Transcription of Dylan Corbett’s presentation to the Franciscan Border Experience group on November 5, 2022

Dylan Corbett,
Executive Director, Hope Border Institute
El Paso, Texas

You have the Rocky Mountains which divides us into sort of East and West. And then if you look on the other side of the border, when you go to the border mass, you’ll see another range that starts just on that on the Mexican side of the border. And that’s the northern tip of the Sierra, which cuts all the way down into Central Mexico. It goes all the way down sort of, if you follow it down, you’ll get eventually to Mexico City. What was known as Tenochtitlan. You’re in a remarkable place of convergence.

And you know, you have the waters coming down from the Colorado River that come down and eventually become the Rio Grande here. And the Rio Grande here is exactly the spot where the Rio Grande becomes the border.  The Rio Grande comes all the way down into Mexico, coming down from Colorado, and there are a lot of rivers that terminate in the Colorado River in the (muffled) mountain range. You have it even geographically, an incredible place of convergence of all these different things. And we’re in the valley between those two mountain ranges. In many ways, this is the place where you’re at a sort of spinal cord over the place of convergence of the Americas. This is where things come together north and south.

The missionaries, they were Franciscan missionaries, Franciscans who actually founded this area, El Paso del Norte, they came with the Spanish up that great mountain range, the Sierra that begins at Mexico City, and it was in the 1600s that they found this community was known as El Paso del Norte. And the Spanish were coming up the mountain range from the interior of Mexico, where the original colonization happened. And they made their way up the mountain, and they were looking for wealth. They were looking for silver, they were looking for minerals, they were looking for gold.

And so these mountains are very significant in that sense. This area too though, because it’s this place of convergence for thousands of years even before the Spanish were here. Before the US was here, before Mexico is here, before the coming of the Spanish, there was a trade route that went from Tenochtitlan, all the way up to where the Four Corners are, where Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, where those states converge. There was a there was a trading route from there that went all the way down and so people have been actually traversing this region for thousands of years. And then in that route the Spanish came in, they baptize it as the Camino Real. You’ve probably heard of the Camino Real. It’s that highway, the Royal Highway, that goes from those two regions, the interior of Mexico to sort of the central part of the US, that area the four corners.  And people traded everything – they traded feathers, they traded turquoise, they traded precious stones.  Where you are actually at the retreat house, just just a couple of kilometers away, there’s a place called Hueco Tanks. Have you heard of it? We don’t like to tell outsiders because it’s a real treasure. We don’t want people to ruin it. But if you get a chance go to Hueco Tanks because there are some of the oldest petroglyphs in the world there that give testimony to the presence of those indigenous people that were here. And the interesting thing about the indigenous people that were here in this region in the Chihuahua desert is that they were people on the move. They were always moving. They were crossing the river itself, north and south.

They were itinerant people, they hunted and they were constantly moving about the desert. They never stayed in one place for too long. So migration, trade, the movement of peoples, it’s been part of the fabric. It’s part of the DNA of this region. And it’s been like that for millennia. And so I think we know a little something about migration. We have something to say to the rest of the country about migration because of that history. Then the Spanish come. 

Now you probably came by airport, but because there are many Franciscans here you might have walked. But I’m imagining that you came by the airport. Now as you get out of the airport, you may have noticed and if you didn’t notice you will notice a very, very tall, tall statue. It’s a tall, I think brown, or sort of green faded brown-looking statue. It’s very, very tall. I think it’s about 30 feet tall, or more. It’s a man on a horse at the base of it. It’s called El Conquistador. Has anyone seen the statue? Okay, so it’s symbolic of this history. If you think of enchiladas, there are layers, right? There are layers of this history too. You have that indigenous layer which is which is movement of peoples and trading north and south.

And then you have another layer which is the coming of the Spanish.  So the Spanish, they come, they colonize Mexico from the interior, they move up the mountains, this great mountain range and eventually they come here, and that man that statue is Don Juan de Oñate and he’s the son of one of the original colonizers of Mexico who founded the community of Zacatecas. Has anyone ever been to Zacatecas? It’s a beautiful, beautiful town. And it was silver mines. And so the Spanish, they exploited the silver that was present in the mountains, by Zacatecas. As the son of his father, he wanted his own fortune, just as his father built his fortune in Zacatecas, he was looking for his own fortune. He comes up, and in the late 16th century, crosses is the Rio Grande, and when he does that he claims all the territory north of the Rio Grande (the river that you’re going to see when you go to the border mass), for the crown of Spain. And he calls it New Mexico, Nuevo Mexico. And so this territory, all of a sudden becomes Nuevo Mexico.

And he founds the capital of Nuevo Mexico, up by about where Santa Fe is, the current capital of the state of New Mexico, which becomes eventually the state of New Mexico. And then he establishes that Camino Real, that political and economic trade route that goes from Mexico City to the northern colonies here, where we are right now. That’s the Spanish legacy. Now, it brings the faith, right. These are Catholics. Franciscans found El Paso. So El Paso is formed, sort of in the middle. It’s the midpoint between Tenochtitlan and Santa Fe.  That’s where El Paso gets its identity, El Paso del Norte,  the northern passageway.  It’s not founded in El Paso, actually, it’s founded in Ciudad Juarez. You can find the original Franciscan mission chapel. If you go to the cathedral (you’re gonna go to Juarez, I think), if you pass by the cathedral try to pass by the cathedral, if can stop and get to the cathedral even better, but at least notice as you look at the facade of the cathedral to the left, there’s a little structure which is the original Franciscan chapel. That was the site of the founding of El Paso del Norte.

For instance, Franciscans are part of the legacy here, they’re baked into the history too. The Dominicans will come later and they’re much worse. The Spanish legacy brings the faith, but there’s also a shadow side to it. And that’s the history of colonization as that shadow side and it comes with violations of human rights. A people that’s dispossessed of language, of traditions of cosmology, of their own religion, of their own way of relating to nature, the world, and God. And it’s brutal. And some people say, well, you have to judge history by the standards of of a particular time, right? Okay, perhaps granted. But even at that time, Juan de Oñate had personally participated in the massacres of indigenous people himself. He personally participated in massacres.

So there was genocide. There was cultural genocide. There was religious genocide. The indigenous were forced to farm and to build homes and buildings of the Spanish;  it was quite brutal. Even at the time, he was convicted in a Spanish court in Mexico City of crimes, what we would call today “crimes against humanity,” and expelled, there was a decree of expulsion from the new from New Mexico. So even at the time, pardon me, many of you are religious, but I don’t know how else to explain it. He was considered an asshole. Even according to the standards of his times, he was a bad guy. 

It just it’s reflective of that history. So that’s the statue in front of the in front of the airport, it reflects that second layer of history. And then there’s another layer of history, another colonization, almost a second colonization. As you travel about the city, you’re going to notice trains and train tracks. And that’s the second symbol of colonization for us. If the first symbol of colonization is that statue for the airport, the second is the trains. Why? Well, is that first layer of history, indigenous history, and then the Spanish colonial history of North and South.

There’s another layer of history, which is now east west. And the history of the United States is history that goes from east to west, right? And it has its own theology that subtends it right? Manifest Destiny, its own ideology, right? Because it’s in the DNA that the United States should move westward. So there’s this sweep of history that’s north and south that goes through El Paso and then we are at the crux of these two sweeps of history. Now we’re at the crux, the middle point, and this is why El Paso is so significant. You start with the geography because you realize the mountains, you know, the rivers….. Napoleon wrote a treatise on war, and he says in the treaties, great empires are formed by great deserts, rivers, or mountain ranges. And here we have all three. You can see how geopolitically it’s just a very crucial region and in the Americans there’s this desire to connect the Pacific and the Atlantic. And you do that by the real world. It was the project of Lincoln, right? It was the reconstruction project to bring the two the two oceans together.

And the easiest place to do that–there are two places–you can do it through what becomes Route 66 up in Albuquerque, right in the famous Route 66. Because the mountains, there’s a pause in that mountain range. So the two places where you can connect it to Route 66 and through El Paso and so that’s why El Paso is geostrategically geopolitically important. And so this region, which was which was first indigenous, which was then Spanish and Catholic, now encounters a sweep of history, that’s American.

That is equally a part of a project, a political project, that it’s about the period of expansion, about exploitation of natural resources. And it’s really an imperial project. If you think about the economic gain, right? It’s about economic gain, moving westward, and El Paso is now at the crux of those two sweeps of history was two arcs of history. And in the 19th century, in the middle of the 1800s you have the intersection of all those things. Now, for imagine for a moment. Imagine 10 minutes from here.

And a little indigenous community, just 10 minutes away, in the middle of the 19th century, a child could have been born and that child could have been born into an indigenous family community. And the way he relates to the family, to the community, to the land to God, is rooted in the indigenous culture. And then all of a sudden, he’s told that he is a subject of the Spanish crown. And then because in the middle of the 19th century, Mexico gains its independence from Spain, and he’s told that he’s a citizen of the United States of Mexico.
And then Texas achieves its independence from Mexico, by a violent war. And now that child now is told that he’s a citizen of the Republic of Texas. And then the Republic of Texas is absorbed into the United States. And that child is told that he’s a citizen, or resident of the United States.

People talk today about code switching, but people here have been code switching in the borderlands for generations in wrestling with all those different identities, which are given and layered upon you. That expression, you’ve heard it with (unintelligible) profound depths of meaning, you know, “we didn’t cross the border the border crossed us.” You see how are these artificial borders which are driven by economic and political and sociological, or social projects become so determinative of identity and so when people think about immigration from from the perspective of the border, it’s different than when you think about immigration from the middle of the country.  In the middle of the country, it’s still in a sense, technocratic. Well, let’s just find the right solution. If we can just figure out how many people we let in how many people can’t let in, then we’ll figure it out. How much funding do we get to see the CBP and DHS, that’s how we fix this problem. Or it’s political, right? It’s just a question of Dems and Republicans. But here is lived, because of those questions of identity, it’s lived on a visceral register, it’s not lived here (pointing at his head), it’s lived here (pointing to his heart).

In the history, in many ways that trauma is passed down from generation we know now. Medical science tells us that there’s trauma in conflict and inter-turmoil can be passed down. And so in questions of immigration, are interpreted on a completely different level. Now, I talked about sort of the shadow side of that north south sweep of history, right, the exploitation of the indigenous. There’s a shadow side of that East West identity as well.

Or the East West sweep of history. Because when when those people begin to come into Texas, when you have Americans coming in from the southeast, coming into Texas in large numbers in the middle of the 19th century, into Texas that is still a part of Mexico. You have mass migration, with Texas as part of Mexico in the middle of the 1800s, from the southeastern part of the United States.

What are they bringing with them? The southeastern part of the United States, first part of the 19th century?  (audience answers: Slaves). Bringing slaves. It got to the point where one in five persons in Texas was an African American, an African American slave. You have that that subordination of indigenous, that is one type of racism, and now you have you have chattel slavery, which is another type of racism.  And there’s no point in comparing them, but chattel slavery is much more radical.

Because what happened was in the United States, there was an ideological defense of the institution of slavery that takes place in the middle of the 1800s. That’s based on theories like the “one drop” theory. So all of a sudden, you get laws and practices in Texas where you can’t have intermarriage. Let me give you two examples of how sort of this type of racism reflects the history of Texas. Texas in 1835, declares its revolt from Mexico, achieves independence in 1836, becomes part of the United States in 1845. So for nearly 10 years, it’s a republic.  Among historians there’s no dispute about this.

Mexico shortly after gains independence from Spain, bans the importation of slaves. But all these people keep coming into Texas with their slaves. The only reason that the Texas declares independence from Mexico is to protect the institution of slavery. The birth of the nation is in a racialized context. The State of Texas is born in a racialized context to preserve the institution of Black slavery. That first sort of racism, the particular racism that’s rooted in the Spanish colonial past against the indigenous and then this severe anti-blackness that comes in, that’s ideologically driven. And that is in the DNA of the state.

Now fast forward to another example, and think about in other institutions of the state as well think about, for example, the Texas Rangers. Y’all might have seen at the TV show that guy, what’s his name, Walker, Texas Ranger, right, people love the Texas Rangers. Go to Europe and people are still watching it on TV. I don’t know if they’re watching it in the United States anymore, but it’s a popular show. The Texas Rangers were actually formed to protect the interests of the white population against Mexicans, Hispanics, Latinos and Indigenous. The birth of one of our premier law enforcement institutions is also in a racialized context, and it existed prior to the formation of the state of Texas. And then that informal ban becomes official is given state approbation. The birth of our institutions, the birth of our country, is in a racialized context.

Fast forward now to 1924. In our Texas, part of the United States in 1924, this is the first time that we have had….we’ve had other laws in this country, which have been openly discriminatory, and now immigration laws. The people who build the railroad are Chinese and Irish. And so one of our first immigration laws as a country is to exclude Asian immigration, Why? because we invited them in to build a railroad and when the railroads completed, okay, now you’ve got to leave. There’s this dynamic in the United States that repeats itself over and over:  come in, and then leave, come in and then leave; it’s something that happens constantly.

We have that here in El Paso. All these different layers begin to solidify and crystallize but let’s skip a little bit of history go to 1924. We actually instituted racial quotas into our immigration laws. The 1924 immigration law has racial quotas and why, because it throughout the United States there is there is xenophobia and racism against Asians, particularly the Japanese, but also against Southern Europeans, including Catholics. 

And so there’s this law that’s passed as these racial quotas.  Now, Mexico is exempt from these racial coordinates. Why? Well, as you’re traveling from the retreat center, you would see that there’s a lot of land around El Paso. This area is there’s a lot of agriculture, east and west. The cotton, the tomatillo, the onions, the chile, the tree nuts, there’s tons of agriculture. Big agriculture influences the legislative process and says we don’t want Mexico to be included in here because we need all that Mexican labor.

Okay, but there’s a compromise. What’s the compromise? You have 1924, the Immigration Act, and then you have in 1924, the creation of the Border Patrol. Whenever you think about border enforcement, that’s a different question. It’s just a historical fact that the main institution or the main institutions that administer our immigration laws were born in a racialized context in 1924. Again, how the reality of immigration policy is lived in the borderlands is on this completely different, more visceral register. And it’s understood and experienced in a way that there’s a deep appreciation for how racism has reflected our immigration laws.

There’s a third layer to the colonization story. There’s the first layer the Spanish. The second layer of the enchilada, is the Americans. The third layer is what you’ll see when you go through the border mass today, which is the wall. The wall is the symbol. The statue, the trains, and now the wall. And the wall represents the predominance of global capital.  Because the wall, that steel barrier that you’ll see today. (Now Obama built some, Bush built some. Trump made it higher.  Then he build a lot out in New Mexico.) But that structure itself, the steel structure was put there coincident with NAFTA.

NAFTA gets passed. And what does it do? It raises the barrier. It tears down the borders for manufactured goods. For capital, for wealth, for financial transactions, all those things that can pass uninhibited across the border. But that architectural system that allows capital flow, unmitigated wherever it wants in search of wealth, via the exploitation of labor, so a company in Minnesota can close up shop and go down to Ciudad Juarez because they can pay the workers lower wages and thereby increase the profits.

But in order to make that system, that borderless world work, you need to patrol persons, you need to patrol labor, you need to ensure that there will be people on the other side of that border, still working those companies to guarantee your profits. When people in the interior talk about border policy and border walls in terms of national security, in our guts, border communities know that that’s also bull.  Because we saw the wall go up with NAFTA. We know why the wall went up. It was meant to keep people out, especially poor, brown people who are intended to service the profits of capital.

And so that becomes hugely determinative, even physically, of our region.  Walls and checkpoints represent a third wave of colonization. You can understand the reality of immigration from that just that technocratic perspective or just that political perspective. But here it’s lived on a completely different historical and visceral register. As people of faith, what do we bring to the equation? Today, more people than ever migrating on the move, than ever before.  We started counting around the Second World War.

As of today, there are 100 million, we’ve never had 100 million people, vulnerable people, on the move. There are a lot of people who move about the world for many reasons, right? To study, for marriage. If you counted all those people, all the people who are on the move throughout the world for any reason, they’d be about the third largest country in the world.

If you if you shrink that down to the vulnerable population, it would be about 20th largest country in the world. Half of those people are children. And today, we just don’t have the even the vocabulary to describe those realities. We talk about refugees, asylum seekers, we talk about today climate-displaced persons, internally displaced persons, trapped persons, etc.. And we as a world community, nevermind a national community, but as a world community, we just don’t have the architecture to get our hands around this reality. The architecture is antiquated even the asylum system that was set up in the aftermath of the Second World War, to make sure that that certain things never happened, again, is anachronistic. And it doesn’t respond to the realities that we have today.

I think the principal thing, it may sound trite, but the principal thing that we can offer as humans, as people of faith, is to see people’s human dignity first, before they’re any of those things, any of those labels. More and more, I don’t even like to use the word migrant, because even “migrant” implies a certain othering.  It’s like a defining you based on your experience of being a vulnerable person. I don’t like to use that word. Because it’s limiting. 

We see that people have a human dignity, above and transcendent of any entity, national identity, or passport status, or refugee definition. This has to be at the center. And that begins to explode all these things that enable that triple colonization, we begin to just kind of blow all that ideology, blow all that hate up, once we begin to pierce through all that. And I think that’s the most important thing that we can do, and we need to put it into practice. I’ll stop there because I feel like I’m talking a lot.