Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"Mojado-Reverso": Illegal Immigration and Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"Mojado-Reverso": Illegal Immigration and Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy

Article excerpt

The 1990's, the decade in which Cormac McCarthy published his Border Trilogy, is recent enough history that it is hard for us to regard it as history. This explains in part why, as José Limón has noted, there has been little attempt to historicize the Border Trilogy in critical literature (199). According to Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Historicism incorporates "texts that are not by anyone's standard literary," seeking "hidden links between high cultural texts, apparently detached from any direct engagement with their immediate surroundings, and texts very much in and of their world, such as documents of social control or political subversion," in an effort to establish a more holistic conception of past culture (10). In dealing with a past culture as recent as the 1990's, such cultural analysis might have seemed superfluous five or ten years ago. But now that more than a decade intervenes between ourselves and the publication of Cities of the Plain, it may be easier to see how McCarthy's novels of the 1990's are a product of, and a commentary upon, the time during which they were written.

Indeed, McCarthy's novels themselves make frequent mention of one particular kind of non-literary text: the news in newspapers or radio broadcasts. News comes to the fore as a major theme in Cities of the Plain and again in No Country for Old Men. McCarthy portrays news as an almost malevolent force, which his characters despise, but from which they cannot free themselves. Old Mr. Johnson testily switches off the radio news, saying, "I dont know why I listen to it. It's a ugly habit and I wish I could get broke of it but I think I just get worse" (COTP 61). Billy holds a newspaper as he delivers the bad news to John Grady that Eduardo is unwilling to bargain for Magdalena (COTP 136). Sheriff Bell's newspaper has no shortage of sordid stories. Though he reads it dedicatedly, his feelings toward it are profoundly ambivalent: "I read the paper ever morning. Mostly I suppose just to try and figure out what might be headed this way. Not that I've done all that good a job at headin it off....My wife wont read the papers no more. She's probably right" (NCFOM 40).

One particular subject that gained special prominence in news and radio during the 90's, particularly in McCarthy's then home state of Texas, was immigration policy and the problem of illegal immigration. Legislation under Reagan in 1986 and again under Bush in 1990 attempted to curb illegal immigration by increasing border security, along with various other measures (Becker 5). In 1994, the NAFTA treaty signed by the United States and Mexico gave hope for improved economic relations between the two countries (6). At the same time, new strategies for local enforcement along the border at El Paso were put into place by Sector Chief Silvestre Reyes. The program, known as "Operation Hold the Line," rather than attempt to corral illegal aliens and deport them, focused instead on deterring illegal entry in the first place, and was so successful that it became the model for national INS policy. The preventative measures of "Operation Hold the Line," though successful in their intentions, had the unintended consequence of increasing the number of migrants who died in the desert attempting to cross in less populated areas (7). If McCarthy, like his characters, read the newspapers, he would have encountered many stories about the tensions surrounding the issue of illegal immigration, especially because of his residency in El Paso. According to a Newsbank.com online search, the El Paso Times carried sixty-three stories concerning illegal immigration in the year 1999. By contrast, the Knoxville News Sentinel, of McCarthy's former hometown, carried only four stories on illegal immigration in that same year (News Bank).

The novels of the Border Trilogy provide a fascinating gloss on this political and social issue by enacting illegal immigration in reverse. The heroes cross into Mexico, often illegally, and, finding themselves at odds with Mexican culture, struggle and ultimately fail to assimilate. …

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