Home Sweet Home

Have you watched any mainstream news—CNN especially—in the past few days? Turn on the tv and you will see insanely histrionic coverage of the U.S.-Mexico border and the “drug war”: “narco killers”; “worst free trade imaginable”; “narco terrorists using guns most likely bought in the U.S.” And guess what they are NOT talking about: women (except for the the narco girl friends who buy guns for their boyfriends south of the border)!

Women are trapped in the border zone.  Although the U.S. and Mexican governments continue to militarize the U.S.-México border, it turns out the border zone is an elusive, flexible, dangerous space for people who migrate north and south, especially women and girls.  In fact, the most precarious, dangerous aspects of the border zone can be found in your neighborhood.

It is common knowledge that the militarization of the México-U.S. border intensifies through policies such as the Merida Initiative (aka Plan Mexico), despite continuing human rights abuses across México.  What is often difficult to pinpoint is the way in which national security programs to combat drugs and illegal migration trap women in homes—if not your home, then your neighbors’ home. On one hand, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly acknowledged during her recent trip to México that “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade”—an obvious and important acknowledgment that the U.S. is responsible for the war next door.  On the other hand, recent reporting suggests that critical discussions about the border zone require thinking about transnational households that depend on women’s unceasing yet invisible labor.

The New York Times recently reported, “Like many people in Juárez, Mayor Reyes has homes on both sides of the border, splitting his time between El Paso and Juárez.” Interestingly, the article’s rendering of an increasingly violent border landscape considers the lived experiences of a drug-saturated, hyper-militarized border life by drawing attention to the intimate space of the home, albeit that of a middle- to upper-class household. While Mayor Reyes and his family supposedly enjoy the luxury of crossing the border on a daily basis without violent repercussions, other families living in the border zone aren’t so lucky.

In contrast, the Gamboas, American citizens who own property in both the U.S. and México, continue to experience violence and insecurity of the border.  According to the San Antonio Express, a house in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, was violently raided by hit men reportedly employed by Mexican narco-traffickers. Later, Alan Gamboa, the owner of the house who lives in Laredo, Texas, experienced more narco-related violence when the same paramilitary unit “torched his nearby communications and home-security shop and kidnapped his brother.” The article highlights the fear felt by the brothers’ wives and families who live on the purportedly safe side of the border—the U.S. side, of course. Reporters visited Veronica Gamboa, Alan’s sister-in-law, at her Laredo home where she sat in the dining room next to “photos of the couple’s two young daughters, 11 and 8, who practically worship their father — and vice versa.” The case of the Gamboas demonstrates that border zone militarization intensifies insecurity on both sides of the border, threatening the stability of the lives of undocumented migrants and middle-class U.S. families alike. 

In another example of a transnational household, the Times-Picayune (New Orleans) reported that a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in Texas and his mother harbored a Mexican woman and her children in their Metarie home in exchange for house cleaning services. In contrast to the Gamboas, the case of the Mireles family suggests that the maintenance of the legitimate U.S. household requires the exclusion of undesirable bodies of migrant women.

In all three instances, the proper household, imagined as an intimate space of protection for the heterosexual family, is threatened by the precariousness of the blurry, fluctuating border zone. While men play active roles in negotiating the movement through the border zone, women—as wives and workers firmly ensconced in the household—remain vulnerable to the forces of the national-security apparatuses of both México and the United States. From the hundreds of women violently killed in border towns to dutiful American housewives and domestic workers, women on both sides of the border, real and imagined, are trapped in transnational households.

(Photo Credit: New York Times / Eduardo Verdugo / AP)

Develop or Die

A refrain keeps repeating in my head: ¨Develop or Die. Develop or Die.¨ I heard that haunting, yet attractively alliterative, phrase on BBC a few weeks ago. Because the cryptic words have been stuck in my head, I began to contemplate whether I would/should chose to die or develop, whatever that means.  However, when I finally searched the BBC website, I realized that develop or die was not a question being posed to me, the viewer. ¨Develop or Die¨ is the name of a ¨new series on BBC World News tackling the challenge now facing Asia; how to develop their economies whilst at the same time handling the growing pressure from the West to protect the environment.¨ (I have not seen advertisements for the show on BBC Mundo, which is in Spanish and tends to cover mainly Latin American headlines, but I digress.) 

In contrast to my initial interpretation, BBC presents ¨develop or die¨ not as a question, not even a rhetorical one, but rather a bottom line, a global imperative concerning Development, capital D. The series presents an opportunity for viewers of BBC (in English) to think about the challenges faced by Asia, as if all or even most of ¨Asia¨ faces the same challenges and risks. ¨Filmed on location in India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam. . .[and] Mumbai,¨ the series discusses tensions between the West’s desire to protect the environment through sustainable development projects, and Asia’s supposedly ravenous desire to achieve ¨development¨ through any means possible, regardless of ecological costs.  This uncomplicated rendering of a historical (needless to say gruesome) East-meets-West dichotomy is a little, well, irresponsible, to say the least; perhaps perverted would be a better word? 

The marketing of the series is symptomatic of how mainstream news presents development as something the West chooses for the non-West.  That is, individual news watchers in the global North are represented as permitting/allowing un- or underdeveloped throngs in other parts of the world to work toward achieving a developed lifestyle according to a linear development schema that the western governments have already discovered, perfected, and continue to enjoy.  Given the influence and power that multinational and transnational companies possess to shape and influence not only domestic public policy, but also the decisions of international and supranational governing entities, the idea that the ¨challenge to develop¨ exists over there in Asia is a bit shortsighted.

To continue the popular theme of developed people in the West making choices for everyone else, I note an interesting story from Democracy Now!: ¨Hampshire College Becomes First U.S. College To Divest From Israel.¨ The college ¨has become the first of any college or university in the U.S. to divest from companies on the grounds of their involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine,¨ including Caterpillar, General Electric, ITT Corporation, Motorola.¨ For more companies that are ¨directly involved in the occupation,¨ such as General Mills, Ace Hardware, Pizza Hut, Chemonics International, Hewlett Packard, Chevrolet, RE/MAX, check out Who Profits, a database organized by The Coalition of Women for Peace.

As the happy, content, free-market-loving West considers the consequences of development in underdeveloped countries, it turns out the story is a little more complicated. While divestment plays an important role in the shifting processes of globalization, media portrayals of ethical business practices often propagate dominant discourses of development as beginning in the global North/West and undulating out to the rest of the world.  As mainstream pundits continue to ponder not only what it means to develop, but also the who, what, when, where, and how of development, transnational feminists work to understand what it means to develop or die—often develop AND die—in Asia, Palestine, Israel, Darfur, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iran, Burma, the Mexico-U.S. Border, and beyond.


(Image Credit: BBC)

Narco Wives vs. . . . Regular Wives?

Gulf News recently published a story on Mexican narco wives (check out the picture). ¨Narco-¨ is a prefix that continues to gain currency in international news about Mexico, but the recent outburst of reporting around narco wives is particularly interesting in terms of how women are portrayed in relation to el narcotráfico. Certainly, there has been reporting around Mexican women and drug trafficking, but the Gulf News story offers a particularly egregious (not to mention garish) depiction of Mexican women. After describing the ascension of Sinaloan beauty pageant winners into the highest levels of narco life, the article ends curiously saying that ¨these women become untouchable.¨ What, exactly, is it about these women that makes them untouchable? Who determines what can and cannot be touched? The article is about, well, women, right? It says so in the title. However, no women´s voices are recounted in the story, and their supposed choice to enter narcodom is the only piece of information that hints at an agentic existence. In fact, the article reduces the wives to silenced beauties or narco arm charms, at best.  Still, the last word lingers uneasily: untouchable. If they cannot be touched, what does it mean to be touched?

Amidst these women´s secluded yet treacherous lives, Mexico, which was recently named a potential failed state, ¨is fighting for its survival against narco-terrorism”. As organized crime dominants headlines about Mexico, los narcotraficantes are not the only ones making money in Mexico; the empires of Carlos Slim, who controls most of Mexico´s telecommunications and is the second richest man in the world, and Walmart, which owns multiple supermarkets and cheap restaurants in Mexico, continue to boom. While international news would have us think that Mexico is full of narcos running wild, women, especially those in urban and suburban areas, perform the quotidian chores required to maintain their households and take care of their families. Filing through grocery stores with their children, middle, lower, and working class women finger through cilantro, t-shirts, packages of Wonder tortillas, bottles of Ajax. When the women return home, either they or domestic workers, who are overwhelmingly underpaid women, sort through and wash carefully selected produce and clean the house. Indeed, the Mexican household hardly goes a day without encountering in some way the effects of the decisions of Slim, Walmart, narcotraficantes, and México-U.S. policies.

From narco nails to the price of tortillas, Mexican women continue to navigate shifting geographies of consumerism, security, and survival that shape the contours of the global household.

(Photo Credit: Women’s UN Report Network)

Refugees here, there, and everywhere

Refugees have been in the news a lot lately. The strikes on Gaza offer one of the most prominent and horrifying examples happening right now.  Zimbabweans fleeing the Mugabe regime, often classified as economically displaced, fall under the category of ¨refugee¨ in mainstream reporting. The U.S. occupation of Iraq has led to the displacement of millions of individuals and families, creating a massive refugee crises in which over 4 million have left their homes to find refuge in other parts of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, or other neighboring countries. Reporters cover humanitarian crises in Darfur, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Chad, Georgia . . . and the list continues. Given this broad naming of displaced individuals around the world as refugee, it would appear that all of these groups fall similarly under the category of refugee, although the historical and geopolitical contexts are markedly different. 

This undifferentiated category of refugee seems to pop up, well, everywhere.

After reading a recent article in The Nation about New Orleans and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, referenced in Dan Moshenberg´s recent post, I was caught off guard by A.C. Thompson´s mention of refugees.  Recounting race-specific violence following the storm, Thompson says, ¨Facing an influx of refugees, the residents of Algiers Point could have pulled together food, water and medical supplies for the flood victims.¨ Refugee is just sort of slipped in there, no? Indeed, refugee became the contentious, yet popular, way of identifying displaced New Orleanians following the storm.  However, while Thompson takes on the very important task of discussing forgetten histories of extreme white on black urban violence, he refers to the refugees rather nonchalantly.  Information about where the refugees came from and why they might have fallen into the category of refugee remains curiously absent. Moreover, his portrayal of New Orleans is decidedly male, or at least male-normative, as all of the active players in the article are men. As we continue to remember Hurricane Katrina, we must ask the following question that few critics taken into consideration: where were/are New Orleanian women displaced by the storm, the majority of whom were poor and black? How did refugeeness following the storm differ along the lines of race, class, gender, location, age, and ability?

It is the frequent, unspecific, and gender-neutral use of the label refugee that concerns me.  While the United Nations and individual nations maintain their respective legal definitions of refugee status, the name is used all too frequently in reporting about conflict and disaster to describe those who are victimized and desperately in need of aid, often perceived as coming from the largesse of the West.  It seems that refugees, whether considered to be economic, political, religious, or otherwise, remain largely nameless, faceless, and desperately in need of help.  

One of the most curious examples I have recently seen is the labeling of refugees fleeing Ciudad Juarez and moving to El Paso.  According to Alfredo Corchado of the The Dallas Morning News, Senator Eliot Shapleigh says, “Just like the good people of Houston took in the refugees from New Orleans, El Pasoans will also help the refugees from Juárez.¨ Similar to Thompson´s portrayal of Algiers Point, all of the active players in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez area are men. Given the use of label refugee to describe crises around the world and the increasingly high levels of femicide in Ciudad Juarez, this portrayal of ¨refugee¨ as narco-economic, male migrant is painfully shortsighted and disturbingly problematic.  

In the majority of representations of mass displacement, the situations of women, especially women of color, remain obscured.  These women, the third world `others´ lost in the traffic of disaster, conflict, and humanitarianism, exist outside of and below public intelligibility and political recognition. Given current reporting practices concerning refugees, especially those circulating in the U.S. public sphere, these feminized groups remain largely un-trackable and unspeakable.


(Photo Credit: CNN)