Authors: José Orduña
Still, Octavio manages to do exactly this, be happy, not all the time, and certainly not with the graces of the United States, but in spite of them. On the Internet, he has as many friends from home as he does from this place, and although his English isn't the best, he writes to people in it, and they seem to manage some understanding. He congratulates friends when they post wedding pictures and snapshots of their newborns wrapped in hospital sheets, he expresses discontent in the comment sections of news articles, and he links to popular songs he's into. Every day, he encounters US-born individuals, some of whom probably know he's undocumented, and, at least in their daily interactions, they don't seem to care, or they don't want to know, and they leave him alone, greet him warmly, and leave him tips. He says there's a regular at the bar where he works, an old Korean War vet who tells him a dirty joke in English every time he's there. More often than not people leave him alone, and he's gotten used to the rhythm of life here. Sometimes he says he even feels comfortable until something reminds him that his reality has very sharp edges.
In writing about threat in our contemporary American milieu, Canadian philosopher and social theorist Brian Massumi says, “We live in times when what has not happened qualifies as front-page news.” The specific
that exists in the media and in the minds of an increasing number of people around the globe is distilled in a poster I've seen in which a US soldier advances while pointing his M16. Behind him is a map of the United States, a waving US flag, a man wearing a turban holding an AK-47,
and brown bodies hopping a wrought-iron fence. The tagline: “One war, two fronts.”
Octavio and I have been made representations of what Massumi calls the “self-renewing menace potential.” We are the “future reality of threat,” the threat that America will not remain American, and what this really means is the possibility that the United States will not remain white and English-language-dominated. And who is scared of that?
Octavio and I might also be reminders of the permeability of all boundaries, of the limits of law enforcement, of a waning power, of the inherent violence that guarantees the idea of citizenship. Liberal democratic states are supposed to hold true that all people, by virtue of being human, have certain universal rights, and that these things called rights do not need to be earned, because we always already have them. Simultaneously we're also always subject to a number of bodies of law, depending on the governing structures in which we live. But people like Octavio and to a lesser extent meâpeople who live within the territory of one state but aren't citizens of that stateâare somehow moved into a zone in which the universality of rights does not reach us. Rather than meaning we are ignored or unbound by law, we exist with disproportionate amounts of law construed only as restriction, exclusion, deprivation, and punishment.
Octavio is the exclusion, and even though he's here, he isn't. There is an entire body of law to ensure he is never fully here.
When I check my flip phone for the time, I have to close one eye to read the digital numbers. It's three seventeen in the morning, and the canister of mezcal has gotten us both very drunk.
“O, O, O, cabrÃ³n! Se me olvidÃ³ decirte.”
Octavio slurs his words a bit, and his eyes have that too-relaxed
slant. He tells me he was driving home after picking up his wife from work when he was pulled over for making a U-turn.
“Y me dejÃ³ ir.”
“Te dejÃ³ ir? AsÃ nada mÃ¡s?”
I don't know if he fully appreciates how many people have been deported after minor traffic violations, how close he came to another starting over after he'd just started getting over the previous one, or how he narrowly escaped being permanently barred from the United States. If it had been a different police officer, or maybe the same one in a different mood a minute or two before or after, it might have been the boot. But when the cop asked why he'd pulled a U-turn, he told him in all earnestness that he had an emergency. When the cop asked him what the emergency was, he told him it was his wife, that she was hungry. He said the cop chuckled a little and then scolded him, saying that wasn't an emergency, to which he'd replied, “Sir, you should see my wife.” Then the cop lost it and let him off with a warning.
Discipline and Punish
, Michel Foucault poses Jeremy Bentham's model prison as the emergent paradigm of state power:
Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary.
Octavio raises his snifter. The last bit of mezcal swirls up the side and almost catches air.
“Let's go for a drink!” he yells.
For better or worse, he has yet to become “the principle of his own subjection,” and sometimes he seems to fully let
go of giving a fuck. He lived through a banking crisis, the peso crisis, urbanization, and so-called structural adjustment. Now he's here. When he was a kid he and his family lived on a plot of land they owned without a deed, something that used to be common. But each season, the same amount of work made them less able to live, until they had to abandon their plot and move to an unincorporated area outside the closest city. He lived in a cinderblock and concrete structure he and his brother built until things became unlivable there too. He says he couldn't just stay there and wait to die, so he decided to go north like many of the other men had. He knew a group of brothers who were planning to go to New York. He asked if he could join their group. They said yes.
It's my second time here in Des Moines, and it's disconcerting that the Neal Smith Federal Building is becoming familiar. Time and again I catch myself staring into the black granite walls where my reflection becomes a vague outlineâno expression, no features, only a hollow black figure that shares my shape and follows me through the silence and sterility of these empty halls.
“How can I help you?”
My appointment is several floors up this time. A terse young woman greets me as I push through two glass doors that open into a small reception area. Posted behind her is an armed guard who silently shifts his weight from foot to foot, his hands fixed on his hips, fingertips floating centimeters from his handcuffs and gun. The office is reminiscent of a first-class airline lounge, where the layout is designed to keep those on the outside from even seeing inside.
She points to a clipboard on the counter and asks for proof that I'm allowed to be there. The guard looks like he's in his mid-fifties but has round, boyish features, and he's staring at me with his hands on his belt. I open my shoulder bag with slow, deliberate movements. His deep green uniform in such close proximity references former abuses, like the “random” nature of frequent stops and the feeling of
wide, forceful hands digging through your pockets. It signifies the volatile rhythm of Maglites tapping in the palms of uniformed men, the threat that at any moment you could be placed in the back of a cop car, like you'd seen done to your friend, driven to a place where no one would see or no one would care to see, only to be released a few hours later, bruised and bleeding, with a verbal warning. His uniform dredges the face of a fourteen-year-old as he's pulled away in a backseat cage, his eyes holding an absolute zero only achievable after living through something like war.
My upper lip starts to sweat under my moustache. I can feel my entire body become damp, and I sense every droplet of perspiration that gathers enough mass to drip down my spine. Minuscule movements become foreign, almost as though they're on slight delay, as if it isn't me making them. We both know everything in my possession has already been X-rayed, and I've just been made to walk through a metal detector downstairs. He knows a security wand has been run over the surface of my body, but he gazes blackly for too long anyway. I telegraph everything I do.
His face is like an impermeable wall atop his green uniform. I can't detect any hint of expression. I try but can't tell if he's making calculations or if he's staring elsewhereânowhereâlobotomized by long stretches of idle time. I wonder if he daydreams scenarios, like I do, in which he becomes a hero, and if his involve discharging his weapon since he carries one.
The black metal butt of his handgun peaks from the holster, and I recall an occasion when a friend yelled at me for picking up his rifle, saying that his weapon was an instrument of death, that when he picked it up he became a killer, whether he killed something or not because everyone who possesses a firearm has on some level made the decision they are willing to kill. I read somewhere that homicidal ideation is incredibly common among the general population, but even before I knew this I was never alarmed when
visions that ended in me killing someone would materialize rather comprehensively in my mind. These scenarios usually crept up near the edge of train platforms and were tinged with something of an uncanny sensation because they felt as though they were coming from somewhere beyond my will, making the acts seems inevitable and, in a strange way, already done. On the rare occasion I'm in very close proximity to someone wearing a gun, I imagine grabbing it. I keep my hands at my side.
Judging others' apprehension is never easy. He might be looking past me, past everything. His blond eyebrows are flat, his mouth flat. His eyes are unmoving pools of pale blue. It wouldn't matter if he were someone different, someone indifferent, because in his uniform he's the operator of an institutional function. He may not know it, but he's guarding a kind of property called citizenship. His flat demeanor somehow feels aggressive to me. His unmoving eyes aren't looking at me, but I can feel them gazing nonetheless. His stillness is unreadable.
The thoughts, predilections, and motivations of the person inside the guard are in many ways irrelevant. I think some jobs are ones a moral person can't do, and this may be one of them, even though he's just sitting here. Gazing at his hip, at the one metal clasp that catches the neon office light and keeps his gun in place, I understand him to be an embodied reference to state violence, the same way gang colors signal not only allegiance but former violence committed by one's gang.
Maybe this is where the real power is most evident, in this stillness, in this inaction that nevertheless enforces the boundaries of the state. The power is doubled in my recognition of the authority he signals, in
internalization of the power he represents,
feeling that his eyes are upon me,
sitting here thinking about him sitting there. So I approach the desk slowly, move my hands slowly, sliding my summons from between the pages of a notebook, and carefully placing the single sheet of paper on the counter.
Inside the large, nearly empty waiting room a coupleâa young kid who looks Mexican and a young white woman with big hoop earrings and meticulously gelled baby hair on her foreheadâlean toward their lawyer, a young white man in an ill-fitting suit the color of fog. The gray washes him out, blends into his pale complexion, making him look like an overexposed photograph, one in which you can't see anyone's facial features but still know who they are. The lawyer leans forward awkwardly, like he's attempting to crease his suit's fabric as little as possible or like he hasn't become comfortable wearing it yet. He whispers something to his young clients, which I can't hear. The three of them sit facing me a few rows away, so I try to read the counsel's lips. It's uselessâhe's a fast talker and his mouth barely moves. Mostly silent, the clients periodically exchange bewildered looks. One peculiar word does seem to be repeated. Each time it's spoken it causes the couple to sink closer toward each other. The word seems to start with a hard “C,” followed immediately by an “R” that shapes the counsel's mouth into a tense pucker, then two rapid flashes of his slightly yellowed teeth. After the last repetition, his young, brown-skinned client, who had already been looking toward the floor, runs his hands hard on the back of his buzz cut. Because I'm here for my civics interview, and because the couple is here with their lawyer, it dawns on me that they might be here for a Stokes interview, the interview that comes after a couple applying for immigration relief based on marriage fails to convince an official during their first interview that their relationship is “genuine.” Next to him, his wife, who sometimes looks nineteen and other times about twelve, delicately brings her hand just above his shoulder blades. She hesitates before placing it on his back, and in that moment the kid sinks into himself. She moves it gently in small circles.
Counsel repeats the word, which I finally make out:
, I mouth, wondering why this lawyer would discuss Christmas on a summer day with his clients, and why it seemed so unsettling to them. Outside, the harsh midday sun amplifies itself on the mirrored exterior of the adjacent high-rise. It cuts through a large window behind them that frames their bodies. For a moment they're still, and they look like posed figures in a Renaissance painting. I find myself scanning them for objects of significance. A tiny spectrum glints from a set stone on the ring finger of the young woman's left hand. The baby-faced attorney clutches a black leather folio, as if for balance. A US flag hangs limp in the corner without the possibility of flight in the windless room. The reflection of an armed guard hovers ghostlike and watching. Sunk in the middle is the figure of a sullen manâa dark, heavy spot that affects everything around itâhis brown skin making him the primary object of this scene.