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Everyday borders

Written By: shlomy on May 12, 2009 1 Comment

Last week on FIT, David Malinowski wrote about public discourses about the so-called swine flu and the ways these reconstruct borders between countries and people. (The construction of these borders, it should be noted, is not just a U.S. American phenomenon. A New York Times article from May 4 documents some of the many ways that Mexico as a state and Mexicans as a people have been subjected to discriminatory practices that appear to be a collective effort [symbolic and vain, of course] to “isolate” the virus.) Yet, the construction of the border between the United States and Mexico does not happen only through mass mediated political discourse. In fact, it is a routine part of everyday life for those people living in the borderlands.

In a talk given this past Friday at the Center for Latino Policy Research, Professor Ana Celia Zentella (Ethnic Studies, UCSD) discussed her ongoing research on transfronterizo students who live in Tijuana and study in San Diego. Analyzing interviews with 39 such students currently attending college in San Diego, Dr. Zentella asked if the “abilities, practices, and attitudes of transfronterizo students reinforce or challenge:” 1) classic notions of the ideal bilingual , and 2) the dominant narrative that links the language, culture, and identity of Latin@ youth to academic failure. Transfronterizo students, she noted, re-value Mexican identity and authentic Spanish-speaking ability by positioning themselves as more proficient speakers of Spanish compared to their Mexican-American peers. In effect, they draw on what Zentella terms transfronterizo capital. By crossing the border—both physically and symbolically—transfronterizo students simultaneously challenge and reinforce its significance in their and others’ daily experiences.

That language constructs social reality—and that the metalinguistic commentaries speakers make about their languages uphold and reinforce that social reality—is a fundamental principal of sociolinguistic, linguistic anthropological, and discourse analytic approaches to the study of language and its use. Yet, we should also be aware, as Professor Charles Briggs (Anthropology, UC Berkeley) pointed out during the post-talk Q&A, that the violence experienced by people living on the border is not just symbolic, but real. It is real in its effectuation and it is real in its effects. Crossing the border entails submitting oneself to the scrutiny of a state that makes real efforts to keep out people it deems undesirable. Students who cross the border on a regular basis recognize, as Zentella pointed out, that making it safely to the other side is not a given for all of their compatriots. Likewise, being quarantined at a hotel in Hong Kong, or being physically examined by masked men on a plane in Shanghai because of fear of a worldwide outbreak of influenza is not just symbolic humiliation, it is real humiliation. Zentella’s talk reminds those of us interested in the analysis of language that we would do well to consider both the material and ideological effects of both real and symbolic violence in our examination of the ways borders are established between Other and Self.

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One Response to “Everyday borders”

  1. sandra742 on: 9 September 2009 at 6:21 am

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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