Policing the Third Border

In the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mike Davis and Alessandra Moctezuma find whites erecting a new border.

By Mike Davis Nov 22, 1999

In the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mike Davis and Alessandra Moctezuma find whites erecting a new border.

Every wall and fence, checkpoint and pillbox, is a sundering of the integrity of nature and the rights of man. The very existence of exclusionary borders, as all great radical thinkers have understood, constitutes a permanent crisis of human liberty.

tt Borders are also historically specific social systems, which frequently shape distinctive borderland cultures and identities. They spill over in all directions. Borders are thus incomparably messier and more complex than our comforting image of precise black lines on maps.

Over the course of 150 years, the U.S.-Mexican border has grown sadistic teeth of razor wire and concrete, reinforced by state-of-the-art surveillance technology and a stealth army of border police. At the same time, the border has penetrated daily life far north and south of la linea itself. Its ramifications have become complex and despotic. Increasingly, we need to distinguish three separate but interrelated systems of cultural control, each expressed in a distinctive landscape.

Primera Frontera

The first border, of course, commemorates the 1847 war of aggression by an expansionist slave republic (U.S.) against its peaceful, non-slaveholding neighbor (Mexico). The war against Mexico was condemned by every contemporary American of conscience, from Henry David Thoreau (who went to jail in protest) to Ulysses S. Grant (who later renounced his participation as "immoral"). More importantly, its legitimacy has never been acknowledged by those communities whose lives and histories it cleaved. "We didn’t cross the border, it crossed us," shouted Latino students in recent protests against anti-immigrant legislation in California.

In the nineteenth century, however, the border was often difficult to locate. From the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1848, until the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the international border west of the Rio Grande consisted only of occasional stone monuments shaped like squat obelisks and laid out by survey teams in the 1850s. It was a geopolitical fiction that barely intruded into the daily existence of the largely pastoral communities of mestizo and indigenous people thinly sprinkled across the Sonoran Desert. Longhorned cattle, copper miners, Apache raiding parties, and their U.S. and Mexican pursuers crossed the invisible line at will.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and subsequent U.S. attempts to manipulate its outcome led to the initial militarization of the border. The U.S. Army was sent into the Rio Grande valley, New Mexico, and Arizona, and U.S. sailors and marines occupied Mexico’s major ports. While "Black Jack" Pershing’s cavalry vainly chased Pancho Villa’s dorados across Chihuahua, barbed wire divided families in frontier towns and ranchos for the first time. In the 1920s, the Border Patrol was created to replace the Army in this task. Yet the new system of "border control," while designed to keep revolutionary ideas and intrigues out of Texas and the Southwest, was never intended to stop the flow of labor northward.

On the contrary, the abrupt decline in European mass immigration after the outbreak of the First World War created a rising demand for Mexican workers, especially in California. The border was reconceptualized as a dam, pooling a reservoir of cheap, disposable labor along La Frontera that could be pumped as needed to U.S. fields, households, and sweatshops. As braceros during the 1940s and 1950s or as mojados (undocumented immigrants), Mexican laborers were deprived of any formal right of organization or freedom of speech. When their numbers temporarily became too great (as in Los Angeles County during the Depression) or when they persisted in organizing militant unions (as in the Imperial Valley in 1949-50), they were simply deported.

Today, the role of the border is still to reinforce the extra-economic coercion of immigrant labor in the non-union sectors of the U.S. economy. Since 1996, the Clinton Administration has dramatically increased the militarization of the border, doubling the size of the Border Patrol while reintroducing ("in supportive roles") National Guard, Army, and Marine troops in the largest numbers since 1917.

The War on Drugs, whose principal battleground has now been officially shifted from the Andes to the U.S./Mexico border, has been used to justify such draconian programs as Operation Gatekeeper which, through a combination of technology and sheer manpower, aims to stanch all illegal flows through San Ysidro, the world’s busiest border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana. While neither drugs nor immigration have been significantly deterred, at least 340 people who were diverted by Operation Gatekeeper to the remote desert and mountain areas have died of thirst and exposure since 1994.

Segunda Frontera

As long ago as the 1940s, the Border Patrol experimented with a "second line of defense," composed of automobile dragnets inland from the international border. In the 1960s, with the construction of several interstate highways linking the Los Angeles region with the border, the Immigration and Naturalization Service established permanent checkpoints and detention facilities. The most notorious is on Interstate 5 (I-5) at San Onofre, 75 miles north of the border, near Richard Nixon’s former "Western White House." The great river of traffic flowing between San Diego and Orange counties is inspected 24 hours a day. "Suspicious" vehicles, often carrying Latino U.S. citizens, are regularly pulled over and searched.

To bypass the Border Patrol, coyotes (smugglers) unload their passengers a mile or so south of the checkpoint. The undocumented immigrants–tired, scared, and usually unfamiliar with freeways–are ordered to cross ten lanes of 70-mph traffic to the west side of I-5, then make their way down to the beach (part of the huge Camp Pendleton Marine Base) and head north to an eventual rendezvous point. Even in the small hours of the morning, gaps in the traffic flow are infrequent and crossing I-5 is always extremely dangerous. In the last twenty years, several hundred immigrants, including entire families holding hands, have been mowed down. At one point, there was a special therapy group in San Diego for drivers who had accidentally killed freeway crossers.

After spending a million dollars studying every option, except closing the checkpoint, California’s transportation authority–CalTrans–created the world’s first official Pedestrian Accident Zone in the late 1980s, replete with bizarre warning signs that depict a family bolting across the highway. It was a moral threshold in the naturalization of the unnatural and inhumane. It is a perfect symbol for a new North American free trade system that promotes the free movement of capital while turning migrant laborers into pariahs.

Tercera Frontera

In Southern California, a third border has also emerged in recent years. As the Latino population of Los Angeles and Orange Counties has burgeoned to nearly five million in the mid-1990s, architectural and legal barriers have been constructed at precisely those points where blue-collar Chicano or new immigrant communities connect with upper-income Anglo communities. Whereas the second border nominally reinforces the international border, the third border polices daily intercourse between two citizen communities.

Although other instances abound in suburban Southern California, we have documented the third border in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles County. Once the center of the California citrus industry, the San Gabriel Valley is a mature, built-out suburban landscape with 1.8 million residents. It is politically fragmented into more than forty shards, ranging from large secondary cities like Pasadena and Pomona to unincorporated county "islands" and special-use incorporations like the eponymous City of Industry.

Although the great orchards were subdivided into tract homes a half century ago, the citrus era left a legacy that continues to frame all social relations in the Valley: a fundamental division between a Chicano/Mexicano working class and an Anglo upper middle class. The traditional demographic balance, however, has been overturned. Chicano residents now outnumber Anglos by roughly three to two, and there is a growing Chicano managerial-professional class. Further, an influx of about 250,000 Chinese has given rise to a spectacular eight-mile-long linear Chinatown in the suburbs of Monterey Park, Alhambra, and San Gabriel.

Although many blue-collar Anglo residents have exited the southern tier of Valley towns where they were formerly the majority, the traditionally wealthy tier of foothill communities from Pasadena to Claremont remains highly attractive to young white professionals as well as to traditional elites. Here are the sharpest ethnic and class tensions. The function of the third border is to separate these two populations, to restrict Latino use of public space such as streets, shopping districts, and parks.

Take, for example, the boundary between El Sereno and South Pasadena. El Sereno is a protrusion of the City of Los Angeles into the western San Gabriel Valley. It is a well-groomed, blue-collar suburb, home to hardworking truckdrivers, medical secretaries, and postal workers. Most have last names like Hernández or Rodríguez. South Pasadena, on the other hand, is a separately incorporated small town, renowned for its big Midwestern-style homes, tree-lined streets, and first class schools. Its median home values are at least $100,000 higher than El Sereno’s.

Some years ago, the South Pasadena city fathers decided that the twain must never meet and engineered the barricading of busy Van Horne Street. To those on its "bad side," this new border signifies the stigmatization of their neighborhood. Serenos were especially incensed when South Pasadena justified the street closure in the name of "preventing drive-by shootings." Since many older Chicanos tell stories of decades of harassment by the South Pasadena police, it is not surprising that they regard the barricade in the same way black southerners once felt about segregated drinking fountains.

Ricardo Mirelles Córdova, who lives on "the wrong side" of the barricaded street between South Pasadena and El Sereno, asks: "How would you like your neighborhood and property values defined by being on `the wrong side’ of the local equivalent of the Berlin Wall?" Raquel Sánchez wryly retorts: "I actually kind of like the border. It keeps all those speeding Lexuses and BMWs off our side so that the kids can play safely on the street."

A group of affluent homeowners in nearby Duarte, meanwhile, are lobbying the city to allow them to install a guardhouse at the entrance to their foothill subdivision. The purpose of the checkpoint would be to discourage "suspicious persons who do not belong in the neighborhood." Latinos in Duarte, up in arms over the incipient privatization of a public street, have protested that they and their children are, in fact, the object of this paranoia.

Parks have become another internal borderland. Ironically, for an area that once exulted in its orchards and wild mountains, there is now an acute recreation crisis in the San Gabriel Valley. It has been generated by the failure of postwar developments to set aside adequate park space and compounded by declining revenues in the wake of Proposition 13. For affluent families on quiet, palm-lined streets in the foothill belt, there is no real problem. But Latino apartment dwellers in the tractlands along the freeways usually have to leave their own neighborhood to find space for a Sunday picnic under a shady oak tree. Increasingly, however, they find signs telling them that they are not welcome.

San Marino is the richest city in the Valley and one of the wealthiest in the nation. It embalms ancient regional dynasties like the Chandlers of the L.A. Times and formerly provided a headquarters to the John Birch Society. In recent years, some of the housecleaners and gardeners who keep its lush lifestyle scrubbed and well-pruned started bringing their own families to San Marino’s beautiful Lacy Park on weekends. But the appearance of "aliens" in their cherished park incited near hysteria on the San Marino city council.

The council’s response was to impose a weekend-use fee for non-residents. Twelve dollars for a family of four is no deterrent to wealthy visitors, but it is too steep for San Marino’s low-paid workers and their kids. (The council, incredibly, justified the fee by claiming that the city was nearly broke.) Meanwhile, San Marino’s crown jewel, the world-famous Huntington Library and Gardens, built on the surplus value of Henry Huntington’s Mexican track laborers, changed its long-time "donation requested" to a strictly enforced eight dollar per head admission–another deterrent to diversity amidst the azaleas.

Arcadia, home of the famous Santa Anita racetrack, also has a bad reputation amongst Valley Latinos. Historically, it was one of the few citrus-belt towns that refused to allow its Mexican workers to live anywhere in the city limits, even on the other side of the tracks. In 1939, 99 percent of its burghers signed a unique "covenant." Organized by a local escrow company, it promised to keep their piece of paradise "Caucasian forever." They have never given up trying.

When Arcadia’s Wilderness Park became popular with Spanish-speaking families in the early 1990s, nativism reared its ugly head. One leader of the neighboring Highland Oaks Homeowner’s Association complained: "I’ve seen their graffiti. I’ve heard their ghetto blasters. I don’t want any riffraff coming into our city." Then-mayor Joseph Ciraulo, agreed: "The park has been overrun with these people." As a result, Arcadia restricted public use of the park, now officially a "wilderness center," to a single eight-hour period on Fridays.

Similar complaints about "noise," "gangbangers," and "graffiti" recently led County officials to accede to the wishes of the wealthy residents of the east Altadena area and ban weekend parking near trailheads and canyons on the flank of famous Mount Wilson. Again, the ban followed a rise in recreational use by low-income Latinos and African Americans.

In effect, well-heeled Valley communities, long accused of discriminatory policing, are now corporately privatizing recreational space. The NIMBY ("Not In My Backyard!") politics of residential exclusionism are rapidly fusing with the new nativism to create a third border distant from, but complimentary to, the first and second borders. While the other borders are meant to exclude Mexican immigrants from entry into the U.S., the third border serves as a new form of racial segregation deep within the country. Suburbs are no longer simply the settling place for white flight from the cities, they are emergent racial battlefields.

This crabgrass apartheid, represented by blockaded streets and off-limits parks, should be as intolerable as Jim Crow drinking fountains or segregated schools were in the 1960s. For Latinos, supposedly on the threshold of majority power in Los Angeles County, citizenship will never be fully achieved until this third border is dismantled.