Frontier or Border?

I have now lived in Arizona for twenty-five years, longer than I’ve lived any place else. It has only been in the last four years however that my spouse Donna and I have been living in “the Borderlands.” Our home is close to the “KM 61” marker on I-19. That means we are just 61 kilometers, about 36 miles from the US-Mexico border. And because of my volunteer work with the Border Community Alliance, based in Tubac, the border feels much closer than that. The drive from Green Valley to Nogales is one of my favorites, cruising up the beautiful Santa Cruz River valley as it narrows and winds past the Santa Rita Mountains before coming to a stop at the border.

“Border?” The word has a powerful, definitive ring to it. Weighted by political rhetoric and hyper-concern about security, the “border” suggests a serious battleground for working out issues of national identity, immigration rights, and matters of compassion and justice. When someone announces a conference on “border issues,” we assume these are the topics that are going to be addressed.  Border issues are boundary issues, and those issues are about the necessary limits imposed by law, defined by history, politics and jurisdictional authority. We can argue that laws are unjust, that history is subject to interpretation, that politics including the politics of racism are too often at play and justice needs to be mediated by compassion. My point here however is that the word “border” gets us going down that path – the path about limits – rather than possibilities.

Okay, so what if you substitute the word “frontier” for “border?” After all “la frontera” is in fact the word for border in Spanish.  If you heard that there was a conference on “frontier issues,” wouldn’t that change your expectation of what you’d be discussing?

I think so! I think “frontier” suggests a completely different perspective! “Border” is a word about limits; “frontier” is a word about adventure. “Border” tells us we’re at the end of something; “frontier” suggests we’re about to enter something. “Border” suggests that we need to protect ourselves; “frontier” suggests that we need to let ourselves go — there is something out there for us to discover!  If I say “I’m going to the frontier,” the image that comes to mind is some old Western movie, with the hero heading into the wilderness.

kennedyspaceprogramWe’ve defined frontiers in America primarily in spatial terms: the Western frontier; Alaska as a new frontier; outer space as the last frontier. But when John Kennedy announced “the New Frontier” as the slogan for his presidential administration, the wider imagination was stirred. Yes, it was a direct reference to outer space. Russia had launched Sputnik and Americans feared they were falling behind. Yet more importantly, Kennedy sought to inspire a new generation to move out of the isolation of the 1950’s. The Peace Corps was quickly organized, and more people wanted to serve than positions available. Americans began to think about the needs of others, the wider world and not just their cozy lives.

I would love to stimulate a similar sense of adventure with regard to our southern neighbors and in particular Mexico. In the coming months I’ll be writing several articles on what I consider frontier experiences along the border. I’ll tell you about some of the new things I’m discovering, with the hope that it might be of interest to you as well. I am not in denial about the more challenging “border” realities of immigration, injustice, and political struggle. I do think it is important to put these things in the perspective of how people live their everyday life on both sides of the border. After all, getting to know our neighbor’s lifestyle, food, history, religion, and culture can be interesting and fun, and it can help us to see they are a lot like us.

Jerry Haas

Next time:  Three Frontier Experiences