Beyond the Border, Past the Numbers

The Mexico-U.S. Border through the Lens of a Screenwriter, a Lecture

by Guillermo Arriaga

James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Houston, Texas, November 12, 2009

Through novels and screenplays such as The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Babel(2006), and The Burning Plain (2009), Guillermo Arriaga reminds us that the border between Mexico and the United States is filled with stories. There are stories of love and friendship, of violence and cruelty, of hope and desire, and of redemption and criminality. It is easy to lose track of the humanity of these stories when the analysis of border reality is done from afar, distant, and in the aggregate.

While in Houston, as a guest of the Cinema Arts Film Festival, Arriaga addressed1 an audience at the Baker Institute and spoke of what the U.S.-Mexican border means to him. Tall and articulate, Arriaga is, as he himself pointed out, not the person you would expect from watching his films. He is not dark and moody; his comments are usually given with a smile and accompanied by a touching memory.

Growing up in Mexico City, what first attracted Arriaga to northern Mexico was his love for hunting. According to him, the best hunting in Mexico is done in the north, and when a person has limited resources, he must hunt in the company and with the guidance of the locals. It was through his poor northern rancher friends that Arriaga learned what life along the border was like. Although his first border crossing was at the age of eight, from Tijuana to Disneyland, it is Arriaga’s second experience (at age twelve) that he remembers more clearly: the complete amazement of being able to have one foot in Mexico and one in the United States.

In the 1970s, he recalled, everything in the border towns was locally owned, mom-and-pop stores. The economic changes that took place during the 1980s altered the landscape, setting the foundation for a market panorama now dominated by chain stores. Today, every pharmacy, hotel and restaurant is part of a chain. There is even a street in New Mexico called Wal-Mart. The people who once owned their own businesses are now employees of these chain stores.

Arriaga described the impact these mutations brought about in Mexico by telling stories of some of his hunting friends, the generous and poor ranchers, the Estrada brothers: Melquiades, Lucio and Pedro. This family loved the place where they grew up, in the southern part of the central-eastern state of Tamaulipas, but the changes made it impossible for them to continue making a living. Thus, at some point in their lives, all three brothers have been illegal aliens in the United States.

Arriaga mentioned that he understands the fear that some Americans feel of suddenly finding themselves surrounded by people who do not speak the same language and those who introduce a different cultural and historical backgrounds to everyday life. Ironically though, it was the push to open borders and economies by first world countries (namely the U.S.) that paved the way for the movement of people across border. Thus, Arriaga believes that the reality of immigration cannot be looked at in terms of right or wrong. Instead, it must be seen as a fact of life, a reality in which many human beings live in or are trapped by, including his friends. Melquiades, for example, had to leave his family and home to work in a place where he does not speak the language. And just like the Americans, these Mexicans are equally frightened.

Arriaga also points out that many academic studies of the border only focus on statistics, like the number of people crossing or the remittances being sent from the U.S. back home to Mexico, but he playfully reminds us that immigration has a human element One important factor in moving away from your family, for instance, as his friends experienced, is jealousy. Immigrants, mostly men, leave their families and wives behind, sending money back periodically. In the back of their minds there is always the underlying doubt that their wives may be cheating on them, with their money! The wife, in the meantime, is constantly worried that her husband might find an American lover and never return. This is the stuff of life that statistics can neither capture nor convey.

In short, Arriaga drives home the point that immigration is fundamentally a human situation. The border is more than just stories of drugs and immigration. Melquiades did not want to spend nine years in the United States away from his family. Yet given current immigration laws he was forced to do just that. In closing, Arriaga tells the story of going to a bar in a small border town close to El Paso after a screening of one of his films. The bar is owned by an American woman and her Mexican husband. For one hour they play country music and for the next, ranchera. And the patrons, men and women from Mexico and the United States alike, dance and meet and begin their own border love stories.


November 23, 2009

frontispiece/illustration by Sarah D. Schulman

1. Guillermo Arriaga’s address is available for viewing online at

Immigration, Mexico