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Mexican border an imaginary line?

By Marcela Davison Aviles, Special to CNN
  • Marcela Davison Aviles says killings in Mexico resonate as immigration debate renews
  • She says couple's baby is emblem of longtime mingling of U.S./Mexico culture
  • Knowledge of countries' shared histories should reframe immigration debate, she says
  • We must embrace mixed identities, she says, and live anthem: Out of many, one

Editor's note: Marcela Davison Aviles is president and CEO of the nonprofit Mexican Heritage Corporation, which presents cultural and education events celebrating Mexico's culture and heritage. She is also the executive producer of the annual San Jose Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival.

San Jose, California (CNN) -- Like many people, I have been following the Obama administration's preparation for the renewed debate on immigration reform in Congress, a debate that largely concerns Mexicans living in the U.S. So when I read the tragic news about the murder of American consulate workers in Ciudad Juarez, there was an added resonance.

In one instance, a murdered couple's baby -- the product of a Mexican-born mother and an American-born father -- was left in the back seat of the victims' car, a living emblem of the long mingling of heritage and conflict at the Mexico/U.S. border. Communities on both sides of the line cry for this child and grieve for the families, as we have done for generations.

At the same time the authorities in Washington and Mexico City must step up their cooperative military and police actions to ensure the safety of citizens on the border, I fear that the tragedy will renew the simmering "us vs. them" mentality with the American public.

And yet as we approach immigration reform, we should recognize more than ever that this is a moment involving critical decisions relating to our sense of identity and unity as a nation. Rather than finding new divides, the times require an affirmation of our origins.

As the child left behind in this horrible tragedy will find a new embrace, perhaps with extended family, so should our shared heritage and cultures find embrace and not be olividado, discarded as a missing and forgotten piece of the dialogue between the U.S. and Mexico on the issues that concern us.

Taking a step back and looking at the situation with a bit of cultural and historical perspective could help frame a new way forward. Much has been written about our shared lots: the economics, impact of NAFTA, increase in drug traffic, demographics, social justice and post-September 11 national security issues. Crucially missing from the current debate is this acknowledgment of our common Mexican and American cultural heritage. It's as if, on this issue, the world began on September 11.

In fact, it is not an accident that popular culture has achieved what immigration policy makers have not: full integration of Latino culture within the American dream through television programs and films; fiestas in places like Chicago, Illinois, and Tucson, Arizona; the crossover success of music; and the ready availability of goods, food and services con sabor Latino.

In the hearts and minds of many on the border (U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement notwithstanding), there is no border. The psychology of the frontier is characterized by what Mexicans might call a Mestizo reality, a community demarcated by a line but which actually is a hybrid territory.

The couple murdered in Ciudad Juarez is an example: one from Mexico, the other from El Paso, Texas. In the words of Octavio Paz, how do we reconcile a coexistence once characterized as a "relationship of a mutual and stubborn deceit, usually involuntary, though not always so"? (And, how do we do it in the midst of a brutal drug war?)

Recalling our heritage is one way. The origins of the present situation can be traced to the Mexican-American War, which began in 1846 and was carried out in the context of the long-running debate over slavery.

In speeches to Congress in 1847-48, Rep. Abraham Lincoln recognized the Mexican war for what it was: an attempt to resolve the growing debate over free vs. slave territories, and the nation's identity as an industrial- vs. agricultural-based economy, by gaining access to territory that could be apportioned to appease both sides.

In 1846, the border was much farther north, and Mexico's territory included many of the present-day's southwestern states. To many people in the region today, especially those with family histories dating generations, it's not the people who moved; the border did.

When I read opinions proclaiming national security as justification for keeping "them" out, my first reaction is to remember that in September 1847, the Americans made it all the way "to the halls of Montezuma." There, on the pretext of defending Mexico's "invasion" of her own territory, U.S. soldiers defeated a band of young cadets at Chapultepec and occupied Mexico City.

The end game was the ceding of a major portion of Mexico's territory to the U.S. while Americans continued to argue over which new states would be slave or free. Ulysses S. Grant put it in perspective when he said: "The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times."

In 2010, it's enlightening to read Lincoln's 1848 speech on the Mexican War. (How familiar his sentiments are today!) Many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are deeply conscious of the blood of these border wars and the pain of our "inconvenient" history.

Can the memory of our heritage and history serve today to alleviate the current tension on the subject of immigration? We must not allow our shared culture to be another victim -- to become olividado. Instead, we must claim our heritage, our mixed identities, and call upon ourselves to recover the dream of our anthem: Out of many, one.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marcela Davison Aviles