A first-person narrative of Hactivism, Performance, and growing up at the U.S./Mexico Border from Fran Ilich.
There was a time when I perceived the USA as a kind of backyard to my city, Tijuana, a place where my happy family could go every weekend. We went to the US to enjoy ourselves, to buy our favorite groceries, get the clothes we liked and acquire the toys that drove our imagination. There was no question for me that the USA was the place to be, even though the Mexican government was bombarding all Mexicans with nationalist pride, to guard the borders against the USA, against imperialist invasion and malinchismo. In Tijuana, television was an English-language affair. There was no way that any young person with self-respect would give up American TV - especially when the "Mexican" broadcast alternative was basically reruns of old American shows (with bad Spanish language dubbing). This I suppose was during the last moments of the Cold War.
Growing up in Baja California, was for me often more than I could manage. Just think for a moment what it is to grow up two and a half hours away from Disneyland, just five minutes from sunny California, but also to live the experience of the third world. Even by airplane, Mexico City was much further away. Between McDonald's on the one hand and pyramids on the other, Tijuana was neither one thing nor the other, first world or third, modernity or historical landscape. And to further complicate matters, my mom had been a flower child of the hippy sixties, and my father a young intellectual who consumed international literature, including Soviet books. So their experiment (that is me) ended up reading everything, being exposed to lots of things. Trapped in Tijuana, every small thing I ever did nevertheless would end up compared to what a kid in Prague, Paris, or Beijing was supposed to do.
So then we started getting old, slowly, living this phase called puberty, adolescence, and noticing that the houses on the beaches of Mexico belonged to US citizens, that the people from the Mexican government were as corrupt as they could be: the country was itself a business operation. We began to notice that what we thought were language differences stemmed from something much deeper than that. We might have called it racism, but maybe that isn't the word for people who are simply not interested in Mexicans, not unless they are cleaning their houses really cheap, doing the dirty work, or being that guy at the bar who gets them the next margarita.
As an exercise we can ask ourselves how many tourists from the USA want to make Mexican friends in Mexico? How many want to hang out in the places where Mexicans are?
Cities in the north of Mexico like Tijuana are new. We are living cultural processes yet to be defined. Despite the fantasy of free flow, the border instead of being in a process of dissolution is still in a process of continuous (re)construction, both physically and psychically. For instance, in the 80s there was no material wall separating the national spaces. Now there is one. In one sense, this dividedness accurately represents the human relationship of the two countries and their societies. But many observe that all of the barriers simply describe the nature of the two countries' connectedness. The walls and guards can be viewed as participating in the active connection of the two countries - serving as part of a clever selection process ensuring that the USA receives only the "best" workers: those who are ready to pass lots of obstacles, abandon their past life, and be ready to settle in an environment where they'll be treated as the illegal Other.
Every time we were at the border gate to the USA the agents would ask questions: what are you bringing from México? Food? Bombs? Drugs? So we discovered that even our food was bad, that it was contaminated with bacteria, that our bodies played host to viruses capable of re-creating diseases long forgotten.
And they would ask my family why my name was Ilich.
But that is a Russian name. Why?
And mom would smile, saying it was the name of that fabulous composer named Tchaikovsky. And that was it. That always got us waved through. And so I was free to shop in the land of the free. The agent would say bye as he was fiddling with his computer, making the next alien nervous while typing in the plates of his car. Because that is also inevitable for us: Mexicans coming into the USA are aliens, not tourists, not travelers: aliens. What a nice warm word to receive one's neighbors!
This ritual happened every time. Dad would say "look normal" every time when getting near the border. Likewise the agents would usually try to make us feel nervous. Why? Of course there were many nice agents. But the agents weren't the end of it. Sometimes at shops or parks I would notice we weren't treated the same by employees, or even acknowledged in a nice fashion by many people. So I could not help but know something was quite strange with us and this border even though, for me, a middle class Tijuanese and son of two Mexican teachers, I really wanted to see San Diego (even all of the USA) as just another part of my city: the nice part, the place to be, the future. An agent asking for a passport and a visa to come to this other nice part of the city was in its own way perfectly normal.
Through the years there were many funny border crossing stories, and I couldn't possibly fit them all here. Once, when I was 18 years old, I was taken to secondary inspection because of carrying a Timothy Leary book and also because I was travelling with an American citizen. This seemed amazing to me, so the next day I tried to cross again, but this time with a William S. Burroughs book. That time I was also taken to secondary inspection.
Prior to this, during the 80s my dad became a rhodino, but not us. That was the beginning of an extra border in our lives. His green card made him virtually an American citizen. So why did the rest of the family remain Mexican? That made a lot of the agents suspicious. I especially remember one time in the 90s, at sixteen or seventeen years old, when I was arrested because of skating in a no skating zone, the police handcuffed me and held me against the street in the usual fashion of the `Cops' TV show, and then my dad saying afterward I shouldn't mention he was practically an American citizen or else he might lose his virtual nationality.
Those were the days when there where still many Mexicans and Centroamericans trying to get into the USA via Tijuana, so you could see crowds and lines of them, all the way down the international highway, people camping and so on. I remember it was quite dangerous to walk in those places, not only because many of the people aspiring to cross were in complete poverty and desperation, but also because the people who took them into the USA were criminals: robbers, smugglers, drug dealers. Back then there was a very Mexican tradition, "smash the traitors." Because how could a Mexican perceive another Mexican that left his country for the USA, if not as a traitor? So this tradition involved hurting those who crossed. I remember one time after class, in high school, riding in a car with my friends, everybody drinking and smoking, and then when we got to the border area my friends threw bottles at the border-crossers. At least one of the bottles found a target. It made me wonder why did some Mexicans think they were better than others just because they already enjoyed a middle class life in our chaotic system, while others more unfortunate had to leave for another country just to be able to eat. Back then there was a Mexican answer to this, and it had to do with the word dignity, although I'm not sure that living in one's "own" country under such conditions involves large quantities of dignity. Such a nice word.
Kinds of Borderhacking
Graffiti artists: There was a graffiti krew in the 90s, they called themselves HEM, that is Hecho En México (Made In México), and they were basically a krew of teenagers from both countries. Kids who studied in the USA and lived in México, or Americans of Mexican origin living in the US. They committed an amazing action against the border, one of those that impacted me the most, and was perhaps the most naive and authentic. One morning the thousands of cars in line to cross into the USA could see just above the gate a graffiti that read: "sueño-kenos-HEM". This was just the signature of the individual taggers plus the name of their krew in Krylon spray painting. You have to understand: this wasn't just marking the border wall; this was placing a tag on the US customs building itself. Yet not one of the local performance artists came out in support when the government put these teenagers in jail, or when right-wing groups targeted the tagging kids for assault and beatings. The left community was silent and even the democratic party was against taggers. They didn't like what this new generation was doing (much in the same way that we didn't like what the older generation was doing).
Human organ and baby smugglers: The legends say many older Americans buy the organs of healthy Mexicans who are worth more to their families dead than alive. Mexican infants are offered for sale as instant family members.
Kid bunnies: these are children, less than 13 years old, and sometimes even 6 or 7, whose job is to play with border patrol agents in order to divert attention from families who would immediately benefit from this confusion in order to start the race of their lives. They would sprint across the border entry, through freeway 5 (just where it starts), against traffic until they found cover in fields, a house, anywhere. Complete families would start racing with a backpack filled with their lives and dreams; the luggage of a please please please make this a bon voyage.... and then families would split up against the rock of circumstance: those who got caught, those who couldn't run fast enough; those who were run over by a car. Do you remember those street signs of Mexican families running? I've seen them so many times, as much as they can be seen. And still just to think of it makes me want to cry. It's a sure bet. It never fails, like watching "Cinema Paradiso" yet another time.
Narcojuniors: kids spending their time on the drug business, smuggling illegal substances into the USA via borrowed cars, which sometimes they get to keep after a successful mission. In many border cities, this is one of the only ways in which young people can make a "fine" living.
Polleros: organized groups in charge of the exportation of a Mexican cheap labor force into the USA. Their activity is treated as if highly illegal, although it is obvious that these persons are structurally permanent within the system. A few years ago their primary methods consisted of crossing people through the desert, but they have evolved in many ways, particularly the use of technology to make false ID papers.
Students: kids who decide to spend extra time commuting in order to get a U.S. education. One of their continual problems is language, both ways if they have to come back to receive Mexican education.
Workers: the original reason for the border and for the continuous human crossing of it.
Kein mensch ist illegal
In 1997, during a European event called "Documenta X", an idea for a Germany/Poland border festival was put forward. The festival was to be in the form of a camp where activists and artists would express their outrage towards the treatment of illegal immigrants at the border. The camp became a reality in 1998, under the name kein mensch ist illegal (no one is illegal). In spite of several attempts by the police to cancel and sabotage the event, cyberculture personalities, artists, musicians, activists, and human rights supporters successfully organized marches, talks, concerts, and workshops. Through the years this effort has grown, and now the chain of border camps has grown to the point where there are now actions like Deportation Class, a hacktivist and physical strike that happens in airports like Frankfurt International.
The birth of the borderhack
Inspired by international actions like Kein mensch ist illegal, Reclaim the Streets, and the teknoval raves of infamous sound systems like Spiral Tribe or Desert Storm, we decided to do our own version, in our part of the world. But we knew that Mexican authorities don't have a sense of humor, so such an event would be highly dangerous. The beginnings were really slow. We had to know the area and be sure that this is what we wanted; we had to make sure nobody would get hurt and, if possible, find a way to avoid the confiscation of our limited gear. In preparation, I wrote a screenplay in a UCLA extension course: the story started with a borderhack on both sides of the line. Screenwriting and thinking were as much as we could do at the time. A year and a half later, we found out that Alexei Shulgin was coming to Los Angeles to an event that Natalie Bookchin, a net.artist, was organizing as part of <net.net.net.>, a series of lectures and presentations sponsored by the California Institute of the Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Arts in LA. So I extended an invitation to Alexei to do an event in Tijuana. He said yes. We hoped that preparing for the 386 dx project of Alexei Shulgin was going to be the initial act of an independent media lab of our own. It turned out that Alexei couldn't come to Mexico because of visa problems: if he had crossed, he wouldn't have been allowed to return to the US because, as a Russian citizen, he was only given a one-entry visa. So we had to think of some way to make this happen. Natalie Bookchin set up a list with members of RTMark, Electronic Disturbance Theatre, Taco Shop Poets, and Cinemátik. Soon we had the solution: Alexei would perform on the border.
In the message we sent to Nettime and other mailing lists ("Cyberpunk Rock Knows No Borders"), we described our plan for the performance: "Shulgin will perform on the manicured lawn of Border Fields State Park, in the company of the uniformed gun-slinging men and women of the US Border Patrol, who will likely be patrolling the area for illegal Mexican immigrants. It is expected that the Patrol will execute a synchronous "ballet" for Shulgin's music by driving their distinctive white and green vehicles in the Tijuana river floodplain behind the artist." Since borders have become more permeable for products and less passable for people, we observed that Shulgin's computer would be allowed to travel freely between Mexico and the USA without a visa, but Shulgin himself would have to remain behind the chain-link fence that separates his hosting country, the land of equal opportunity, from Mexico.
At the performance, featuring Shulgin's computer-generated multimedia show, we had to check the area for places where we could borrow electricity. In our view, the event was a hit, even if Alexei had to leave the area before the event started because the border patrol asked him to leave. Fortunately we had the computer on the Mexican side, and this was all we needed to keep the show going on. There were a few incidents that we learned from, including a clever Mexican opposition who were doing a binational posada by throwing candy among our electronics and cables hoping the kids would flood in and damage the equipment. After the attempted candy sabotage, the US border patrol turned on one of their best weapons against the electronic equipment supporting our borderhack: water sprinklers. After this first event, Natalie Bookchin and I decided to work jointly, and the <net.net.net.mx> series was born. Each of the lecturers and artists coming to participate in Los Angeles would also come to Tijuana. In discussion with people like Geert Lovink, Ursula Biemann, and Florian Schneider, the borderhack was born.
Excerpt from the Borderhack! Manifesto:
That is why we propose this Borderhack, a camp that does not pretend to destroy the border, but, in a worst case scenario, only to make us conscious of it. In the world of computers, Hacking is understood as the penetration, exploration or investigation of a system with the goal of understanding it, not of destroying it, and that is exactly what we are trying to do: to understand the border, to know what it represents and to become aware of the role that we play in it. All this with the goal of improving the relations between two worlds, the first and the third, Mexico and the US. We want not only to understand why this relationship has suffered under the influence of certain sectors of society that have fostered a climate of violence and racism, but also to understand the strange attraction that unites us. And what better way to accomplish this than by doing it right on the physical border?, spending three days trying to get to the bottom of the problem and really understand what is it that unites us and what is it that separate us.
We resign ourselves to looking through store windows as if they were postcards from Europe, knowing that we could only reach the other side in our dreams.
The border is unilateral, only when going from Mexico to the US. The other way around is a free zone: with no need for visas, tune ups, secondary inspections or paid permits. The border exists only when going North. The wall is "one way". Our exchange rate is 10 to 1 in favor of the dollar, of the Americans. And then, at the end of the day we ask ourselves, kein mensch ist illegal (no one is illegal)? Or are we all illegal?
Why borderhack? I try to think of an explanation that doesn't involve the actual hype of fashionable hacktivism, media activism, and political circus. For sure the answer doesn't involve terms and acronyms like `digital divide' or `wto,' `imf,' `fuck the usa,' `windows is not cool,' or even `capitalism is dead'. To be sincere, we do know that the particular struggle of such a border action is so doomed that we try as hard as we can to economize resources in every possible way. Borderhackers also have a life. That is an important thing to remember: we can't always be involved in transnational sabotage or para-military media festivals. With that in mind, we strive to ensemble together, or better yet, "assemble" ourselves (as we also by "assembly" name the labor of workers just south of the border in this NAFTA time) in a festival of three days, but with effects that can last for as long as a year. And still to construct durable things amidst the entropy of an interzone is no easy task.
During the first Borderhack we tried to penetrate and understand the border with a very critical mindset, acknowledging the strange attractions that keep people from both sides of the border together and at the same time apart. We tried to stay apart from the clichés of border activism. There is a reason why Mexicans gamble their lives in order to become American citizens. When people gamble their lives in the desert, river, freeway, etc., in order to "find a better future" in another country, it's because their situation has reached a limit.
One thing is true. The border isn't as real as when you are next to it. The rusted metal borderwall goes all the way into the Pacific Ocean; the helicopters fly in the skies; the border patrols are everywhere. Next to the wall, there's no way you can deny or even forget that you are on the verge of a world. You can almost play back images of families running on Interstate 5 in order to catch up to their wonderful future...brown indigenous characters at U.S. Customs repeating "American citizen" like a scratched record...students crossing the border every morning to attend school. The wall reminds you this is as far as you can get; one more step requires credentials, permits, and so on.
But once you pass the wall, you find a lot of bytes from the other side floating around, and they're constantly causing failures and fatal exceptions to the machine. Files get lost in the transaction, tension-causing riots in the actual hard drive. You find a Mexican California, and a Californified Mexico. The border is always hacking itself.
Don't be misled; hacking is not destroying. Hacking is done in order to get to know the system better. The system is always repaired by people who hack the system to understand it. Borderhack is a camp where the world of technology and the Internet - tools of limit erasure - meet with the world of physical borders and passport handicaps. Hacktivists, Internet artists, cyberculture devotees, border activists, electronic musicians, and punk rockers can crash the border on Tijuana-San Diego if only for a few days, with java applets, port scans, radio, microwaves, ISDN, face-to-face communication, technology workshops, presentations, music events.
The idea to synthesize the camp is born out of the condition of dilettante border kids, years of crossing the border and doing a little window shopping, pretending that we could be part of the American Dream of wealth, happiness, and freedom. We are confused by it and also we accept it. On one side, the malls are filled with happiness, and on the other - the wrong side - we are forever condemned to produce goods that we will never enjoy ourselves.
Our border is where we almost live in the U.S. We can smell the future coming from the freeways, from Silicon Valley, from Hollywood, yet we are trapped in a muddy hill with unpaved streets. We are the good neighbors of the U.S., always here, always smiling, ready to serve the next margarita. And ready to delete this border.
Amor. Vida. Evolución. Siempre. Viva la revolución de los colores!