When the Frontier Becomes the Wall


What the border fight means for one of the nation’s most potent, and most violent, myths.

By Francisco Cantú — March 4, 2019

The effort to fortify today’s borders is rooted in centuries of racial animus. Illustration by Max Guther

On Election Day, 2018, residents of Nogales, Arizona, began to notice a single row of coiled razor wire growing across the top of the city’s border wall. The barrier has been a stark feature of the town’s urban landscape for more than twenty years, rolling up and over hilltops as it cleaves the American town from its larger, Mexican counterpart. But, in the weeks and months that followed, additional coils were gradually installed along the length of the fence by active-duty troops sent to the border by President Trump, giving residents the sense that they were living inside an occupied city. By February, concertina wire covered the wall from top to bottom, and the Nogales City Council passed a unanimous resolution calling for its removal. Such wire has only one purpose, the resolution declared—to harm or to kill. It is something “only found in a war, prison, or battle setting.”

Living in Tucson, barely an hour north of the border, I have become familiar with both sides of Nogales, crossing over the border to shop, attend meetings, take gifts or supplies to deported friends, or volunteer at a soup kitchen for migrants. In December, as I walked through the pedestrian crossing, I passed by uniformed soldiers transporting long ladders to one side of the port of entry, but I barely registered their significance. The militarization of the borderlands has become so commonplace that one often grows numb to its manifestations. It can seem distant until it reaches out to touch you. Only months later, as I watched images of the concertina wire proliferating on my social-media feeds, did I finally understand what those ladders had been for.

In The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America (Metropolitan), the historian Greg Grandin argues that America’s urge to wall off its borders marks the death of our most potent myth—the galvanizing vision of men and women seeking freedom along a vast frontier, a space for reinvention, unburdened by society, history, and one’s own past. Since the very inception of our country, he writes, the presence of a frontier has “allowed the United States to avoid a true reckoning with its social problems, such as economic inequality, racism, crime and punishment, and violence.” The ever-shifting and expanding frontier also acted as a physical barrier against invasion; as a national-security buffer against foreign enemies, Native Americans, and Mexicans; and as a tenuous escape valve for freed slaves, European migrants, and discontented laborers from crowded Eastern cities.

The frontier did not always have mythic connotations. In early America, the words “frontier,” “border,” and “boundary” held little emotional significance and were used interchangeably to describe the physical limits of the nation. America’s first dictionaries didn’t even include the word “frontier.” But as the U.S. government began to coördinate campaigns for the removal and the extermination of Native Americans, clearing the way for westward settlers, the meaning of “frontier” came to be pegged to the notion of civilizational struggle. By the dawn of the twentieth century, with Native Americans dwindling in number and largely relegated to reservations, the frontier had been fully transformed into something romantic and beckoning—an entire way of life. It became, Grandin writes, “a state of mind, a cultural zone, a sociological term of comparison, a type of society, an adjective, a noun, a national myth, a disciplining mechanism, an abstraction, and an aspiration.” For the dominant white culture, the word meant freedom.

The frontier also provided a new way of understanding American identity, history, and politics. At the end of the nineteenth century, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced his “frontier thesis”—the idea that, in his words, “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.” American identity hinged upon its perpetual expansion. Our democracy, Turner wrote, “came out of the American forest and it gained strength each time it touched a new frontier.” Expansion was thus a fundamental good and an integral part of what set us apart from Europe—it was the very thing that made America great. But on the frontier, Grandin reminds us, settlers won greater freedom for themselves only by “putting down people of color, and then continuing to define their liberty in opposition to the people of color they put down.”

The End of the Myth aims, in part, to reposition race-based violence to the center of the frontier narrative, exposing it as foundational to today’s “border brutalism.” In this respect, Grandin’s study of the frontier serves as a vital corrective to popular conceptions, in the lineage of work by scholars like Richard White, Patricia Limerick, and Richard Slotkin. In a chapter on the Mexican-American War, for example, Grandin unflinchingly describes the savagery of U.S. troops during the conquest of the country’s continental neighbor. In one incident, more than a hundred Arkansas soldiers descended upon a group of Mexican war refugees in a cave, raping and slaughtering victims as they pleaded for mercy. Many of these rabid Army volunteers, Grandin notes, were former bounty hunters with an unchecked thirst for scalping their victims.

In passages like this, The End of the Myth is effectively in conversation with Cormac McCarthy’s seminal novel Blood Meridian, which follows a band of scalp hunters as they wreak carnage across the borderlands. Indeed, Grandin quotes from the novel, borrows its title for one of his chapters, and even draws on the cover art of the original, 1985 edition for his own book jacket—a closeup of one of Salvador Dali’s “phantom carts,” in which a horse-drawn wagon and its occupants become, upon further examination, indistinguishable from the expansive landscape and architecture that surround them. Blood Meridian is propelled by grisly, deeply researched depictions of the violence perpetrated by remorseless white American men, unconcerned with the traumas they were unleashing into history. Long celebrated as a disabused, revisionist “anti-Western,” McCarthy’s novel can also be understood as fuelling the illusion of frontier masculinity. Grandin, to his credit, rejects the temptation to dismiss the violence as being somehow typical of a particular time or place. The atrocities accompanying expansion are shocking now, and were shocking then: even war-hardened men like General Winfield Scott, the commander of U.S. forces during the Mexican-American War, found them heinous enough to “make Heaven weep, & every American, of Christian morals blush for his country.”

As settlement supplanted America’s physical frontier, a new project arose to extend Manifest Destiny beyond its former geographic limits. American imperialism provided the opportunity for “a new revolution,” Woodrow Wilson declared in 1901, a little more than a decade before ascending to the Presidency. During the Spanish-American War of 1898 and ensuing military campaigns in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua, Americans had, in Wilson’s view, “made new frontiers for ourselves beyond the seas.” This form of expansion allowed a nation still recovering from the Civil War and Reconstruction to channel its aggression outward once more. Former Confederate soldiers were able to don the uniform of a newly unified country and earn patriotic recognition while still fighting to exert racial superiority over people of color. Letters sent home by soldiers enlisted in these campaigns, Grandin tells us, “are notably similar, lightheartedly narrating to family and friends how they would shoot ‘niggers,’ lynch ‘niggers,’ release ‘niggers’ into the swamp to die. . . .” Like those who had collected Native American scalps first as mercenaries and then as soldiers, these men learned that America’s new frontier was a place that could legitimatize a racist thirst for violence.

For America’s leaders, the new age of imperialism also reaffirmed old lessons: expanding the country’s borders beyond the domestic sphere could provide a space to divert anger, resentment, and extremism. Frederick Jackson Turner had recognized that the frontier “was a magic fountain of youth in which America continually bathed and was rejuvenated.” He also recognized that, at the end of the nineteenth century, America was closing in upon itself. But he hoped that the experience of having constructed civilization on a vast frontier would lead to the building of a stable inward society, one rooted in lessons of coöperation, progress, and equality. He failed to imagine that the seductiveness and the convenience of the frontier would, instead, propel America through a new century of global expansion.

 As America thrust itself into the wider world, it simultaneously began a process of shoring up its domestic borders. With its entrance into the First World War, the country started to implement race-based quota systems and other immigration controls, culminating in the passage of the National Origins Act of 1924, which excluded all Asian immigrants and sought to insure that ninety-six per cent of America’s immigration slots were reserved for Europeans. Business interests shielded Mexican migrants from such immigration quotas. But the 1924 act provided for the formation of the U.S. Border Patrol: the previously irregular and ad-hoc policing of the boundary was replaced by a new paramilitary police force that would come to wield extraordinary power along the Mexican border. White supremacists and members of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan saw the nascent Border Patrol as a venue for unchecked brutality, Grandin writes, and they quickly joined its ranks, turning it into “a vanguard of race vigilantism.” The new agency became the bastion of a Wild West mentality in which patrollers easily imagined themselves as guardians of “frontier forts in hostile territory, holding off barbarians.”

The patrol’s authority grew in time. Through the nineteen-twenties, Mexicans entering the United States had been required to present themselves at official ports of entry, where they were often doused with kerosene by immigration agents and stripped from head to toe to be shaved of their hair in accordance with delousing procedures. To avoid what Grandin aptly describes as a “ritual of abuse,” many migrants simply circumvented border controls by crossing along unmonitored stretches, as they had done for decades before. But, in 1929, Congress passed a law—introduced by Senator Coleman Blease, an unabashed racist who defended the lynching of black men during his tenure as the governor of South Carolina—that made it a crime for migrants to enter the United States outside official ports of entry, with the newly established Border Patrol providing the muscle for its enforcement.

It wasn’t long before the Border Patrol began to establish the first significant physical barriers along the Mexican boundary. At the close of the Second World War, 5.8 miles of chain-link fencing was erected through Calexico, California, in order to push migrants away from the town’s population center and into the rugged and remote desert that surrounded it. This fencing, as the historian Kelly Lytle Hernández writes, in Migra!, her indispensable history of the U.S. Border Patrol, came from Japanese internment camps that had recently been ordered closed by the Supreme Court. This pattern of repurposing wartime matériel, described as “imperial recycling” by the political scientist Victoria Hattam, was repeated again at the end of the Vietnam War, when surplus helicopter landing mats were used in the construction of walls along the border in San Diego, Yuma, Nogales, and elsewhere.

Grandin’s chapters on the Border Patrol make evident the origins of many of today’s most egregious border-enforcement practices. When I read of the Mexicans who were routinely jeered at by federal agents in the nineteen-twenties as they crossed the bridge from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso, I thought of the agents who mocked a roomful of crying migrant children last summer after they had been separated from their parents. “Aqui tenemos una orquesta,” one agent joked—“We’ve got an orchestra here.” When I read of the workplace police raids that were conducted in the early nineteen-thirties, with the sanction of the Hoover Administration, as a “psychological gesture” to scare deportable migrants, I thought of the “show me your papers” law, passed in Arizona in 2010 and then adopted by other states, with the explicit hope of driving migrants toward self-deportation. When I read of the Border Patrol agents who admitted to reporters in the nineteen-seventies that, when pursuing migrant families, they would often try to apprehend the youngest member first, so that the rest would surrender in order to avoid being separated, I thought, inevitably, of the enactment last year of “zero tolerance,” which turned family separation into a national policy.

Because I served as a Border Patrol agent, from 2008 to 2012, Grandin’s account brought up more personal memories for me as well. Despite its white-supremacist roots, the Border Patrol has evolved into an agency where more than half of its members are of Latinx descent. Just as the military has long promised social mobility to immigrants and minority populations, the Border Patrol provides rare access to financial security and the privileges of full citizenship, especially for those living in rural border communities. In America, even at the individual level, citizenship politics often wins out over identity politics.

As a member of the patrol, I never witnessed anything as straightforwardly depraved as the beatings, torture, rape, and murder Grandin describes. But I often heard romanticized stories of “the old patrol,” a lament for the days when agents had free rein across the borderlands, lighting abandoned cars on fire and “tuning up” smugglers and migrants at will. As young trainees, my colleagues and I were taken to storied places in the desert—a remote pass where earlier generations of agents were rumored to have pushed migrants from clifftops and hidden their corpses, a stretch of road where an agent had run over a Native American lying drunk and asleep on the road, an isolated patch of scrubland where agents had force-fed smugglers fistfuls of marijuana and turned them loose to walk through the wilderness barefoot and stripped to their underwear.

The forms of violence that I observed and was complicit in were subtler—the destruction of food and water caches, a pervasive attitude of dismissal and neglect, a persistent use of dehumanizing slurs. Grandin’s description of a McAllen, Texas, police force that came together in the nineteen-eighties to gleefully watch highlights of brutal interrogation sessions of migrants called to my mind a day when a senior officer burst into the computer room where I was gathered with a group of junior agents. He interrupted our work to project onto a screen at the front of the room photographs of a body he had just encountered in the desert. In the images, he was squatting, with two thumbs up and a broad smile, beside a dead man whose flesh had rotted from his bones after months under the unforgiving sun. It was meant to be, as Grandin observes about the videos of the McAllen interrogation sessions, “a bonding ritual used to initiate new recruits.”

Part of Grandin’s achievement in “The End of the Myth” is to situate today’s calls to fortify our borders in relation to the centuries of racial animus that preceded them. Donald Trump can be distinguished from his predecessors, Grandin argues, because of his willingness to meet conservative and nativist demands at their logical end point—by closing off instead of moving out. By contrast, his predecessors over the past four decades each found ways of channelling aggression outward by identifying new frontiers and promising boundlessness in a shrinking world. Reagan pursued anti-Communist wars in Central America by declaring it “our southern frontier”; George H. W. Bush saw the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and imagined “new markets for American products,” proclaiming that “in the frontiers ahead, there are no borders”; Clinton declared, as he signed NAFTA, that “this new global economy is our new frontier”; and George W. Bush launched a global war on terror with the promise to “extend the frontiers of freedom.” After America’s military failure in Iraq and its economic failure in the Great Recession, the nation’s first African-American President arrived in office at the precise moment when hatred was coming home from the fringes.

With Trump—the first President since the dawn of American imperialism to renounce the Turnerian call for rejuvenation through expansion—“America finds itself at the end of its myth,” Grandin asserts, and is finally being forced to confront “extremism turned inward, all-consuming and self-devouring.” The idea of the border wall has thus replaced the myth of American limitlessness, Grandin concludes, serving as “a monument to the final closing of the frontier.” For all that, Trump’s pledge to erect a “big, beautiful wall,” from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, serves many of the same purposes as the earlier expansionist rhetoric—the border remains abstract in the minds of most Americans, yet it represents a problem and a promise distinct enough to distract from more immediate and enduring social ills. A completed border wall, and the victory it would represent to many, is thus conveniently unattainable, allowing for the same fleeing forward that has always tugged at American history. After all, as Grandin shrewdly observes, “the point isn’t to actually build ‘the wall’ but to constantly announce the building of the wall.”

If there is something missing from Grandin’s study of the frontier, it is that the vast scope of his history leaves little room for readers to encounter stories on an individual human scale, to grapple with the more intimate effects of decades of militarism on the border. The rhetoric of the frontier has always had life-altering consequences for those whose lives are thrust against its edge. But the fact that we rarely hear their voices in The End of the Myth is perhaps less Grandin’s failure than it is the failure of the historical record to capture the voices, bodies, and places that have always had the least access to documentation. Much like McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, corrective histories reveal the gruesome truths we have long been made to look away from, but they rarely show how violence is internalized by its victims or is lodged inside the collective memory of entire cultures, societies, and landscapes. To do so, the Mexican intellectual Sayak Valencia writes, “it is crucial to speak of the body, of the violence enacted upon it and suffered within it.”

In the 2017 novel In the Distance, Hernán Diaz, who grew up in Argentina and Sweden, reverses the action of Blood Meridian. Set in the same historical period, the novel depicts a young immigrant who has become separated from his brother on the docks in Europe. He accidentally boards a ship to San Francisco, while his brother, it is presumed, arrives in New York. And so our stoic protagonist sets out eastward across frontier America, crossing the country in reverse, against an advancing tide of settlers, explorers, and outlaws. As expected, he is engulfed by hardship, drama, and violence, but, when he finds himself in the middle of a McCarthyesque slaughter of Native Americans, he is unable to soldier on like the hardened men of so many Westerns. Instead, he retreats into the wilderness, where he hopes no human will ever find him, and burrows deep into the ground. But, even in his attempt to escape the violence of which he has become a part, the men he has killed stare at him in his dreams, and the rare utterances of his own voice sound monstrous.

What makes the wall terrifying to so many who live along the border is, in part, the way it serves as an inescapable reminder of the brutalities and injustices that have long been unleashed upon the frontier. The very presence of a barrier represents a profound psychological, political, ecological, cultural, and spatial reordering. In Arizona, west of Nogales, the border wall bifurcates the lands of the Tohono O’odham people, who live on the second-largest reservation in the United States. In an interview with the writer Marcello Di Cintio, a Tohono O’odham elder named Ofelia Rivas speaks of how post-9/11 enforcement shut down the cross-border pilgrimage routes of her people and led to the erection of border fencing and steel-bollard vehicle barriers across their sacred lands. The year the barriers went up, Rivas says, “we lost eleven elders. One after another, they passed away. It just seemed they couldn’t comprehend what was happening.” It was as if they had been poisoned, as if America had found a new way to take their land. At this point, Rivas begins to speak of her body, her hair. For Rivas, as for many native people, hair is intimately tied to heritage and identity. For the O’odham, the poet Ofelia Zepeda writes, “Our hair is our dress. It is our adornment.” When the walls went up, Rivas remembers, she had long hair. Each time an elder died, however, she would cut a length of it as an act of homage. “By the end of the year,” she recalls, “my hair was gone.”

This article appears in the print edition of the March 11, 2019, issue, with the headline “Boundary Conditions.”

Francisco Cantú, a writer and a translator, is the author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border. Read More.

Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

Leave a Reply