In 1993, a woman from Sarajevo told American writer and intellectual Susan Sontag how she had dismissed, from the comfort of her own home, the imminent arrival of the Yugoslav Wars and the coming siege of her city. “In October 1991 I was here in my nice apartment in peaceful Sarajevo when the Serbs invaded Croatia, and I remember when the evening news showed footage of the destruction of Vukovar, just a couple of hundred miles away, I thought to myself, ‘Oh how horrible,’ and switched the channel.” Sontag points to the woman’s confession to illuminate the human capacity for detachment, even from suffering that occurs in great proximity to them, both in terms of geography and identity. “Wherever people feel safe,” she writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, “they will be indifferent.”

            This phenomenon is not at all unusual: news can often feel like it has nothing to do with us, until, without warning, it reaches out to grab us. This idea was on my mind last summer as I helped coordinate, for the third consecutive year, the University of Arizona’s Southwest Field Studies in Writing Program. The program brings three creative writing MFA students living in Tucson to the borderland community of Patagonia, where they spend two weeks in residency—writing, witnessing, and working alongside local high school students enrolled in the Borderland Earth Care Youth Institute.

         The Field Studies program is predicated on the idea that the most meaningful way to engage with social justice and environmental issues on the border, in both personal and creative terms, is to align ourselves more closely with the people and landscapes that are most affected by the issues playing out here. Written work that grows out of this proximity can, in turn, serve to push back against language and rhetoric that seeks to normalize the suffering and destruction that plays out here by casting things in a distant, one-dimensional light.

            In short essays and poems stemming from that summer’s residency, our Field Studies fellows reflected on a wide swath of issues. Miranda Trimmier, at work on a book about how concepts of repair and “ruin” shape landscape and our perception of it, examined “the specific ways border security gets built into the landscape, and the ways that infrastructure becomes more and more physically entrenched.” Logan Phillips, a bilingual poet, performer and DJ raised not far from Patagonia, used poetry to interrogate how language and complicity relates to extraction: “This town had been fighting over the mine / so long the bumper stickers faded.” Katerina Ivanov, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico, grappled forthrightly with her own mexicanidad: “People expect me to be confused about who I am, as if my identity is a bundle of birch, a burden to carry slung over my back. I am not confused. I am not a border.”

         As a co-coordinator of the program, alongside professor Susan Briante, I oscillated several times between Tucson and Patagonia during the two-week residency. I went with our fellows to the Kino Border Initiative’s Aid Center for Migrants in Nogales, Sonora and helped them serve food to deported migrants and families waiting in limbo to seek asylum in the US. I sat in on the writing workshops where they helped Patagonia High Schoolers create a collaborative place-based poem to present to their community. And upon their return to Tucson, I went with them to an Operation Streamline hearing, where more than 50 migrants were expeditiously and dispassionately saddled with criminal records and jail time. I did not, however, travel with them as they drove along the border wall that stretches out from the defunct border crossing in Lochiel, Arizona; nor did I tag along as they rode with Humane Borders volunteers through a remote stretch of the Sonoran desert, refilling water tanks for migrants lost in the desert.

         I thus dipped in and out of their proximity—regarding the border at times with profound immediacy, while finding myself quite inattentive to it at others, caught up in the comfortable routines of my life in Tucson. When our fellows concluded their residency, my partner and I flew to Japan for a long-planned for vacation, and for two weeks I thought little of the fraught political, environmental, or social realities of our far-away border. A few days after our return to Tucson, I heard the news of the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas where a gunman had driven 10 hours across the entire state of Texas to, as he said it, “shoot as many Mexicans as possible.”

         Still dazed and disconnected from my travel, I found myself unable to really read or digest news of the shooting. Even though I had spent nearly a year of my life living in El Paso less than a decade ago, I neglected to reach out to the friends I had made there, as if knowing less about the shooting might make things somehow less real. As Susan Sontag writes, “people are often unable to take in the suffering of those close to them.” A few days later, as I was driving across town in my car, a local radio station played a clip of a public relations officer for the El Paso police speaking to reporters, and I heard, for the first time since the news broke, the familiar songlike accent of the city, tinged with the rhythms of border Spanish—the same accent that had been shared by so many friends and coworkers, hints of which could even be heard in Arizona’s own border towns, places like Nogales and Patagonia, and in that moment the news became suddenly, crushingly real.

         Proximity to the border is a seed that takes root subtly, but powerfully. With it come essential glimmers of reality, vital connections to the people and places that define it, and ultimately, an inescapable collapse of the detachment and distance that might otherwise separate us from it.


Francisco Cantú is a writer, translator, and the author of The Line Becomes a River, winner of the 2018 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction. A former Fulbright fellow, he has been the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Award, and an Art for Justice fellowship. His writing and translations have been featured in The New Yorker, Best American Essays, and VQR, where he is currently authoring an essay series on landscape and literary pilgrimage.


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