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Life and Death Along the Border

The Twilight Zone

JUAREZ: The Laboratory of Our Future.\o7 By Charles Bowden (Aperture: 136 pp., $35)\f7 ; TWILIGHT ON THE LINE.\o7 By Sebastian Rotella (W.W. Norton: 320 pp., $25)\f7 ; LA VIDA NORTEN~A: Photographs of Sonora Mexico.\o7 By David Burckhalter (University of New Mexico Press: 53 plates, $19.95)\f7 ; BORDERTOWN.\o7 By Barry Gifford and David Perry (Chronicle Books: 152 pp., $29.95)\f7 ; UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Human Rights Concerns in the Border Region with Mexico\o7 (Amnesty International: 56 pp., $8)\f7

May 24, 1998|SAUL LANDAU | Saul Landau is the Hugh O. La Bounty chair of interdisciplinary applied knowledge at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is currently making a documentary film on the border

The border between the United States and Mexico is a twilight zone. There but not there, it is, geographically, a wholly invented line of demarcation, respected not at all by nature. It is imposed by conquest and maintained by military power. But unlike the dikes that the Dutch must constantly build and repair to keep out nature in the form of the relentless sea, there is something bizarre in our fitful effort to stem the tide of a Spanish-speaking humanity that seeks to breach our porous common frontier, where the majority is also Spanish-speaking. Four new books and a report by Amnesty International help illuminate the contentious issues that complicate life in that twilight zone.

"Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future" by Charles Bowden uses the riveting work of 13 of the city's courageous photojournalists to present El Paso's across-the-Rio Grande neighbor, a city Bowden, a contributing editor of Esquire, describes as "a Marxist caricature, though it's hard to say whether it is the work of Karl or Groucho." Bowden has expanded an acclaimed December 1996 Harper's magazine article into a book-length window on the underbelly of what used to be described, optimistically in the aftermath of the Cold War, as the new world order. Bowden's book shows us the devastating effects of that order using a single Mexican border city as the petri dish of turbo-charged runaway capitalism.

Filled with dozens of dramatic and disturbing images of everyday violence against the people of Juarez and against the land itself, Bowden's book acts, in Kafka's words, as an ax to break up the frozen sea within us. Bowden takes on the heartless production system that uses border cities as "laboratories" to experiment with how much abuse capital can heap on labor and the environment. None of it makes for easy reading or viewing. Bowden knows this and confesses: "I have looked at hundreds of recent photographs from Juarez, many of which you will never see because . . . there is a limit to how much we can stomach, and that goes for you and that goes for me. . . . I am just like you, I constantly take all these things and push them to the edge of my mind and tell myself they are freakish and marginal and not what life or the future or much of anything is about." But then reality intrudes, and Bowden tells of a friend "talking about the big sale and installation of office furniture in yet one more foreign-owned factory in Juarez, the two married cops telling of their new life in a self-designed fort, the photograph of the dead girl silenced by stone." And that is when he hears "the roar of the A train knifing through the warm velvet of the hot summer night and making a blood-red tear across the sky."

Bowden befriended Juarez's courageous photojournalists, most of whom work for the city's daily newspapers, earning the equivalent of $50 to $100 per week (although the cost of living in Juarez is nearly that of El Paso). These brave men and women often beat the police to snap their photos of murder scenes. Color slides show images of bloody corpses, victims of drug cartel executioners and gang members. Bowden describes the rotting corpses of more than 100 young women who were abducted, raped and strangled on their way to and from work at the maquiladoras (foreign-owned production subsidiaries often with American partners across the border).

But it is not only the women who have disappeared. The country itself is, in the minds of many Americans, a vanishing act. As Bowden writes, "Mexico has a tendency to disappear . . . just like the dead girls, just like the hundreds of factories paying miserable wages. It can disappear because we do not want to face it because it is a big problem for which we have no answers that we are eager to live with. Mexico is the bridge to the twenty-first century and we are terrified of crossing this bridge. We prefer to retreat into the theology of global capitalism, a gibberish that is unintelligible yet soothing since it says: things will work out somehow."

The truth of Juarez tells another story. Photographs depict children scavenging for scraps in garbage dumps; an out-of-control chemical blaze; the body of a worker electrocuted when trying to borrow from a live power line. Others show Mexicans climbing fences and wading across the Rio Grande to go to work in El Paso. Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan author of the trilogy "Memory of Fire," writes in an accompanying afterword of the "premise of politicians, rationale of technocrats, fantasy of the forsaken: the Third World will become like the First World, rich, cultured, happy, if only it behaves itself and does what it is told without kidding around or asking embarrassing questions." Bowden's book is full of embarrassing questions and is an indispensable starting point for any serious discussion of the issues of the North American Free Trade Agreement, immigration, gangs, corruption, drug trafficking and poverty.

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