Texas Book Festival — San Antonio Edition
Interview with Char Miller
Published: April 10, 2013
In On the Edge you also discuss wildfires raging simultaneously in California and Mexico and storms that impact all the Gulf of Mexico states as well as parts of Mexico. In terms of that, how can states and nations work together in the face of these commonly shared disasters?
That’s been one of the insightful things, watching those events take place and then asking “are we totally kidding ourselves?” Weather maps on any weather station in San Antonio or Southern California end at some border. It’s like, ‘really? The storm just stopped? It just disappeared?’ Our imagination is pretty hobbled by the physical borders that we etch into our mental geographies of place. What I’m trying to argue in On the Edge is two things: One is that place does matter, where you live really matters and the issues that frame that place help define your life, and yet that specificity has to be fit within the bigger, global picture. Getting to the point where we can collaborate across whatever those borders are will alter how we respond to those events and maybe also soften our sense of how hard and fast we think the borderlands ought to be. An earthquake doesn’t care. Trying to understand why the political dividing lines that we throw up to, as we say, ‘protect ourselves’ from those others, is kind of a waste of energy. If I had a dream there would not be those boundary lines, there would not be those fortified borders, because they inhibit our capacity to think in collaborative and collective ways that would be to everybody’s advantage.
Can you expand on that in terms of immigration?
The politics of immigration, which have always been true in the U.S., talk to any Irish family in the 19th century and they can tell you just as desperate story as any new immigrant coming from Asia or Latin America or Africa today. It’s a very old tale. I use this film in one of my classes called Made in L.A., it looks at contemporary sweatshop workers in Los Angeles. There’s this vivid moment where an organizing group goes to New York to pitch their case and they go to the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side and they see these photographs of Jewish and other sweatshop workers in 1890 and suddenly, you could see it in their eyes, that they suddenly realized that that past is their present. As a historian I’m really interested in the ways that that history speaks to us currently. So immigration in the U.S., although always fraught with tension, argument, and disagreement, almost always ends with the realization that without that immigrant pulse into the country our economy would be considerably less powerful than it is today. In the Southwest, much of our economic activity, whether it’s in construction, domestic care, landscape business, and all sorts of other things is really done by people who are “illegal,” they’re only illegal in the sense that we argue that this place is separate from some other place, but the global economy and global capitalism has demonstrated that that’s not true. In an ideal world, I would have a border that’s far more porous, because it’s already porous. The crossings that we allow and don’t allow waste an enormous amount of time and energy and money that could be much better spent on healthcare, education, social issues that would be of advantage to the entire community. I think our policies in that regard are miscast, they’re framed by politics as they always have been and always will be, but that doesn’t mean you just simply acknowledge them and say ‘that’s just the way it is.’ I think the protest is essential.
> Email Callie Enlow