Once I spent almost $100 to look at art. I drove around Los Angeles in a borrowed car with a graduate student’s stipend, as parking and admissions fees quickly accrued. I came to the museum with no particular agenda, as the show I’d been told to see was already over. The privilege of my situation did not fail to impress itself upon me, as someone with the time and money required for such an endeavor. After failing to broker a discount and shelling out $25 for a ticket, a name catches my eye: Alejandro Iñárritu, the Mexican director of Amores Perros, Birdman, and The Revenant. He has a piece running which costs even more to see and is sold-out, though as soon as I learn of a cancellation from one of the gallery attendants I scurry back to the box office to exchange capital for culture.
The exhibition is called Carne y Arena, flesh and sand. A placard explains Iñárritu made the piece in order to “allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts.” The first room is stainless steel and concrete, frigid after the Californian sun. In accordance with instructions in both English and Spanish, I take off my socks and shoes and place them in a small locker, then wait for the signal to continue. The room is modeled after las hieleras or “the freezers,” the refrigerated holding cells in which Border Patrol detains those apprehended while crossing the US-Mexico border, sometimes for days at a time. The floors are littered with discarded shoes and a backpack, which at first I think belong to other viewers but which I learn were harvested from the Sonoran Desert, the residue of those in search of better lives. After what seems like forever the room is filled with the red light and harsh ring of an alarm. It’s my turn. I enter the next room, square and dimly lit with an orangish glow. The sandy floor crunches beneath my feet. Two technicians await me. I’m outfitted with a backpack, a virtual reality headset, and headphones. I’m allowed to walk, not run, around the space, though if I get too close to the walls I’ll be “redirected” with a light tug. I’m ready.
A group trudges through shrubbery in the predawn desert, weighed down by baggage. They are young and old, male and female. The sound of labored breathing mingles with Spanish. One woman is pregnant. Another shushes a crying child. Yet another hobbles along with a broken ankle, assisted by a young girl. The journey they are undertaking is treacherous enough in perfect health and I cannot imagine what would drive someone so compromised to attempt it. A middle-aged man seems to be the guide or “coyote,” walking at the front with cell phone in hand. Before long a blast of air from the gallery’s HVAC vents make me look up, just as a helicopter spotlight pierces the darkness. Everyone scatters, desperately seeking cover. The gesture is futile—they have been spotted. SUVs materialize out of thin air, belching out officers, dogs, and guns as soon as they grind to a stop over loose gravel.
Chaos ensues. Indecipherable voices compete with one another in English and Spanish, relaying orders, pleas, and prayers. “Get on the ground now!” Strobe-like sirens illuminate the faces. The coyote responds in English to questions the officers ask in heavily accented Spanish. One suspiciously asks him why he knows English and he explains he’s a lawyer who was unjustly deported from his Californian home. The barrels of the rifles shift from man to woman as they force the immigrants to remove their shoes. The helicopter floods the sky above with its roar. A child whimpers with arms in the air. The officers are frisking, interrogating, and binding limbs with zip ties (apparently only citizens deserve the honor of handcuffs). I’m reminded of Montana rodeos during my youth in which cowboys compete to ascertain who can rope together three legs of a calf in the shortest amount of time, though the calves, unlike these humans, are quickly untied.
Then, there’s a dream sequence. The cast of characters is gone, replaced by two officers around a wooden table, one smoking the other lying on his back. The woman with the broken ankle is humming. Children look on while a ship magically rises out of the top of the table. It quickly overflows with passengers, who spill overboard before it eventually capsizes, dropping its human cargo into the table-ocean. Within one crisis along the US–Mexico border we catch glimmers of its cousin on the other side of the globe, as overburdened ships perilously traverse the Mediterranean Sea, heavy with refugees fleeing war-torn regions.
The scene abruptly snaps back and the immigrants are gone, leaving shoes and a backpack in their wake. An officer shouts, “Put your hands in the air” and I turn around but see no one—he’s talking to me. I involuntarily feel my hands rise and my knees go weak. Another snap and it’s daybreak. I’m alone and the horizon stretches into infinity in every direction, the only sound a faint breeze rustling the leaves of Joshua trees. I feel hands around my face as the technicians remove the headset. It’s over. I’m ushered into another darkened room where I can retrieve my socks and shoes from the other side of the locker. By this point I’m sobbing, thinking about my mother’s parents growing up without shoes in rural New Mexico, being told by classmates to go home and shower because their skin was dirty. I wonder how brutal crossing a line in the sand to come to this country was for my ancestors. I feel the weight of sacrifices I could never repay, love beyond understanding. Clear snot drips from the tip of my nose, landing on the floor in wet splats. I reach for a tissue from the box on the cold metal bench only to discover it’s a moist towelette, intended for the cleaning of feet rather than faces.
I exit into a black hallway punctuated with small cutouts revealing faces that glide slowly in and out of focus. As I stand before them, text gradually appears and disappears, relaying various experiences of the borderlands; a woman who worked tirelessly to bring her family over one by one, a teenager walking for days with feet covered in sores, an officer who can’t understand those who don’t feel compassion for the immigrants. The stories come not only from Mexico, but also Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. I slowly register that these are the individuals I had just virtually accompanied. In the guestbook I write, “I can’t stop crying.”
The hallway provides a depth of personal history that would otherwise be absent from Carne y Arena. Though we’re accustomed to think of all undocumented immigrants as coming from Mexico, our Californian lawyer illustrates the gnarled transnational realities structuring the lives of many on both sides of the border. The final hallway helps clear up some confusion that lingers from the piece, such as one man who was unable to communicate with the officers. His portrait informs me that at the time of his crossing he only spoke an indigenous language. He’s from Guatemala, where over 40% of the population belongs to a handful of Amerindian groups. People come to the border from a diverse range of backgrounds but this line in the sand obscures them all, transforming those on one side into “us” and those on the other into “them.”
The bonds that hold communities together are both political and familial. As many immigrants traverse political borders seeking the reunification of families or in search of better opportunities for their children, we witness a standoff between these two orders. This conflict is far from new, and has been with us since at least Ancient Greece. Greek citizens constantly left the private darkness of the household in order to emerge into the bright light of political life and from Homer to Aeschylus we hear about the struggles of trying to balance these two realms; Achilles refuses to obey Agamemnon but rages against the Trojans after the death of his beloved Patroclus, Agamemnon wrestles with having to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to summon the winds necessary to carry his fleet home, etc.
Perhaps none of these dramatizations are as poignant as Antigone by the Athenian tragedian Sophocles, wherein the eponymous character ultimately dies as a result of her elevation of family over politics. The daughter of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta, the name “Antigone” means “worthy of one’s parents,” perhaps appropriate for a woman who was the product of an unwitting incestuous union and whose own fate was similarly cursed. Prior to the beginning of the play, brothers Eteocles and Polyneices slay one another in a battle for the Theban throne. Creon, the freshly coronated king of Thebes, decrees that Eteocles will be given a proper burial whereas Polyneices will be publically shamed, his body left to worms and vultures.
The play opens with a secret meeting between Antigone and her sister Ismene, in which Antigone tries to convince Ismene to help bury Polyneices in defiance of Creon, a request Ismene refuses. Antigone is caught sprinkling dirt over Polyneices in a symbolic burial and while Haemon, her fiancé and Creon’s son, pleads for clemency, she is buried alive in a cave. Ismene tries to falsely confess in order to perish alongside her sister but Antigone will not have it. Though she is sorrowful, Antigone asserts that the laws of the gods must take precedence over those of men. Tiresias, the blind prophet, comes to inform Creon he has displeased the gods with his actions and warns him he will lose his own son if he refuses to relent. A chastened Creon decides to bury Polyneices and unbury Antigone, but Antigone has already hung herself. Creon arrives at the cave, greeted by a dead Antigone and a grieving Haemon, who fatally stabs himself after unsuccessfully attacking his father. Receiving news of her son’s demise, Queen Eurydice too commits suicide, leaving Creon King of Thebes, but at the price of both his child and his wife.
The conflict between the familial and the political is present from the first line of the play, wherein Antigone appeals to her “own flesh and blood—dear sister, dear Ismene.”1 Over and against Creon’s order, Antigone invokes sisterhood, which is enough to get Ismene to stay silent and to even be willing to die with her, but not enough for her to defy Creon. In her eyes, however, Antigone believes there to be a higher authority than Creon, that his edict did not have such force that he, “a mere mortal, could override the gods, the great unwritten, unshakable traditions. They are alive, not just today or yesterday: they live forever, from the first of time, and no one knows when they first saw the light.”2 Although Antigone doesn’t ignore political authority, she also believes in other authorities. By placing Creon’s decision within a broader context, Antigone demonstrates how the choice between obeying a king who only wears the crown out of historical accident and obeying the timeless gods isn’t a choice at all; there may indeed be two perspectives, but one is clearly wrong. Antigone concludes, “If my present actions strike you as foolish, let’s just say I’ve been accused of folly by a fool.”3
For Creon, his rule is absolute. While Antigone understands family as trumping politics, Creon argues Polyneices has forfeited his citizenship by opposing Thebes and hence ought to be treated no differently than an outright enemy: “Once an enemy, never a friend, not even after death.”4 In any normal context such a statement would be suspect, but in the tangled mess of civil war it borders on absurd; Creon could just as easily have dubbed Polyneices the patriot and Eteocles the rebel. We’re left with the unflattering picture of Creon as newly minted king, stubborn and insecure. Against Creon’s condemnation of Polyneices, Antigone simply replies, “I was born to join in love, not hate—that is my nature.”5
Though Creon is quite comfortable sentencing the petulant Antigone to death, the venerable Tiresias is more difficult to disregard. Tiresias echoes Antigone, “You, you have no business with the dead, nor do the gods above—this is violence you have forced upon the heavens.”6 Like Antigone, Tiresias recognizes Creon’s power but circumscribes it. Creon has no right to “have thrust to the world below a child sprung for the world above, ruthlessly lodged a living soul within the grave—then you’ve robbed the gods below the earth, keeping a dead body here in the bright air, unburied, unsung, unhallowed by the rites.”7 A king may be mighty, but cannot rewrite natural law. Antigone has as little business beneath the earth while alive as her brother has above the earth while dead. There are boundaries kings must respect, lest they mistake themselves for gods.
Though separated from us by many years and many miles, the Antigone couldn’t be timelier. The US–Mexico border essentially puts us in the same position as Antigone, forced to choose between the familial and the political, the former bringing people together and the latter driving them apart. Much like the rule of Creon, there’s nothing timeless about this border, this line in the sand. Many of the politicians who advocate for “secure borders” are likely the descendants of those who usurped their lands from indigenous peoples. What appeared to many settlers as Amerindians not making use of the land was in reality them living with it and sharing its bounty. Early on a seed was implanted in the consciousness of these colonialists, a seed that would grow until it reached the Pacific, a seed called “Manifest Destiny.”
An important moment in this expansionism was the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brokered a peace between the US and Mexico on February 2, 1848. Mexico and the US had long disputed territories between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers, which President Polk offered to purchase in 1845. The Mexican government declined and Polk responded by moving US troops deeper into this area, triggering the Thornton Affair, in which Mexican forces killed 12 US soldiers and captured 52 others. Polk interpreted the skirmish as an invasion and promptly requested that Congress declare war. The Mexican-American War lasted from 1846 to 1848 and concluded with the Mexican Cession. Representing 529,000 square miles, this annexation was the third largest territory acquisition in US history, forming the totality of California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave Mexican nationals living within the ceded territories the choice to relocate within the redrawn boundaries of Mexico or to receive US citizenship; over 90% chose the latter. Unfortunately, acceptance cannot be legislated and many Mexican-Americans went on to face de facto segregation by being stripped of their lands, shut out of electoral politics, and paid a fraction of the wages of their “native-born” peers. The popular Chicano slogan, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” might be a contemporary version of Antigone’s “I’ve been accused of folly by a fool.”
As the US government builds prototypes for a wall along its southern border, this country seems to prefer Creon’s willful ignorance to Antigone’s unwavering fidelity and we’re left to wonder why. Is it simply easier to acquiesce to power? One of the reasons Antigone has become such a popular figure in the Western imaginary is that she provides a courageous model of civil disobedience. The path is not an easy one, and for Antigone it culminates in death. The question remains, however, whether we can truly call our lives our own if we do not stand up for what we believe. For Antigone, yielding to Creon would require her to be someone other than who she is. Her commitments carried her to the limits of her reality, and in the end beyond them.
For the six and a half minutes of Carne y Arena, I wasn’t traveling with drug dealers, criminals, or rapists, but rather a group of Antigones, solemnly following their internal compasses, regardless of whether the indicated road was difficult, lonely, or even deadly. The desert that straddles the US–Mexico border will serve as a cemetery for many of these immigrants, and these sands could all-too-easily have become the graves of my own ancestors as well. As tensions at the border escalate, a peaceful resolution feels more distant than ever, and yet these miraculous Antigones risk death to make new homes in a hostile land.
When Ismene hisses to Antigone, “You’re in love with impossibility,” I can feel her frustration radiate off the page.8
Perhaps these immigrants, too, are in love with impossibility.
1 Sophocles, “Antigone,” in The Three Theban Plays, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 59.
2 Ibid., 82.
4 Ibid., 86.
6 Ibid., 115.
8 Ibid., 64.