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Raising Hackles on the Border

You first, I decided. My eyes never left his face: You first.

September 06, 2002|DAGOBERTO GILB | Dagoberto Gilb is the author, most recently, of "Woodcuts of Women" (Grove Press, 2001). A new book, "Gritos" (Grove Press), will be published in the spring. Director Carlos Bolado's movie "La Border" is currently in post-production.

I've just been with a crew doing a documentary about the U.S.-Mexico border. There were 11 of us: the director, an A and a B camera, a sound guy, an actor, a writer, a still photographer, two producers (American and Mexican), a set-design artist and an assistant to the producer. We were two vans and a red '65 Dodge Dart convertible, which is what I, the narrator, "drive" through the film, from San Diego-Tijuana to Brownsville-Matamoros. We were all from diverse ethnic backgrounds, though as passports go it was six Mexican, five American. We were a group of well-established, credentialed members of our respective cultural and artistic communities.

The intention of the movie was not investigative or politically topical, not intending to weed out evil or quell injustice--not an expose. Instead, it was an almost personal exploration of the frontera and its linea, a journey to each and every city and pueblo on either side. The camera and boom wanted to see and hear what the border is, how it is, view it through images and impressions of land and culture, voices and faces of people who are there, experiencing it.

Yet, of course, it was the border of the United States and Mexico. That is to say, we started to have hassles in the shoot that weren't meant for our story.

Like when we wanted to talk to workers coming off a turno, a shift, from a maquila in Nogales, Sonora. Inside the sheet-metal hangar-like building, people were lined up, silently, waiting to get on a bus parked outside. The request was denied; no talking to the workers or filming inside, and the private security guard was quickly muttering into his walkie-talkie. A pickup with more uniforms arrived. Workers were warned not to speak to us.

I walked over to another building and spoke to a couple of workers from the distant states of Chiapas and Veracruz. I was interested in how their lives, now on the border, had changed, and they had nothing but contented things to say about their jobs and conditions and their move so far from home.

But again we were told to stop filming and to leave immediately. A hand slapped away the lens, and the cameraman, incensed, protested that he was on a public street and had every right, as a Mexican citizen, to film as he pleased. More security arrived; a pickup positioned itself to pen in our vehicles. We decided to leave, and after a brief cat-and-mouse on wheels for a few turns, we drove out. Except we were followed all the way, several miles, to the aduana, the border crossing, right to where they joined the men in green military uniforms armed with rifles. We crossed.

Don't you wonder what these Mejicanos were afraid of? Or was it just the hackles and gaffs of unquestioned power?

That feathered display of power, cocky and mean as a drunk father, was not only on the Mexican side of the border. One morning we were one van and one camera, driving the state highway east of Judge Roy Bean's Bar, named after the once-upon-a-time Only Law West of the Pecos.

Our camera, hanging out the car window, filmed a Border Patrol SUV as it dragged a bundle of old tires along the soft dirt roads so footprints would show up in the sand--the technique for tracking people crossing illegally. Within a few minutes, we were pulled over. We explained we were on our way to Seminole Canyon to film the Indian petroglyphs. The officer kept his distance from the driver's window, suspicious, but though he asked lots of questions, he finally let us go. We didn't make the morning tour, so we planned to return later. When we were pulled over again on the ride back, it was two Border Patrol SUVs, and at least two more green-uniformed officers, their hands above their sidearms, standing backup as the officer spoken to earlier examined our passports. He wrote down our names in a little notebook and went back to his truck's radio. For some time. He said he was passing along our names so that we could travel unhindered later.

Later that afternoon on this same public highway, on our way to that guided petroglyph tour, we were pulled aside again, this time at the checkpoint. Told to get out, told to produce passports yet again, a gray-haired officer was loud in the director's face about what was it, exactly, he was doing here. That's when I said, "Excuse me, but I am an American citizen." The officer whipped his index finger within inches of my face and with a cold, unblinking sneer screamed at me that he'd talk to me when he decided to.

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