In the novel Border Odyssey, Professor Charles Thompson travels along the Mexican-US border with his wife and other travel companions to better understand the relationship between the two countries. Even though Thompson had traveled to different areas of the border before, this was his first trip attempting to cover its entirety. Thompson is currently a professor at Duke and spends a portion of his trip with students involved in an immigration experience for the summer. Much of his life’s work has been about understanding the flow of migrants into the United States, the push and pull factors the draw them in and what little can keep them out.
Thompson’s encounters with people on both sides of the border give the audience an understanding of the historical significance of the border as well as its implications in today’s current political discussion about immigration. The current political rhetoric has turned immigration into a partisan debate, one that paints it as a criminal issue rather than a humanitarian issue. Many politicians have seemed to take the humanity out of the conversations, discussing them as if they were only bodies taking up space in our country, not accounting for the many sacrifices these people have made to come here and what they have had to endure.
Most of the conversation around immigration is also related to the drug trade and the danger of the cartels associated with them. Thompson addressed this issue by identifying where the demand comes from, citizens in the United States, and he calls this the “great paradox of the drug war… we go after the bad guys, we say, while so many of the demand for drugs come from white middle classAmerica” (145). The fear of drugs can be translated into a fear of immigrants.
The majority of Americans find it easier to stick with their party than to think much farther outside of those political ideas. This is true for both sides of the political spectrum, and this is partly why immigration has become such a partisan issue for many. The people who do not want to understand why immigrants are coming to the United States, they only want to push away the other. People do not realize that companies have a history of bringing over immigrants for cheap labor and then when “the United States no longer needed them [… ] told them to go home” (1).
This is a cycle that has taken place for decades and instead of pushing away the issue, and the immigrants trying to make a living, efforts should be made the stop this pattern and consider serious immigration reform. Thompson believes that the immigration should “keep migrant deaths a humanitarian cause rather than fodder for some politicians idea of the need for a secure America” (213), and that people should see immigrants as fellow human beings. The main problem is that there is already a culture of illegal immigration and around 12 million undocumented immigrants are living in the United States according to most current estimates.
These people are already here, working the jobs that most Americans would not want to and there is also the problem of uprooting millions of people who have assimilated into American culture. Thompson describes his personal experience with migrant agricultural workers in North Carolina who helped him work on his farm. He describes the unfairness that these people have experienced “their invaluable knowledge and skills had been uprooted and moved thousands of miles from their own land, and they had become ‘illegal’ in the process” (16).
Thompson’s novel did a great job of addressing the themes of this Latin American history course, namely the topics of nationalism and neoliberalism. The first theme this book addresses is the idea of nationalism, particularly on the side of the US. In many of the historical events regarding interactions between the United States and Mexico, the former country would take advantage and act selfishly in the name of the state. One example is that “in the same year that NAFTA passed, the United States began to erect over seven hundred miles of border wall and surveillance technologies in key locations” (17).
Whether it was to protect the state or to benefit the economy, the United States more often than not will think of itself first and not of others at all. Many Latin American countries in this history course were taken advantage of by the United States and Mexico is not different. The second theme the book discusses is neoliberalism which Thompson defines as “meaning among other things that companies are liberated to come and go as they please, and have no obligations to give back” (155), and he describes how it negatively impacted the countries in Latin America.
This led many agriculture workers to flee to the US in search of jobs that could help them feed their families. Mr. Trevino was a Mexican businessman that Thompson spoke to who said that “NAFTA had helped the largest US based companies, but as far as he could tell, it had done nothing at all for his small town or any of the rural areas nearby” (80). The North American Free Trade Agreement ended up helping certain areas of business, but ended up hurting the independent agriculture workers who needed their work on small farms to survive.
While analyzing any source it is important to remain critical of the reader and understand his perspective. While Thompson’s story did show the hardships of the border, his story was bereft of the danger that many who travel the border actually face. He does acknowledge this at times, at one point he even says, “I just experience white privilege and I knew it” (146). So yes he did describe this danger, he did not experience it the way that a migrant crossing into the US or a tourist in Mexico might have.
Also another criticism would be the attention to detail that Thompson uses to describe the historical events of the places that he is visiting. The stories he is discussing seem to drag the story down and detract from the points that he is making because they are so long. One example is the chapter where he discusses Fort Brown and the history of Texas, where he jumps from Santa Anna in 1835 (63) to Robert E. Lee in the Civil War (67). This style of writing could be very hard to follow at times. The story picks up again after these long historical tangents and the reader is returned to the present day with Thompson.
There one can see that through his writing how invested he is in the issues that affect the immigrant community, and the work that he has done to advocate for people who can’t on their own. His use of imagery and vivid language is very helpful to personalize the problems that many people may be distant from. In the chapter The Graves of the Unknown Farmworkers Thompson goes to see the graves of people who died in a horrible flood. This is the first time that he is up close and personal with physical representation of the death that results from the dangerous immigration through the Mexican border.
He makes himself listen “to their unspoken stories”(279) even though part of him wants to leave. He has seen historical landmarks and met with people helping the cause, but this is the first encounter that leaves him speechless and that arguably hearts him in the most visceral way. He does a great job of helping his audience see from his point of you and see how the issues in the novel affect the lives of individuals that he meets with.
There is also the clear sentiment that Thompson wants people in the US to work with the Mexican people to stop this problem when he says that, “we have to fight this… ut we have to do it together. It affects both sides” (80). His work with the immigrant organizations and the students that he brings to learn about the cause are some of the first steps to bringing both sides together.
In the Chapter titled Brownsville Raids Thompson does a great job of describing the hypocrisy of the United States when he describes the treaty between the two countries that focused on “a solid basis relations of peace and friendship” (68), which was clearly not the true intention of the northern neighbor. But after this excerpt from the treaty, Thompson delves deep into the istory of Texas and the long drawn out story is too long and is not very related to the points that he is making overall. It is hard for the reader to become interested in the story that he is telling, especially in contrast to the exciting narrative that he is telling in the present with his wife and his students. He does, however do a good job of discussing the realities of the border and also the realities about “some hard truths about the nations racial past” (72), and which is a harsh reality to often swept under the rug.
Through his travels along the Mexican border, Charles Thompson was able to meet men and women of all different types and have a variety of experiences to give him a more holistic view of the Mexican identity as well as the immigrant experience. He spoke to border patrol agents, volunteers, mayors of border towns, the young and the old. All of them had different opinions regarding immigration and not all have the answer for what is right and what is wrong with the system.
Through these social and political relationships, Thompson was able to see the complexities of the border culture and also the complexities of the people who are willing to travel thousands of miles to leave their family and home behind in search of something better. Thompson took his job very seriously as he said “as a citizen, I did in fact have some accountability in this – as every American has” (3) and he wants make sure he is telling this story as best as he can. In the end he accomplishes his goal, the audience leaves the book with a greater understanding the history of the border along with its current problems.