Faculty Favorites: Ecologies & Politics of Borders

Wooden fences loosely connected by wires in a desert lanscape

Many encounter “borders” only in the abstract, in news headlines or on television. In the United States, for example, discussions about the border wall and cross-border migration show up on the front page of newspapers every so often, especially during politically strategic times. The mainstream border discourse encourages readers to take a side or to jump into conclusions. But how can we cultivate a more rigorous understanding of the histories and realities of borders? Relatedly, how can we trace the ways in which border debates shape our attitudes towards issues such as national security, globalization, capitalism, and (neo)colonialism? How can connections be built on the edge and across borders, which are set up to help define an “us” against the “Other”?

In this post, Edge Effects invites scholars to recommend texts that examine the social and political meanings of different types of borders and boundaries as well as lived experiences of those who face the threat of being forcibly moved across borders. The types of borders covered in these texts are wide-ranging, including transnational borders, conceptual borders, and interstellar borders. They challenges us to consider the border, creatively and critically.

Book cover— a red flower and abstract drawings on a pink background. In large texts, the title and author lines read "The Undocumented Americans" and "Karla Cornejo Villavicencio."
Book cover of The Undocumented Americans

Beatriz L. Botero, Lecturer in Integrated Liberal Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Recommendation: The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio (One Word, 2020)

Imagine you receive a call from your mother. It is the call you have been waiting for and fearing for over twenty years. Your mother is crying on the other end of the line while saying: “Your father was detained this morning and is going to be deported.” This could very well be the first sentence of Karla Cornejo Villareal’s novel The Undocumented Americans. The novel—a personal account—shows the world of those who fear receiving a call like this one day, those who have crossed the border. Through the book we experience some of the harsh realities of what America is. For example, at Ground Zero, after the 2001 attacks, there were first responders, firefighters and EMT workers, but behind them came a second wave of responders: undocumented immigrants. The latter were skilled at working without leaving a trace, no papers, no receipts. But those immigrants who were exposed to all the debris of the World Trade Center, later, when health problems arose, had very limited access to medical help. In sum, these are stories of borders. The topic of borders that shape our reality is further explored in LACIS REVIEW.

Addie Hopes, Instructor at State University of New York (SUNY) College of Environmental Science & Forestry (ESF)

Recommendation: “jinetesSolares” and Every day We Get More Illegal (City Lights, 2020) by Juan Felipe Herrera

This semester, students in my environmental humanities research class are asking big questions about archival desire and time: what do we save, who is “we” and who decides, what will the future think of us from what we’ve left behind? Centering the need for justice and sovereignty here and now, we’re listening to the silences in the white colonial record, looking to Indigenous activists who are successfully seeking the re-matriation of seeds and artifacts, and researching community-driven archives that allow people to tell their own stories on their own terms. Within this eclectic group of texts, I’m really looking forward to teaching Juan Felipe Herrera’s “jinetesSolares,” a poem that will orbit the sun for thousands of years on a golden plaque aboard the Lucy spacecraft, and selections from Herrera’s recent collection Every day We Get More Illegal.  

Image of a gold plaque with poems and messages printed on it
Poems and messages on “The Lucy Plaque,” a plaque on the Lucy mission, which aims to explore the Trojan asteroids.

Herrara, the son of Mexican migrant farmers and the first Chicano Poet Laureate of the United States (2015-2017), offers “jinetesSolares (“Sunriders,” in English) as a love letter to hope. When NASA’s “sun riders” left their orbit, the poem tells us, they left a society divided and suffering from the violence of border walls, hate and injustice, apathy, and the climate crisis. Wondering what our ancestors will find of us 2,000,000-some years from now, the poem imagines our legacy will also include traces of the repairs we will have made. There is so much to consider here: the environmental impact of space exploration and its colonial underpinnings; the poetic snippets by Rita Dova, Joy Harjo, Amanda Gorman (and others) that accompany “jinetesSolares” among the stars; the poem’s call for a better future that will have come, and Herrera’s lifelong commitment to building community and breaking boundaries through poetry.

We’ll also read excerpts from Every day We Get More Illegal, a collection that spotlights the cruel carcerality of the U.S. immigration system as often as it sings the often-silenced songs of agricultural workers and again plants the seed of possibility:“we will be dancing strangers under the honeyed yellow light / we will bathe deep together.” My students will have the opportunity to meet with Herrera in April when he visits SUNY ESF as part of our Environmental Storytellers Series.

Juan Meneses, Associate Professor of English, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

Book cover showing abstract drawing, the words written on it are "Remaindered Life" and "Neferti X. M. Tadiar"
Book cover of Remaindered Life

Recommendation: Remaindered Life by Neferti X. M. Tadiar (Duke University Press, 2022) 

Neferti X. M. Tadiar’s Remaindered Life offers an incisive theoretical account of the day-to-day existence of billions across the Global South with a focus, among others, on the differences between productive and valuable human life, inhabitance, violence, and the natural and built environments. Chronicling as tumultuous a time as ours, when the wretched of the earth are viciously turned into disposable victims and scapegoats of a convergence of multiple manufactured catastrophes, Tadiar’s formidable book develops a rich discussion of the latest stage of a planetary order unwilling to uncouple itself from the triangulation between imperialism, capitalism, and globalization. Tadiar, however, refuses to reduce the Global South to a passive transnational geography, refashioning instead the notion of “living at the edge” in order to uncover how forms of governance, subjectivities, mobilities, locales, and times of life do not take place despite the pressures of enclosure, exploitative labor, security, border regimes, and war but exist, rather, both as subtending and in excess of them. In Tadiar’s account, then, the edge is not simply a limit, but a site of tension between creative and destructive production of life.

Ila N. Sheren, Associate Professor of Art History & Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis

Book cover of Visible Borders, Invisible Economies

Recommendation: Visible Borders, Invisible Economies: Living Death in Latinx Narratives by Kristy L. Ulibarri (University of Texas Press, 2022)

As I’m planning out a course on visual culture and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, I’m drawn to Kristy L. Ulibarri’s Visible Borders, Invisible Economies: Living Death in Latinx Narratives. She addresses a wide range of media: literary texts, creative nonfiction, journalism, photography, film, and performance. The book’s argument concerns the apparent paradox between the heavily fortified security state and the concurrent turn towards market neoliberalization. While interrogating this paradox, Visible Borders presents one of the most lucid descriptions of the necropolitical state that I have encountered. Ulibarri complicates the singularity of “the border,” arguing effectively for the interconnectedness of the global economy and its concurrent network of immigration. The originality of the argument rests on the embedding of this complex and consequential structure within the framework of the visible and invisible. Her chosen case studies, coming from the broad range of media described above, challenge established narratives of the borderlands and work to denaturalize state rhetoric concerning immigration and its regulation.

Vera Smirnova, Assistant Professor of Geography and Political Science, Kansas State University

Book cover showing continents against a dark grey background. The words read "post-imperial possibilities: Eurasia, Eurafrica, Afroasia" and "Jane Burbank & Frederick Cooper"
Book cover of Post-Imperial Possibilities

Recommendation: Post-Imperial Possibilities: Eurasia, Eurafrica, Afroasia, by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper (Princeton University Press, 2023)

While the nation state with firm borders and singular peoples living within them is one option out of the postcolonial struggle, Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper remind us that there were powerful cross-border and transcontinental alternatives developed to unite people from different parts of the world and challenge the notion of a singular territorial sovereignty. Such alternatives—Eurasia, Eurafrica, and Afroasia—are examined in this new book as imaginary, materialized, and yet momentary. All three, despite their emancipatory beginnings as alternatives to both empire and the nation- state, have been consumed by vested interests to justify other modes of expansion and domination—economic, political, and spatial. Eurasianism stands out as one such project that survived its long history and has been put to work to justify Russia’s re-colonial turn with a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. I am thrilled to read this new work with my students in the Politics of Russia class this semester.

Featured image: “Mending Fences.” Photo by Dianne White, 2014.