krys méndez ramírez

Posts Tagged ‘Borderlands’

a nyc series of moments

In Geography/ Spatial Justice, History on September 11, 2015 at 6:31 PM
(Left to right) Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens from the Pulaski Bridge. c. 2007

(Left to right) A sliver of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens from the Pulaski Bridge. c. 2007

Here’s a story few people know about me: My origin story lies in the Twin Towers.

In fact, I probably wouldn’t be here sharing this were it not for those drab, staples-like towers that rose into the sky like drab metallic beams.

For about a quarter century, during the span of the Towers’ very existence, my father drudged through the evening shift as a maintenance worker. His job was something of a rarity in contemporary times: a unionized job with benefits. During those years, he swept, mopped, organized and took out the thrash for America’s top financial elite.

But my New York roots really begin in the island of Borinquen (Puerto Rico). It was in his early teens, in those burning years of the late ’60s, that he joined the declining end of a massive wave of Boricua migrants that re-settled into, and helped shape, the many neighborhoods that make up Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx.

Since history has a way of being forgotten or deliberately suppressed, and individual stories decoupled from the social contexts from which they emerge in our neoliberal age, I feel it necessary to underscore a particular history, which I argue has everything to do with what the World Trade Center was, how it functioned and why.


 

Viejo San Juan narrow cobblestone street

Viejo San Juan. Dec 2011.

Per many historians, critics, and activist scholars, the Puerto Rican diaspora to Gotham was far from incidental.

Pushed, in great part, by the economic failures of the Operation Bootstrap—a mid-century program that failed to produce the sought after industrialization-cum-prosperity in the island nation—as well as a much longer legacy of exploitative, colonial American policies tracing as far back as the island’s takeover in 1898*, the “invisible hand” that thrust many island Black and Brown folks into New York was far from an abstract market mechanism.

It had everything to do with post-war American global dominance and a prevailing Keynesian economy where suburbanization, white flight and systems of mass production fueled demands for cheap, disposable labor. Black and Brown poverty was the hidden, ignored underside to the glossy triumphalism of cultural modernism and industrial production.

By becoming the first substantial population of Latinxs to permanently reside in New York City, puertorriqueñxs ultimately built the foundations of Latinx urban life not only in the ‘Empire State, but across the country for generations to come.


Morazán Boulevard in San Pedro Sula. July 2014.

Morazán Boulevard in San Pedro Sula. July 2014.

Fast-forward to the (in)famous 1980s, when my genes were still split between a sperm and an egg. I can only speak of this decade as a distant historian (too bad, since I feel like I missed out), but when it comes to making sense of the political economic life of the United States in broad strokes, it can more or less be summarized as:

Reagan and Thatcher ruling the world. Perestroika, glasnost, and the final decade of the Cold War. The neoliberal turn. The AIDS crisis. The crack cocaine crisis. The war on drugs. The beginnings of mass incarceration. The beginnings of neoliberal gentrification. The beginnings of ‘colorblind’ liberal multiculturalism and the ‘new’ white supremacy. Rampant poverty and stunning inequality. Privatization, union busting and across-the-board cuts on state social spending. The demonization of “welfare moms,” urban “thugs,” “hood rats” and “bums.” Flashy Porsches and BMW’s for Wall Street and real estate gremlins, graffiti and scratchitti for everyone else.

And then, of course, the Central American crisis.

As various political economists, historians, and geographers have commented, the 1980’s were a time of financial experimentation and speculation. When our infamous Wall Street gremlins couldn’t figure out where to invest—now that Americans were faced with a crisis of overproduction that was viscerally felt in the decade prior—their decision to invest in foreign countries led to massive, cross-border state destabilizations.

When the civil wars in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador broke out, there was a common theme: the extreme inequalities engineered by years of local coffee oligarchies and foreign imperialist exploitation were countered with revolutionary resistance , however flawed. In that volatile chess game that was the Cold War, Central Americans were just pawns with a refutable humanity.

My mother was just one person in that mass exodus from this other part of the Caribbean Basin at the time. Unlike much of the approximately 62% of Central Americans suffering from ‘extreme’ poverty in the mid-1980s, she had sufficient resources to flee her native San Pedro Sula, the industrial capital of Honduras, the quintessential “banana republic.”

She left not because she was fleeing U.S.-trained paramilitary and counterinsurgency troops, or Maoist-Leninist guerrilla fighters, as many did in those years.

She left for the same reason migration perseveres as a forefront issue today, deeply enveloped within the discourses of the homeland defense: economic security.

She left because the economic situation in San Pedro Sula was simply impossible.

She explained it very succinctly to me recently: her job as a secretary gave her 400 lempiras a month in 1981—something tantamount to $20 in today’s exchange rates—and it was simply not enough to support herself, much less her aging parents.

Young, able-bodied, adventurous, with money saved up and a loose connection to a cousin in Brooklyn, why wouldn’t she go?


There is a picture of my Honduran abuelita sitting by this "Sphere," when it was still between the Twin Towers

There is a picture of my Honduran abuelita sitting by this “Sphere,” when it was still between the Twin Towers

Moving to New York, like for most immigrants who come here, was a pivotal life decision. She lived alone in New York City at a time it was undergoing what historian Kim Moody has called a regime change, a financial “coup” that emerged in the aftermath of the city’s near-bankruptcy the decade prior.

As Moody explains it, it was a city on the road to achieving its self-proclaimed status as the “real estate capital of the world.” And yet, like most of the over 8 million people who live in the city today, she wouldn’t have time to take note of that.

Wracked by loneliness and self-doubt, my mother wondered if moving to a city where she didn’t know the language was worth it. The calls to her mother required a good deal of psychic preparation, but disguising her New York discomfort was made easier by the money she could confidently send back home.

But between the late work shifts, the long commutes, she would sometimes look up. There were no stars. Skyscrapers were coming up everywhere. People would not stop hitting the streets, although at night they darted like shadows.

It’s a city whose transformations can be multiplicative, but it’s a city nonetheless. Cities are not built overnight, and pre-9/11, rarely changed from one day to the next. Like another, it continues to transform itself in an image cast by the movement and accumulation of capital—people, money, equipment, ideas, resources—and, as such, the changes can be slow and painful.

In 1983, however, it was clear that the city survived its financial doomsday. Some were even suggesting that it was thriving. And the Twin Towers still rose resplendent in the New York skyline, as if to obnoxiously proclaim the glowing triumph of a particular type of world trade. Still in Brooklyn, my father was one of the lucky ones spared from the economic calamities that struck many of his high school friends and family back home.

At this point, he had been working at World Trace Center 2 for almost ten years, which is where my mother found him. She had just finished an errand that took her downtown, and as she rushed home, somewhat lost and befuddled in that pedestrian traffic, she realized she didn’t have her watch. She asked the first staff person she found who looked like a Spanish speaker.


And that was that. I’m not much for personalized sentimentalism, so I’ll just say this: it was just another New York City moment. A cosmic convergence of sorts. Maybe.

Coming back to New York this week after a year-long hiatus, it was strangely like old times: my family and me hanging out by the World Trade Center, complaining about the tourists.

Then things started hitting me in the head like meteor shows, or what could have just been falling New York debris, I’m not sure: I am ontologically bound to this city because I could not have been any other way.

It also helps me understand why I am so driven to borders, the borderlands: I live, breathe, thrive at the crossroads. I am not whole when I am segmented into pieces that are then marketed and sold like tchatchkes on Union Square.

20170101_095632

Krys in Cabo Rojo, serenely smiling at a precipice at the southwest corner of Borinquén. Jan 2017.

I was incredibly exhausted from my long flight from the West Coast, but it kind of hit there as I tried to process the changes: it’s ground zero, stupid.

It’s where space-time contorts in ways my puny human brain will never understand, largely because it’s like approaching the event horizon of a vortex where multiple dimensions, histories and geographies converge…A surreal Dalí-esque world where clocks and maps collide and collapse into and around each other, fusing and melting under the star-lit Mayan sky.

An assemblage of different parts of my personal narrative, twisted and turned into a kaledeiscopic tapestry: Moca. The ’80s. Brooklyn. The ’90s. San Pedro. The “aughts.” San Diego. The present.

And then, of course, the future.

 

Originally posted Sep 11 2015. Edited May 5 2018.

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Going to the Southern Mexican Border

In Geography/ Spatial Justice, The Revolution on June 6, 2015 at 11:38 PM

Long thought of as the “forgotten” border, the political division between Mexico and Central America is about a 714 mi (1149km) stretch of mostly sparsely populated land—about a third the size of the more (in)famous northern border.

About three-quarters of the southern border is shared with Guatemala, and the highest percentage of that is shared with Chiapas specifically.

For a good part of this month (June 2015), I’ll be staying in the border city of Tapachula to study both the militarization of the border and its impact on this growing city. Located in the incredibly fertile Soconusco region along the Pacific Ocean, Tapachula is the largest city in the border zone, and is currently the second largest city of Chiapas (after that state’s capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez).

Some other facts and figures relating to Tapachula, Chiapas, and the militarization of the southern border:

Central American Migration

  • Over a century of U.S. imperialism in Central America, a brutal period of civil wars in the 1980s, and a continued legacy of government corruption in the region’s Northern Triangle (as witnessed by this year’s large mobilizations in Guatemala and Honduras), continues to prop a humanitarian crisis whose roots are left untouched on all sides of national borders.
  • The most-trafficked route for Central American migrants on their way through México has historically begun in Tapachula. (This was highlighted in the acclaimed film about the treacherous northward journey, Sin Nombre (2009).)

Mexico’s Involvement

  • Tapachula has the notorious distinction of being home to Latin America’s largest detention facility—the euphemistically-named Estación Migratoria Siglo XXI (“21st Century Immigration Station”).
  • While Chiapas isn’t new to militarization—as those who are familiar with the Zapatista revolution are very much aware—the focus on the southern border has resulted in an increase in the number of checkpoints and roadblocks with a concomitant rise in human rights abuses.
  • Last year (2014), Mexican president Peña Nieto launched the Programa Frontera Sur –a program purportedly aimed at “protecting” migrants and boosting security that has, in actuality, has done little more than increase migrant “huntings” and deportations.[i]
  • According to a report released by the NGO Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Chiapas was the Mexican state with the largest number of deportations in 2013 (32,452)[ii]. This has likely increased by several thousands since since the start of the Frontera Sur program.[iii]

United States’ Involvement

  • Responding to the growing number of Central American migrants, the U.S. Department of Defense quietly launched a “Mexico-Guatemala-Belize Border Region Program,” with as much as $50 million of counter-drug money being spent on “patrol boats, night vision equipment, communications equipment, maritime sensors, and associated training.” This is in addition to the billions already funneled to the Mexican government since 2008 by way of the Mérida Initiative[iv].
  • WOLA’s report also details how the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds an office in Tapachula, supposedly “to build capacity in the identification of aliens from countries of national security concern.”
An image of the Usumacinta River, between Chiapas and Guatemala. Photo by thelmadatter http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Thelmadatter Licensed under CC by 3.0

An image of the Usumacinta River, between Chiapas and Guatemala. Photo by thelmadatter Licensed under CC by 3.0

[i] http://www.animalpolitico.com/2015/04/programa-frontera-sur-el-discurso-de-derechos-humanos-con-el-que-mexico-caza-a-miles-de-migrantes/

[ii] Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), 2014: http://www.wola.org/publications/mexicos_other_border

[iii] http://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-mexico-migrants-crackdown-20140907-story.html#page=1

[iv] Federation of American Scientists, 2015: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41349.pdf

Searching for Meaning in the Borderlands

In Creative Writing, Geography/ Spatial Justice on February 14, 2015 at 6:00 AM

Five months after taking the plunge that landed me on the other side of the country, here I am: a newly-minted academic in a place that, for all intents and purposes, is diametrically opposite that of my Brooklyn barrio.

I live in what can be described as an intersection between a large public housing structure dressed in light brown and yellow hues, and a prototypical, suburban cul-de-sac overlooking undeveloped valleys and chaparral. The view outside my building itself suggests the nature of this place: nothing but the ever-busy I-5, a six-story parking structure, and five- and four-star hotels are in view.

La Jolla may as well be as far away from Sunset Park, Brooklyn as Pluto is from Mars. In a time and place wherein U.S. cities are witnessing the invasions of all forms of gentrifiers and speculative capital, and wherein the suburbanization of poverty has reconfigured the age-old dynamics of urban space and race, La Jolla stands out like a relic of an artificial past—a stubborn bastion of old money and white supremacy in the borderlands.

Of course, when looking at the natural beauty that is La Jolla Shores, it isn’t surprising why the rich would choose to build their mansions here. But the irrepressible question: what is this place? Given the extreme artificiality of the landscape, a quiet cookie-cutter spread of white, beige, and yellow boxes, is this even a place at all?

La Jolla Shores

A view of La Jolla Shores

It’s been five months since I moved to San Diego to pursue a doctoral degree, and as usual, I’m at a loss for words. I came here to study space and race—and San Diego, for numerous obvious and not-so-obvious reasons, is a prime location for such research.

The military, the border, the shameless Anglo coloniality in former Mexican tierra that was itself stolen from the Kumeyaay. The wounds in this place are immeasurably layered. And when I think about the larger picture: really, what am I doing here?

What did the Universe have in mind in bringing me to such a place? Being an expat New Yorker wouldn’t be so freakin’ hard if I didn’t bring a chronic condition with me across country. Would it even be this hard had I come here with the security of at least a few close friendships?

But, no, I keep reminding myself—this was the point. The point was to start over. The point was to try living in a new space that wasn’t so indelibly branded with the knotty memories of twenty plus years, spread throughout the various nooks and crannies of a city at war.

So now I’m a transplant in another people’s land, another people’s city, and for what? What is my presence here accomplishing? Was I pushed by an ennui of “more of the same” in New York, or was I pulled in by relaxing promises of a city by the border? The question of agency, and displacement, never goes away.

I honestly don’t know how to approach these thorny questions other than to wrench agnosticism and humility and conscientiousness about where I stand. I feel clueless being so unanchored from place (by definition, a space imbued with cultural signifiers, with life and meaning).

Yet this experiment in graduate school placelessness–a feeling of zero gravity in a haze of detached theories–reminds me of why geography matters. Space and place matter. The land we occupy matters. And there are spatial epistemologies we have yet to illuminate.

But right now, I feel the intensity of this uprootedness and the swirl of possibilities.

Five months in, and still, I can’t decide what this place is to me.

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