Please Don’t Feed the Gringos: The US-Mexico Divide

Claudio Lomnitz on Borders as Animal Enclosures

Translated by Jessie Mendez Sayer

A few years ago, when I was in Tijuana for a conference, some colleagues from El Colegio de la Frontera Norte took us to see some of the city’s places of interest, including a couple of sectors of the famous border wall. I should mention before continuing that I had always felt a certain admiration for Tijuana’s air of bravura. I was surprised to pick up on a sense of freedom (or at least of existentialism) in the midst of that funnel-city, which leans against the border wall with roguish self-assurance, cigarette in hand. Even the famous wall brought to mind images that were somewhat unexpected.

The border wall in this area is actually a double barricade with a road running between them, where towers with migrant-detecting sensors loom, and along which the U.S. Border Patrol SUVs make their rounds. The barricade we could refer to as “interior” (meaning the one entirely within the United States, which does not directly skirt Mexico, but was instead designed as a second obstacle for anyone who has dared to cross the first wall) is tall, made of wire mesh, topped with barbed wire, and is absolutely impassable. The “exterior” wall, that is to say the one that actually does border with Mexico and can be touched by any passing pedestrian, varies in appearance and materials depending on the stretch in question.

The “exterior” barrier of the section that runs along the beach and into the sea is made of iron piling, the spaces between the piles big enough to allow an unimpeded view from one side of the border to the other. Its architectural design is much less violent than that of the solid wall, which not only blocks the vision and passage of undocumented people but also those of squirrels, rabbits, and lizards, all of which exist in less touristic areas.

The wall on Tijuana’s beach is covered in all kinds of graffiti: Christian, anti-imperialist, philosophical, romantic, et cetera. Much of this graffiti is in English, and was written by U.S. citizens who live in Mexico or who perhaps pass through Tijuana and feel outrage about their own country’s policies. The phrase in graffiti which I liked the most says: “Please don’t feed the gringos.” The image, a wonderful one, inverts the meaning of the wall. It is U.S. citizens, and not the supposed southern barbarians, who are the caged animals under observation, like those in a zoo. But it struck me that this graffiti went further than simply pointing out how U.S. immigration policy lacks humanity. Given its location, on a border wall with a view through it to the pristine fields on the U.S. side (and the port of San Diego in the distance), the graffiti made me think of Americans (and those who, like me, live in the United States) as domesticated animals.

This is Friedrich Nietzsche’s own image of modern man as a pet, properly fed, properly groomed, properly neutered, and properly broken. “Don’t feed the gringos,” they already have food; it’s in a plastic bowl in the kitchen. Order in the United States and disorder in Tijuana are presented here like the boundary between the domesticated human and the (somewhat) wild one.

The border wall in this area is actually a double barricade with a road running between them, where towers with migrant-detecting sensors loom.

This same image struck me once again a few kilometers ahead, at the part of the wall that flanks the Libertad neighborhood. Before they built the border walls (in the eighties), this was a place where dozens of migrants would cross every night. As it turned out, our driver and guide had crossed there twice, around twenty-five years ago, and he told us about his experiences with the pleasure of someone recounting an adventure: he had no regrets.

In those days, market stalls were set up every afternoon all the way along the Mexican side, so that those making the crossing could buy some juice or a couple of quesadillas while they negotiated with the smugglers, who ambled around the area like street vendors. “I have fifty pesos (dollars), will you get me across?”


Back then, the smugglers would send some “bait” ahead of them, a small group of local guys (drug addicts or alcoholics, for example) so that the border police would jump on them. The border force at the time was made up of only two or three patrols for all those people. And as soon as they went for the bait, a group of ten or fifteen migrants would head across with their smuggler, running toward the gullies to hide amongst the hills behind San Diego.

Our guide told us all of this with evident joy, and it was then that another image came to me: the border as an episode of Tom and Jerry. And I realized that this image had a connection to “Please don’t feed the gringos”: in this case, the U.S. citizen is revealed to be a domestic animal (Tom the cat), and the Mexican as a smaller animal, but one that remains in a state of freedom, who does not answer to any master. It occurred to me that the origin of the wall lies in Tom’s damaged pride in the face of Jerry’s cunning and the invisible repression of his master’s law. The poor little frustrated cat went to buy a double barricade from the ACME corporation, the whole package including towers with motion sensors, so that the mice would stop making a fool out of him. Mission impossible.


The Origin of the “Bad Hombre”

At this stage, we all know that in an English accent “bad hombres” is pronounced “bad jambris,” but what exactly does it mean? Does it matter that the president of the United States uses it instead of saying, for example, “bad men,” all in English? What are the uses of anglicized Spanish, and what clues can they offer us about the representation of the Mexican in Trump’s era?

Our guide told us all of this with evident joy, and it was then that another image came to me: the border as an episode of Tom and Jerry.

Before answering these questions, it is worth noting that the use of Spanish terms with anglicized pronunciation is now a common part of the English language, and that they are used by characters as cherished as Bart Simpson (“Ay, Caramba!,” pronounced with the English “r”). I also fondly remember a conversation between Elaine and Seinfeld while eating ice cream, when Elaine says (in anglicized Spanish) “Qué rico!,” and Seinfeld knowingly replies “Suave!” And of course, there is also Arnold Schwarzenegger’s immortal phrase, “Hasta la vista, baby!,” which nobody in their right mind would want to remove from the English language.

We therefore must proceed with caution, in order to avoid a “politically correct” critique that measures everything by the same yardstick. Twenty years ago, the linguist Jane Hill published a series of studies about the so-called mock Spanish, which Hill defines as a “jocular register of English” that uses elements that English speakers consider to be Spanish in order to create a light-hearted or humorous effect. Based on a detailed study, Hill concludes that mock Spanish “reproduces racist stereotypes of Spanish speakers,” although, she adds, English speakers usually deny that its use has any racist undertones.

I do not wish to argue with Hill about how racist any particular colloquial turn of phrase may or may not be; mock Spanish is used far too frequently and in many forms. Having seen several seasons of the show, I am certain that the writers of The Simpsons, for example, feel a certain affinity toward Mexicans. In fact, “reinforcing racial stereotypes” doesn’t necessarily imply any antipathy for the group of humans in question; you can reinforce a racial stereotype in order to transcend it, or its use can be ambiguous.

To offer up a Mexican example, the song “Negrito sandía,” or “Black Boy Watermelon,” by Cri Cri, undoubtedly reinforces racial stereotypes (it’s about “a black boy with an angel face” who “turned out to be more foul-mouthed than a parrot from the slums”). Furthermore, the association of the Black person with a watermelon is a classic element of white racism toward Black people: in the United States, watermelon was a luxury for freed slaves, and so the image of a watermelon came to be used with racist malice, like a sign of the supposedly insurmountable distance between blacks and whites (the champions of racial segregation chose different symbols of luxury for themselves, unattainable for black people). In other words, Cri Cri’s song reproduces racist stereotypes. There is no doubt about it. However, this does not necessarily mean that when Francisco Gabilondo Soler (Cri Cri) composed the song in the early forties, he did so to propagate Black people’s social inferiority, nor that he did so as a gesture of hate. This idea would come later.

What are the uses of anglicized Spanish, and what clues can they offer us about the representation of the Mexican in Trump’s era?

In the same way, the “ay, caramba!,” the “hasta la vista!,” and the “suave!” uttered by Bart, the Terminator, or Seinfeld could propagate racial stereotypes and yet also signal affinity toward or solidarity with Mexicans or Hispanics. This idea would also come later. In any case, regardless of whether racism comes into play, it is important to understand that when we consider the use of mock Spanish, we draw near to the racial border that divides the Mexican and the Anglo. It could be said that whoever utters the phrase is playing with this border, sometimes crossing it in a friendly manner, and other times reinforcing it.

Right. So now we can move on to the topic of the “bad hombre.” What does this expression mean? Does it have similar historical baggage, so to speak, as the watermelon in the history of racism against Black people? Should Mexicans let slide the fact that the U.S. president refers to the Mexican criminal component using this term, and not be offended? The expression “bad hombre” was common in western movies during Hollywood’s early decades. There is even a movie called Hombre, starring Paul Newman (1967), where the “bad hombre” (Newman) is a white man who has been raised by Apaches, and who goes on to confront discrimination in the white world. In old westerns, the figure of the “bad hombre” is actually part of the landscape, part of the fauna of the West. Usually the “bad hombre” hides behind rocks or thickets, getting up to no good, and must be exterminated by sheriffs and colonials. The “bad hombre” prowls. He is never a farmer, and certainly never a landowner. In the oldest westerns, the sheriffs also referred to the “bad hombres” using the term varmint, alluding to the wild animals that sometimes ate a part of the harvest, or ate chickens. A “bad hombre” is, therefore, like a coyote lying in wait, and must be kept outside of the perimeter of civilization.

The image of the Mexican migrant as a category infiltrated and irreparably contaminated by “bad hombres” who are on the prowl and must be eliminated is therefore loaded with all the brutality of the colonization of the American West. It is the violence of the colony against the former inhabitant, rootless and dispossessed and transformed into a livestock thief. Does Trump’s use of this expression reinforce Mexican racial stereotypes? Yes, without a doubt. Is it also an expression of racial antagonism? Again, yes.


The Importance of the Wall

Let’s build that wall! This was Donald Trump’s most popular campaign slogan, but what does it mean? Would it make a difference if the United States were to invest in a building project of this kind?

The image of the Mexican migrant as a category infiltrated and irreparably contaminated by “bad hombres” who are on the prowl and must be eliminated is therefore loaded with all the brutality of the colonization of the American West.

A consensus is beginning to form in Mexico, at least on an informal level, that the wall project is in a way irrelevant. Chihuahua Cement, a Mexican company, has even put itself forward as a provider. You want a wall? We’ll build it for you! There are even people who think that building it would benefit Mexico. Are they right?

After all, it is true that a wall already exists. The wall is not new. The United States has been investing in reinforcing its border with Mexico since 1994, and today around 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of the border is fenced or walled. This cost around $7 billion, as well as what it costs to maintain it. Extrapolating from this figure, building a wall along the roughly 2,300 remaining kilometers (1,429 miles) would cost around $15 billion, more or less, plus maintenance, without taking into account the cost of lawsuits for violating environmental agreements, or the purchase of land in cases of owners who are reluctant for anything to be built on their property, or the compensation that would have to be paid to the ethnic group Tohono O’odham Nation, whose territory sits on both sides of the international border.

In addition, the United States has invested heavily in increasing police patrols along the border. In 1994, “la migra” (Border Patrol) had 4,100 agents, and by 2015 it had almost reached 21,100. So, has the combination of a fivefold increase in the Border Patrol force and the thousand kilometers of existing wall failed to seal the border? Let’s see.

In 2015 the number of migrants caught at the border was just over 337,000 (230,000 were Mexicans), a figure close to 1970s levels, and far fewer than the 1.6 million border arrests made toward the end of the nineties. Besides, for reasons that are demographic as much as labor-related, the flow of Mexican migrants to the United States has been in negative figures since 2009, and has been close to zero since 2005. Lastly, there is the fact that the majority of the undocumented migrants who enter the United States do not do so by crossing the border with Mexico, but via airports and with tourist visas. In 2015, Border Patrol captured, as already mentioned, 337,000 migrants who crossed the border without papers, but they caught 527,000 undocumented migrants who had entered legally with tourist visas.

For all these reasons, there are those in Mexico who argue that if the United States builds a border wall it will not affect Mexico all that much. The great Mexican migration to the United States is basically over, and so this wall would only serve as a political  concession to Trump’s support base, who would like to see migration used as a scapegoat. The wall would therefore be a colossal ritual of expense, carried out in order to allay fears that in fact have other causes, such as automation, for example. There are even those who speculate that a wall like this one would somehow benefit Mexico (beyond Chihuahua Cement): the wall and the current Border Patrol forces migrants to cross via difficult and dangerous routes, which has allowed Los Zetas and other criminal groups of this kind to control the flow of migrants. According to official figures, over 6,500 migrants have died crossing the border into the United States since 1998. There are also many thousands of Central Americans who have died while crossing Mexico’s southern border; some estimate dozens of thousands. Furthermore, according to the CNDH (National Commission for Human Rights), in 2012 around 11,000 Central American migrants were kidnapped and suffered extortion by Mexican traffickers. Perhaps a completely sealed northern border would reduce the number of people using Mexico as a point of transit, and therefore reduce some of these figures. These are some of the speculative ideas circulating these days (always look on the bright side).

The wall is not new. The United States has been investing in reinforcing its border with Mexico since 1994, and today around 1,000 kilometers of the border is fenced or walled.

There is no question that adding another 2,000 kilometers to the wall that already exists between Mexico and the United States would be a bad use of public funds. Dr. Everard Meade, director of the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute, has asserted that the resources invested in the wall would have a far more positive effect on the United States’ economy if they invested it instead in improving the quality of the roads and entry points along the border with Mexico, which currently resemble chicken coops. This would also have an important political and symbolic effect. He is right.

To spend another $15 billion on a wall, and billions more on its maintenance, would be to invest heavily in the United States’ cultural and political isolation, and would also be a considerable investment in the portrayal of Mexico as a barbaric land, along with all the consequences that could follow. Just like the great ice wall on the television series Game of Thrones, this would serve to harden the relationship between the supposed civilization and the supposed barbarians.

In an equation such as this, the risk to the United States would not be insignificant. Just remember the border wall in Tijuana: “Please don’t feed the gringos.”


Let's Talk about Your Wall: Mexican Writers Respond to the Immigration Crisis

From Let’s Talk about Your Wall: Mexican Writers Respond to the Immigration Crisis, edited by Carmen Boullosa and Alberto Quintero. Used with the permission of The New Press. Copyright © 2020 by Claudio Lomnitz.

Claudio Lomnitz
Claudio Lomnitz
Claudio Lomnitz is Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies at the New School University. His work focuses on the history, politics and culture of Latin America, particularly Mexico. He is the author of Exits from the Labyrinth: Culture and Ideology in Mexican National Space and Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism.

More Story
Why So Few Messerschmitt 109s Survived WWII We Have Ways of Making You Talk is a weekly show exploring the war in close up, hosted by comedian Al Murray and historian...