Planted on an isthmus, with the Pacific on both sides of me, I can’t help thinking about borders. The physical barriers of rock and water we constantly seek to traverse and control, as well as the artificial ones we create to keep out one another. A few steps to the right or a yard forward doesn’t change the scenery, but does affect cultural ideas of ownership. Is the causeway on the other side of the estuary American because it was paid for by the US government? Or Mexican because it was built by the labor of those born across the fence? Does the lemon tree beside me acknowledge a specific nationhood?
In practice, borders change at the whim of those in power. A generation or three earlier and I could not have defined myself as citizen of a particular country. My birthplace was not the nation it is today. Still, identity and a sense of belonging are funny things. Despite a nomadic existence and an understanding of the dangers of chauvinism, I continue to struggle with my tangled upbringing, to long for a singular sense of home.
Feelings, however, don’t make possible passports. A world without borders is a utopian mirage. In reality we are subject to the policies of institutions, the bureaucracies of economy which privilege some while denying others. In our binary choices of membership, emotions are used as sentimental leverage to preclude us from questioning inherent complications of integration. Can nation building ever stomach interrogation from its inhabitants? At what point is the monarch willing to be told by his subjects that he’s naked?
As I’m chauffeured to my hotel alongside other tourists, I listen to their enthusiasms about the peninsula. They are by turns excited about lounging on unspoiled coasts, the currency exchange favoring them, and the luxury of being catered to. They are equally upset about the possibility of student-debt relief, of increasing migrants invading their towns, and the skyrocketing price of medical care. It’s a scarcity mindset for the prosperous.
In the midst of an unfamiliar landscape where the only locals I interact with are in service to me, I too feel a noxious blend of arrogance and ego affect my behavior. Do I look like I belong at this hotel? Is my outfit good enough to sit next to that couple at the pool? Will someone mistake me for the help?
If notions of exclusivity continue to dominate our desire for community, how will we ever truly (re)connect? How will we divest ourselves of hierarchies if we cannot believe that we have never been separate from nature or one another?
We began as a migrating species, wandering vast plains and roaming oceans in order to explore, find food, build new societies. Itineracy in the twenty-first century, however, is rife with moral weight. The pandemic with its necessity for isolation has heightened this to new levels. What does it mean when a civilization’s essential workers sacrifice health in order to survive? If two people decide to leave their childhood country to work in another, why is one of them categorized as an alien while the other is an expatriate?
“How does one hate a country, or love one?” Ursula K. Le Guin asks in “The Left Hand of Darkness.” “What is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s un-country?”
My imagination fails at world-building as I stroll the dunes of Baja, Mexico, eat a fish taco at a cafe, browse for souvenirs at an art colony. Are the specificities what make these places come alive for me? Would I prize the tacos and the art less if they were crafted within some other province? I’ve become inoculated to the benefits of my citizenship, taken too easily the ability to cross borders. How do I stop speaking of the world I comprehend as if it were the world we inhabit?
Here at the edge of land and sea where real scarcity is the experience of so many indigenous peoples searching for opportunity, loss — of language, ancestral knowledge, and ecological integrity — is the coin they must pay in order to exist. Belonging, in this case, is both anathema and necessity.
Standing at a small section of public beach I listen to the polyphony of conversations. I attempt to distinguish the disparate voices even as I swim in the alternating harmony and dissonance of their combined murmur. “Que bonito,” “que refrescante,” everyone agrees. For a little while allegiances are forgotten as locals and visitors succumb to the rhythm of sea and shore meeting as both steadily muddle the border between liquid and solid, familiar and strange.
Ecology Project International allows students and educators to partake in a Baja Marine Science project. Participants can snorkel one of the planet’s richest marine reserves while conducting data collection to help local scientists develop their field research projects.
Can you imagine a future world without borders? What would it look like? Let me know in the comments below.