Deconstructing the Wall

Martin Boyd

Photo by Hillebrand Steve, USFWS“They [Mexicans] are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” – Donald Trump, candidacy speech, June 16,2015

It would be fair to say that in recent years, US-Mexican relations have hit one of their lowest points in living memory. With his promise to build a wall spanning the US-Mexican border, the current US president made hostility towards Mexico a pillar of his campaign for the White House in 2016, a hostility that proved fundamental to his baffling success. The bizarre tribal chant “Build that Wall!” shouted by thousands of supporters of Donald Trump at his incendiary campaign rallies, has gone hand-in-hand with his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” in the collective imagination of the trumpistas, for whom the exclusion and denigration of their neighbours to the south is inextricably tied to what they view as their own nation’s mission to recapture its “manifest destiny” as the world’s greatest superpower. The border wall has become the Trump nation’s most tangible symbol, a concrete manifestation of an almost pathological need to abuse and reject Mexico in order to assert American greatness.

To many contemporary commentators this hostility seems like an aberration, but it is part of my purpose in this article to place the perverted trumpista vision in its historical context, to illustrate that the wall that Donald Trump has sought to erect in the collective imagination of the American people—irrespective of whether the construction of the bricks-and-mortar version is ever realized, which seems highly unlikely—has actually been standing for nearly two centuries. In the construction of the US imperialist mission, Mexico has long been cast as an infernal mirror of American greatness, as what Suzanne Bost calls “a repository for all of the images of ‘unhealth’ that the US attempts to purge from its own self-image and to fence off in its vision of ‘South of the Border’” (2001: 3). With this in mind, the purpose of this article is to consider the role that literature has played historically in the construction of the “Build that Wall” narrative, and the role it may be able to play in its deconstruction. More specifically, this article will explore the extent to which English translations of Mexican literature have been able to challenge this narrative, to “break down that wall”, or at least to make some cracks in it. Thus, the basic questions this paper seeks to answer are:

  • How has Mexico been traditionally characterized in US literature?
  • How have English translations of Mexican literature challenged or reinforced that characterization?
  • To what extent has the broader political context of US-Mexican relations influenced the translation of Mexican literature for US readers?

And, conversely:

  • Can Mexican literature play a positive role in influencing the broader political context of US-Mexican relations?

I will consider the first of these questions in the following section, with a brief overview of the historical background of US hostility towards Mexico, and the inextricable link of that hostility with the US imperialist project.

To read the full article (in Spanish) download the book México en el tiempo de la rabia from the UAEM Digital Bookstore.

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