September 01


Shun Thy Neighbour – an excerpt

[What follows is a brief excerpt from my Walls book-in-progress. This is the beginning of my chapter on the U.S.-Mexico border wall. I visited the borderlands about a year ago and have finally hammered together a first draft. The photo is a view of the border from Bill Odle’s property.]

Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa described the U.S.-Mexico border as the place “where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” And the hemorrhaging was most severe in Arizona. America’s border walls stand on about a third of its boundary with Mexico. California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have all erected barriers along parts of the international line, but nowhere is the border as fortified as in Arizona. More than half of America’s border barriers stand along Arizona’s desert boundary with Sonora, Mexico where nearly 500 kilometres of walls, fences and vehicle barriers bristle among the cacti and thorny mesquite. No place seemed as important to visit as Arizona, and no one in Arizona seemed as important to meet as Bill Odle. “A lot of people will tell you they live on the border,” Bill told me on the phone, “but I actually do.”

I waited for Bill in in the parking lot of an abandoned and shuttered steakhouse called, delusionally, The Brite Spot. It was late autumn, a sort of border season that draws an arid line between Arizona’s summer monsoons and winter’s gentle rains. Bill’s Dodge truck crunched off Highway 92 and into the gravel lot. National Rifle Association stickers were pasted on the back window and a red, white and blue bumper sticker declared ‘Freedom isn’t Free.’ The truck looked ready and able to devour my rental Chevrolet Aveo. Bill, in tinted glasses and a black cowboy hat, waved me towards the passenger side door. He said hello when I climbed into the cab; both his beard and voice reminded me of a lion. We rumbled back to the highway while I tried not to stare at the pistol strapped to the seat between us. As a Canadian, I possess a simultaneous fascination and repulsion with the American right to bear arms.

Bill veered the truck onto a dirt road heading south and we drove until we reached the border, here marked by a fourteen-foot high fence built with steel posts and panels of tight metal mesh. Bill parked the truck in the striped shadows the posts threw over the dirt road and turned off the engine. I would soon learn that Bill is hardly partial to long silences, but he sat quiet for a moment as we both stared up at the barrier. Then Bill sighed and said “Historically, defensive things like this – the Great Wall, the Maginot Line, the Berlin Wall – none of them worked. And they were all put up by losers.”

The Hidalgo-Guadelupe Treaty gave birth to the U.S.-Mexico border in February 1848. The two countries signed the treaty to end the Mexican-American War and drew a 3200 kilometre line between them. The border begins at the Pacific where it slices eastward across the beach between San Diego and Tijuana. The line severs California from Baja California, bifurcates the Sonoran Desert through Arizona and edges halfway across New Mexico. At El Paso, Texas, the border merges with the middle of the Rio Grande. The river becomes the border for the final 2000 kilometre stretch across the continent until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

For most of the border’s lifetime, only strands of barbed wire and the occasional marking stone defined Here from There. More substantial walls grew out of some stretches of the border during the 1990s, but not in the southern ranchlands of Arizona, and certainly not before Bill and his wife Ellen, fleeing the noise of San Diego, bought a fifty-acre plot here on the international line a decade ago. They constructed a home out of straw-bales, powered it with wind and sun, and faced the front window south so they could stare out over the rolling ranchlands of Sonora, Mexico. Their morning sun rises over the peaks of the Sierra San Jose and sets behind the Huachuca Mountains to the west. “We moved down here to get away from the city,” Bill told me, “and I liked the idea of living on la frontera.”

In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act into law. Lawmakers developed the Act in response to the vulnerability Americans felt in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Even though none of the hijackers infiltrated the United States over a land border, the government’s preoccupation with border security boomed. The Secure Fence Act was designed to halt illegal migration, drug smuggling, and potential terrorist penetration across its frontiers. The Act charged the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security with maintaining “operational control” of America’s borders. The DHS planned to accomplish this through increased surveillance of the Mexican and Canadian border, and  the construction of over 1000 kilometres of physical barriers along the southern line. Bill and Ellen’s small share of the borderland was included in what the Act described as a “priority area.”

Bulldozers and dumptrucks rumbled onto Bill’s property in the fall of 2007 and tore into the ground of their desert idyll. The builders took five months to erect their fourteen-foot barrier. The wall, alien to the southwestern ideals of the open range, strains Bill and Ellen’s Mexican view through tight wire mesh. The wall enraged Bill, and the ex-marine and Vietnam veteran has become a much-quoted voice against the wall. “Hell, I came out here to get away from people,” he said. “Now I end up in books.”

In his truck, Bill told me “This fence thing, it doesn’t stop people. Flat out. That’s a given.” He told me about the countless migrants he has seen shimmy up one side of the fence and drop down into America. Some migrants use crude handmade ladders and ropes to get over, and Bill collects them as souvenirs like the Spanish border guards in Ceuta and Melilla. The more sophisticated human-trafficking rings on the Mexican side have purpose-built trucks with retractable metal ladders. Most migrants, though, don’t bother with such equipment. Any able-bodied person can scale the wall along Bill’s property without a ladder. The metal panels are easy to climb. Bill has watched women come over, even pregnant women, and children as young as four. He told me, too, that a Sierra Club volunteer from Tucson can scramble over the wall and back again in a minute and forty-eight seconds. “By the way, I am the official world-record keeper,” he said.

Supporters of the wall, especially those who live far from the border, don’t understand the impotence of the barriers. Raw steel bars look impressive on television newscasts but are easily defeated.“You got some lard-ass in Debuke, Iowa or some damn place,” Bill said. “And he’s got his big, fat, American ass sitting on an overstuffed couch, looking at a wide-screen TV, eating super-saturated fats, and he sees a picture of this fence and thinks, ‘That’ll stop ‘em.’ Well, it’ll stop him, but not some kid coming up from 500 miles south who is 20 years-old and wants to work. That kid is over.”