Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.TP.13.2.7 | PDF

Baja Cal­i­for­nia Borderlands
Ángel Igle­sias Ortiz

The Wall and the Politics of Exclusion and Inclusion at Baja California Borderlands: A Pictorial Journey

Ángel Igle­sias Ortiz
The essay con­sid­ers the bor­der wall between Mex­i­co and the Unit­ed States as its pri­ma­ry visu­al, sym­bol­ic, and mate­r­i­al ref­er­ence to reflect on the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion and inclu­sion entan­gled in every­day dis­cours­es and prac­tices in Baja California’s bor­der­lands. Every­day bor­der­ing applies not only to gov­ern­men­tal tech­nolo­gies of con­trol but also to these sorts of pol­i­tics. The essay pro­pos­es that the wall rep­re­sents an exclu­sion­ary sym­bol that is nonethe­less chal­lenged by those who attempt to embed inclu­sion in this con­text. The pic­to­r­i­al jour­ney shows aspects of com­mon sit­u­a­tions next to the wall between the Mex­i­can cities of Mex­i­cali and Tijuana.
Cet essai con­sid­ère le mur frontal­ier entre le Mex­ique et les États-Unis comme son prin­ci­pal référent visuel, sym­bol­ique et matériel, dans le but de réfléchir aux poli­tiques d’exclusion et d’inclusion imbriquées dans les dis­cours et les pra­tiques quo­ti­di­ennes des régions frontal­ières de la Baja Cal­i­for­nia (Basse-Cal­i­fornie). Le quo­ti­di­en du voisi­nage frontal­ier con­cerne non seule­ment les tech­nolo­gies gou­verne­men­tales de con­trôle, mais égale­ment ces types de poli­tiques. L’essai argu­mente que le mur représente un sym­bole d’exclusion qui est néan­moins remis en ques­tion par ceux qui ten­tent d’assimiler l’inclusion dans ce con­texte. Le jour­nal de voy­age en images mon­tre des aspects de sit­u­a­tions courantes dans les envi­rons du mur entre les villes mex­i­caines de Mex­i­cali et de Tijuana.

This essay stages a pic­to­r­i­al jour­ney1 through Baja California’s two main bor­der cities: Mex­i­cali and Tijua­na. This voy­age along the Mexico-U.S. bor­der begins in Mex­i­cali and fol­lows the wall, or la línea, about two hun­dred kilo­me­tres west­ward toward Tijua­na. In this essay, I con­sid­er the wall as a deci­sive method for shap­ing lived every­day expe­ri­ence. This func­tion char­ac­ter­izes the Mexico-U.S. bor­der where the wall struc­tures both the space and the every­day expe­ri­ence of peo­ple in both coun­tries. Fol­low­ing the idea that par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tions and forms of visu­al­i­ty define our per­cep­tion of the world (Mir­zo­eff 6-9), my pic­to­r­i­al jour­ney takes the bor­der wall between Mex­i­co and the Unit­ed States as its pri­ma­ry visu­al, sym­bol­ic, and mate­r­i­al ref­er­ence to con­sid­er the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion and inclu­sion entan­gled in every­day dis­cours­es and prac­tices in Baja California’s bor­der­lands. The essay par­tic­u­lar­ly high­lights the entan­gle­ment and impli­ca­tions of the bor­der wall’s visu­al­i­ty and mate­ri­al­i­ty with the enact­ment of pol­i­tics of exclu­sion and inclu­sion at the Mexico-U.S. bor­der. Every­day bor­der­ing applies not only to gov­ern­men­tal tech­nolo­gies of con­trol (Yuval-Davis 71), but also to these sorts of pol­i­tics. In con­texts such as Baja California’s bor­der­lands, exclu­sion is relat­ed to the socio-polit­i­cal pro­duc­tion of who is deemed “ille­gal.” This dis­cur­sive for­ma­tion, built with a num­ber of resources such as images, is used to main­tain a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of “ille­gal immi­gra­tion” (De Genova).

Draw­ing on crit­i­cal bor­der stud­ies lit­er­a­ture, this explo­ration of the Mexico-U.S. bor­der is informed by views on the sit­u­a­tion of migrants and depor­tees at this bor­der (Anguiano and Vil­la­fuerte, Slack et al.) and the spa­tial imag­i­nary between these two coun­tries (Alvarez). I also con­sid­er crit­i­cal per­spec­tives on bor­der art depict­ing the human con­di­tion along this bound­ary (Bonansin­ga, Regan) and how text and visu­al imagery react to state bor­der pol­i­cy (Mad­sen). In addi­tion, the use of artis­tic expres­sions (Pötzsh, Schi­man­s­ki), and bor­der aes­thet­ics (Rosel­lo and Wolfe 7) allow us to see the wall as a pro­duc­tive ele­ment and rethink the bor­der expe­ri­ence. This essay pro­pos­es that the wall rep­re­sents an exclu­sion­ary sym­bol that is nonethe­less chal­lenged by those who attempt to embed inclu­sion in this con­text. At the Mexico-U.S. bor­der, the wall is one of many ele­ments char­ac­ter­is­ing immi­gra­tion inter­dic­tion (Hey­man 622). The wall, how­ev­er, con­flates dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral­i­ties and sym­bol­isms, thus expos­ing con­tin­gency. As right­ly stat­ed by Abou Farman:

[…] a wall, has an insis­tent exte­ri­or­i­ty and defin­i­tive mate­ri­al­i­ty. […] It is in your face. You run into it. […] You can­not even see the oth­er side. And yet, peo­ple always do. Peo­ple always see through walls, find holes, over­spill the bounds of both con­cep­tu­al and phys­i­cal lim­its. The mate­ri­al­i­ty of a wall that is meant to mark the ulti­mate and sim­pli­fied lim­it always fal­ters or falls to the cre­ativ­i­ty of life” (4).

The jour­ney con­nects the hard bor­der that the wall mate­ri­al­izes with its sym­bol­ic and metaphor­i­cal dimen­sions (Vila). Rely­ing on the notion of bor­der­scape (Bram­bil­la, Rajaram and Grundy-Warr), I address the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of flows, com­plex con­di­tions, and inter­ac­tions hap­pen­ing around the bor­der. This entails think­ing of the bor­der between these two coun­tries beyond its tra­di­tion­al under­stand­ing as an unchanged and defin­i­tive struc­ture. Through the lens of bor­der­scape, the jour­ney here­by inter­twines amid the divi­sions actu­al­ized at any bor­der while also con­sid­er­ing the flu­id­i­ty of bor­ders and the sit­u­a­tion of those expe­ri­enc­ing nation-state bor­ders. I also use this notion to address the ten­sions and para­dox­es emerg­ing from the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion and inclu­sion and to reflect on dif­fer­ent strate­gies of resis­tance against hege­mon­ic dis­cours­es (Bram­bil­la 19-20). It is argued that in these bor­der­lands, the every­day nor­mal­izes part of the exclu­sion­ary dimen­sion of the hard bor­der. Nev­er­the­less, despite this con­text of divi­sion, the pol­i­tics of inclu­sion appear in spe­cif­ic expres­sions, name­ly bor­der art and oth­er writ­ten and visu­al tes­ti­monies dis­played on the wall. The every­day thus projects the ten­sion between the secu­ri­ty infra­struc­ture pre­vent­ing or divert­ing migra­tion and the hopes that accom­pa­ny human mobil­i­ty. The every­day con­nects with the con­cept of bor­der­scape through the var­ied and dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed encoun­ters tak­ing place at the bor­ders (Rajaram and Grundy-Warr xxx).

Struc­tured around the three stages of the jour­ney, the essay will show the entan­gle­ment of the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion and inclu­sion through pic­tures, per­son­al obser­va­tions, and infor­mal con­ver­sa­tions and inter­views made dur­ing the jour­ney. Over­all, I aim to present the sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of some social phe­nom­e­na through the pic­to­r­i­al jour­ney (Banks 96-97). The visu­al­iza­tion of the wall guides the reflec­tion of the every­day and the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion and inclu­sion. Before pre­sent­ing the stages, I will briefly sketch my ana­lyt­i­cal approach and the gen­er­al con­text behind the jour­ney. I then describe the first stage of the jour­ney, cov­er­ing my first encounter with the Mexico-U.S. bor­der in Mex­i­cali. This stage shows dif­fer­ent aspects of the every­day in this city. The sec­ond stage presents the nat­ur­al scenery between the two cities and its impli­ca­tions for migra­tion move­ment. The last stage focus­es on a spe­cif­ic area of Tijua­na where I reflect on the main top­ics addressed in this essay.

Approach and context

The pho­to-essay explores the every­day in the cities of Mex­i­cali and Tijua­na and high­lights the mul­ti­ple con­di­tions, para­dox­es, and ten­sions, such as bor­der­ing prac­tices and struc­tur­al vio­lence, emerg­ing from the pol­i­tics of inclu­sion and exclu­sion. For this, I draw on the co-con­sti­tu­tion of visu­al­i­ty and mate­ri­al­i­ty in order to address issues of hier­ar­chies and dis­cours­es of pow­er (Rose and Tolia-Kel­ly 4). With this prac­tice-ori­ent­ed approach, I ques­tion what is made vis­i­ble and study the con­sti­tu­tion of visu­al­i­ty and mate­ri­al­i­ty. The con­fig­u­ra­tion of visu­al and mate­r­i­al prac­tices con­nects with process­es, embod­ied prac­tices, and tech­nolo­gies (Rose and Tolia-Kel­ly 3). In my analy­sis, I address how a process, such as bor­der­ing, and embod­ied prac­tices, such as the every­day near the wall, take place in this social set­ting. These sorts of process­es and prac­tices are con­trast­ed with the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of per­sons who have endured depor­ta­tion from the Unit­ed States and live in Tijua­na. For instance, dur­ing my field­work, I observed that depor­tees embody and expe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent forms of exclu­sion. Through dif­fer­ent inter­views with depor­tees in Tijua­na, I con­firmed the exclu­sion­ary expe­ri­ences they endure dur­ing and after the depor­ta­tion process. I rely on a method­olog­i­cal approach that com­bines an ethno­graph­ic and visu­al-dis­cur­sive per­spec­tive, con­cen­trat­ing on every­day life and the relat­ed social con­text (Jenk­ins 5). For the con­tent of the pic­tures, I employ the com­po­si­tion­al inter­pre­ta­tion approach which pays atten­tion to the ele­ments and con­tent of the pic­ture (Rose 62-63).

The wall is part of the U.S. gen­er­al deter­rence strat­e­gy which start­ed in the 1990s and ear­ly 2000s. Dur­ing Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­cy, the wall was ren­o­vat­ed in dif­fer­ent bor­der areas cov­ered in this essay. The con­text behind the jour­ney is relat­ed to the sit­u­a­tion expe­ri­enced dur­ing autumn 2020. The num­ber of per­sons reach­ing the Mexico-U.S. bor­der has declined due to the mobil­i­ty restric­tions prompt­ed by the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic and because the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment has imposed stricter con­trols on its bor­der with Guatemala after the migrant car­a­vans of 2018 and 2019. These mea­sures can be framed into the strat­e­gy of “push­ing the bor­ders out” (John­son, et al.) applied by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. Dur­ing the jour­ney, it is pos­si­ble to notice cer­tain dif­fer­ences about the pres­ence of migrants between the two cities. Due to the restric­tions, the pres­ence of recent­ly arrived migrants seems reduced in Mex­i­cali. I asked local peo­ple about their arrival, and all agreed that very few new migrants had reached the city in 2020. The major­i­ty of migrants in Mex­i­cali who arrived with the car­a­vans stayed in local shel­ters. Nowa­days, it is still pos­si­ble to see them expe­ri­enc­ing con­di­tions of home­less­ness in dif­fer­ent parts of the city. In Mex­i­cali, the num­ber of migrants on the streets is clear­ly low­er than in Tijua­na. The major­i­ty have moved to oth­er bor­der cities. In Tijua­na, the arrival of migrants is con­tin­u­ous, but it is more dif­fi­cult to spec­i­fy their num­ber. The pop­u­la­tion of almost two mil­lion inhab­i­tants and the size of the city con­ceals the num­ber of unreg­is­tered population.

First stage: This is la línea

La línea stands a few kilo­me­tres away from Mexicali’s inter­na­tion­al air­port. The road from the air­port heads north, and metres before the wall, it turns left. The clos­est part of the wall before the turn has barbed wire on top. Barbed wire is one of the main “secu­ri­ty com­po­nents” con­stant­ly present in this bor­der­line. After the turn, the road fol­lows a straight line, and the wall seems never-ending.

Figure 1: First view of the wall in Mexicali
Figure 2: First view of the wall in Mexicali

In fact, it is almost unin­ter­rupt­ed until Tijuana’s beach­side. At first sight, the mas­sive­ness of the wall seems unre­al. The pres­ence of the wall is visu­al­ly strik­ing, and the feel­ing of a hard bor­der is con­stant. When a mate­r­i­al object defines iden­ti­ties, it becomes a polit­i­cal aes­thet­ic project (Far­man 4). After some kilo­me­tres, the name of the road makes an iron­ic pun. La Aveni­da Cristóbal Colón (Cristo­pher Colum­bus Avenue) is the main street along the bor­der. In Mex­i­can school text­books, Colum­bus is referred to as the “dis­cov­er­er of Amer­i­ca,” and his fig­ure is not ques­tioned in official/government dis­cours­es. The debates about decol­o­niza­tion going on in dif­fer­ent parts of the world are not tak­ing place here. This avenue bears wit­ness to one of the most noto­ri­ous divi­sions with­in this con­ti­nent. This is one of the many places where the “Glob­al North” phys­i­cal­ly pre­vents the “Glob­al South” from enter­ing. Here, the wall con­cretizes the divi­sion, but this sort of geo­graph­ic tax­on­o­my also enacts dis­cur­sive bor­ders that con­ceal the social inequal­i­ties and exclu­sions between regions. Beyond the euphemistic, and even colo­nial­ist, tax­on­o­my, it is nec­es­sary to see the sym­bol­ic dimen­sion of the wall, which grounds dis­cours­es of neg­a­tive dif­fer­ence asso­ci­at­ed with the inhi­bi­tion of mobility.

Just in front of the wall, on the left side of Colum­bus Avenue, the type of hous­ing grabs my atten­tion. The first exam­ple of the every­day next to the wall shows hous­es that seem to match a mid­dle-class income lev­el, and after some kilo­me­tres, there are also pro­fes­sion­al ser­vices and busi­ness-relat­ed places. A marked con­trast to this hous­ing appears after pass­ing one of Mex­i­cali-Calex­i­co ports of entry. At the end of the sec­ond bor­der street, La Calle Inter­na­cional (Inter­na­tion­al Street), the hous­es are made of card­board and pieces of plas­tic and wood. Some oth­er con­struc­tions are aban­doned and bro­ken. Over­all, the hous­ing types along Colum­bus Avenue and Inter­na­tion­al Street exem­pli­fy the socioe­co­nom­ic dis­par­i­ties com­mon in coun­tries like Mex­i­co. These con­trasts are part of the struc­tur­al vio­lence that has been nor­mal­ized in the everyday.

Figure 3: Columbus Avenue, Mexicali
Figure 4: Columbus Avenue, Mexicali

As I stand next to the wall and look at both sides, the lon­gi­tude of the wall seems sur­re­al. It has been rein­forced and ren­o­vat­ed, and in some parts there is a sec­ondary wall. At the end of Octo­ber 2020, the U.S. gov­ern­ment cel­e­brat­ed the build­ing of near­ly 650 kilo­me­tres of new “bor­der wall sys­tem” between these two coun­tries (U.S. Depart­ment of Home Secu­ri­ty). At some point on the “old wall” reads the words Mex­i­cali, calor del bueno. The expres­sion refers to the extreme heat con­di­tions and may also hint to the warm­ness of local peo­ple. The desert cli­mate of the area caus­es an aver­age tem­per­a­ture of 40 degrees centi­grade dur­ing the spring­time and sum­mer­time, with max­i­mum records of 50 degrees centigrade.

The pol­i­tics of exclu­sion is also con­sti­tut­ed by the cli­mate and topo­graph­ic fea­tures of the area. These fea­tures are used in the U.S. secu­ri­ty and immi­gra­tion strat­e­gy. The Baja Cal­i­for­nia-Cal­i­for­nia bor­der has been sealed in order to chan­nel migra­tion to the Sono­ra-Ari­zona desert. As part of my field­work, I went to the wall on many dif­fer­ent days to see the dai­ly activ­i­ties. From the first vis­it, I noticed that very few pedes­tri­ans, not migrants, were in Colum­bus Avenue and Inter­na­tion­al Street. Only a few peo­ple walked where the boule­vard ends near Mexicali’s old city cen­tre. It was not until the third vis­it that I saw some migrants. They were four men from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, stand­ing on the street wait­ing for some­one to offer them any kind of job. This is a com­mon way for migrants try to earn some mon­ey. It is also com­mon that the only assis­tance that migrants get comes from activists and reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions. The lack of gov­ern­men­tal atten­tion to migrants and depor­tees increas­es the pre­car­i­ous­ness of their situation.

With the fol­low­ing six pic­tures, I illus­trate dif­fer­ent aspects of Mexicali’s dai­ly activ­i­ties beside the wall. The pic­tures offer a view into the com­mon sit­u­a­tions and social con­di­tions in the city. First­ly, fig­ures five and six show a mur­al con­demn­ing vio­lence towards women. The mur­al is ded­i­cat­ed to the vic­tims and demands a bet­ter future for all women. Although it does not direct­ly address oth­er forms of vio­lence or social con­cerns, this issue is entan­gled with struc­tur­al prac­tices and expres­sions of vio­lence affect­ing Mex­i­can soci­ety and these borderlands.

Figure 5: Mural in Columbus Avenue, Mexicali
Figure 6: Mural in Columbus Avenue, Mexicali

The mur­al res­onates with the events of direct vio­lence that women have endured in oth­er Mex­i­can bor­der cities such as Ciu­dad Juarez. This mur­al can thus be pro­ject­ed into a larg­er con­text in which dif­fer­ent forms of vio­lence are entan­gled. For instance, women are the main work­force in the maquilado­ras, or man­u­fac­tur­ing plants, along the Mexico-U.S. bor­der. Even though these fac­to­ries are linked to the dis­course of neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and free trade, they fail to pro­vide sus­tain­able eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment for the work­ers and have insti­gat­ed new prac­tices of struc­tur­al vio­lence such as low salaries, pre­car­i­ous labour rights, ter­ri­to­r­i­al vio­lence, and slum-like hous­ing con­di­tions (Mén­dez and Berrue­ta). I con­sid­er this mur­al as an exam­ple of what Chiara Bram­bil­la defines as a counter-hege­mon­ic bor­der­scape (20). The mur­al, which stands fac­ing the wall, opens a sense of resis­tance against forms of con­trol enforced by direct and struc­tur­al violence.

Fig­ures sev­en and eight exem­pli­fy the dai­ly activ­i­ties that take place one block away from the wall. A con­trast­ing view shows a high-end Ger­man-styled restau­rant and a street ven­dor. The restau­rant is regard­ed by locals as an “exclu­sive place,” while the ven­dor per­son­i­fies labour precariousness.

Figure 7: Social contrasts beside the wall 1
Figure 8: Social contrasts beside the wall 2

Street vend­ing is a com­mon activ­i­ty for locals and also for migrants. As I talk with locals about migrants who have arrived in recent years, the con­ver­sa­tion irre­me­di­a­bly dis­tin­guish­es between “good” and “bad” migrants. Haitians are regard­ed as hard work­ers and hon­est and lik­able peo­ple. Some peo­ple from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca who arrived in the last migrant car­a­van are seen as the oppo­site. Draw­ing on what Prem Kumar Rajaram and Carl Grundy-Warr (xxx) write about dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed encoun­ters in a bor­der­scape, it is nec­es­sary to map the con­tra­dic­tions and bor­ders that emerge in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. In this case a spe­cif­ic con­junc­ture, such as the arrival of the migrant car­a­van, trig­gers con­tra­dic­to­ry encoun­ters and a sharp dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion process. Social dis­tinc­tion, made by the infor­mal cat­e­go­riza­tion of “locals,” shows a dou­ble process of bor­der­ing by elab­o­rat­ing a nor­ma­tive tax­on­o­my of who is valu­able or not, and by oth­er­ing the ones con­sid­ered to be non-locals. I notice dur­ing the infor­mal talks, that this way of bor­der­ing “the oth­er” is unno­ticed by the per­sons doing the cat­e­go­riza­tion. Social dis­par­i­ty is in fact a bor­der, insti­tu­tion­al­ly nor­mal­ized and main­tained through dai­ly prac­tices, which fur­ther seg­re­gates peo­ple. The cat­e­go­riza­tion por­trays the over­looked entan­gle­ments of the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion and inclu­sion in the everyday.

The last pic­tures from the first stage illus­trate the rou­tine in the ports of entry between the two coun­tries. Long queues, sur­veil­lance, barbed wire, and the “visa regime” are the ele­ments ground­ing the pol­i­tics of con­trol and exclu­sion. For instance, Mex­i­can cit­i­zens require visas to enter the Unit­ed States, and the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment demands the same for cit­i­zens of all Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries except Cos­ta Rica and Pana­ma. Both gov­ern­ments pri­or­i­tize a person’s eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion as the pri­ma­ry require­ment for entry. This modal­i­ty of bor­der­ing rewards per­son­al eco­nom­ic advan­tages and increas­es the ubiq­ui­ty of the wall. In the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of pan­dem­ic restric­tions, only per­sons with res­i­den­cy and work­places in the Unit­ed States are allowed to cross, while for the rest of pop­u­la­tion, the bor­der is closed. These restric­tions cre­ate fur­ther dis­tinc­tions between inclu­sion and exclu­sion. The require­ment of visas is part of the nor­mal­ized pro­ce­dures of the spec­ta­cle of enforce­ment against “ille­gal­i­ty” (De Gen­o­va 1181).

Figure 9: Mexicali-Calexico Port of Entry
Figure 10: Mexicali-Calexico East Port of Entry

Street ven­dors, end­less queues to enter the Unit­ed States, barbed wire, and con­crete blocks coex­ist day by day at one of Mexicali’s ports of entry. These blocks (fig­ure 10) were used to pre­vent per­sons of the migrant car­a­van from approach­ing the port on the Mex­i­can side. These blocks rep­re­sent the exten­sion of the hard bor­der and the mate­ri­al­iza­tion of more strin­gent mea­sures against migra­tion. The com­bi­na­tion of sov­er­eign­ty, nation­al secu­ri­ty, and social dis­tinc­tion enact the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion on the every­day at this bor­der­line. This social con­text is anoth­er exam­ple in which hier­ar­chies and priv­i­leges restrict social equality.

Second stage – in the middle of…

This inter­me­di­ary stage presents the land­scape of these bor­der­lands. As with oth­er “nat­ur­al bar­ri­ers” seen around the world, the topo­graph­i­cal and cli­mat­ic con­di­tions become part of the immi­gra­tion inter­dic­tion. The road between Mex­i­cali and Tijua­na cross­es some areas of the Sono­ran Desert of Baja California.

Figure 11 Mexicali-Tijuana highway

The dry­ness of the area adds a sense of help­less­ness to the land­scape. To my sur­prise, it is pos­si­ble to find per­son­al belong­ings such as shoes, clothes, emp­ty back­packs, and even suit­cas­es. This means that the bor­der is not far. In fact, it is locat­ed about six kilo­me­tres away on right side of the high­way (fig­ure 11).

Figure 12: Personal belongings
Figure 13: Personal belongings

While this inac­ces­si­ble and iso­lat­ed region attracts cross coun­try run­ners, it is a high-risk area for migrants because of the chal­leng­ing con­di­tions of cli­mate and ter­rain. Find­ing the belong­ings, pre­sum­ably of migrants in tran­sit, is dis­tress­ing. The per­son­al belong­ings attest to the unre­lent­ing human toll of cross­ing the bor­der, where the secu­ri­ty struc­ture and nat­ur­al con­di­tions are a dead­ly com­bi­na­tion. At this remote bor­der­scape, the flu­id­i­ty of the bor­der seems inex­is­tent, and the wall appears to prevail.

Con­tin­u­ing on the way to Tijua­na, con­cerns about the pres­ence of crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions and secu­ri­ty appear at the mil­i­tary check­point before the ascent to the moun­tains called Sier­ra de Juarez. All vehi­cles must pass through the check­point, but only the ones cho­sen by the per­son­nel are searched metic­u­lous­ly. The selec­tion is arbi­trar­i­ly applied, but bus­es, trucks, and pick­ups are select­ed more often. Mex­i­can soci­ety is still suf­fer­ing the con­se­quences of the failed strat­e­gy known as the “war on drugs” enforced some years ago. As the jour­ney con­tin­ues, very impres­sive views of the wall between Mex­i­cali and Tijua­na appear in the moun­tain road named La Rumor­osa.

Figure 14: View of the wall from la Rumorosa mountain pass

Even the desert land­scape con­tributes to the feel­ing of being in the “mid­dle of nowhere,” and the pres­ence of the wall emerges as an all-per­vad­ing, divid­ing struc­ture. This pic­ture is a blunt reminder of the hege­mon­ic log­ic that exac­er­bates dif­fer­ence in its neg­a­tive and exclu­sion­ary dimension.

Third Stage – bienvenidos a Tijuana

Tijuana’s rep­u­ta­tion and media rep­re­sen­ta­tion are com­mon­ly linked to crim­i­nal activ­i­ties, direct vio­lence, and migrants try­ing to cross the bor­der. This pub­lic image is a sim­plis­tic reduc­tion of a city of almost two mil­lion inhab­i­tants. The com­plex­i­ties affect­ing Tijuana’s social con­text are known, but the spec­tac­u­lar­iza­tion and exoti­ciza­tion in the city’s pub­lic image con­ceal all the aspects of the every­day. Direct vio­lence, in the form of homi­cide, is a con­stant fea­ture in every­day Tijua­na life. This sit­u­a­tion neces­si­tates a broad­er expla­na­tion of the social and polit­i­cal con­text of the coun­try and Mex­i­can bor­der cities. Struc­tur­al vio­lence remains the key fac­tor from which oth­er forms of vio­lence devel­op. Endem­ic pover­ty, social mar­gin­al­iza­tion, eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ties, insti­tu­tion­al cor­rup­tion, the par­tial and pre­car­i­ous rule of law, and plen­ty of insti­tu­tion­al weak­ness­es are the coex­ist­ing con­di­tions that affect the social con­text. Direct vio­lence is the con­se­quence of the sum of the issues pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned. Despite this com­plex sce­nario, Tijua­na is a grow­ing cos­mopoli­tan city that chal­lenges com­mon his­toric stereo­types of it (Alvarez). Tijua­na exem­pli­fies a range of dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed encoun­ters between the arrival of depor­tees and their intrin­sic exclu­sion with the cos­mopoli­tan fea­tures of the city.

In the past, Tijua­na was one of the main points of entry into the Unit­ed States. How­ev­er, the strong secu­ri­ti­za­tion imple­ment­ed on the Baja California/California bor­der in the ear­ly 2000s and the mas­sive num­ber of peo­ple deport­ed from the Unit­ed States have changed its sta­tus. At the present moment, it is the Mex­i­can city that receives the biggest num­ber of depor­tees from the Unit­ed States; thou­sands of peo­ple remain and wait in the city (Albick­er and Velas­co 100). Depor­tees face all kinds of per­son­al and legal prob­lems upon their arrival. Their new lives start in pre­car­i­ous emo­tion­al and mate­r­i­al con­di­tions. I inter­viewed the activist Maria Gal­leta,2 and accord­ing to her expe­ri­ence, depor­tees arrive in a state of denial; they are in shock, feel­ing that they have lost their entire lives. After depor­ta­tion, peo­ple encounter extreme­ly crit­i­cal con­di­tions dur­ing their first days in Tijua­na. The con­di­tions include not only the search for places to stay and eat, which shel­ters pro­vide, but also the emo­tion­al dis­tress that affects them. If peo­ple do not receive eco­nom­ic sup­port from their fam­i­lies or friends after depor­ta­tion, shel­ters give them their only oppor­tu­ni­ty to get a place to stay. But not all per­sons get places or stay per­ma­nent­ly at the shel­ters.3 The pic­ture below illus­trates the lev­el of pre­car­i­ous­ness that home­less per­sons endure in the city.

Figure 15: Homelessness in Tijuana

It is beyond absur­di­ty that the wall is used to hold the “tent” of the per­son stay­ing there. Home­less­ness, depres­sion, and alco­hol and drug con­sump­tion are con­stant sit­u­a­tions in depor­tees’ every­day lives. For instance, in the area known as el bor­do (dam)4 hun­dreds of home­less per­sons live in extreme­ly pre­car­i­ous con­di­tions. A study shows that 91 per­cent of them were deport­ed (Velas­co and Albick­er 8-9). In 2018, a local news­pa­per report­ed that about three thou­sand home­less per­sons were liv­ing in Tijuana’s cen­tral area (Tor­res).

The per­son­al sto­ries reveal sim­i­lar pat­terns despite dis­tinct par­tic­u­lar­i­ties. I talked with Mex­i­can depor­tees who have lived in Tijua­na for some years. Their sto­ries start with the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal mis­treat­ment they suf­fered when they were arrest­ed and held in the deten­tion cen­tre before depor­ta­tion. They under­go fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion when the U.S. fed­er­al gov­ern­ment impos­es a “peri­od of inad­mis­si­bil­i­ty.” This means that these peo­ple are banned from re-enter­ing the Unit­ed States on the grounds of the legal cir­cum­stances that sup­port­ed the deci­sions to deport them. The ban lasts three to ten years and may even result in per­ma­nent expul­sion (USCIS 2020). These mea­sures are part of the Ille­gal Immi­gra­tion Reform and Immi­grant Respon­si­bil­i­ty Act (IIRAIRA) of 1996. Con­se­quent­ly, thou­sands of fam­i­lies endure long peri­ods of insta­bil­i­ty and sep­a­ra­tion. It is com­mon for the mem­bers of these fam­i­lies to have dif­fer­ent res­i­den­cy sta­tus­es in the Unit­ed States. For instance, I inter­viewed a depor­tee who had one son who arrived in the Unit­ed States dur­ing his child­hood. These cas­es are known as “dream­ers,” and these per­sons have cer­tain rights and per­mis­sion to stay in the Unit­ed States under the Deferred Action for Child­hood Arrivals (DACA) pro­gram. Her oth­er two sons have U.S. cit­i­zen­ship. Due to dif­fer­ent res­i­den­cy sta­tus­es, the spous­es and/or chil­dren of depor­tees do not vis­it them while they are liv­ing in Mex­i­co. For this rea­son, many depor­tees will try to cross again into the Unit­ed States, and this is when the hard bor­der mate­ri­al­ized by the wall and the atten­dant secu­ri­ty struc­ture cre­ate a rup­ture from their pre­vi­ous lives. Con­sid­er­ing the pol­i­tics of inclu­sion and exclu­sion, peo­ple who have been deport­ed endure dou­ble social rejec­tion. In the Unit­ed States, they have been referred as “ille­gal aliens” and will be pros­e­cut­ed with fed­er­al charges if they cross and are arrest­ed again in the U.S.; in Mex­i­co, depor­ta­do (depor­tee) joins a social cat­e­go­ry asso­ci­at­ed with stigma­ti­za­tion and cer­tain dis­re­gard. Depor­ta­tion con­veys a per­ma­nent bor­der­ing process in which the per­son com­plete­ly endures the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion. Yet there are many cas­es of peo­ple5 who have been able to resume their lives in a pos­i­tive way after deportation.

Out of all the areas of Tijua­na, I decid­ed to focus on the one called Playas de Tijua­na6 because of its par­tic­u­lar fea­tures. Playas has been a his­toric place reg­is­ter­ing the dynam­ics and changes along the Mexico-U.S. bor­der. Nat­ur­al, struc­tur­al, and emo­tion­al ele­ments make a unique land­scape that com­ple­ments the thou­sands of life sto­ries of those who have passed through this place. Before pre­sent­ing this icon­ic place, I show two pic­tures that were tak­en on the way to Playas.

Figure 16: Via de la Juventud Avenue, Tijuana

Empa­thy is over­shad­owed by one of the most impres­sive views of the hard border.

Figure 17: View of the double wall, Tijuana

Ulti­mate­ly, the view of dou­ble fenc­ing in such shape sends an unequiv­o­cal state­ment about bor­der­ing. The wall becomes a sort of metal­lic rep­til­ian for­ti­fi­ca­tion, crawl­ing over and divid­ing the land; it is an emo­tion­less con­struc­tion to dis­cour­age and sep­a­rate peo­ples. Nicholas De Gen­o­va impec­ca­bly explains the view on the pre­vi­ous pic­ture: “The Bor­der Spec­ta­cle, there­fore, sets the scene – a scene of osten­si­ble exclu­sion, in which the pur­port­ed nat­u­ral­ness and puta­tive neces­si­ty of exclu­sion may be demon­strat­ed and ver­i­fied and legit­i­mat­ed, redun­dant­ly” (1181).

Final­ly, the last stage of the jour­ney reveals the aes­thet­ic, emo­tion­al, and nat­ur­al ele­ments that make Playas de Tijua­na an excep­tion­al place because of the entan­gle­ment of var­ied and dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed encoun­ters. Playas is char­ac­ter­ized by rather pow­er­ful aes­thet­ics on dis­play and for being a “meet­ing place.” On the week­ends there are fam­i­lies and cou­ples attempt­ing to meet through the wall. Playas attracts locals and vis­i­tors and has a dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ment from the oth­er areas of the city. A more “touris­tic and relaxed” atmos­phere is expe­ri­enced. This atmos­phere may con­ceal, to a cer­tain extent, the heavy sym­bol­ism of the wall and the move­ment of per­sons who may attempt to cross the bor­der. At this bor­der­scape, the great­est con­trast is between the struc­tures of sur­veil­lance and divi­sion and the attempts to over­come this divi­sion. In oth­er words, the wall that stands in Playas exem­pli­fies a borderscape’s notions of dif­fer­ent encoun­ters, their para­dox­es, and the ways hege­mon­ic dis­cours­es and prac­tices are chal­lenged. The whole wall and area are per­me­at­ed by an in/visible emo­tion­al burden.

For instance, a num­ber of peo­ple are seen lean­ing on the wall in fig­ure 18. In this area, I wit­nessed the very brief encounter of a fam­i­ly. Four adults and one child were wait­ing at Playas. Sud­den­ly, two peo­ple on the U.S. side approached the wall before the Bor­der Patrol had noticed them. The encounter last­ed less than two min­utes. Two units of the Bor­der Patrol arrived and removed them. One of the mem­bers of the fam­i­ly remained lean­ing on the wall watch­ing the Bor­der Patrol leav­ing. This sit­u­a­tion made vis­i­ble the emo­tion­al bur­den at this place.

Figure 18: Playas de Tijuana 1
Figure 19: Playas de Tijuana 2

As with oth­er parts of the phys­i­cal struc­ture sep­a­rat­ing both coun­tries, the bor­der wall becomes a can­vas (Regan 151). This is the pro­duc­tive aspect con­sid­ered from a bor­der aes­thet­ic per­spec­tive. The wall in Playas, named Mur­al de la her­man­dad (Fra­ter­ni­ty mur­al), is known for the paint­ings, mes­sages, murals, thoughts, and names of migrants writ­ten on it. Many of these names refer to the ones who passed away or dis­ap­peared. Thus, the mur­al on the wall becomes a memo­r­i­al in remem­brance of those who are miss­ing, but also a com­mem­o­ra­tion that envi­sions a dif­fer­ent future. The paint­ings and mes­sages mobi­lize imag­i­nar­ies and sym­bol­ic resources that appeal to dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral­i­ties. The wall reg­is­ters the names of the past, the needs of the present, and the hopes for the future.

As con­sid­ered in the con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of a bor­der­scape, there are dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed encoun­ters hap­pen­ing in this area. One exam­ple of the encoun­ters takes place in the “door of hope” (fig­ure 20). Since 2013, the pro-migrant orga­ni­za­tion Bor­der Angels has arranged meet­ings autho­rized by the U.S. Bor­der Patrol. The door is next to the U.S. flag, with a red heart paint­ed in the cen­tre. It can only be opened from the U.S. side. The park next to the wall is the Friend­ship Park San Diego-Tijua­na. It seems hard to believe that friend­ship can flour­ish sur­round­ed by sur­veil­lance cam­eras, barbed wire, and all the para­pher­na­lia that char­ac­ter­izes immi­gra­tion inter­dic­tion. But some­times, the phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers are sus­pend­ed on the rare occa­sions that the door of hope opens.7 Dur­ing these meet­ings, sep­a­rat­ed fam­i­lies are allowed to be togeth­er for a few min­utes. How­ev­er, these meet­ings do not wipe away the con­se­quences of the hard border.

Figure 20: Mural de la Hermandad 1

The oth­er pic­to­r­i­al ele­ments near the door, the sil­hou­ettes of human faces, three per­sons rep­re­sent­ing a fam­i­ly, and two fin­gers inter­twined, appeal to the human fac­tor under­mined by the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion. The draw­ings, murals, and mes­sages make vis­i­ble the self-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of those who chal­lenge the hege­mon­ic log­ic of the divid­ing wall. In line with Bram­bil­la, regard­ing the counter-hege­mon­ic aspect with­in a bor­der­scape, I sug­gest that the human fac­tor, mobi­lized by these kinds of sym­bol­ic expres­sions at the wall, opens a space for the pol­i­tics of inclu­sion. The sym­bol­ic human­i­sa­tion of the wall chal­lenges the dom­i­nant log­ic of the hard bor­der. In oth­er words, the human fac­tor is a coun­ter­act­ing force that appears in the every­day of these borderlands.

Figure 21: Mural de la Hermandad 2
Figure 22: Mural de la Hermandad 3

On the oth­er hand, a sec­ondary encounter takes place between the depor­tees’ hopes and the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion. There is a per­ma­nent ten­sion between those who meet on both sides of the bor­der and the sur­veil­lance para­pher­na­lia enforc­ing the divi­sion. Those who want to over­come divi­sion have made the Mur­al de la her­man­dad as a col­lec­tive instru­ment to rethink the bor­der experience.

The pic­ture below is anoth­er exam­ple of the ten­sions and encoun­ters coex­ist­ing at this point of the bor­der. The wall divid­ing the beach and con­tin­u­ing to the Pacif­ic Ocean is one of the most icon­ic views along the entire Mexico-U.S. bor­der. Cur­rent­ly, the wall has human faces,8 which re/present the sto­ries of depor­tees who arrived in the Unit­ed States as children.

Figure 23: Playas de Tijuana Mural Project

These faces con­vey per­son­al dreams that are bro­ken by the exclu­sion­ary enact­ment of dis­tinc­tion. The pic­ture also exem­pli­fies the coex­is­tence of secu­ri­ty infra­struc­ture, which acts as an instru­ment of exclu­sion, and the draw­ings and mes­sages of inclu­sion writ­ten on the wall. Thus, the wall sym­bol­izes divi­sion yet encour­ages endeav­ours to main­tain uni­ty. It is also a place to write that there are no bor­ders and to dream of fly­ing towards free­dom. This com­plex mul­ti­plic­i­ty is part of the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion and inclu­sion that occur along any border.

Figure 24: Part of the wall in Playas de Tijuana
Figure 25: Part of the wall in Playas de Tijuana


Through the dif­fer­ent stages of the Baja Cal­i­for­nia bor­der­lands, the para­dox­es hap­pen­ing in the every­day and the entan­gle­ments of the pol­i­tics of inclu­sion and exclu­sion are appar­ent. These para­dox­es unrav­el at the place where the divi­sion enforced by the wall and relat­ed infra­struc­ture coex­ists with the hopes and per­son­al loss­es of migrants and deport­ed per­sons. From the per­spec­tive of bor­der aes­thet­ics, the wall is a can­vas that express­es alter­na­tive visions against the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion. The wall in Playas de Tijua­na is a pro­duc­tive space that opens a win­dow of resis­tance to the hege­mo­ny of the hard bor­der. The paint­ings on the wall of kites, but­ter­flies, and chil­dren play­ing have a per­for­ma­tive force on the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion. How­ev­er, few depor­tees have the pos­si­bil­i­ty of reunit­ing per­ma­nent­ly with their fam­i­lies. In these bor­der­lands, the social con­text devel­ops between con­di­tions of social dis­par­i­ty and process­es of bor­der­ing, along­side attempts to over­come the exclu­sions and famil­iar forms of vio­lence. Despite the hard bor­der seem­ing to pre­vail, the meet­ings in Playas and the mes­sages writ­ten on the wall keep the hope of rein­te­gra­tion open.

Con­sid­ered as part of a bor­der­scape, cer­tain expe­ri­ences around the bor­der become fac­tors for change and resis­tance. In this essay, I have linked the pol­i­tics of inclu­sion with the human fac­tor and shown how this is dis­played on the wall. One aspect of change is the need to human­ize bor­ders through the expe­ri­ences of those who inhab­it them (Bram­bil­la 217). The wall has a dom­i­nant mean­ing of divi­sion, but there are fur­ther tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble divi­sions and exclu­sions in the soci­eties of both coun­tries. In con­trast, the murals and paint­ings turn the wall into a means of express­ing what inclu­sion implies for those who have been excluded.

Figure 26: In the wall reads: Todos somos migrantes (we are all migrants).

The work of activists, aca­d­e­mics, and deport­ed per­sons chal­lenge in/tangible bor­ders and exclu­sions. In these bor­der­lands, the project Human­izan­do la Deportación (Human­iz­ing Depor­ta­tion) shows the con­trast­ing expe­ri­ences of peo­ple whose lives have been deeply impact­ed by the pol­i­tics of exclu­sion. Depor­tees endure neg­a­tive social bor­der­ing on both sides of the wall. They have become the for­got­ten peo­ple of migra­tion. As exem­pli­fied by depor­tees, the quest for inclu­sion not only con­sists of ques­tion­ing the dif­fer­ent walls, such as secu­ri­ty infra­struc­ture and dis­cours­es of sov­er­eign­ty, but also requires an increased social aware­ness about the needs of a neglect­ed pop­u­la­tion. The pol­i­tics of inclu­sion thus also entail the pos­si­bil­i­ty for fam­i­ly reunions and depor­tees’ hopes of no longer being con­sid­ered unlaw­ful. Human­iz­ing this social con­text requires visu­al­iz­ing the over­lap­ping pol­i­tics of exclu­sion and inclu­sion around the wall and dis­man­tling the hier­ar­chi­cal struc­tures and bor­der regimes that decide who is accept­ed and who is rejected.

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Tor­res, Kari­na. “Hay 3 Mil Per­sonas sin Hog­ar en el Cen­tro.” El Sol de Tijua­na. 10 Octo­ber 2018, https://​www​.elsol​de​ti​jua​na​.com​.mx/​l​o​c​a​l​/​h​a​y​-​3​-​m​i​l​-​p​e​r​s​o​n​a​s​-​s​i​n​-​h​o​g​a​r​-​e​n​-​c​e​n​t​r​o​-​2​0​8​9​9​5​6​.​h​tml. Accessed 15 Decem­ber 2020.

U.S. Depart­ment Home Secu­ri­ty “On Octo­ber 30th 2020, U.S. Gov­ern­ment Informed Near­ly 400 Miles of New Bor­der Wall Sys­tem is Now Com­plete” 29 Octo­ber 2020. https://​www​.white​house​.gov/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​n​e​w​-​b​o​r​d​e​r​-​w​a​l​l​-​n​e​a​r​s​-​4​0​0​-​m​i​l​es/. Accessed 15 Decem­ber 2020.

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Yuval-Davis, Nira. “Autochthon­ic Pop­ulism, Every­day Bor­der­ing and the Con­struc­tion of the ‘Migrant’.” Pop­ulism and the Cri­sis of Democ­ra­cy. Edit­ed by Gre­gor Fitzi, Jür­gen Mack­ert, and Bryan S. Turn­er. Rout­ledge, 2019, pp. 69-77.



  1. The jour­ney is relat­ed to the field­work of the research project “Every­day Entan­gle­ments of Vio­lence and Peace at the Limit(s)”. I want to thank Kone Foun­da­tion for the finan­cial sup­port. The jour­ney took place dur­ing Novem­ber 2020. There were mobil­i­ty lim­i­ta­tions and dif­fi­cul­ties mak­ing inter­views due to the sit­u­a­tion with the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic.

  2. She is the founder of the orga­ni­za­tion Madres y Famil­ias Depor­tadas en Acción (Deport­ed Moth­ers and Fam­i­lies in action). This orga­ni­za­tion helps migrants and depor­tees have a place in shel­ters, make free phone calls, and get psy­cho­log­i­cal assis­tance.

  3. Shel­ters have very strict rules on the con­sump­tion of alco­hol and drugs. The place in the shel­ter can be denied or revoked if the rules are not com­plied with. The major­i­ty of shel­ters are man­aged by reli­gious and char­i­ty organ­i­sa­tions. The Mex­i­can fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and Baja Cal­i­for­nia gov­ern­ment estab­lished a shel­ter for arriv­ing migrants in Jan­u­ary 2020.

  4. This refers to the dam or chan­nel in which the Tijua­na Riv­er is fun­nelled. The dam goes across the city and the bor­der­line. The major­i­ty of home­less peo­ple stay in the area near Tijuana’s city cen­tre and next to the bor­der.

  5. See for instance video sto­ries about depor­tees by the project Human­izan­do la Deportación run by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis. For infor­ma­tion about the project, see: http://​human​izan​dolade​porta​cion​.ucdavis​.edu/​e​n​/​a​b​o​u​t​-​t​h​e​-​p​r​o​j​e​ct/. Accessed 19 Decem­ber 2020.

  6. I am refer­ring to the beach­side area near the wall. Playas de Tijua­na (Tijua­na Beach) is a grow­ing neigh­bour­hood which also has socioe­co­nom­ic dis­par­i­ties. The area near the Pacif­ic Ocean is expen­sive while the one far­ther from the beach reg­is­ters lim­it­ed eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment.

  7. This event had been arranged since 2013, but it was sus­pend­ed after 2018. The “meet­ings through the wall” tak­ing place dur­ing the week­ends have also been can­celled because of mobil­i­ty restric­tions relat­ed to the cur­rent pan­dem­ic.

  8. As part of the Playas de Tijua­na Mur­al Project, start­ed in 2020 and com­plet­ed in 2022, the ques­tion posed by this mur­al is: “Who counts as a child­hood arrival to the Unit­ed States?” For infor­ma­tion, see the artist’s web­site https://​liz​bethdelacruzsan​tana​.com/​a​b​out. Accessed 27 Decem­ber 2020.