Security is theater, and borders make a good backdrop for governors who want to play the role of commander-in-chief. Recall Sarah Palin bragging about standing toe-to-toe with Vladimir Putin, or Scott Walker proposing a wall between the United States and Canada. Or remember former Texas governor Rick Perry bragging that “President Barack Obama failed to secure the border, so I stepped in,” explicitly comparing “last year’s surge operation” on the border with Mexico to the “surge” of troops in Iraq that George W. Bush began in 2007. What better preparation for being commander-in-chief, after all, than sending a “surge” of troops to combat a “flood” of refugee children?
Perry’s campaign never got off the ground, perhaps because Donald Trump would soon bring a theatrical flair to the role of nativist-in-chief that few real officeholders could ever match. A sitting border governor must deal with realities on the ground, and must defend a record of doing so; by contrast, Donald Trump can propose deporting 11 million people on his first day in office because his only reality is television, the world of cable news, and AM radio. This means he can spin much more satisfying fictions than his competitors. Because “they are killing us,” he will make America strong again by winning the war with Mexico. We will send them all back, build more walls, and “make Mexico pay for it.” (Just as Trump vowed to take Iraq’s oil to pay us back for invading them.) Losers pay reparations; winners get paid.
A sitting border governor must deal with realities on the ground, and must defend a record of doing so; by contrast, Donald Trump can propose deporting 11 million people on his first day in office because his only reality is television.
There is a narrative coherence to Trump’s stories that mere reality cannot match. His stories match how we feel—we who feel like we are fighting a race-war with Mexico (a decidedly white Anglo-American kind of “we” which feels quite insecure about it). When my late grandmother told me about the time she visited Texas, she described hearing people speaking Spanish and feeling like they were talking about her. She didn’t like it. For the insecure “we,” militarizing the border makes sense: more walls, more checkpoints, more men with guns, and more cages for human beings. For the insecure “we,” security theater can be a comforting reality show to watch.
For the rest of us, it can be no less comforting to imagine that security is merely theater, or that Trump is just playing the role his audience wants him to play. When Trump was faced with an audience-member who declared that “we have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims”—this civilian went on to demand, with a chilling vagueness, that we need to “get rid of them”—many of us presumed that Trump’s non-response was simple posturing for his nativist base. Surely there were hotheads in the audience—the crazies, the nut-jobs, etc—but cooler heads will prevail in policy. We might throw around words like “fascism”—but surely it can’t happen here.
These are also comforting fictions. As Carmen Boullosa’s newly translated novel, Texas: The Great Theft, suggests, fascism has happened here, and—to be blunt—reality is a much more vicious and stupid place than the saner version of it that we “non-crazies” imagine we inhabit. History tends to tell us that our leaders were intelligent and serious and that—at worst—they had “flaws”; history is a slow, gradual and predictable progression of things we’ve already seen before. In this way, history re-assures us that a “President Trump” will inevitably remain the punchline to a very tired joke.
Boullosa’s vicious and violent farce suggests otherwise. Indeed, there is no better place than Texas to remind us that history is partisan bunk, the fictions we tend to tell rather than stories about how stupid, surreal, and pointlessly violent real life has often been. Her deeply researched novel has one thing in common with Donald Trump’s wildest nativist fantasies: Both start from the premise that the border has always been in a state of permanent war. And both teach us to beware of Yankee real-estate speculators who are unafraid to weaponize fear and racial panic for profit.
First published in Spanish in 2012, Boullosa’s novel opens in 1859, with Don Nepomucena and Sheriff Shears facing off across a Texas high noon, pistols in hand. Nepomucena is an aristocratic Mexican landowner who has just been insulted; Shears is the two-bit gringo Sheriff who has insulted him. The insult comes out of nowhere, an unexpected, random bit of conflict. But when the sheriff spits out those five words—“Shut up, you dirty greaser”—everyone around understands, instantly, what has just happened, and what will happen as a result.
Of course, there follows a long moment of hesitation before Nepomucena responds, a hesitation which drags on for almost 50 pages. In this moment of hesitation, over a hundred characters are introduced. The news travels fast: Before the sheriff’s mouth is even closed, an errand boy overhears, and carries the news swiftly to a nearby butcher; the butcher tells his neighbor—a chicken dealer—who tells the green-grocer, who tells another person, who tells another, who tells ... and so on. Within a few pages, the news of this momentous insult spreads far and wide via gossipers, bored travelers, carrier pigeons, storytelling drunks, government messengers, idle bystanders, informal postal services, conspiratorial networks, and even the actual telegraph. As a result, long before anyone knows how Nepomucena will have responded—and long before we, the readers, know what he will have done—word of the insult has already criss-crossed the region, has been told, re-told, mis-told, and commented upon, and has spawned a variety of wild speculations, hopes, and fears.
What is a border, after all, if not a space of misapprehension, the great well-spring of comedy? Boullosa’s Texas is like one giant game of telephone. Everybody seems crazy to everybody else.
Some are delighted that a notorious patrician cattle thief has been publicly humiliated, that an American sheriff has put this aristocratic Mexican in his place. Some are horrified that a gringo carpenter with a tin star would dare to speak that way to Don Nepomucena, son of Doña Estefanía. Some are terrified of the violence it might portend, that the Anglos might invade again; some are exultant at the bloodbath this insult will surely produce. Some are totally uninterested, or concerned only insofar as they have business with Nepomucena, or affection, or a grudge. Some see opportunity; some see confirmation of a prejudice; most just see a good story, which they tell and re-tell in the surprising and eccentric ways.
The only constant is that the story always changes in the telling. Because the insult means something different everywhere it goes, the novel gives us a gossipy cartography of a border region defined by fissure: two towns, facing across a river that goes by two different names. It is the Río Bravo if you are looking from the south, speaking Spanish; the Rio Grande if you are looking from the north, speaking English. Boullosa’s border is not one story, therefore, but it’s also not just two: Split by dozens or hundreds of social divides, the stories are uncountable. One or two new characters are introduced on nearly every page—sometimes half a dozen—and each is the occasion for a rambling excursion into their personal history. Sometimes the novel drops capsule biographies (and sometimes long rambling tangents); sometimes these backstories intersect with previously introduced characters, and sometimes they don’t. Some of these characters will enjoy significant “screen-time” later on in the novel; some appear only to disappear. The “story” is all but impossible to follow, either because there is no story at all, or because there are so many of them at once, layered on top of each other, all clamoring for attention.
At a certain point, you stop trying to keep it all straight. There are far too many characters, and their stories don’t add up, don’t cohere. In fact, as everybody gets the story just a little bit wrong—but in a way that’s just right for them—the novel becomes a mosaic of mistakes, a grand comedy of misrecognition as the entire border region misapprehends itself. And from a certain distance, it can be very funny. What is a border, after all, if not a space of misapprehension, the great well-spring of comedy? Boullosa’s Texas is like one giant game of telephone. Everybody seems crazy to everybody else.
One thing unites them all, however: Everyone knows that after words comes violence. Once spoken, Sheriff Shears’ words will have their effect, a random beginning with a predictable end. There will be blood. And so, as the insult reverberates through the region—and as the narrative follows the ever-widening circles it travels—the sheriff and his opposite number are left behind, frozen in place, facing off in electric silence. They will respond, of course; there will be a gunfight. But in a very real way, the two have become irrelevant, a function of the roles they find themselves playing in a script that will be written for them. Long before they have a chance to respond, others are already telling their stories for them. Security is theater, but it eventually comes true.
Boullosa is not the first Mexican novelist to make sense of the present by looking back to what, in Mexico, is sometimes called la primera intervención estadounidense en México. In Mexico, the Mexican-American War was only the first of many “interventions” that followed, the first of many repetitions. However it started, it keeps happening. And so, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a series of novels—Francisco Martín Moreno’s Mexico Mutilado (2004), Guillermo Zambrano’s México por Asalto (2008), and Ignacio Solares’ La Invasion (2007)—used the 19th-century invasion that culminated in the occupation of Mexico City (and the annexation of what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas) to reflect the American present. When Solares presented Yankee Invasion to an American audience at New York University, for example, he made the analogy clear: The United States has an obsession with invasion, Solares said: “What is happening in Iraq has much to do with my work, with the imperialist, expansionist United States.”
The invaded, mutilated, and assaulted Mexico that we find in novels such as these bears a distinct resemblance to the victimization fantasy that Trump is selling. There is an important difference too: When we accept the notion that we’ve been humiliated, weakened, and emasculated, and that a powerful leader is necessary to make America great again, to empower violence against the weak by the strong, what we are describing is textbook fascism. The U.S. really has “intervened” in Mexico, many times; the conspiracy theories that Trump peddles about the Mexico “sending their worst”—to infiltrate, weaken, and destroy us—is the same kind of fantasy that fascists used to justify taking the kind of action that Trump’ logic would compel him to take: the mass concentration and removal of unwanted ethnic bodies.
If the border is a military fantasy for would-be U.S. commanders-in-chief, Zambrano, Moreno, and Solares describe the nightmare from which Mexico is trying to wake, the lingering trauma of having been made into a cinematic backdrop for Yankee theatrics—of having been violated and humiliated. The opening scene of Solares’ Yankee Invasion, for example—in which an occupying American soldier is killed by a sniper, sparking a riot by an enraged Mexican mob—is both the trauma of the original humiliating violation and the wish-fulfillment fantasy of its reversal, as the occupying American body which is pierced with knives. This vivid and intense dream-like flurry of sounds and events will occupy the novel’s narrator for the rest of the book, as he struggles to unpack, to narrate, and to heal; in that small scene, in only a few pages, the writer attempts to boil down and condense the essence of a very complicated war and its messy aftermath, the kernel of trauma which continues to smolder and burn.
It is the sense of “Mexicanidad” that Octavio Paz describes in “The Sons of La Malinche,” for example; the historical experience of perpetual invasion and violation that—he argues—has left its trace and trauma in the psyche of the everyday Mexican:
To the Mexican there are only two possibilities in life: either he inflicts the actions implied by chingar on others, or else he suffers them himself at the hands of others. This conception of social life as combat fatally divides society into the strong and the weak.
For Paz, the Mexican is male, of course, and because the mother of the nation is Doña Malinche, the mistress of Cortés and an anti-Virgin Mary, Paz argues that the chingada is central to this very masculine sense of Mexican identity. To be the “sons of La Malinche” is to be, as Mexicans, hijos de la Chingada, to be defined by the shame of being the offspring of violation. Paz argues, then, that violation begets violation: “The essential attribute of the macho—power—almost always reveals itself as a capacity for wounding, humiliating, annihilating.” A nation founded in rape takes the conquistador as its model of masculine potency.
The word machismo comes from Spanish, but the concept is as international as the violent masculinity of border security itself. However rich and compelling Paz’s reading of Mexican history and poetics, he might also simply be describing the banal violence of any wounded masculinity, nothing specifically Mexican at all. CNN, after all, called Donald Trump its “Macho Man of 2016,” and the fascist core of his appeal is the argument that, having been humiliated by foreigners, we can recover our honor through violence and strength.
If victimization narratives make counter-aggression seem natural and necessary, war only becomes a solution to insecurity when the difference is blurred between national bodies and the actual bodies of its citizens, when borders represent the difference between us and them, between my body and not my body. If the very presence of foreigners is a violation—if they are pushing through and penetrating us, spewing their filthy contagions into our pristine land—then violence justifies violence: their existence in us, their occupation, is itself a violence. It doesn’t really matter if Trump explicitly called Mexicans “rapists,” then: The logic of the underlying metaphor does the job on its own.
The same is sometimes true of the kinds of stories told by Zambrano, Moreno, and Solares, the narrative of Yankee invasion and occupation: Because Texas was Mexican, first, the Yankee invasion was a violation of her sovereignty. But as Boullosa reminds us, long before the Yankees invaded Mexico, Mexico had already invaded what is now Texas, pushing out the native peoples and occupying their land. Indeed, the very reason the Mexican government invited so many Anglo-Americans to settle the region in the first place—when Texas was still a state of Mexico—was the fact that the Mexican state lacked the military resources to kill off and dispossess the native peoples on their own. They needed help from the north, and they got it. Violators themselves, they were violated in turn.
Boullosa’s Texas gives us a very different fiction than those told by nationalists of any stripe. The macho men of her novel are stupid and afraid; Shears puts Nepomucena “in his place” because his own place is so insecure, and something similar is true of Don Nepomucena himself. But while a great many people are mutilated and assaulted over the course of the novel, there is no essential “us” to be violated by “them” because the difference is essentially fictional. It is precisely because the border region is essentially nothing at all (or everything at once) that so many people are willing to fight to the death over the ludicrous fiction of a line.
Security is theater because borders are fictions and because the empire has no clothes. But if political theater is ridiculous, Boullosa’s borderlands comedy explores why it is getting harder to laugh at Donald Trump. If his proposal to deport 11 million people from the U.S. is fantasy, it is easy to dismiss him. “Secure the borders!” is a fantasy. But so was Texas, until insecure men—on both sides of the border—started killing to make it come true. And the more he keeps talking about it, the more we should remember the Alamo. Because fictions have a way of coming true.