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Rattanamol Singh: Fences

Good fences make good neighbors, graveyards, and mariachi bands.

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Image of US Border courtesy of author

By Rattanamol Singh

The first place lies at the southwestern edge of the country. Mexico and the United States meet the Pacific Ocean here. There’s a fence that juts out into the ocean and divides the countries, and if you ever find a reason to venture here, you’ll realize that the places on either side of this barrier couldn’t be any more different. The American side contains a pristine, empty beach that stretches north for a few miles, devoid of life except some Border Patrol agents. There’s a park here too, called Friendship Park, which opens on certain days and allows separated families on each side of the border a chance to meet. It’s closed today, and in front of the actual fence is fifty feet of no man’s land. We joke that we must be in the DMZ. While this side is cold and makes you feel a hollowing empty, across the fence is a barrage of life. Here the same beach is packed with a crowded mess of people sitting under colorful umbrellas. There’s a circular stadium immediately behind the beach. We’re told this is a bullfighting arena. Seeing some sign of life from the US side, a mariachi band walks up to the fence and yells at us to come closer. In preparation of potentially meeting new fans, they strum their guitars with the beautiful fervor that has marked the existence of their tradition since a set of musically inclined farmers from Jalisco first ventured into early twentieth century Mexico City. For this moment to be created, centuries ago, the indigenous peoples of future Mexico were met by the Spanish colonialists, who as always, offered the promise of Mary, civilization, and salvation. I’m not sure if salvation ever arrived, but pillage and plunder sure did. The Europeans formalized some of these folk music traditions, in the way that Europe attempted to formalize everything in the world that it could never understand. We reciprocate the mariachi’s overtures and begin walking closer to the fence, but a Border Patrol ATV rushes out of nowhere, reminding us that behind this facade of normality, we’re being watched at all times. The mariachis defiantly scream and holler at the Border Patrol vehicle with universally recognizable words of anger, and play more furiously than before. They are Che in the jungles of Bolivia, making one of those last stated marks of resistance that people do when left with no other possible response to Empire. We step backwards and the ATV disappears as quickly as it came.

After Latin Americans, Punjabi males are among the most common occupants of graveyards.

What happens to those that defy these commands more openly?

The second place is 120 miles eastward and deep into California’s Imperial County. You have to trek through a muddy field, and even if it hasn’t rained in forever, you’ll be ankle deep in muck. Eventually, you see crosses jutting out of the ground around you, nameless. These graves hold those who attempted to defy the construction of this border and venture into the United States via Mexico. It is largest unmarked gravesite in the United States, and the only accommodation that the local municipal government can offer.

After Latin Americans, Punjabi males are among the most common occupants of such graveyards. This isn’t particularly surprising. Whether it’s the USCIS detention center in El Paso, Texas or the makeshift refugee camp overlooking Spain’s African territory of Ceuta, there are hordes of Punjabis detained worldwide in some type of diplomatic limbo. In sharp, bleak contrast, I’ve repeatedly heard conversations in the temples, storefronts, and houses that dot my Punjabi diaspora between those in the West and those aspiring to arrive here. In these exchanges, those still living in the homeland glorify their intended destination: “This place is heaven!”

They come with an eager hope on their faces that is tender and willing. This hope feels so nostalgic because it’s the same hope everyone you’ve ever known once had. Give it two months, you think to yourself, and it’ll be gone.

America may be a melting pot, but even the act of melting requires a violent, forced liquefaction of one’s innate properties to assimilate into a desired social milieu.

The months pass by. So does the hope.

​”What happens to them in these new lands?

In America, there’s a mythical ethic that guides this country’s ​​relationship with its new immigrants. This America is Horatio Alger, pick yourself up by your bootstraps, young man! This place is perpetual four a.m. summertime. The sun is sleeping somewhere but it’s brisk. Like that summer brisk that makes you get on a raft and go down the Mississippi on an adventure with Huck and Tom. At the same time, this country is also Tom and all of us immigrants are the ones eagerly willing to paint his fence white. It’s also the same place that forces Huck to leave with Jim in the first place, because there is slavery in this country and Jim as a black man, belongs to a people who are only desired for their servitude. His life isn’t his. Rather he is owned and operated by bondaged America. This America is full of insecurities that are tied into its land. They lurch out every so often. The Trail of Tears. Japanese Internment Camps. Guantanamo. The attacks that once occurred on Catholic churches, then on synagogues and now on mosques and gurudwaras. The lynchings of black men by the South and now by the police.

America may be a melting pot, but even the act of melting requires a violent, forced liquefaction of one’s innate properties to assimilate into a desired social milieu. In this pot, the newest ingredients melt slowest, and the ones we never actually wanted to melt never really do. Perhaps this is all a consequence of the plunder inherent in the creation myth of this country. It forces you to realize that America is still trying to make sense of the terror that had to occur for it to exist. Nevertheless, the allure is real and wealth can be made here in ways that were never imaginable elsewhere.

*

In Europe, border making occurs in different ways. Here, the physical fences that divide each nation aren’t as rigid. In their place, multiculturalism is advanced as a way to deal with those who are different. While this concept is based on the respect of distinct cultures and peoples, it often acts as a continent-wide cloak to mask an underlying contempt aimed at those who are different. Recently, the refugees leaving their war-torn homes of Syria, Somalia, or Sudan have too often arrived at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea rather than Sicily or Spain. The sea is littered with the bodies of thousands who attempted this journey, fed faulty promises via broken fishing boats.

For those that do arrive in Europe, it can be a terrifying welcome.

In Greece, Golden Dawn burns your shops, beats your family, and uses your existence to become a hard-right electoral and social phenomena. In France, the Le Pens offer a solution to both the world’s apparent population explosion and European immigration with, “Monseigneur Ebola could sort that out in three months.” In Hungary, the ghosts of the Ceausescu era rigidity mesh with a modern populist nationalism to dictate a revivalist European exclusionary ideal.

The same Europe that colonized and plundered the world is now claiming the right to relinquish any responsibility from the manipulated borders it helped construct.

*

What about the countries typically sending these immigrants? How about their fence making? Do they treat their own newly arrived guests any differently?

In a searing 2014 video of an attack in a Delhi subway, an Indian mob senselessly beat three Nigerian students while chanting, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai,” which means victory for mother India. In a country that often associates an individual’s status with the lightness of their skin color, African students and workers are blamed for whichever social malaise the country is too proud to face itself. India has always had some of the world’s most rigid and irrational fences, crafted on age-old exploitative systems of caste and social stratification. Perhaps this land is so deluded by its century-long subservience to the Crown that it internalized the aspired traits of whiteness and exclusivity of its once-masters, and sought to reconstruct its national experiment on those same ideals. These everlasting desires to create even more exclusive fences reel out, whether it’s right-wing Shiv Sena founder and Maharashtrian icon Bal Thackeray calling for the extermination of the Bangladeshi immigrants in Mumbai or Prime Minister Narendra Modi telling these same immigrants “to pack up and leave.”

*

In this crisscrossing of world barriers, maybe being uprooted causes a person to truly understand the depth of their original land and home: The yellow mustard fields of the Punjab. The flow of the rolling hills beckoning the arrival of the monsoons in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka. The fishing villages of the Chinese inland floating gingerly on the banks of the mighty Yangtze River. These become romanticized notions. As an immigrant, you’re locked into the time and place from which you left your lands. In reality, these imaginings exist only for you. You beckon for the flurries of your youth: the grandparents, the school friends, the first loves—they’ve all long passed into their own timelines. Those mustard fields are now laced with heroin and opium, those rolling hills have borne the brunt of a bloody counter-insurgency, and those villages are rapidly disappearing in the developing world’s tryst with consumerist modernity.

Your land exists only in your own memory. Maybe that’s all any of this really means. People have traveled the Earth forever, shifting in and out of the make-believe constructs created by those reveling in their momentarily grand illusions of power. Eventually, today’s borders will shift when they have reached a point of irrelevance. New ones will be created and people will then find a way to circumvent those. Fences, real or metaphorical, will always be built. Here’s to hoping we join those mariachis as they sing and dance against them in resistance.

Rattanamol Singh writes and creates tech. He recently founded Lighthouse, a journalism collective using literature and film to tell global narratives. Follow him @rattanamol.

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