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Lives on the Line.

Lives on the Line

Dispatches from the U.S.-Mexico Border

by Miriam Davidson

The University of Arizona Press US$17.95

IN MEXICAN NOVELIST CARLOS FUENTES' The Buried Mirror, an undocumented immigrant asks the following timeless question: "But hasn't this always been my country?" In much the same way, inhabitants of the twin cities of Nogales--one in Arizona, the other in Sonora, Mexico, known also as Ambos Nogales (Both Nogales)--have always considered their valley of impressive landscapes and arid deserts as one land. Historically, neighbors on both sides of the border crossed daily the dividing line to visit family, conduct business and shop.

A series of acute economic crises in Mexico and successive peso devaluations have increased exponentially the flood of illegal immigrants into the United States, causing the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), commonly called la migra, to step up its border controls. At the same time, the arrival of the maquiladora assembly plants forever changed relations at the U.S.-Mexican border.

In this powerful book, Lives on the Line: Dispatches from the U.S.-Mexico Border, journalist Miriam Davidson uses the dramatic stories of five people and their families from the two Nogales as a microcosm of border problems. Davidson relates the fortunes of a country peasant woman fleeing the machismo and desperation of her hometown in search of a better life in Nogales; of an environmental activist fighting the maquiladora pollution that infects him with of a rare and deadly form of cancer; of a Mexican man who dies at the hands of an INS agent in an episode that precipitated changes in the Border Patrol operations; of the youth gangs who live underground in a labyrinth of tunnels built to handle water runoff during floods; and of two maquiladora managers who created a program to improve workers' lives and encourage them to own their own homes.

Through these anecdotes, Davidson details the enormous and epic migration in Mexico toward the border, a migration propelled by demand for maquiladora laborers. She also describes the consequent appearance of overpopulated, marginal neighborhoods where many workers live in shacks made of leftover factory materials, sometimes without running water and electricity.

The author exposes the ensuing destabilization in the border states that is brought about by the new way of life centered around the maquiladora, the clash of technology and a strict daily work schedule with traditional customs among a work force lured from very different parts of Mexico and Central America. The atmosphere of confusion, exploitation, lost hope and eroding values drove a boom in crime, drugs and youth gangs as family ties slowly unraveled.

Davidson made friends in the shantytowns, went into the tunnels occupied by gangs and accompanied guards along the routes used by illegal immigrants. She points out with great precision and, at the same time, journalistic objectivity the social and political problems brought about by the militarization of the border. She also tells of the numerous immigrant deaths that occur during attempts to cross the border illegally, totaling, according to one of the interviewees, "a plane full of passengers falling out of the sky once a year."

The author counterbalances the denunciation of these tragedies with a clear vision of hope: that the economic growth generated by Nafta will improve the quality of life on the border and in Mexico in general, and that the U.S. and Mexican governments will be more willing to work together to resolve common problems. At the same time, maquiladora managers seem more inclined to participate in and pay for aid programs for workers, such as the home purchase project, which has spread from Nogales to other towns on the border.

Despite the optimistic tone that ends the book, what persists throughout the trek to the end is the taste of bitterly tragic lives as told by Davidson: the peasant woman resolved to end her poverty and macho tyranny and who, to do so, must sleep outdoors with her daughter amid snakes and scorpions; and the adolescent gang member who has gotten pregnant several times in the tunnels under Nogales and who fights to escape drugs. Etched on her hand is a cryptic tattoo, "mi vida loca," a revealing allegory of life on the border.
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Author:Alende, Andres Hernandez
Publication:Latin Trade
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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