Borders Kill, but Not the Passport Privileged

In her new book, Belén Fernández is driven by an urge to expose empire’s death-making machine, even if it means exposing her own absurd participation in it.

The Spanish Civil War was just coming to a close when, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Mexican government undertook one of the world’s most intricate international rescues of refugees. Already, Mexico had provided significant material support to the leftist/anti-Fascist Republicans in Spain; this contrasted sharply with the US, France, and UK, whose disengagement directly led to Francisco Franco’s 36-year fascist dictatorship. But now, in 1939, Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas was extending an open offer of refuge to any Spaniard displaced by the war.

First, Cárdenas directed the Mexican ambassador to France, Narciso Basols, to coordinate the migration of tens of thousands of exiles to Mexico. Next, the Mexican government founded La Casa de España: a resettlement hub to help the exiles get connected with Mexico’s cultural and political elite. When these huge numbers of exiles arrived in Mexico, as Sebastiaan Faber writes in Exile and Cultural Hegemony, La Casa de España offered them jobs in the government, higher education, and newspapers and journals; Lázaro Cárdenas even launched a nationwide, government-sponsored propaganda campaign to convince a reticent public that the leftist (and often anti-Catholic) exiles would not threaten Mexican values. One exile even remarked that 99 percent of the exiles who arrived in Mexico “climbed three or four steps on the social and financial ladder.”1 The Spanish exiles in academia both earned more than their Mexican colleagues and became the first university professors in Mexico to have full-time employment.2

Fast forward to the present, nearly 90 years after the Spanish exile. The year 2022 was, according to the UNHCR, a record-breaking year for forced migration. At least 100 million people (although this is likely an underestimate) are currently displaced, mostly from countries that are non–white majority, lower income, and formerly colonized.

Given the vast scale of the crisis, it would seem logical that the decades of effort to prevent a repeat of World War II violence (at least in the global North)—the myriad international declarations, human rights commissions, promises, commitments, and cultural archives of historic memory—would encourage governments to act differently than in the past. Perhaps the 1939 example of Mexico’s comprehensive rescue and resettlement of the Spanish exiles would become a model to apply to all forced migrants, especially knowing the fate of Jewish, Spanish, and other World War II–era refugees who were refused asylum in the 1940s.

Surely we wouldn’t erect borders and checkpoints that force migrants to take precarious routes across oceans, seas, jungles, and narco-controlled territories? Surely we would not turn a blind eye to the assault, rape, kidnapping, slavery, and death to which this bordering policy directly leads?

That we learned nothing—and are willingly and knowingly doing all of the above, arguably with more sophisticated methods of containment than before—is shown, indisputably, by the 2022 book Inside Siglo XXI: Locked Up in Mexico’s Largest Immigration Detention Center. However, the novelty of Inside Siglo XXI is its recounting of another story, one that often goes unquestioned and is thus naturalized. It is the story of the author herself: US-born, Mexico-based Al Jazeera columnist Belén Fernández; a self-described globe-trotting, passport-privileged, and (to borrow her own words) nomadic “imperial emissary.”

Due to a forged immigration document she obtained from a “dude in Mexico City … who came recommended by other lazy white tourists,” Fernández was detained at the Tapachula, Chiapas airport in July 2021. Flaunting her US passport and journalistic privilege and mustering her “best self-righteous gringa demeanor,” however, didn’t stop her from getting incarcerated. She was sent to Siglo XXI, Mexico’s largest immigration detention center, known for countless reports of human rights abuses and for a policy barring journalists and activists from entering.

An autoethnographic chronicle of passport privilege, Inside Siglo XXI complements the vital reporting of the violence migrants face, and does so by returning the gaze to a white, privileged US subject who navigates borders and detention with ease. In her writing, Fernández is focused on the structural: intervention, capitalism, racism, imperialism. But—in a departure from the naturalization of the chronicler or journalist as all-knowing and beneficent—Fernández implicates herself as a fundamental part of the structures she excoriates. This may appear to center a privileged voice, which takes up space that could be used to highlight those most affected by the necropolitical migration regime in Mexico.

Yet Fernández is not motivated by guilt or a desire to present herself as a good gringa; instead, she is driven by an urge to expose empire’s death-making machine, even if it means exposing her own absurd participation in it. She writes—after a migrant recounts her story of witnessing dead bodies in the Darién Gap—that “I would never again throw a fit when a dog barked in the middle of the night or the eggshell did not perfectly separate itself from the hardboiled egg without taking bits of egg white along with it.”


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When her efforts to avoid incarceration initially failed, Fernández did get “a little bit excited about the inside view [she] had finagled of the migrant detention apparatus.” But she is also careful to liken it to “the grotesque privilege obviously enjoyed by anyone who is able to experience excitement at being detained.”

Ultimately, she is incarcerated for only 24 hours. Fernández nevertheless packs the book’s 193 pages: observing the center’s decrepit conditions; discussing its nonexistent COVID policy, even at a time when recorded cases were spiking in Mexico; and, most importantly, reflecting sharply and unforgivingly—with an anti-imperialist lens—on the US’s border and foreign policies, which simultaneously force migrants to leave and punish them for doing so at every step of the journey northward.

Even while she was incarcerated, many other migrants and the INM guards (Instituto Nacional de Migración—the Mexican government agency that coordinates border enforcement and detentions) remarked on the anomaly of a “gringa” in INM custody. Accustomed to migration enforcement only being applied to other nationalities—Haitian, Salvadoran, Venezuelan, Honduran, Guatemalan, et cetera—the incredulity triggered by Fernández’s presence is a reminder that the system was never meant for certain passport holders.

Once inside Siglo XXI, Fernández remarks on the “emotional solidarity” directed toward her by other detained women, all of whom have endured much more during their migration and detention process. Such support she considers to be “an anti-systemic fuck you to U.S.-backed policies playing out on migrant bodies.” But she’s also aware that the global hierarchy of concern and care is conditioned by race and nationality:

I had in fact spent most of my contemporary life being treated very well by people my country had treated very badly … Iranians of the Axis of Evil, Syrians of the expanded Axis of Evil, and the Mexican “rapists” Trump had determined were inhabiting the most proximate section of the U.S. Backyard had welcomed me with relentless hospitality unmerited by an imperial emissary—and yet my treatment as a human being by those whose dehumanization underpinned imperial conquest only further demonstrated how the whole arrangement sucked.

As politically unsatisfying as the conclusion that “the whole arrangement sucked” might be, it is, at least, honest. This honesty, and Fernández’s willingness to intersperse her immense privilege with both the hardship that surrounds her and the imperial causes of that hardship, are a highlight of the book. Fernández admits that her biggest concern about deportation to the US is that it might jeopardize an upcoming trip to Cuba—where her right-wing ancestors are from—by way of Istanbul, Turkey: “a circuitous route, no doubt, but nothing compared to trekking through fourteen countries and encountering corpses in the Darién [Gap].”

Confronted with women who face death trying to reach the US, Fernández is forced to justify why she despises her “heinous homeland,” an instructive exercise to those of us who agree with her: “Squirming, I presented my usual arguments for avoiding the homeland—‘I don’t like it’; ‘It’s scary and disconnected from humanity’; ‘There is no life there … ’—which were no doubt compelling to people running for their lives, and were processed with a mix of amusement, bewilderment, and apparent concern for my soundness of mind.” Feeling like a “ludicrous asshole,” Fernández is forced to deconstruct how her anti-imperialist hot takes might sound to the women around her who experience empire more directly.

The sum of these condensed moments of tension and imbalance, in the contact zone of Siglo XXI, is the other side of the imperial coin. To understand the countless reports of violence and precarity faced by migrants, it is equally important to understand the complete lack of such barriers for those with desirable passports, resources, and social capital. Unlike the other incarcerated women who spend weeks and months in Siglo XXI, Fernández knows she will get out soon and return to a comfortable home in the beachside boho town of Zipolite, write op-eds, read books trashing empire, and earn US dollars in Mexico.

Despite a heavy topic and a hefty summary of the histories of virtually every country targeted by US empire, Fernández’s book is blisteringly humorous. She is sarcastic and witty in the quip style of the tweet. She paraphrases a migrant detainee who jokes that if this is the 21st century (a nod to the name of the detention center, Siglo XXI, which translates to 21st century), then why would anyone want to continue to the 22nd century? Her humor, though, is political. It gives the (presumably USian, well-educated, leftist) reader a break, as they process Fernández’s survey of the 1954 US-backed coup against leftist Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, the debt imposed on Haiti, “homicide-happy” Honduras and its support by the US, or the bitcoin farms displacing Salvadorans and coordinated by the “world’s coolest dictator” Nayib Bukele. Writing about Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of Homeland Security—who emigrated to the US as a child but who has been a spokesperson for kicking away the ladder that allowed his family to do so—Fernández muses that “over the course of imperial U.S. history, there has been a rich supply of can’t-make-this-shit-up moments.” When everything sucks, this type of humorous writing, admittedly, feels good.

International correspondent journalism is a class position, removed to a large degree from the violence and persecution that local journalists face.

The tone works for Inside Siglo XXI and its readership. However, it does not do, and does not claim to do, what other books about migration in Mexico have done. Perhaps one of the best examples of tonal contrast is Óscar Martínez’s devastating book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (2013), originally published in Spanish as Los migrantes que no importan. Martínez, a seasoned reporter for the valiant Salvadoran newspaper El Faro, accompanies gangs, Border Patrol, rape and trafficking victims, kidnappers, and migrants who had limbs amputated while riding “the Beast,” the unspeakably dangerous train system that transports migrants through Mexico.

Martínez’s reporting is categorically different from Fernández’s: he offers instructions to unseasoned migrants, joins them as they walk through territory controlled by the narco group Los Zetas, and even rides the Beast, putting himself in great danger.3 His tone is somber, devastating, and unsettling; there are no jokes or anti-imperial quips. However, as Sherene Razack has argued, for most (white) audiences of the global North who only know México as Cancún or Cabo San Lucas, reading testimonies like these without an understanding of the global North’s ongoing and direct participation in global violence can quickly devolve into a “peculiar process of consumption, one that is antithesis to genuine outrage.”4 The effect is a “stealing [of] the pain of others,” in which privileged audiences read about unimaginable violence and believe that reading and being “aware” is enough, especially when the bar for real, globally oriented action has been set outrageously low.

Fernández pushes back against this logic of gore consumption in her book by implicitly urging those like her, with the power of the word and mobility, to consider themselves “imperial emissaries.” This is a break from standard journalistic practice. Though, in this current era, few would deny the importance of fact checking, journalistic neutrality is more complicated. Equally complicated is the reality that international correspondent journalism is a class position, removed to a large degree from the violence and persecution that local journalists face, especially in countries like Mexico. It is often discouraged, if not impossible, to reflect on these power structures in standard journalistic writing.

Fernández’s choice to present facts and insider observations of Siglo XXI, but also her own class and political subjectivity, aligns Inside Siglo XXI with the outwardly political genre of the crónica, or chronicle. In Mexico, this genre has particular resonance. A hybrid of journalism, essay, and testimony with an aesthetics oriented more toward the literary than the journalistic, the chronicle has been embraced by some of México’s most decorated writers, including Salvador Novo, José Emilio Pacheco, Carlos Monsiváis, and Elena Poniatowska, just to name a few, as well as other big-name Latin American writers like Gabriel García Márquez, José Martí, and Rubén Darío.

The chronicle is “not only about giving voice” to marginalized groups, Monsiváis writes in his seminal essay “Homero en Tenochtitlan,” but also about “opposing and destroying the idea of the news as merchandise, refusing assimilation and ideological capture by the dominant class.”5 For Poniatowska, a chronicle, in addition to the “how, where, when, and why” typical of journalism, must also ask, “What for? … Why does it matter? … Why are you telling something?”6 In the chronicle, Lynn Stephen underscores in her book Stories That Make History (2021), “a writer’s politics will likely influence how they document and interpret particular events,”7 purposefully eschewing journalistic neutrality and allowing its practitioners to take a stance.

Inside Siglo XXI is a 21st-century, made-for-Twitter iteration of the chronicle. However, Fernández breaks with the tradition of solely amplifying marginalized voices, the hallmark of Elena Poniatowska’s groundbreaking chronicles. She conducts no formal interviews and records no names, even though she worries that this might perpetuate “the mainstream perception of a dehumanized blob of migrants.” While she elaborately tells the stories of imperial intervention in the home countries of her companions in Siglo XXI, she recognizes that it is, perhaps, not her place to ask more of the women she meets. Having spent time as a privileged outsider in many of the countries other migrants flee from, Fernández does what many chroniclers were never willing to do: refuse to take for granted the entitlement to traumatizing testimonies represented by the chronicler herself:

keen though I was to know everyone’s story, I was also wary of using my fellow inmates as my own personal captive population for journalistic exploitation. People who were already physically and emotionally exposed on every level did not need some gringa running around interrogating them about their tragedies to boot …

Fernández’s release is much more expeditious than her fellow inmates’. This is thanks to her romantic connection with La Jornada journalist Arturo Cano, who knew Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s spokesperson, and whose political connections permitted a direct avenue of communication to the INM.

After leaving Siglo XXI, Fernández writes, she returned to Zipolite, then flew to Turkey, Albania, and Cuba. Finally, she lands in the US “for the first time in six years, my self-imposed exile having been thwarted by the birth of my first nephew.”

While Fernández continued to globe-trot, other migrants in Mexico experienced the tightening of their already restricted mobility. The Migrant Protection Protocols and the Title 42 protocol, which used the pandemic as an excuse to keep migrants out while letting (wealthy) tourists and travelers in, left thousands in northern border towns in Mexico exposed to violence, assault, rape, kidnappings, and death.

On March 27, 2023, a fire at an overcrowded migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez killed 39 people and left 27 injured. Those who died had migrated from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, and Colombia.

On April 20 and April 21, fires were set at several migrant encampments in Matamoros, Mexico. Living there temporarily were around 2,000 Haitian, Venezuelan, and Mexican migrants.

Yet there was no gringa collateral damage, very little international outrage, and, as activists in a recent webinar remarked, no hope that anything would change. After all, only one person has been sentenced in the 2011 massacre of over 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, one of the most high-profile killings of migrants in recent Mexican and global history. Mexico has consistently accepted its role as a militarized arm of the US war against migration, formalized in the 2000s through its participation in Plan Sur (2000), the Mérida Initiative (2008), the Southern Border Program (2014), and the Migrant Protection Protocols (2019), as well as through the 2019 deployment of the military (Guardia Nacional) to its southern and northern borders.8 There seem to be no potential shifts away from Mexico functioning as a vertical border of death and deterrence.

Compassionate and intelligent, Inside Siglo XXI poses difficult, unsettling, and self-reflective questions for its readers, especially those that share Fernández’s class and passport privilege. What, then, does an imperial emissary do in these times?

As I read Inside Siglo XXI, I considered the ridiculousness of my own three years as a white gringo living in México. I had potentially even more gringo status than Fernández, whose Spanish last name and Latina roots might have made her blend in better with her counterparts in Siglo XXI, despite the blue passport. As for me, I earned an upper-middle-class salary as a 22-year-old Fulbright graduate student researcher, which allowed me to buy stupidly expensive vanilla lattes, Uber home to my comfortable apartment in a relatively wealthy Mexico City neighborhood, travel to more parts of Mexico than most Mexican nationals could, and write a thesis as a student at the Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México about US empire’s impacts on queer and trans refugees in Mexico.

I returned to Mexico again this summer with US dollars and with a similar agenda. If empire sucks so much, am I making it suck more?

Fernández arrives at no resolution, proposes no direct action, and does not change any of her globe-trotting practices. She also leaves out the devastating environmental impacts of elite travel, which, rather than being interrogated in an era of climate upheaval, are promoted by governments and corporations, with 2023 breaking historical travel records. However, Fernández convincingly exposes herself and her immense passport privilege and seems to ask empire and its Mexican emissaries: Why do you keep letting me do this? Why, after all we have done to you, did you treat me so well?

Importantly, she also offers a lens through which to scrutinize current privileged mobilities to Mexico. Many of these are facilitated by the Mexican state itself, even while it continues to mark other migrants (and its own citizens) for death and servility: tourists in the Yucatan will benefit from the construction of the Tren Maya, at the expense of local ecologies and Indigenous peoples; gentrifying digital nomads can live an upper-class life in Mexico City unattainable in New York, San Francisco, or Paris; travel vloggers, researchers, Fulbrighters, et cetera, can continue uninhibitedly crossing borders, often with favorable foreign currencies.

Rolling out the red carpet for rich foreigners at the expense of Mexico’s own citizens and other migrant populations even extends back to the oft-lauded case of the Spanish exiles in 1939 that began this essay. White, European, and generally elite, the exiles from Spain were welcomed with open arms; this dovetailed perfectly with Mexico’s 20th-century ontological state project of mestizaje, or racial intermixture, which in practice meant disavowing Blackness, anchoring indigeneity to a mythic past, and routing the futurity of the nation toward Europe.9 Additionally, many of the exiles, as Faber writes, offered intellectual support and legitimacy to Mexico’s 71-year-long, single party dictablanda (soft dictatorship), which was ultimately responsible for—among other acts of political repression—the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre of hundreds of protesting students.10

Belén Fernández’s chronicle of passport privilege (finally) turns the gaze northward, to an empire that is simultaneously crumbling, sending more of its emissaries abroad, and fortifying its borders at an alarming pace. To sustain this gaze, in our present and past, is perhaps one of the most transformative acts of compassion that the unwilling emissaries of empire can engage in. But, frankly, it is the absolute least we can do. icon

  1. Sebastiaan Faber, Exile and Cultural Hegemony: Spanish Intellectuals in Mexico, 1939–1975 (Vanderbilt University Press, 2002), pp. 21–27.
  2. Faber, Exile and Cultural Hegemony, p. 18.
  3. Óscar Martínez, Los migrantes que no importan (Surplus y El Faro, 2012). Translated by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington as The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Verso, 2013).
  4. Sherene H. Razack, “Stealing the Pain of Others: Reflections on Canadian Humanitarian Responses,” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, vol. 29, no. 4 (2007), pp. 375–94.
  5. Carlos Monsiváis, A ustedes les consta: antología de la crónica en México (You Will Make It Known: Anthology of the Chronicle in México) (Ediciones Era, 2006), p. 76. (Translated by the author.)
  6. Lynn Stephen, Stories That Make History: Mexico Through Elena Poniatowska’s Crónicas (Duke University Press, 2021), p. 8.
  7. Stephen, Stories That Make History, p. 8.
  8. Guadalupe Chávez and Alexander Voisine, “The Implementation of Mexico’s Refugee, Complementary Protection and Political Asylum Law,” in Dignity in Movement: Borders, Bodies and Rights , edited by J. L. Diab (E-International Relations Press, 2021), pp. 282–300.
  9. Juliet Hooker, Theorizing Race in the Americas: Douglass, Sarmiento, Du Bois, and Vasconcelos (Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 155–60.
  10. Faber, Exile and Cultural Hegemony, p. 26.
This article was commissioned by A. Naomi Paik and Catherine S. Ramírez.

Featured-image photograph by Bren / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).