ABS 2019 Conference and Tijuana

The end of April saw the Association for Borderlands Studies hold its Annual Meeting in San Diego, providing a perfect setting for the themes with which the conference sought to grapple. The increasing salience of Asia’s border for their study globally was apparent in the two panels in which KUBS participated. The first, organized by Po-Yi Hung of National Taiwan University, brought together a collection of papers that considered the role of the borders in everyday life in East Asia, and featured Akihiro Iwashita, Naomi Chi, Yu-Hsiu Lien and myself.

The second was based around the Jean Monnet Network grant comparing Migration and Border Policies in the EU, Canada, and Japan, which was established under the Borders in Globalization project headed by Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly of the University of Victoria. The panel built upon the results of Workshops which had been held in Strasbourg, Brussels, Ottawa, Hokkaido, and Victoria over the previous three years, and provided an opportunity for Oliver Schmidtke, Birte Wassenberg, Naomi Chi and myself to set out what we had learned and reflected upon during the course of these workshops. Each of the three teams is producing a series of special issues and edited collections on their own area of study, while also contributing to the comparative work emerging through the project.

San Diego itself was a pleasant enough city,

in the somewhat identikit West Coast mould of Vancouver or Seattle, but was more interesting when viewed both as a borderland and as a city defined by the border fence that runs between itself and the Mexican City of Tijuana to the south.

This was not just for the great craft beer, but also reflected the ways in which the border exists in daily life, and how it is experienced for large sections for the population. One place where this was particularly apparent was at Chicano Park, a small community space beneath freeway off-ramps that was home to a beautiful series of murals proclaiming allegiance to a broader Mexican or indigenous identity. Painted up since the 1970s, the murals spoke to a sense of cross-border community being maintained in the heart of the old Mexican Barrio in San Diego. Yet one gardener’s story of how money for park maintenance was being siphoned off by the park’s management sadly reflects the ways in which community cohesion is increasingly hostage to private interests.

Fortunately, the ABS Meeting anticipated the interest in discovering the border by its participants, and in partnership with El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF), arranged a tour across the border and series of events on the other side.

The pedestrian border crossing appears to have been designed as a paradigmatic representation of contemporary border trends, all exposed metal, barbed wire, cameras, and the incessantly channeling of human bodies along specific, well-defined tracks.

A more spontaneous, emotionally-charged version of the border was made available to us at the end of the trip, as we were taken to the famous section of border fence initially constructed by Clinton at the coast. While the US side of this section is a deliberately abandoned area of sand dunes and scrub, euphemistically labelled an ‘International Park’ on the map whilst being circled by border patrol agents and helicopters overhead, on the Mexican side, as appears to be the common pattern, the border is built right up to and, in a sense, taken possession of.

A border space at once haunting, celebratory and defiant.

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