Calexico is a North American town of roughly 16,000 situated directly on the Mexican border, 120 miles southeast of San Diego, in the warm and sunny Imperial Valley, where agriculture will always be the most abundant business; but Calexico differs from other towns along that extended border in being the suburb of a Mexican city, Mexicali, with its population of nearly a million. At least 95 percent of the Calexico population has Mexican ancestry, and most everyone has relatives south of the border. To me, a recent resident of Berlin, it generated hints of what Berlin might have been like before the Wall.
Between the two countries runs only a single fence, without any surrounding no-man’s-land. On the Calexico side roams the U.S. Border Patrol, whose job it is to arrest illegal Mexican immigrants and, for punishment, simply return them to the other side. However, the border is porous. On the Calexico side is a golf course on which you can see Mexicali kids playing soccer, because the golf course offers the best field close to their home. No doubt they step back through the “border” fence to get home to sleep.
Because minimum wages in California are considerably higher than those in Mexico, farm workers scale a fence that, even in Calexico itself, has holes that aren’t repaired; and once in the U.S., they have little trouble finding jobs in a country that needs cheap labor and rarely asks to see anyone’s passports or papers. If the border were as securely closed as that between East and West Berlin, California agribusiness, as well as its restaurants, hotels, and construction companies, would need, as West Berlin did, to look elsewhere for its cheap guestworkers.
One reason why Mexicali is so populous is its proximity to the U.S. Its comparatively large Chinese population, for instance, has been there since the exclusion acts kept them out of California in the late 19th century. The biggest industry in Mexicali is maguiladores, factories assembling American goods at piecework wages. It is cheaper for American companies to send to Mexicali the materials for videocassettes, audiocassettes, circuit boards, clothing, etc. for assembly before bringing them back north of the border, just as it has been cheaper for West German companies to send piecework east.
Travelers entering Mexicali from the U.S. need not show passports to go in or come back. If their returning car has U.S. license plates, the armed American customs agents might ask such questions as, “What did you do in Mexicali? Where were you born?” (To the latter, it is sufficient simply to answer “USA.”) Travelers coming from Mexico must obey different rules. Some have, in addition to passports, green cards entitling them to employment; others have white cards granting them visits not to exceed 72 hours.
Within a single geographical entity are two economies—one with a strong currency, the other with weak money; one with stable politics, the other with unstable. The air is worse in Mexicali, first because the dust of its unpaved streets flies up into the air in warm weather and then because much cooking is done over wood-fires, and also because, as in East Berlin, Mexican emissions standards for cars and heaters are considerably lower. Some of Mexicali’s wealthy live in Calexico; but one indicative difference between the two places is that wealth in Mexico is ostentatiously displayed, while everyone in Calexico subscribes to the American suburban value of living in medium-sized houses, on modest plots, none more prominent than the others.
To Calexicans, Mexicali offers what is not available in the suburbs, from Chinese restaurants to prostitutes; but one difference between Calexico and other American suburbs is that its city, Mexicali, is much, much cheaper, as it is located in a country with failing currency. Nonetheless, to get from a Calexico home to a Mexicali restaurant by car took us exactly 15 minutes.
I came to Calexico to give a lecture at its state university, to an audience of professors and students scarcely different from those at other small colleges. But, not unlike West Berliners towards the East, my American hosts feel sufficiently kindly towards their Mexican brethren to send me over, at American expense, for another presentation and, at first, an interview over its university radio station. The recording studio itself was filled with people with little apparent function. As I spoke, the whispering around me got noisier and noisier. It turned out they were translating for each other! After the presentation I received questions with an aggressive Marxist tinge, students no doubt impressing their teachers in ways different from here.
The night after a local election in Calexico, I went to some of the parties. The winners were proud; the losers accepted their fate, even though the results had been close and they had legitimate complaints. Nonetheless, no one spoke of disrupting the election or disputing democracy by force. In this respect, Calexico was, as one hostess put it, “an ordinary American town.” But at those local parties nearly everyone was bilingual, able in midsentence to switch from English to Spanish and back, and within seconds to switch from one outlook to another. Along the edge of two radically different cultures, the place struck me as California’s Berlin.