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Tucson Weekly On The Fence

An Academic View Of Our Southern Border Doesn't Bode Well For The Future.

By Gregory McNamee

Cutting for Sign, by William Langewiesche (Vintage Books). Paper, $12.

July 14, 1997:  THE BORDER BETWEEN the United States and Mexico, the truism holds, constitutes a third country that resembles both but wholly belongs to neither. That may well be, but the border represents different things to different people. For some Anglo turistas, it's a glimpse of Third World exoticism just out the back door. For others, it's a safety hatch, an entrance into a fabled land of mescal, sun, and the long goodbye. For many Mexicans, it stands as a hateful walled reminder. For still others, it's a merely an obstacle to overcome.

For writer William Langewiesche, however, the border represents a great rift, a chasm separating two inimical nations that alternately despise and ignore each other: It stands as the most visible symbol of political division in the present world. "Only here," he writes, "do the first and third worlds meet face-to-face with no second world in between."

In Cutting for Sign, first published in 1994 and recently reprinted in paperback, Langewiesche recounts a composite journey along the frontier, observing and reporting what he sees along the way. That journey has been made many times before, notably by writers Tom Miller (On the Border) and Alan Weisman (La Frontera); but Langewiesche finds new twists that keep his book from treading on theirs, particularly in his attention to recent political issues.

Cutting for Sign has its origins in a long article Langewiesche wrote in 1992 at the commission of the Atlantic Monthly. In expanding it to book length, he introduces much thoughtful reflection on matters earlier reported only briefly: immigration, cultural conflict, the economy of drug smuggling, local power struggles, clashes between Anglo- and Mexican-American interest groups, and so on.

His on-the-ground reportage is solid, and the best moments of the book come when he's among the people on both sides of the line for whom the border is a life-and-death political reality. One is a Border Patrol agent in San Ysidro, California, where the frontier ends in ocean, whose impossible job is to halt the tide of illegal entry from Mexico into the United States. (The agent says, resignedly, "We could link hands out here and still not stop them.") Langewiesche uses the occasion to embark on an intricate discussion of current immigration policy, arriving at a controversial conclusion: The border needs to be sealed more tightly. His call for greater restrictions does not keep him from appreciating the good reasons that the alambristas, the "wire-jumpers," have for moving northward. Neither does it ignore the agent's assertion that "everyone who persists eventually manages to enter the United States."

Langewiesche has a special interest in the border's economics, legal and illegal. For a good part of the book, he travels alongside a Tohono O'odham tracking party that works the old Devil's Highway, "cutting for sign"--searching for tracks--of narcotraficantes, smugglers who use the sparsely populated reservation as an avenue for bringing drugs to insatiable gringo markets. The agent in charge, like the border patrolman, recognizes that the group's work is largely futile, noting in disgust that advancements like barrage balloons and computers have made his work harder, not easier, by bringing a mountain of undigested information to his desk and thus keeping him from the field. When informed that he's about to be assigned a long-promised "intelligence analyst," the chief says dryly, "What the hell's he gonna tell me--that marijuana's green?"

Langewiesche also leads his readers inside what appears to be a rarity: an equitably run maquiladora, or American-owned factory in Mexico, where labor costs are low and environmental and business regulations are looser than north of the fence. He finds little to celebrate in having dug out the rare instance of an operation with employees receiving full benefits, sick leave, and free meals during the work day. In Langewiesche's view, it will remain rare: "To the extent that Mexico ties its future to the United States," he writes, "industry will continue to concentrate on the border. The maquilas will shed their skins but live on in similar forms."

Neither does he foresee much hope for improved relations between the United States and Mexico, even in the aftermath of NAFTA. "The ideal of a shared humanity," he rightly observes, "does not withstand the mapmaker's pen."

Despite the promises of the newly approved trade agreement, whose local champions foresee a prosperous future for Mexico and the United States, Langewiesche believes--probably correctly--that the status quo will prevail. The frontier will continue to be many things to many people, but it will always be a chasm between the two nations.

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