Duke professor's book turns anthropologist’s eye on border issues

A Texas Department of Safety Trooper patrols on the Rio Grande along the U.S.-Mexico border, Thursday, July 24, 2014, in Mission, Texas.
A Texas Department of Safety Trooper patrols on the Rio Grande along the U.S.-Mexico border, Thursday, July 24, 2014, in Mission, Texas. AP

There are few roads that parallel the U.S./Mexican border for very long. Interstates tend to veer away, and those wishing to follow the 1,969-mile boundary must often risk axle-destroying four-wheel-drive roads that cut through the Southwestern plains.

Yet Charles Thompson took those roads, rattling along heavily rutted trails, fingers crossed that his rented Chevy Cruze wouldn’t get stuck or totaled in the process. The Durham author, documentary filmmaker, Duke University anthropology professor and migrant rights activist had to if he was going to write “Border Odyssey: Travels Along the US/Mexico Divide” (University of Texas Press). It was his mission to follow the border as closely as possible. He sought a firsthand look at how modern U.S. border policy has affected the people in the region, from migrant workers to indigenous people to border patrol agents to residents of economically stagnant towns just north of the boundary.

The result is a travel memoir with a conscience, an extension of Thompson’s ongoing work to humanize the hotly debated region.

“I want to appeal to our better side,” Thompson says, sitting at an outside table in Carrboro during a brief return to North Carolina. Three days previous, he had been with university students in southern Mexico, in Tapachula, Chiapas; in another three, he would rejoin them in Tucson. “It’s like we have two sides – the side that’s self-interested, exploitative, and jingoistic, but we also have another side that has a long history of welcoming.”

To that end, Thompson avoided writing grand, sweeping statements about the region, but rather focused on individuals and their stories. He wanted to bring readers along for the trip and focus on the complexity of border issues, many of which date back centuries.

The ancestral lands of the Tohono O’odham people, for one, were split by a 19th century surveyor – the arbitrary line, as Thompson describes it, puts some of their sacred sites in Mexico and some in the United States. And there are the aging Braceros, who were explicitly invited to work in the United States during World War II, yet are still seeking their promised retirement benefits at weekly demonstrations in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Modern migrants are often implicitly invited, too, Thompson says, and in Border Odyssey he references a billboard in Oaxaca advertising work in the U.S.

“I hope to appeal to that sense of deeper understanding and of our being able to relate to why people might want to come,” he says. Most migrants, if given the choice, would rather stay home with their families than risk a dangerous crossing at a heavily guarded border, often followed by a long walk across lethally hot, dry deserts. What they’re fleeing, he says, is often far worse. One taxi-driving migrant Thompson met fled his home because drug traffickers were going to force him to be a driver for them.

“He didn’t want to do that – he’s an honest guy,” he says. “So he ended up fleeing. “As soon as he gets across the border, he’s a criminal. He’s a criminal if he stays, he’s a criminal if he leaves.”

Much of Thompson’s travel to the region – and several of the trips detailed in Border Odyssey – is through DukeEngage on the Border, a program he started in 2007 to give students firsthand exposure to the border region. This summer, it expanded to include Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, hence Thompson’s recent trip to Chiapas. Many migrants, after all, cross both Mexico’s southern and northern border to get to the U.S., and Thompson wanted students to see how Mexican border enforcement compares to that in this country.

“I think there’s a real aggression toward anybody that’s trying to come through Mexico,” Thompson says, leading to recent fortification of Mexico’s southern border. His own interactions with U.S. border guards weren’t always pleasant, either. After one crossing, he writes, his wife realized agents had surreptitiously confiscated a notebook containing contacts and notes from their trip.

“The ones I encountered were sometimes friendly, but always guarded – always looking at me with a sidelong glance, wondering what I was up to,” Thompson says, recalling that many border guards would ask why he was at the border or where he was headed, all while he was on the U.S. side of the boundary.

He imagines how differently he’d have been treated, though, if he had the features of an indigenous Guatemalan rather than a Caucasian. This empathy for those in the complex, much-debated region is at the core of his book and his ongoing work.

“The problem of a border separating one country that has a lot from one country that doesn’t sets up these situations where people get desperate to get across,” Thompson says. “If we criminalize that action, then we’re trying to stave off a human desire with some sort of physical barrier. It doesn’t work with water, it doesn’t work with animals, and it doesn’t work with people.”

Book signing

Charles D. Thompson Jr. will be signing books and talking at two events next week:

7 p.m. Tuesday, June 23 at Durham County Public Library (co-sponsored by the Regulator Bookshop).

7 p.m. Wednesday, June 24 at Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill (co-sponsored by CHICLE Language Institute).