunities at home and the rights and the ability to change employers abroad. I have friends who organize with migrant farm workers, and the farmers who employ them routinely, if illegally, hold onto health cards and other documents “to keep them safe.” Of course, migrant labour isn’t limited to agriculture. There are many forms of labour in the service and care sectors as well as in the construction of everything from pipelines to FIFA World Soccer stadiums where owners benefit from the ability to import an easily controlled labour group. And we would be mistaken to think of this labour as unskilled, in fact the whole concept of unskilled labour is a myth. There are skills that are valued, and skills that are not. Calling something “unskilled labour” is just a way to both devalue the labor and vilify the laborers. After all, the story goes, if it’s easy work then a Canadian or American could do it but they’re either too lazy (which is why they don’t have better jobs) or the migrants are stealing jobs. Which is ridiculous anyway. You can’t steal a job. You can be desperate enough to accept being exploited in ways that somebody else won’t accept, but that’s on the system that creates these circumstances. I don’t fault people for trying to survive.


All of this brings me to the possibilities of borderlands rather than borders. Aaron Mills’ dissertation on Anishinaabe governance is not nearly as dry as it sounds and he writes about a completely different model for living based on how the Anishinaabe people have lived and organized themselves for a very long time. Instead of hard lines drawn around the edges of a territory that need to be agreed upon and then defended, Anishinaabe governance sits in centers that then radiate influence outwards with diminishing levels of weight the further out from the center you are. These edges, borderlands if you will, become places that are layered with what has radiated from other centers. Add to that the mobility of Anishinaabe communities around seasonal needs and you see a shifting and fluid model for relationship between those centers as well as fertile ground for growth and change in those borderlands.

Living at the center of Anishinaabe communities meant being in the midst of ceremony and decision-making. But what of those who, for various reasons, did not live at the center? What of those who lived in those borders, those gradients in the thicknesses of our lived relationships? Because that is where many of us lived, still live. My father’s Ojibwe language was more like Oji-Cree, a blending of Ojibwe and Cree that my language teacher from Wikwemikong was able to understand although it took some work, and there are people who identify themselves as Oji-Cree because that is how they formed in those borderlands, neither one nor the other but somehow both. The Métis and Lumbee people are other examples of peoples who emerged from those borderlands, people for whom going home was not possible and whose subsequent emergence created new centers to revolve around and from which influence radiated outwards to become part of those overlapping gradients.

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedAnd if going home is denied me then I will have to stand and claim my space, making a new culture - una cultura mestiza - with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and my own feminist architecture.

In Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria writes about being Chicana, about the borders of race and language, of family and sexuality and all the ways that home is denied to her by those who are trying to hold onto their own forms of community, patriachal forms that benefit some at the expense of others. She builds that home by reaching back into her history. She reaches past colonization, including that colonization by the Aztecs who built their own hierachies of power which erased and and distorted the relationships between men and women, creating a society of classes instead of clans and wealth that moved upwards. She reaches back to Coatlalopeuh, She Who Has Dominion Over Serpents that the Catholics remade as the Lady of Guadelupe and throughout her book she writes about the way that Coatlalopeuh was divided into polarities of womanhood that are no longer useful, if they ever were. She restores Coatlalopeuh and restores herself, finding the wholeness that has been denied to her along with home. But this reaching backwards isn’t for arcane power. I always worry about that, particularly since that is something that fascists do, seek for an ancient knowledge that will give them power and assure their primacy. Gloria isn’t looking for primacy. She is looking for roots and belonging. For a center to revolve around where she can build with others who, like her, are denied the ability to go home.

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when published“Fascism is an ideology that draws on old, ancient, and even arcane myths of racial, cultural, ethnic, and national origins to develop a plan for the “new man.” … It is a form of ultranationalist ideology developed through patriarchal mythmaking which seems the destruction of the modern world and the “rebirth” of an organic community led by natural elites through a fusion of technological advances and cultural tradition.”

I really like this definition of fascism offered by Alexander Reid Ross in his book Against The Fascist Creep because although we often talk about fascism we don’t really have good definitions for it so it comes to mean almost anything. We know that it’s white supremacist and that Hitler and Mussolini were fascists and that Indiana Jones hates them, but we think of it as kind of the extreme end of the right wing and although it can be, it is not necessarily so. It is present on the left too, labour has a long history of supporting fascist policies and vilifying Black, Jewish, Chinese, and other migrant labour. Even Cesar Chavez, the leader of the National Farm Workers Association, was guilty of that until his later years. The environmental movement is riddled with fascist ideology that elevates nature and frames humans as the problem, rather than simply identifying the capitalist class and system as the destructive force. Our current geological era is called the Anthropocene in recognition of the impact that humans are having on the earth and it is true that we shape the environment. We shape it and it shapes us, but the destructive shaping, the extraction and terraforming that happens, that’s very recent and the result of capitalist-driven industry.

I don’t object to an elevation of nature or the recognition that it is filled with sentient spiritual beings who have their own relationships with each other and their creator, however you understand that, but I do object to any kind of ideology that sees all humans as the plague or imagines a scenario in which only some deserving humans survive in order to save the world. I once heard a friend respond to a tsunami that killed thousands of people in India by saying that it was tragic, but Gaia was cleansing herself. When the pandemic first hit in 2020 and people were staying home, I unfriended or got unfriended by a lot of people who were espousing similar things on Facebook. We are all in this together.

Borders deny people the ability to go home. To be at home. We can say that migrants and refugees should just go home but when home has been bombed or had everything extracted from it, then going home is denied to them. Bordering regimes like policing or child welfare deny people the ability to go home. Even the way that housing is generated and made available denies people the ability to go home and creates borderlands in our cities. We draw our own borders around who belongs and who doesn’t. We create our own kind of formal and informal religious or ethno-states that determine belonging by drawing hard boundaries around who is in and who is out. I know far too many people for whom religion has denied them the ability to go home.

So we build. And what is the difference between what we build in these borderlands, what Gloria is building with her own lumber and bricks and mortar, and what fascists are building? What is the difference between Gloria reaching back into her own Indigenous past for the stories that will give her life meaning and fascists looking to ancient nordic or hindu gods? Aren’t we all just trying to find meaning in old stories, find something that helps us understand how to be human and build communities with those with whom we can be at home? What is the difference?

I think the difference is in the borders, or the lack of them, and the way borders shape and maintain power imbalance. Because we rarely talk about power when we talk about race and that’s important. White people and Christians often talk about being persecuted or the victims of reverse racism or discrimination, but no matter how often fascists and those who flirt with them insist otherwise, they aren’t the ones experiencing that state sanctioned or extra-legal production of group vulnerabilities to premature death which Ruth Wilson Gilmore identifies in her definition of racism.

We build with the willingness to let those muddy impure borderlands exist. We build with a willingness to exist in those gradients, the variations in the thicknesses of our lived relationships. There will always be centers to revolve around, places where those who can devote themselves to knowing and practicing are able to do so, where those who are uncomfortable with change and need the stability of the center can feel safe. But there will also to be space for new things to emerge. Not a nietzschean ubermensch who will rule the world with defined roles and separate but equal heirarchies based on gender and race, but new people to build new centers from their own mortar and bricks and lumber around which others will revolve which will in turn create new kinds of borderlands. A thousand worlds are waiting to be born, but not a thousand religious or ethnostates. Not a thousand worlds with hard borders that must be defended, but a thousand worlds that overlap, shaping and being shaped by.

Hey! If you want to get involved with Migrant Workers Rights in Canada you can do that by clicking on the highlighted text. They are working to regularize status for all migrants which will build a safer and more just world.