Up Against the Wall

The trauma of living in a border land

Graffitti on the Berlin Wall. Photo by Serhat Beyazkaya on Unsplash

In a slender, but provocative, new book, Jessica Wapner considers how living up against a border wall creates stress,  fear, mistrust and a host of serious health conditions.  In Wall Disease (October 2020, The Experiment) she shows why residents of border regions suffer more from poverty,  trauma and early childhood development issues, and may even experience a subtle reshaping of the brain—in particular, the area that contains our compass for survival. 

“Governments typically justify border walls as a necessary measure for preventing illegal immigration, terrorism, or drug smuggling—or a combination of the three,” she says.  “There is little to no evidence that any border wall in the world accomplishes these feats. There is mounting evidence, however, that they cause harm.”

East Germans living close to the Berlin Wall named this Maurenkrankheit, or wall disease, and referred to it as “a sense of being locked up and of being isolated from friends and family.”  Sociologists have noted that more severe affects include psychosis, schizophrenia, alcoholism, anger, despondency, dejection and suicide. Wapner found these same conditions at the border between the U.S. and Mexico, India and Pakistan, Israeli and Palestinian settlements.  And right now, she says, the world is border-crazed.

Climate change, Wapner notes, is likely to heighten tensions between people on opposite sides of border walls, while COVID-19 has resulted in a tightening of borders worldwide. Border walls are here to stay and will likely become even more prominent geopolitical features in years to come.  As geographer Gerard Toal puts it, “We are entering a severe crisis” that will  change “the very nature of human settlement on Earth.”   

In an early portion of the book, Wapner zeroes in on the border between the US and Mexico—one that arose from “a hungry vision of continent wide expansion, the belief that the land and its resources can be owned.” In addition, there’s a kind of creeping paranoia in border towns, where residents, many of whom have been working farms for generations, are being displaced and are no longer considered citizens. The wall, Wapner insists, isn’t a static thing.  It’s a stealthy carnivore, consuming our compassion, our humanity, and our sense of community.

“Most of us are unaware of the extent to which we carry the artificial construction of national borders in our minds,” she warns,  “and how they shape the way we think about the world and our place within it.   Which is to say maybe we all have a bit of wall disease.”

In February, 1848 President James Polk sent Nicholas Trist to meet Mexican diplomats in Villa de Guadalupe Hidalgo and to end the war with Mexico. Wapner tells us that Trist had some misgivings about his mission: 

“The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo granted the United States about half of the territory belonging to Mexico. The land amounted to more than 525,000 square miles—including most or all of present day Arizona, California, Western Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico Texas and Utah—enabling the US to just about fully realize its vision of expanding across the continent.

“According to Trist’s wife Virginia, a granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, just as Trist was about to put pen to paper, Don Bernardo Couto, a Mexican signer, said to him, ‘this must be a proud moment for you no less proud than it is humiliating for us.’ Trist replied, ‘We are making peace, let that be our only thought.'”

Years later, Trist confessed to his wife: “Could those Mexicans have seen into my heart at that moment, they would have known that my feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than theirs could be as Mexicans, for though it would not have done for me to say so there, that was a thing for every right-minded American to be ashamed of.’”

After the treaty, a loose pile of rocks marked the border and the region was casually patrolled until the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924, limiting the number of people who could legally enter the U.S.  Wapner notes that the militarization of the border began during the Clinton administration, in the 1990s, and escalated after 9/11, when Border Patrol became part of Homeland Security. 

Today the U.S. government currently spends $4.7 million on Border Patrol every year and employs more than 23,000 agents. The result is a rupture of local traditions,  a rending of friendships and families.

In 2008, Reverend John Fanestil and Pastor Guillermo Navarrette offered joint communion services across the California-Tijuana border in an area known as Friendship Park.  “At that time the slots in the border fence were far enough apart that people could fit their hands in between them,” Wapner reports. “Reverend Fanestil would dip bread in a cup of red wine and pass pieces of it through the fence into Mexico so that worshippers on both sides could eat from a single loaf.”

The U.S. closed its side of Friendship Park soon after this communion was offered. As Wapner notes, Customs and Border Protection now prohibit passing anything through the wall. 

Yolanda Varona who attends mass at the border church, La Iglesia Fronteriza on the Tijuana side of Friendship Park, was separated from her children when she was deported in 2010. Now she prays for an end to the wall which has caused “separation, death, and a lot of sadness.”  

Photo by Amit Lahav on Unsplash

In March 2020, Wapner travelled to Texas—just before  the U.S. halted nonessential travel due to the coronavirus.  She wanted to speak with the locals and find out how the controversial border wall was impacting their daily lives. In Mission, about an hour from Brownsville, she met with cousins Rinaldo, Anzaldua and Jose Alfredo Cavazos. Their family owns about 70 acres of farm land along the Rio Grande. The U.S. government wants to build a wall there, extending their 650-mile border along the northern edge of Mexico.

In the summer of 2018, the U.S. requested “right of entry” for a year and offered a stipend of  $100.  Later, this was upped to $450. The U.S. government has since offered about $400,000 for six acres of  property.  So far, the Cavazos family has refused.  

 Wapner recounts an eerie scene, as she drove with Jose and his sister Eloisa to their property:  “A border guard sat inside a government vehicle a few feet from us, parked under a wooden canopy.  A surveillance tower rose 20 feet in the air on top of a crane staked into the ground. And beyond the tower, a long roll of steel poles stretched into the distance, parallel to the river, at the edge of a 6,000-acre sugar cane farm.”

Before the U.S. Mexican border was turned into a militarized zone, this was where the Cavazos children were taught to work by their enterprising grandmother.  The cousins fished with bamboo poles and cared for the cows the family raised for meat.  Jose, 71, relies on a wheelchair, and his sister Eloisa, 69,  is partially deaf; they are just able to get by on the income from the weekend cabins on their property near the Rio Grande, but they have no thoughts of selling out. 

When the Spanish settled the area in the 1750s, the King of Spain granted 600,000 acres to  Jose Narciso Cavazos.  “It’s not the money,”  Anzaldua told Wapner. “It’s about our love for the land.” 

Borders, Wapner shows, have a way of turning into barren and forbidding places. And walls instill more fear than safety.  

Wall Disease is a sobering and stunning  read at a time when countries all around the world are building fences.   

Walls reflect a troubling division in the human psyche, a need to view the world in terms of Us vs. Them, projecting our terror and anxiety onto others. Whenever we think that way, the world becomes more dangerous.                            

—Valerie Andrews, Editor

photo by Meredith Heuer

Jessica Wapner is a journalist and former science editor at Newsweek. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker , The New York Times, Wired, Discover, Scientific American and The Atlantic. 

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