On an unusually chilly Sunday evening in South Texas, I sat outdoors with family and friends, talking and laughing into the night as the smoky mesquite aroma of backyard barbeques lingered around us. Now and again the unmistakable sound of a Border Patrol helicopter passed in the distance. We were less than a mile from the international border, separated only by the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area, which began just a few yards from where we were sitting. As the evening wore on and the laughter slowed, some bid farewell to return to their homes on the other side of the river, across the U.S.–Mexico border. As the sound of helicopters faded in and out, my mind wandered as I contemplated families who are at once united and separated. Divided by a political boundary, in the morning they would wake to different realities as sure as the sun peeked through the blinds. People the same, but stratified by borders, passports, visas, legal status.
While I remember a specific chilly evening when the idea for this book was first born, it has always been a work in progress, tapping into my family’s history and my own transnational upbringing. Borders, citizenship, and belonging—and the various physical and social im/mobilities associated with them—shaped my early understanding of the world and, later, the trajectory of my career. Throughout her life, my mother carried with her the joy and pain of leaving her home country, returning, and leaving again. Since birth, I too have been on the move—my first 5,000-mile transatlantic migration was at just four weeks old—and while I grew up primarily in Germany, I was also regularly in South Texas following my parents’ separation. It was in these locations and landscapes that I witnessed the impact of migration and the militarization of borders on family life.
Growing up during the Cold War of the 1980s, we lived not far from the border with East Germany, with many families and communities split apart on either side. Unable to see each other for decades, they were separated by a wall, or, in the region where I lived, a heavily fortified but largely invisible line surrounded by a no-man’s-land of tranquil birch forests. On either side of this dividing line were barbed wire, guard towers, tanks, and nuclear missiles tucked stealthily underground, as signs warned, “Achtung! Zonengrenze” (Warning! Border Zone). The trauma that accompanied the separation of families and entire communities was always present, but was rarely talked about openly.
During the summers, I visited with my father’s side of the family in South Texas, spending time in both San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley. Some of my earliest memories are of scorching late afternoons wandering dry arroyos with him, looking for fossils in the limestone banks. I fell in love with this region—and neighboring Mexico lindo y querido—as a young girl, and was always drawn to the border that divided it. This was a highly visible boundary, physically marked by a river, but while the separation was incredibly palpable, it also seemed nonsensical. Here, the Spanish language dominated, and food, commerce, and politics, it seemed, were always binational affairs. Some of my childhood friends were undocumented, or had parents who were, although I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time.
As an adult, I have continued to travel between these sites, listening to migrants with precarious status. Throughout my own life, and especially during the research described in this book, I have learned to appreciate deeply what migrant parents give up for their children’s futures. They make difficult decisions, and this shapes subsequent generations and their ideas of belonging—about forms of citizenship, but also about their positionality within larger structures of family. At the same time, I remain acutely aware of my own privilege, including the flexible forms of national belonging that are the chance outcome of a specific historical moment and geopolitical circumstance. This book, Borders of Belonging, is an attempt to tell a story that has been a spectral presence in my head and my heart for many years. It seeks to represent the stories of the people I met, to whom I am deeply grateful.