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Reporting on a myth: A conversation with border journalist Michelle García

Courtesy of Michelle García

The annual Agave Festival returns to Marfa this weekend, bringing renowned scholars and artists throughout the borderlands to Far West Texas. Among them this year is journalist and filmmaker Michelle García, whose essays, documentaries, and reporting have focused on the U.S.-Mexico border over much of the last two decades. Her forthcoming book is about the mythology of the border.

Marfa Public Radio recently spoke with García about that project, the landscape of the Big Bend, and the role of a journalist on the border. You can hear the full conversation above.

Highlights from the conversation

On the mythologies of the U.S.-Mexico border

García grew up in South Texas, and in recent years she’s reported on everything from Beto O’Rourke’s political campaigns, to the influx of migrants arriving in Del Rio, to the street dogs of Ciudad Juárez. But when she writes about “the border,” García said, she means more than the geographic region. She’s interested in what she calls “border theater,” and the role it plays in the American imagination.

“So often, the U.S.-Mexico border is sort of rendered as this remote outpost that is of interest, really, to smugglers of all sorts, or immigrants who are trying to enter. And what gets lost is its function for acting out or enacting certain histories, mythologies, about frontier justice, frontier violence,” she said.

Throughout its history, she said, the border has been “a place where frustrations and anxieties about what is happening within the country are expressed.”

In her work, García said, she asks, “What are the mythologies and the paradigms that get constructed at the border that come from those historic roots, that guide policies, that guide politics and debate?”

On what it means to report on a myth

García’s current book project probes those questions by asking people to reconsider their underlying assumptions about the border.

“Why is it, for example, in 2014, when there were so many unaccompanied children from Central America arriving on the U.S.- Mexico border into South Texas, that the response was, ‘Let's send in troopers,’ and not “Let’s send in the Red Cross’?” she said. “If something's happening at the border, it's barbed wire and troopers, not humanitarian workers, social workers, you know, somebody carrying a teddy bear. And those come from both mythologies, but also deeply held beliefs about histories, and often distorted interpretations of those histories.”

Turning a critical eye to our own beliefs, García said, can turn the border into a “site of freedom.”

“You create real options for yourself, as an individual and as a country, when you understand what the stories are that shape your choices. And you realize that you have other choices. But you first have to understand the walls that are already confining you,” she said.

On the border landscape of the Big Bend

Among border regions, the Big Bend often appears to be something of an outlier. There’s no wall here, and the region sees much less migration than most other parts of the border. The same evocative desert landscapes that draw tourists to the area can deter migrants, who opt not to make the dangerous trek across rugged terrain.

In considering the region’s mythos, though, García questions the logic behind the idea that an empty landscape is a beautiful one.

“The narrative around migration has so contaminated the public sphere that the mere presence of people migrating is now synonymous with something unseemly and ugly — even if it's happening at the port of entry, even when people are, quote, unquote, following the rules,” she said.

On García’s philosophy of border journalism

In the process of writing her book, García said, she’s moved away from the idea that journalism should be “humanizing.”

“I began to realize that my job was to give shape to the dehumanizing forces, that my job was to pull out of the shadows that gaze, that perspective, not to live in response to it,” she said.

That process involved rethinking the questions she asks of migrants at the border — steering away from the ones she says immigration officials might have (“Why are you here? Where did you come from? Why did you leave?”) to ones that encourage people to describe their own experiences and curiosities.

In doing so, she hopes journalists can avoid “caging people within an experience based on our own perceptions,” she said.

“And like they say in Spanish, ‘Cada cabeza es un mundo.’ Every head is a world. Right? So let's get inside those worlds. That, I think, is our job. And through it, our borders, horizons expand.”

Michelle García will be presenting her work at 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 3, at the Crowley Theater in Marfa. A full schedule for Agave Festival Marfa is available here.

Annie Rosenthal is Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter and a Report for America corps member.