‘Walking between worlds’ in America’s borderlands

Both Mexican-Americans and Akwesasne Mohawks must contend with human trafficking, environmental ruin and post-9/11 paranoia

A Mohawk Warrior flag flies in front of the Canadian border crossing station as they block the Seaway Bridge in the Mohawk community of Akwesasne on Cornwall Island, Ont., Monday, June 1, 2009. The Mohawks are protesting the arming of Canada Customs guards with guns. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

A Mohawk Warrior flag flies in front of the Canadian border crossing station as they block the Seaway Bridge in the Mohawk community of Akwesasne on Cornwall Island, Ont., Monday, June 1, 2009. The Mohawks are protesting the arming of Canada Customs guards with guns. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Writer and educator Stephanie Elizondo Griest felt a powerful sense of déjà vu when she moved to northeastern New York, near Ontario and Quebec, from where she grew up, near the Texas/Mexico border. “At times it felt like my brain was on fire, seeing parallel existences—I’d thought that my life as a Tejana was unique,” says Griest, who’s of mixed white and Mexican heritage. In New York, while working as a visiting professor at St. Lawrence University* from 2012-13, she realized, “No, this seems to be what it means to be a member of a border culture—at least a border with the United States.”

Her new book, All the Agents and Saints, documents her time spent in both borderlands, living with and interviewing people dealing with similar devastating issues: human trafficking, drug smuggling, decades’ worth of pollution caused by multinational corporations, and administrative nightmares resulting from xenophobic policies implemented in the wake of 9/11. She found that whether in Corpus Christi, Tex., or in the Mohawk nation of Akwesasne, which straddles the U.S. and Canada, residents were reacting with a mixture of resilience and despair.

From her home in North Carolina, where she now teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Griest spoke with Maclean’s about isolation and empathy, violence and hope along the borderlands.

Q: Although Donald Trump has made American borders and security an especially pressing issue, your book was researched mostly during the Obama era, and it shows us a distressing continuity of hypocrisy and neglect.

A: It’s both a wonderful and terrible time to have this book come out. I feel my book is also about being biracial, being bicultural, so I have two differing ways of looking at Trump. One is, “This is very much a continuation of Obama deporting 400,000 people a year, of the EPA not doing nearly enough to fix damage to communities.” Many Mohawks do not vote in federal elections because they believe that the American government is inherently hostile to them, and a lot of Tejanos don’t vote as well, which is why Texas is the way it is, which is a tragedy. But on my other side, I’d never experienced such a bodily shock in my life as I did when Trump won.

Q: In the book, a white Texan in a downtrodden rural area tells you his son failed out of college because he didn’t “think like a liberal,” and that, “If you want to know the real world, you’d best listen to talk radio.” It sounds as if he’s articulating a closing of the American mind—the erection of psychological borders to supplement the physical ones. Is this a widespread problem?

 Q: Absolutely. Not long before I moved to China [in the late 1990s, to work for a state-run newspaper], a series of documentaries came out about the Great Wall, and the filmmakers concluded that it didn’t succeed in keeping anyone out: the Mongols just bribed the sentries to be allowed over to continue wreaking havoc. It did, however, succeed in walling people in, and I feel that that is happening with American isolationism.

Q: The Tejana artist Celeste De Luna, whose husband was an ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agent, told you, “The Border Patrol would catch people, but they always came back, pre-9/11. It was like a game. But after 9/11, people got psychotic. They became racist in a way I hadn’t experienced before.” Did this attack on American soil—which had seemed inviolate for so many years—bring about a defensive reflex to erect physical barriers and more psychological ones?

A: Yeah, we see this happening throughout history… It’s crazy that we think the technology that was created [thousands of] years ago can answer modern problems in the 21st century. And what’s even funnier is that drug cartels are combatting this [existing Texas/Mexican border] wall—one of the oldest geopolitical tools—with catapults. People are flinging barrels of cocaine and bundles of marijuana over the wall, or building a tunnel beneath the wall. I talked to so many border patrol agents who say that our wall is a speed bump. It maybe takes two minutes out of a person’s schedule if they’re making their way through [illegally]. Meanwhile, it costs what—$7 billion? That’s the estimated amount that the U.S. has spent since the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

Q: Along the northern border, you spoke with some Mohawk drug smugglers on the U.S. side (or “south of the river”). On the one hand, they’re refusing to acknowledge an externally imposed border on their land, so they don’t feel they’re meaningfully smuggling, but on the other, this practice can have painful ramifications. What impact did you see it having along the borderlands?

A: I don’t know if it’s reasonable to expect a people to respect a line that does so much damage to their families and their communities and their culture, so I can certainly understand a Mohawk completely losing all respect for a border line. I personally don’t even view it as smuggling; I view it as trading, especially with cigarettes. This community has 19-per-cent poverty. Drugs are far more complicated. Two Mohawk drug runners that I met use quite a lot of drugs themselves, and that has had really difficult impacts on their lives. However, one family that I encountered actually don’t use drugs themselves, and it’s been a family business for several generations. The problem is, of course, if they’re caught, they then are not able to take employment in many opportunities that Akwesasne does offer. If you’re arrested for drugs, you can’t work at a casino, and that’s one of the very few enterprises available.

This is a community where so many other possibilities of enterprise have been taken away. Their rivers and streams are poisoned by PCBs from the multinational corporations that encroached upon their land. That decimated the fishing industry. The trapping industry was destroyed by the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway; there’s so much pollution there that a lot of cattle have died. These are people who traditionally lived off the land, and it’s not really possible anymore in Akwesasne, so then what do you have left?

Q: You write about the Akwesasne border debacle that started in 2009, when, after protests to Canada’s plan to arm our border guards in the Mohawk nation, we moved our checkpoint to the Ontario mainland, creating a tortuous process of border-crossing for the Mohawks. Did the Mohawks on the U.S. side whom you interviewed feel they were being treated differently by Canadian border agents as opposed to Americans?

A: Yes, I was shocked; my vision of Canada was of a more welcoming, respectful nation, and certainly that can be the case. The Mohawks I asked, “Who would you rather have a run-in with a U.S. border patrol agent or a Canadian?” were all like, “U.S. for sure.” There was a lot of resentment building up. If you failed to [cross a second bridge to the checkpoint before stopping off at Cornwall Island], you could be charged $1000 for each offence, and for the fourth offence, they would confiscate your car. Last time I checked, a couple of years ago, there were more than 230 cars being held by the Canadian government.

If you travel along the rest of the border, when you get to Thousand Islands, you check in by videophone. You step off your boat and pick up a little plastic receiver and say, “Hi, I’m here. My boat number is … My passport number is …” And then you’re in. It’s so easy for wealthy people with boats to do this a little further down the river, whereas the Mohawks are punished. Seventy per cent of the traffic on this [Cornwall] bridge are Mohawks. It’s despicable.

Q: You found environmental devastation along both borders being ineffectively dealt with by the Environmental Protection Agency—and this was under the Obama administration, when theoretically the EPA was having a positive impact. Is this problem worse in borderlands, where the buck can be passed between jurisdictions?

A: Yes, that’s certainly part of it, and I think it’s also because, who lives in borderlands? In the case of Corpus Christi, there was a point in 1942 where the city council zoned black people to live by the area where refineries were building and moving into. A lot of the city’s Tejano population was also zoned—there were ordinances zoning them to live atop oil-waste dumps. [Now] you have activists taking up the slack that should be taken up by government administrators. You can beseech activists or artists, faith-keepers or the spirit world, because no one else is coming to help.

Q: You visited a woman near Corpus Christi who owns a tree that people believe performs miracles, and you attend the canonization of the Mohawk saint, Kateri, in Kahnawake, Que. Could you tell me a little bit about the ways you found people were turning to religion or the spirit world for help?

A: Well, they’re not getting help any other way. That’s why this [now] 83-year-old woman grew a tree that she believed could help her. She can’t drink from her poisoned water well. This woman certainly doesn’t have enough money to be driving to a town half an hour away to buy bottled water. So what was she left with? I shouldn’t say that was a last resort—for people who believe in it, that’s a very rich, resourceful way that conjures miracles and brings about incredible acts of destiny, but that is for some people the only path they have towards any sort of justice or recompense. Very often, in South Texas, I saw so many people calling upon the Virgen de Guadalupe to intercede where no one else would. Mohawks also have a history of Catholicism, although that was forced upon them. Five hundred years later, there are some very deeply devout Catholics among the Mohawks, and also, people are turning back to the more traditional belief system with the Longhouse. They believe that to be far more helpful to them than calling upon any government engine to help out.

Q: You spoke with a representative of the controversial militia group the Texas Border Volunteers, who carry hunting gear and night-vision goggles. They see themselves as providing a helpful service, and they have actually aided people with medical issues trying to cross borders. 

A: [Texas Border Volunteers spokesman] Mike Vickers essentially saved a pregnant Guatemalan woman’s life—put a cold IV in her, and rejuvenated her. Lavoyger Durham, a cowboy, took me out to see all of the objects people leave behind [when they cross the border illegally]. It costs money to repair a fence that you have to have so that your cattle don’t get away. But he also began taking compassion—there were so many deaths on his land that he allowed activist groups to come in and bring blue water tanks for undocumented workers.

Q: At one point, you went on an expedition with a police investigator from Brooks County to find the body of a woman who died in a forest while crossing over into Texas. What’s especially disturbing is that no one could identify her.

A: It was beyond devastating. With all of my privilege, my resources, my education, my contacts, I was not able to find out what the hell happened to this woman. There were 129 bodies found [in 2012] in one tiny county that had very, very few resources, and [they were] being sent to a mortuary run by a family. They’re opening 129 body bags in one summer. That’s insane! It’s miraculous that anybody is correctly identified.

Q: The book is in part about your own journey, as a biracial woman coming to terms with the ramifications of your heritage. What do you feel you took away, personally, from living in both borderlands?

A: In my second book, Mexican Enough, I moved to Mexico, and my first goal was to learn Spanish, [which] I had not been taught, for similar reasons many Mohawks don’t speak Mohawk anymore. A lot of Indigenous people, both in Canada and the United States, lost their language due to Indian residential schools, where it was beaten and humiliated out of them. These kids in south Texas weren’t in residential school, but they were in public school, and they were demonized for speaking Spanish—which is why an entire generation of Tejanos don’t speak Spanish. What I concluded from living in Mexico for a year was that I will never be Mexican. What binds a people is shared memory, stories, poems, prayers, spells, medicine, rituals, traditions, movies. That left me thinking, “Who am I then?” Then I came back to south Texas and [thought], “What I am is a member of borderlands. I am someone who walks between worlds.” And then I realized that I felt I had more in common with the Mohawk in Akwesasne than I probably would a Chicano in Iowa.

So what I found doing this book is a truer sense of home, and a truer sense of this inner fissure that exists in all of us who live in borderlands. It’s what it means to live in nepantla: “the land of in-between.” That’s how the Aztecs describe trying to reconcile their Indigenous ways with the ways that the Spanish were trying to impose upon them. Those who live in the borderlands today live in nepantla, and what that means is to always question, to always doubt, to always ache.

CORRECTION, July 14, 2017: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the university where Stephanie Elizondo Griest served as visiting professor. Maclean’s regrets the error.

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