Marxing Across the Border
Issue #45, October 1999
Finally, there came a time when everything that men had considered as inalienable became an object of exchange, of traffic, and could be alienated. This is the time when the very things which till then had been communicated, but never exchanged; given, but never sold; acquired, but never bought -- virtue, love, conviction, knowledge, conscience, etc. -- when everything, in short, passed into commerce.
-- Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy
In our fiber-optic, MTV-globalizing fin-de-siècle, nation-state, cultural, and socioeconomic borders are simultaneously melting and solidifying. In Europe, for example, politicians are promising the dawn of a new, more economically robust European Union when nation-state borders will collapse and international trade tariffs will no longer apply. In this new passportless community, Brits might live in London and commute to work in Paris or Amsterdam. Yet, even as this so-called borderless world is emerging, it is becoming increasingly clear that its reality will be limited essentially to the world of banking and finance: control of the labor force through nationality is still alive and well. In France, Germany, and Britain, racist Immigration Acts allow right-wing nationalists to use violence to keep unwanted border crossers out -- France's Moroccans and Algerians, Germany's Muslim Gastarbeiters, Britain's Bangladeshis and Indians, for example, are all limited to quotas and well-defined lengths of stay. In the U.S., politicians are promoting a post-NAFTA, borderless pan-Pacific economy, yet they continue to pass laws denying basic human rights -- health care and education -- to crossers of the proverbial Tortilla Curtain.
This isn't to say that in late capitalism cultural and economic borders between "First" and "Third" worlds have not become more permeable. One of Marx's predictions has come true: as capital shrinks the globe by sucking "vampire-like" (his term) the life out of the working classes, it is creating new (albeit unintended) transnational proletarian collectives. Thus while, say, technology necessarily follows the market (i.e., while high-tech and science developments are capital-dependent), its use doesn't lead solely to exploitive ends. For example, the internet technology that can sell a CEO a yacht at the blip of a K-baud also provides a venue for U.S. and Canadian Indians to exchange information -- histories, legislative acts, stories -- and prevent further acts of cultural genocide. Indeed, internet technology gives the objectified the power to answer back; the net can be used to make erstwhile-othered objects into active, visible subjects. The recently formed NetWarriors (whose slogan reads, "Survive and resist Genocide") use the net to link up indigenous communities around the world. This year, too, fifty teenagers from Texas who migrate with their farm-worker families to New York, Illinois and Montana will try out the Department of Education's "Estrella" program to bring an internet classroom -- teaching geography, world history, and algebra among other subjects -- to their homes. With a fifty percent drop-out rate among migrant high-schoolers, many hope the new technology will open doors to those traditionally kept at the socioeconomic margins.
And yet, the polarizations of class and nation that have become a constant feature of late capitalism and that increasingly pauperize the Third World proletariat continue to stymie democratizing moves. Yes, the internet can be a useful tool for bringing education to those forced to inhabit a homeless state, but when a bracero working in California's central valley earns twenty-five dollars a day, promises of a transnational democratization seem far afield.
So what of the recently touted Latino/a cultural boom in the U.S.? Has Latino culture's massive injection into the U.S. mainstream radically altered the social/material reality of Latino border dwellers? In an article on Latino heartthrob, Ricky Martin (not to be confused with his pre-fame persona, Enrique Marteen Morales), Craig Mclean of London's Observer recently exclaimed, "No one, it seems, can resist the siren call for Latin groove." Martin's processed and packaged Latin-pop album Living the Vida Loca is certainly flying off shelves in the U.S. and South America -- and in Europe and in Asia. And he's one of the recent beneficiaries of a globalized world order in which a collection of songs with a non-mainstream Euro-Anglo sound composed by an artist outside the U.S. music production machine, achieves instant international acclaim -- with a little help from MTV's and the internet's transnational reach -- and big cash royalties. And Martin was just the first in a phalanx of Latino hitmakers. Note the recent additions of actor-turned-singer Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, and Enrique Iglesias -- all of whom have hit stratospheric LP sales. It would seem the age of globalization has arrived.
It isn't only Mr. Martin who is making money with La Vida Loca. There are producers, ad execs, and so on. Now that the benefits have proved gigantic, music conglomerates are promoting and packaging similar Latin-pop sounds. Put otherwise, we aren't seeing a benevolent move to diversify the music available to the masses. Instead this rather limited diversification (after all, who can distinguish between the high-tech sound of a Mr. Martin and that of a Mr. Iglesias) is the consequence of a fierce economic competition and the drive to make more and more money. So when Mr. Martin's teched-up Vida Loca sells, rather than the industry diversifying its soundscape to target a varied consumer population, it churns out more of the same. This enthusiasm for Latin pop hasn't led the mainstream to sample other Latino artists unknown in the U.S. but popular in Latin America. Even big names like Willie Colón, Celia Cruz, and Rubén Blades remain largely unknown. It seems that the more, say, complex and socially radical the Latin sound, the less likely it will cross borders -- even borders within the U.S. MTV, for example, would rather continuously loop images of an exotic Latina like Jennifer Lopez than give air time to those radically political mestizos who make up the super talented L.A. soca/hip-hop rock band, Ozomatli.
Music production magnates aren't the only ones out to exploit the current Latino/a hype. Trace magazine recently inaugurated a "new, improved, trendsetting global" focus ("all readers across the world will be on the same page") -- with its "Mira!>Toward 2000" issue. On the cover, Nuyorican Rosario Dawson (teenstar of Kids and love interest in Spike Lee's He Got Game) spills out of a sleek flamenco-dress; a Pocahontas feather dangles from her dark, slightly curled hair as she pouts with full red lips. The magazine is filled not only with articles on Latino culture (capital's diversifying gesture) but also with ad upon ad marketing the Latino look (capital's homogenizing gesture). The issue's first three pages feature a triptych fold-out ad for CAT industrial clothing that features a dark Latino teenager standing in a variety of desert-swept borderscapes. As he looks off-frame -- perhaps to the northern promised land -- he assumes a cholo, back-slanted pose. Rather than the magazine drawing up a complex map of Latino culture, then, it simply gives us pre-packaged stereotypes of Latinos/as identified as this month's new millennial Look.
Latinos, the border, and proletariat chic certainly seem to go hand in hand, and the commercial images are far removed from the reality. Capital fetishizes the Mexicano border crosser to construct the Nu Latino Chic image to sell a hundred-fifty dollar pair of sneakers and a three-hundred dollar heavy cotton, prol-identified fashion ensemble. True almost nobody from el otro lado -- economically strangled by the International Monetary Fund -- can afford a CAT outfit, but the fact is irrelevant: This imagery serves the purpose of hiding the material circumstances in which Nu Latino Chic fashion is produced by capital for a middle-class consumer. For every CAT outfit sold in the U.S., there's a maquiladora (U.S.-owned factories pepper the border where working conditions go unregulated) full of workers who are exploited (many are maimed and suffer from malnutrition) and who make three dollars a day.
So our continuing dependence on private capitalist production and distribution trends will restrict to the "haves" the capacity to move and to consume across borders. While maquiladora workers can only dream of crossing the border for better paid jobs, U.S. middle-classers can purchase a border Look and luxuriate in fantasies of border crossing. Existence within a borderless world seems to be a reality only for the upper and highest segments of the middle class. Waif model Kate Moss can don a Che Guevara T-shirt in February's issue of British Vogue as a symbol of a borderless world market, but when Cubans and Mexicans seek political and/or economic refuge in the U.S. the borders stand strong. Only capital can jump borders; the real people who lie behind capital's fetishes are trapped.
On a more positive note, it must be said that even as globe-spanning corporate monopolies become the dominant forms of modern capital all over the world, exploited workers, oppressed minorities, border scholars and performance artists, and duped consumers increasingly seek to develop new trans-global relational possibilities and to build bridges of commonality that might sweep away the conditions that continue to contain and control. Many celebrate a racial/cultural/social hybrid space that opposes capital's drive to commodify and fetishize the ethnic as other. Such borderland self-reinscriptions form a resistance politics by uncovering how capitalist ideology packages and sells, say, an image of the Latino á la Ricky Martin to normalize the separation of disenfranchised groups -- white, brown, and black. Finally, then, as the highly anticipated year 2000 swiftly approaches, Marx's 1848 declaration in the Communist Manifesto couldn't be more to the point: "All that is solid melts into air [...] and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."
Frederick Aldama is an Oakland-based freelance writer who specializes in Chicano culture. He is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team. You can reach him by e-mail.