La Frontera, Language, and Freedom

I grew up near La Frontera, the Mexican-American border. This unique zone designated as the areas surrounding the “thin edge of barbwire born on February 2, 1848,” can be aptly illustrated as “an open wound where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (Anzaldúa 25). The “lifeblood of [these] two worlds” merges along this man-made line “to form a third country” (25). This third country holds its own culture and its own people, seen as gringos by those living south of the thin edge, and transgressors or aliens by those living north of the thin edge; the prohibited and forbidden. When I was a child, my family made a trip from Mexico to the U.S. At a stop during the drive back from Tijuana, we sat in a restaurant, and while waiting to order, my mother told me “mijo, quedate callado, deja que yo ordene, sino, van a saber que somos del norte.” (Son, stay quiet, let me order, if not, they will know we’re from up north.) Puzzled at why I was not allowed to speak, I brushed the request off. However, the next day at school, while talking to another student during break, a teacher told me “hey, try to keep the Spanish at home ok?” I was even more puzzled as to why I was not allowed to speak back at home. What seemed incomprehensible to me then I now consider as a mini example of the common lack of say for those living in the borderlands; a lack of say that turns into the caustic effects of living near the borderlands: a lack of freedom manifested with discrimination and miseducation. As I continued to grow in the area, I slowly began to notice, and now attest, that the curtailment of freedom along La Frontera today can be rooted to the language barriers present in the zone, barriers that should be proactively worked around by Mexican and U.S. policies.

In her masterwork collection of essays Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, contemporary chicana author Gloria Anzaldúa released her tales of growth along the Mexican-American border, including an essay titled How to Tame a Wild Tongue. In it she describes the presence of up to eight different languages used near the border. Most of which are “language[s]” with terms that are neither español ni inglés, but both” (77; see fig. 1). The most popular of these blended languages is Chicano Spanish, a language that is “riddled with anglicisms and archaisms” and further separates into regional variations in California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico (77). The fact that this “patois, forked tongue” language differs enough from the standard language of the neighboring countries led Anzaldúa to the conclusion that the only way for the U.S. and Mexico to tame the wild tongue of Chicano Spanish in order to preserve their countries from another internal division is to simply cut it out (77). Yet by attempting to reduce this separation, this language barrier, and produce more unity towards each respective country’s mainland, each country actually ends up marginalizing the borderland language and their people even more by preventing their ability to take part of one of the three basic human activities.

In The Human Condition, one of the central works of twentieth century philosopher Hannah Arendt, Arendt describes the existence of the three basic human activities: action, work, and labor. The activity of labor is to meet “basic survival needs”, the activity of work is the “professional life and social life,” but the activity of action is the “pinnacle of human experience” achieved within politics, where one can become immortal (Kinsey). Additionally, in Arendt’s essay What is Freedom?, Arendt postulates some of the conditions for her definition of freedom. In this she describes that activity of action takes place within a realm called the public sphere, a precursor to freedom, where discourse amongst citizens is continuous and the production of political policies takes place. Arendt believes that a “politically organized world,” one that surely the U.S. and Mexico claim to be, allows “free men [to] insert [themselves]” into the public sphere “by word and deed” (147). However, this world presupposes that all free men can understand and acknowledge every word and deed given by other free men. This “guaranteed public realm” turns out to not be guaranteed at first for those born near La Frontera, for the “linguistic terrorism” experienced by the borderlands people as the governments try to cut the wild tongue of Chicano Spanish ensures that the presence of those from the borderlands is near absent in the public sphere (Arendt 147; Anzaldúa 80).

In order to cut the tongue of Chicano Spanish, Mexico and the U.S. have attempted to coerce borderlands people to adopt their respective “more standard” language. However, they only have succeeded in causing the “[internalization] of how [Chicano Spanish] has been used against the [borderland people] by the dominant culture” (Anzaldúa 80). A form of shame and anger builds within the borderland people as they are forced to do things like take classes to assimilate their accent, for the existence of an accent in the workplace can negate the possibility of a job. This situation is illustrated in Franz Kafka’s story A Report to an Academy, where an ape is seen in his journey to find a “way out” of a cage that was “too low for [him] to stand up in and too narrow to sit down in.” Finding himself stuck with his “knees bent and trembling” as he tries to balance his new life in a cage, he resorts to imitating human beings in order to be accepted by his captors and let out of the cage. Despite eventually being let out of the cage, the ape still acknowledges that “[he] imitated [human beings] as a way out, and for no other reason.” Similarly, for many borderland people, the paradox and cage of being too American for Mexico and too Mexican for America is too complex of a circumstance to balance. Thus, like the ape, this leads them to accept the forced integration to mainland language and culture, because they can either slowly “starve, or move [out of the cage] and live” (Anzaldúa 32).

Most attempted language integration that the borderland people do accept, particularly in the U.S., falls into an institution that can be coined as the ESL (English as a Second Language) Pipeline. This pipeline is the structure of the education system near the border. When entering into elementary school, the primary question asked towards future students is “do you speak English?” Inevitably, the confluence of culture and language at the border over generations has caused that most kids raised near the border learn a variation of english, or Chicano Spanish. Both of these situations will lead kids into the ESL course track, a scheduling of classes that requires proficiency on an English test in order to escape further placement in this track. In Spanish Speaking Children of the South-West, Herschel T. Manuel includes high school testimonials of teenagers that grew up in this education system. One student describes that “[he] was afraid to enter school” and felt “very self-conscious,” even ostracized, as his non-ESL track peers would “laugh [at] mistake[s] in [his] English” (85). In this case, these issues caused him to “hate [going] to school.” Another student that happened to not have trouble with his studies described the phenomenon he observed that these burdens cause. He was the only “Spanish-speaking student the same age as [his] classmates” during junior high school, and one of “three who went to high school,” because when the student is “[thrown] out of [their] age group, soon [they] quit school” (87; see fig. 2).

This phenomenon causes a perpetual cycle that “renders the entire [borderland] population unable to participate in politics” (Kinsey) “The potential leaders in government, science, engineering, the fine arts, and the professions” are faced with deficiencies in the school, community and home that cause a generational “great loss of human resources” (Manuel 72). According to Arendt, in order to reach influence in the public sphere, one needs to have the basic survival needs and professional life taken care of. Thus, because of the lack of a large number of adults that have the activity of work and labor sufficed, a misrepresented amount of borderland people can not effectively enact policies to counter the deficiencies that have stripped them of their political freedom in the first place.

Another perpetual cycle is seen in an essay by Immanuel Kant, an eighteenth century philosopher, titled What is Enlightenment? In this essay Kant marvels at how “if given freedom,” the freedom to participate in a Arendt-style public sphere, the “few independent thinkers” will help the citizenry “gradually work out of barbarism” (3). In a contemporary context, if barbarism is living as an underrepresented, miseducated, under-resourced people, then surely those few borderland people that reach entrance into the public sphere should be able to slowly but surely cause some influence towards the greater policies enacted on the borderland people. An example of this can be seen in the slow rise of chicano rhetoric and literature, that was seemingly absent for the first hundred years of chicano existence, because neither country accepted the different voice and language the borderland people had. However, this literature slowly burst into a field with many contributors. Regardless, as Kant, a man who was alive at the time of growth of new ideas, explains, we are not “living in an enlightened age” (7). Borderland people are not living in an era where they are given fair share of sovereignty. “We live in an age of enlightenment” (7). Borderland people, with the help of chicano authors, and those few in position of power, are allowing the growth of a freer future by finally using their language and voice, but are currently not close to that ideal future yet.

In the present, however, language-based aggressions constantly faced by borderland people will continue to present a lack of freedom and may continue to in the future, despite the hopeful promise of policy changes. As Arendt states, “freedom comes to pass where the I-will and I-can coincide” (159). In a collection of borderland inspired essays, The Late Great Mexican Border, Benjamin Alire Sáenz writes about his experience as a student at University of Texas at El Paso. In his biographical essay, Sáenz describes how his desire to simply go for a jog was halted as “the green car (immigration) [drove] up and interrupted” (201). Sáenz continues to tell how over the course of his stay in El Paso, this modern day “Gestapo” made it difficult to simply “walk down the street,” though he was able to easily speak the border patrol away because of his education (205). For those that are not able to speak back because of the language barriers, their fate tends to be full of “patterns of abuse by Border Patrol” (Martinez, Slack, and Heyman 1). He concludes with the idea that it seems as if these “vans will stay forever” (Sáenz 210). Additionally, Anzaldúa further chronicles living like this as an “intimate terrorism,” where “[borderland people] shiver in separate cells in enclosed cities,” keep their mouths shut, and “barely keep the panic below the surface of the skin” (42). Thus, this inability to take certain simple actions due to the pressure of “verbal, and sometimes physical, attacks on the streets” and the “burning questioning of where are you from?,” will need to cease in order to truly achieve Arendtian freedom (Anzaldúa 42, Sáenz 210). However, this change will also require a full cultural shift, as stereotypes will need to be broken down, and the issue of language communication will need to be accepted, not just tolerated.

Despite all this, other interpretations of Arendt’s philosophy suggest that in order for the borderland people to achieve freedom, the current language barriers will need to disappear in accordance to current U.S. and Mexico policy. Arendt claims that in order to “be sovereign as individuals or organized groups,” in this case countries, one must “submit to the oppression of the “general will” of the organized group”  (163). In effect, “if men wish to be free, sovereignty they must renounce” (163). Although at first glance this is a contradiction to the previous ideas of sovereignty and freedom, Arendt actually opened this statement to be applicable depending on the “organized group.” Instead of considering the entirety of Mexico or the U.S. as an organized group, each country should look at the borderlands as an organized group within a larger organized group, so as to give the borderland people some power over themselves before having to submit to a larger power, in a sense something akin to federalism.

In a famous tweet, Neil Degrasse Tyson pointed out the irony of having “members of the same species” separated “across artificially conceived borders.” This stark remark raises the idea of the issues that borders cause across the globe. Although the Mexican-American border has the potential to end some of its language-based issues, the forefront of border policy that it holds will add pressure to what changes arise. As many other countries look to the Mexican-American border as an example of how to treat their borders, there is much hope that the Mexican-American changes will entail more freedom, and potentially change the freedom of other world borders as more notice and work around irreducible language barriers. As Arendt states, “in politics, not life but the world is at stake” (155).

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: The New Mestiza = La Frontera. 3rd Ed. ed. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987. Print.

Arendt, Hannah. Between past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Penguin, 1978. Print.

Kafka, Franz. “A Report to an Academy.” The Kafka Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

Kant, Immanuel. An Answer to the Question: ‘what Is Enlightenment?’ London, New York: Penguin, 1991. Print.

Kinsey, Valerie. ESF DIS 6-02. Stanford University, Stanford. Nov.-Dec. 2015. Lecture.

Manuel, Herschel T. Spanish-Speaking Children of the Southwest: Their Education and the Public Welfare. Austin: U of Texas, 1965. Print.

Martinez, Daniel E., Jeremy Slack, and Josiah Heyman. “Bordering on Criminal: The Routine Abuse of Migrants in the Removal System.” American Immigration Council. N.p., Dec. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2015.

Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. The Late Great Mexican Border: Reports from a Disappearing Line. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos, 1996. Print.

Tyson, Neil deGrasse (neiltyson). “Had to wait in line to renew a Passport allowing me to visit members of my own species across artificially conceived borders.” 5 Feb. 2015, 2:34 p.m. Tweet.