Unpublished paper, courtesy of the author, presented at 2019 MLA International Symposium at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa in Lisbon, Portugal.
In addition to being an “imperially organized racialized politics of labor subordination,” (Rosas 413), border enforcement and im/migrant policing in the U.S. and Mexico borderlands authorizes the “fostering of life” and the securitization of the biopolitical state set on combating the perceived threats of a racialized, alien “Other.” The optimization of life and its concomitant division of the population between the politically relevant and the permanently inauspicious, if not disposable (while certainly deportable), reinforces cultural practices that don’t merely take for granted idealizations of the deserving “Us/US” and undeserving “Them/Other,” but rather make such popular classifications natural, even ordinary, if not essential. This division between the racially and culturally desirable and the racially forsaken, and therefore disposable, does not, however, represent a clean break, as the dispossessed and abandoned of U.S. and México border state craft form the constitutive exclusion of (biopolitical) modernity in the region and beyond.
In looking at Helena María Viramontes’ critically acclaimed short story, “The Cariboo Cafe,” from The Moths and Other Stories (1985), this essay investigates the dialectical operations of the bio-necropolitical (b)order of power. “The Cariboo Cafe” imaginatively considers the ways in which the fostering of life emerges from (or, perhaps, is predicated upon) the production of disposable, redundant life and exposure to death. Moreover, “The Cariboo Cafe” engages with issues related to the disciplinary effects of spatial securitization and the targeting of im/migrant bodies in public space, a governing technology that I refer to in this essay as “necro-elasticity” through which the silent wars of letting live and making die occur.
Yet, despite this overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable system of surveillance and discipline, “The Cariboo Cafe” represents unforgotten voices that challenge the logic of letting die that is at once fundamental to the reproduction of national and cultural identity and the creation of capital accumulation and the fostering of politically relevant life. In speaking back to colonial domination, “The Cariboo Cafe” represent how such violence, however concealed or obscured through legitimated forms of making live, constitutes what I call in this essay necropower in absentia.
As a governing logic that directs and therefore dictates who must live and who may die, the bio-necropolitical order of power figures prominently in the calculus of border enforcement and immigrant policing to such a degree that race and nation come to operate, as Achille Mbembe puts it, “on the basis of a split between the living and the dead [insofar as] such power defines itself in relation to a biological field.” In the context of border enforcement and immigrant policing, racism, according to anthropologist Gilberto Rosas is “a far more subtle permutation of the state of exception that occurs in the mundane, daily evaluation of racialized, normative citizenship, as well as being subject to militarized forms of governance.” The concept “exceptionality” signifies the more subtle and dispersed forms of racial governance in which im/migrant bodies are susceptible to intense surveillance exhibited not only through militarized border enforcement but also through anti-immigrant paramilitary vigilantism. Im/migrant policing, particularly in rural and (sub)urban areas removed from the international border, constitutes a flexible, even elastic, form of necropolitical governing in and through which the exposure to injury and harm always already inscribes upon the racialized “other” a condition of exceptionality. Moreover, this concept denotes an ontological erasure of politically relevant life validated through a veil of impunity that not only endorses, but also normalizes surveillance and regulation of im/migrant bodies far removed from militarized borders.
In one of the most extraordinary fictional representations of necro-elasticity, I turn to Helena Maria Viramontes’ critically acclaimed short story, “The Cariboo Cafe,” which imaginatively portrays through the eyes of an immigrant child, the seemingly always- present danger of enforcement, seizure, and detention. Near the beginning of the story, our young female protagonist, Sonya, misplaces her apartment key, which she considers to be her “guardian saint” amid the commotion and chaos of the big city. While charged with caring for Macky, presumably her younger brother, Sonya decides to pay Mrs. Avila, a trusted family friend, a visit until she and Macky are able to return home. On the way to Mrs. Avila’s house, however, readers encounter an abrupt tonal change— childhood curiosity and hope quickly turns to anxiety and fear, eventually to escape and survival. Walking the city streets in search of Mrs. Avila’s house, Sonya notices a familiar face at a nearby discoteca or record shop—Raoul’s father. Seconds before approaching Raoul’s father, the clamor of “sirens flash[ing]” unsettle our young protagonists and disrupt their flight to familiar territory. It is at this moment that Sonya recalls her father’s warning how the “Police are men in black who get kids and send them back to Tijuana.”
Through the initial shock of the sound of flashing sirens, Viramontes transforms this urban space into a precarious border enforcement zone in which the elasticity of the border marks the condition of the unhomely. Viramontes writes,
[Sonya] grabs Macky by the sleeve and they crawl under a table of bargain cassettes [. . .] “Ssssh. Mi’jo, when I say run, you run, okay?” She waited for the tires to turn out, and as the black and white drove off she whispered “Now,” and they scurried out from under the table and ran across the street, oblivious to the horns [. . .] Macky stumbled and she continued to drag him until his crying, his untied sneakers, and this raspy breathing finally forced her to stop [. . .] Her mouth was parched as she swallowed to rid herself of the metallic taste of fear. The shadows stalked them, hovering like nightmares.
While neither a “raid” nor a “border crossing” scene per se, Viramontes’ graphic depiction of flight and escape represents both physical and psychological terror and trauma associated with militarized border enforcement. Moreover, the scene offers an emotionally provocative depiction of migrant escape from the “hunt” of what Peter Andreas refers to as the perilous “border games” of U.S statecraft. Through visual imagery and diction, Viramontes’ portrayal of flight and escape momentarily disrupts the geographic specificity of militarized border enforcement, one that is all too common at the territorial margins of the state. Sonia and Macky do not simply hide or move inconspicuously away from police detection, but rather “crawl” and take cover under a table of bargain cassette tapes that offers temporary refuge from the hunt. While taking refuge under the table, Sonya awaits patiently for a chance to scurry out from under the table and make a run “from the border,” risking both their lives by having to navigate across busy city streets. Paradoxically, the run “from the border,” under Viramontes’ skillful hand, leads our young protagonists towards a seemingly vanishing horizon with no refuge or sanctuary in sight. Ultimately, their escape from the Polie only leads them back “to the border,” and thus within the gaze of an incessant and unremitting, disciplinary eye. This zone of indistinction represents the extent to which urbanized low intensity conflict operates as a mobile and elastic form of racial governance at both the margins and the interior of the territorial U.S. This is especially evident as Sonya desperately hangs on to Macky as they stumble across a treacherous urban landscape, dragging Macky along until his heavy, raspy breathing forces Sonya to find cover elsewhere. Yet, this temporary refuge that leaves a “metallic taste of fear” in Sonya’s mouth offers no relief as shadows continue to stalk the children, hovering over and tracking their every movement like some nightmarish phantom always at their heels.
I want to take a moment to consider Homi Bhabha’s perceptive and timely lecture delivered during the opening plenary for the 2019 MLA International Symposium at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa in Lisbon, Portugal. In his lecture, Bhabha discusses the importance of considering the temporal dimensions of dispossession and displacement in the context of transnational migrations in which prolonged temporality comes to define states of “unbecoming” and the “unhomely.” As such, territoriality is but one, however crucial, constitutive feature of the experience of dispossession, displacement, and liminality where time, especially as a suspended, yet deferred, present reproduces the condition of the unhomely as an affront to migrant dignity and sense of belonging. José David Saldívar in a similar context examines that paradoxical and maddening condition of permanent or perpetual liminality where migrants fleeing inhospitable conditions in their countries of origin not only experience geographic or territorial dispossession, but also experience temporal dispossession, as the withdrawal or denial of time, particularly within that seemingly utopian trajectory of resettlement, constitutes a vanishing horizon where neither territorial rootedness nor temporal finality come to end the long night, as it were. Thus, when Viramontes suggests that “temporary refuge offers no relief as shadows continue to stalk the children,” I read this to mean that the elasticity of the border is a condition that is at once territorial as it is temporal.
Latinx and Chicanx cultural producers, including writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and intellectuals have produced a number of texts representing the complexities and nuances of anti-immigrant ideology and practice in the context of Latin American immigrants in the U.S. On the colonial practices of limited citizenship in the context of interiorized border enforcement, Gilberto Rosas suggests that anti-immigrant sentiments and policy in the U.S. “draw upon popular conceptions of race, including such signifiers as the speaking of subordinated languages, hygienic practices, dress, and phenotype, artifacts of western knowledges of ‘race,’ namely colonialist proto-racisms [. . .] and putatively new culturalist racisms.” In light of these observations, it’s noteworthy to mention that Viramontes strategically withholds the legal/citizenship status of Sonya and Macky. This strategic omission suggests the ways in which urban surveillance of the im/migrant body rests fundamentally upon a colonial semiotics of racial-national differentiation. Arguably, whether or not Sonya and Macky are U.S. citizens seems quite irrelevant, as the mere presence of the racialized Latinx subject activates interiorized border enforcement and im/migrant policing. What in fact matters here is that even citizenship by birthright evaporates in the face of a colonial logic that posits the racial “Other” as always already available to state and public forms of surveillance and discipline. Or, as Papi warns his young daughter, Sonya, “Whenever you see them, run, because they hate you.”
This constant state of insecurity and uncertainty generates and maintains an exceptional state of human existence where elastic forms of border enforcement and im/migrant policing operate within and outside international borders. As Jane Juffers points out, “When the US-Mexico border becomes a normalized state of exception, the U.S. government finds it easier to expand the very contours of the border, again in the name of security.” This state of exception or exceptionality of the borderlands condition represents what Manzanas Calvo describes as a paradoxical double desire on part of the U.S.: “The desire for a sealed border that instills confidence in national definition and national identify is simultaneous to the desire for a cheap and submissive workforce.” I would add, however, that the expansion of the US-México border in “The Cariboo Cafe,” gets expressed as low-intensity conflict, a form of border enforcement statecraft typically associated with the geographic specificity of the international border.
I conclude by drawing upon Arturo Aldama’s critique of the relationship between discourses of otherization emerging through the US-Mexico border condition and state- enforced acts of violence of the bodies of Latin American immigrants and Chicanx and Latinx peoples and communities in the United States. Drawing from Alfred Arteaga’s discussion of Chicano poetics of hybridization and dialogic poetics, Aldama notes the tension existing between monologic U.S. narratives of national and cultural unity and the dialogic, inter-lingual, hybridizing impulses of Chicanx and Latinx literary expressions that challenge and problematize such monologic impulses. In looking at state forms of violence upon Mexican and Central American migrants in the U.S. context, Aldama notes four essential conditions that mark the selective and flexible nature of border enforcement and im/migrant policing:
1. “The Border serves as ‘free zone’ for U.S. citizens and U.S. corporations.”
2. “Contrary to the free zone . . . the border is also a free zone of violence, a barrier to those trying to cross from the south.”
3. “Even though the border is selectively open to those whose class position confirms their [legal/licit] status, it forces a discourse of inferiorization on Mexicans and other Latinos.”
4. “Finally, once crossed, the border is infinitely elastic and can serve as a barrier and zone of violence for the Mexican or Latina/o who is confronted by racialist and gendered obstacles anywhere he or she goes in the US . . . this means that the immigrant continually faces crossing the border . . . a continual shifting from margin to margin.”
Focusing on Aldama’s fourth point, if in fact the elasticity of the border migrates with the “undocumented body,” then it would appear that the (im)migrant’s material and discursive status remains perpetually liminal. We should note, however, that a large number of authorized or legal (im)migrants from Mexico, Central and South America living in the U.S. do not experience the same kinds of exceptionality and liminality that most undocumentados experience. Clearly, class status, (dual) citizenship, race, and gender often determine to a large degree one’s ability to traverse the selectively porous borders across the Americas. Critical attention to the production of such liminality proves useful when analyzing both the intersecting micro- and macro-political dimensions of subject formation. An examination of literary representations of the body and personhood allows us to better understand how the materialist practices of oppression and discursive practices of inferiority constitute the defilement or erasure of im/migrant subjectivity under the silent wars of letting live and making die, that is, a sovereign power invested in the fostering of the good life while exposing others to injury, harm, even death, in absentia.
 Gilberto Rosas. 2006. “The Managed Violences of the Borderlands: Treacherous Geographies, Policeability, and the Politics of Race.” Latino Studies 4.4: 401-418.  Achille Mbembe. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15.1: 11-40.
 Gilberto Rosas. 2006. “Diffused Exceptionality and ‘Immigrant’ Social Struggles during the ‘War on Terror.’” Cultural Dynamics 18.3: 335-349.
 Helena María Viramontes. 1985. “The Cariboo Cafe.” The Moths and Other Stories. Houston: Arte Público Press, p. 62.
 ibid., pp. 67-68.
 Homi Bhabha. 2019. “Human Rights and Human Deaths: On Migration and Dignity.” MLA International Symposium, “Remembering Voices Lost.” Universidade Católica Portuguesa, Lisbon, PT. Plenary 1, 23 July.
 José David Saldívar. 1997. “On the Bad Edge of La Frontera.” Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press: 95-129.  Scholars include (not exhaustive) Alicia Schmidt Camacho. 2008. Migrant Imaginaries: Latino Cultural Politics in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. New York University Press; Leo R. Chavez. 2008. The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation. Stanford University Press; Sonia Saldívar-Hull. 2000. Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature. University of California Press; Mae M. Ngai. 2004. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton University Press; Joseph Nevins. 2008. Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid. San Francisco: Open Media/City Lights Books; Jane Juffer. 2006. “Introduction.” The Last Frontier: The Contemporary Configuration of the U.S.-Mexico Border. The South Atlantic Quarterly 105.4: 663-680. Laura Halperin. 2015. Intersections of Harm: Narratives of Latina Deviance and Defiance. Rutgers University Press; Roberto D. Hernández. 2018. Coloniality of the U- S///Mexico Border: Power, Violence, and the Decolonial Imperative. The University of Arizona Press.
 Gilberto Rosas. 2006. “The Managed Violences of the Borderlands: Treacherous Geographies, Policeability, and the Politics of Race.” Latino Studies 4.4: 401-418.
 Helena María Viramontes. 1985. “The Cariboo Cafe.” The Moths and Other Stories. Houston: Arte Público Press, p. 67.
 “Introduction” to The Last Frontier: The Contemporary Configuration of the U.S.- Mexico Border. The South Atlantic Quarterly 105.4: p. 677.
 Ana María Manzanas Calvo. 2006. “Contested Passages: Migrants Crossing the Rio Grande and Mediterranean Sea.” The Last Frontier: The Contemporary Configuration of the U.S.-Mexico Border. The South Atlantic Quarterly 105.4: 759- 775.
 Arturo J. Aldama. 2005. “Borders, Violence, and the Struggle for Chicana and Chicano Subjectivity. Violence and the Body: Race, Gender, and the State. Edited by Arturo J. Aldama. Indiana University Press: 19-38.
Edward A. Avila holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of California, San Diego. He is Assistant Professor of English at Minnesota State University, Mankato and teaches Multiethnic Literature of the U.S. with an emphasis on Chicanx and Latinx literature and film in the context of coloniality, border enforcement, and im/migrant policing under contemporary neoliberalism. His research includes his dissertation “Conditions of (Im)possibility: Necropolitics, Neo-liberalism and the Cultural Politics of Death in Contemporary Chicana/o Film and Literature” (2012); “Some Imagined Victory: The Specter of Reification in Caridad Svich’s Guapa (2014); “The Maquila Complex: Reification, Disposability, and Resistance in Maquilapolis: The City of Factories” (2015), and is currently working on a book project entitled In Absentia: Border Rhetorics, Necro-elasticity, and Re-membering Voices Lost in Latin@x Literature and Film.
Cover image: artwork by Irene De Matteis.