Imaginaries and Migration

Article excerpt

Mexico's northern border cities are urban agglomerations constructed by successive waves of migration during the course of the twentieth century, growth that continues apace in the twenty-first. Their terrains reflect the pulsing histories of rapid urbanization resulting from recent cycles of growth. What follows are excerpts drawn from interviews we conducted with U.S.-Mexico border residents for a project designed to investigate how people see themselves in terms of this dynamic built environment. It includes our own interpretations of and reflections on images of border cities as well. Our purpose here is to decipher some of the codes that arise in local imaginaries, the particular qualities that locals aspire to as they inhabit this borderlands space. (1) The desires and yearnings registered in these interviews are also accompanied by explicit or implicit dislike. They are fragmentary assertions: contradictory visions and capricious or conventional perspectives that challenge rigid normative criteria. But they are also the substrate of a quotidian reality that is constantly being reconstructed.

Researching this reality requires studying the imaginaries that underlie people's practices, because these imaginaries reveal values, fears, suspicions, and ideals. Such practices are, furthermore, rendered concrete in material expressions of the city's dynamics. For this study, we use as common threads the notions of memory city, encounter city, and fictitious city proposed by Marc Auge in El viaje imposible (1998). These common threads are, within the study of Mexico's northern border cities, a counterpoint to people's own ideas of territorial construction: the transitory city, the passing-through city, and the defensive-city, constructions that relate to the spatial ambits of home, neighborhood, and the entire urban area. The latter become directly interwoven into people's narratives of place, which were elicited in semi-structured interviews with residents.

Auge's point of departure is to study city form in conjunction with its imaginary form, to substantiate people's need for a social utopia alongside the urban imaginary and the city. The city and its imaginaries are thus interdependent. Auge draws from literature, poetry, and, above all, novels that bring together dreams and expectations. With these source materials, he seeks to unmask and liberate the imaginary from the fiction and artifice that reinforce discourses and practices that tend to asphyxiate the city.


For Auge the memory city is immediately anchored in the testimony of architecture and landmarks that reflect concrete expressions of different moments lived by the local society. It is also the urban fabric of many different paths taken; individual and collective memories remain in relation to people's everyday trajectories. These paths are reflected in the particular places people inhabit and their life experiences, and they ultimately become part of collective memory. Glimmers of modernity's ideals, however, emerge in reference to the singular occurrences of distant and ancient European cities, ideals that have left their stamp upon the buildings of the past.

The historic language of construction in the border region makes explicit these connections and signs of durability that have, over time, given permanency to the territory. The language is rather commonplace, and one way to read these permanencies is through the vocabulary of territorial composition common to engineers: "it is precisely this self-evident verification that requires and justifies the different scales of analysis of disciplinary fields and regions of the respective sciences that investigate reality and that connect particular ones within others, like Russian dolls, moving through ... different levels, in increasing order, [from] architecture (the home), to urbanism (the city), geography (the region), to ecology (the environment), and economy (globality)" (Garcia-Bellido, 2002: 279). …