With the projector’s light beaming reds, whites, and grays across his skin, he asks, “Can you take a picture of me?” I look behind me hoping no one heard. There isn’t anyone around, just me and him, this boy, this boy I call mine, this boy who’s mine for now. I want to tell him it’s inappropriate, possibly even disrespectful, because this is an exhibition in a gallery space at The New School. The exhibition, State of Exception/Estado de Excepción, displays “objects left behind in the desert by undocumented migrants on their journey into the U.S. and other forms of data.”
His face is serious. Smile stern, taut cheeks, posture narrowed. I have always found him photogenic. To explain to him why I feel it is inappropriate to take a picture in this setting is to flout my “white boy English,” that eloquent speech imposed upon me as a child, the elaborate words I mastered in order to get good grades in my undergraduate courses, the vocal tones and hand gestures of a PhD candidate—and necessary for any dream of upward mobility. He doesn’t feel the structure around me as I do. Our loving is at the border of our oppositions.
I take the picture.
On November 18, 2013, Cruz Marcelino Velazquez Acevedo, a 16-year-old from Tijuana, Mexico, dies on the border. He does not drown in a ditch, a canal, or the Rio Grande, as so many migrants trying to cross over into the United States do. He does not dehydrate in the deserts of Texas or Arizona or California. He is not even trying to cross over to, as so many call it, “illegally migrate.” In San Ysidro, at the border crossing of the United States and Mexico, he dies from an overdose, from too many sips of the liquid methamphetamine he is trying to smuggle over.
20/20 dedicates an episode to Velazquez. The episode’s title is “Life and Death at the Border.” The episode provides a minute-by-minute rundown of Velazquez’s time at the border checkpoint according to the footage made public by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The program includes the testimonies of the two border officers who—accused but never convicted—coerced Velazquez to drink the liquid in order to prove it was not drugs, as the teen had said. They bring in a toxicologist to give expert analysis on what overdoses do to the body, and a former commissioner of the agency who deems the actions of the officers “inappropriate” and “misconduct.” The television program highlights the ruthlessness of the cartels, the lucrative market for methamphetamines, and the violence of the border. The program wraps into an hour the hundreds of years compressed, conflicts, insurrections, and civil wars. As in the title “Life and Death at the Border,” the border, like anytime we say the word “the border,” becomes yet another theory of what the border is supposed to mean.
An installation: a wall of backpacks. All sizes, all colors, all varieties. Each one is considerably dirty, and many are blanched by constant exposure to the sun. What are we looking at? Scratch that: What are we being made not to see?
After more than 10 minutes of suspension, one backpack in particular catches the eye. The backpack is a pink that pops, a plastic-looking pink you see in the Walmart’s Back-to-School section. It is small, and its smallness makes it stand out among so many larger backpacks, a landscape of faded browns and blacks. Plastered on the front of the backpack is Dora the Exploradora. This backpack must have belonged to a little girl who, for one reason or another, had to abandon her backpack along the border of the United States and Mexico. The other details of her life are unknown.
I am 12 years old when my brother dies. My mother and sister ask the coroner, “Was he in a lot of pain when it happened?” I am not present when they ask him, because they do not feel I am old enough, but something tells me, knowing their way of being forcefully insistent, that the coroner told them what they wanted to hear, that he could see the proof of their pain in their eyes. “He felt nothing, absolutely nothing,” they report back, allegedly repeating the coroner’s words verbatim.
But if the coroner is telling the truth, how can he know what my dead brother experienced? Where is the evidence for the existence of this non-pain? My mother and sister feel it is a justice if he felt pain. It corroborates their theories. For if he felt pain, much like we wonder if Velazquez felt pain, we can project all our anger and torment onto the ones responsible for creating the pain: the drunk driver / the United States government. But if there is no pain? If the coroner is right and life, in an instant, in a flash, extinguishes into nothingness, without those human things we call suffering, pain, torture, and violence, what then? How do we justify a life? How do we prove to others that my brother / Velazquez mattered?
For those who loved Velazquez, or those, like me, who stumbled upon him in a Twitter post, who did not know him but who see something familiar in him, something distant yet so near, there is proof of pain: video footage. Millions have seen it. His loved ones can watch it over and over again if they want, if they need it. The footage gives us a minute-by-minute synopsis of how he reacts after drinking the drugs:
7:11 p.m.: Velazquez wipes his forehead.
7:36 p.m.: He starts sweating heavily, his body shaking.
7:48 p.m.: Handcuffed and standing up, Velazquez screams, “mi prima,” “mi hermana,” “mi corazón.” He rocks back and forth. Several officers watch him. The one officer who told him to drink the liquid drugs wipes the sweat from his forehead.
7:51 p.m.: He is strapped into a gurney, eyes rolling into the back of the head, the limbs in a frenzy, the head convulsing.
8:24 p.m.: In the hospital, he is unresponsive, pupils fixed, fixed on the beyond.
8:39 p.m.: Velazquez is put on a respirator.
8:57 p.m.: Velazquez dies from acute methamphetamine intoxication.
In the court of law, in the break rooms of Immigration and Customs, on the big-screen TV of some John and Joanne’s home in the Upper West Side or Springfield or Malibu or Main Street, does this footage prove anything? Can this tell the millions of viewers why he risked it all to traffic drugs into the United States? What brought him to the border the day he died? Any pursuit of a “why” presupposes there is one reason, one cause, one deciding factor that urges bodies to risk everything.
Unable to move from standing in front of the Dora backpack, I take a picture. I concentrate on the backpack. I tell myself to think beyond this blankness I am feeling right now. I do everything I can standing in place, as if some sentence from the void will pull through, some word or clause or syllable will whisper to me, shout at me, tell it to me. The backpack does not open itself up to interpretation.
Visuals without audio: What is on trial is not the voice but the body’s language. One of the officers makes the gesture to drink by bringing hand to mouth. The other officer places the liquid substance before Velazquez and nods his head, encouraging, commanding, enforcing. Velazquez swallows from the bottle of the liquid drug four times, hoping to convince them it is not a drug, so he can cross through, deliver it, and return home without any backlash from the cartels. The incident report filed the same night notes Velazquez “voluntarily” drinks the substance. Protocol, according to the report, is followed.
This report is a document of the United States of America. 20/20’s report is an attempt to counter the federal report with the facts of the matter—the body language, expert opinions, and eyewitness accounts. There is no doubt the viewer will notice the program’s sympathies are with Velazquez. But the solution on offer is nothing more than getting rid of a few bad apples, nothing less, making sure they hire no more bad apples, nothing more.
E— tells me it was for the best that I did not bring my dad. A paraphrase of his objection: Why bring him to this exhibition when he has already lived through this, when he might have to live through this again? Two theories of what he is saying:
Two Theories Trying to Break Down What E— is Saying
1) The border, and the many meanings of the border, is not meant to be relived. It is to be tucked away safely in a memory box, dusted on occasion for a brief recollection, but not reexperienced.
2) The border is a trauma, living in the body, triggering and affecting, passed on to other bodies. The border, as E— seems to be suggesting, can manifest even here downtown in New York City, so far from the United States–Mexico border, so far from my undocumented father who now lives in rural New Jersey.
20/20 cites other deaths along the border. A family picnicking on the Mexican side of the border is shot at by border patrol on a boat, killing the father. A teenage boy, accused of throwing rocks across the border, is shot 10 times. A man is tased over and over again by a mob of border-patrol agents for being on drugs. In all cases, no charges are brought against these officers, no protocols against violence are implemented. These flash points of life and of death are innumerable. They define the border as we know it.
On display: a spiral-bound notebook. The pages are warped by water damage. The paper near the metallic binding appears to be eaten away, lined with holes and tears. The front cover, made of plastic, looks melted; the colors are a faded swirl of blue, tan, and black—no doubt the result of a ruthless exposure to sunlight. Though unopened (perhaps even unopenable?), the pages appear blank. One can only surmise that the waves of a river or the soaking in a ditch washed away whatever stories, fragments, or ramblings were contained within them. Or maybe, just maybe, there was nothing yet written down on those pages. Blank pages of journal entries yet to be, poems in process, theories waiting for the right words to explain themselves.
Velazquez’s family’s lawyer asks one of the officers, “At some point did you hear Cruz screaming?”
“Yes, I could hear Cruz.”
“You could hear him in pain?”
She hesitates, an “ummm” trips on her lips, she nods her head slightly, her facial features formulating the appropriate sentence, the appropriate language, the appropriate face for the camera watching her: “I can’t . . . I heard him screaming.” She looks down at the table before her, wringing out her wrists, eyes red, the biting of the lip. Scene changes.
On display: an empty gallon of water with these words written in black marker: “Buena suarte amig@s!”
One officer in particular is zeroed in on. The footage of her testimony is masterfully edited to account for the frequent pauses between speech, downward cast eyes, intelligible language breaking down into unintelligible sounds, a sniffle here and a clearing of the throat there. Guilt can be found in the body of the individual. If the logic of the camera is followed, nations and organizations and corporations and ideologies and systems are incapable of guilt. Their immaterial bodies cannot be recorded, edited, and represented like the testimonies of a human.
We see shootings of unarmed men on a livestream caught on tape by girlfriends, helicopters reporting on the border men beaten to death by a mob, a bystander recording a man dying from a chokehold screaming out “I CAN’T BREATHE! I CAN’T BREATHE!” and no one can imagine governments or mindsets or corporations giving the confidence necessary for individuals to commit such violence. (What would it look like to put a power structure on trial, to make a system testify, to force an ideology to swear on the Bible? Absurd, no doubt, but a limit we ought to challenge.) Motives for the guilty are sought of the individual kind: personal vendettas, hate crimes, ignorance, negligence, and so on and so forth. We are made to believe some humans are just naturally born evil, corruptions of humanity, exceptions to some unspecified norm, a backwardness to be transcended. The promise is that certain kinds of humans, who think in certain kinds of ways, who live their lives in certain kinds of ways, will, eventually, in due time, be phased out. But the question never asked is what ways of living and being in the world are we waiting to extinguish? Because to ask such a question is to confront question, problem, and answer head-on.
E— calls me over to where he is. “Mira . . .” he says, pointing to an object I had overlooked earlier. The object is one sheet of lined paper with writing on it. The sheet appears to have been water damaged, the tint of the page a dark brown as if exposed to muddy waters, the edges of it curled as if fried by the sun. A letter? An essay? Spoken-word poetry?
The letters are blocky, as if the writer was pressing down on the pen hard, belabored. The words are in English. Full sentences cannot be deciphered, but the beginnings of some are as follows: “TheRE GOES my . . .” “LET THE Good . . .” “My BRown eye . . .” One word that reads as “VASANOVA” has the words “we on the,” above it, as if the writer is amending a thought, being more precise with their meaning. Given the free use of uppercase and lowercase letters in these words, I wonder if the writer is an English-language learner, teaching themselves, though imperiled, though endangered, though risking life, a foreign language on the border.
I want to ask E— why he directed me to see this, why this affected him in some way, but it soon hits me: He directs my attention to it because he knows it will have this impact on me. He knows I love studying penmanship, analyzing how a loop, a space between letters, an illegible word can tell us about a life we do not know. He knows writing in all its forms is important to me.
“Who do you think wrote it, E—?”
“I’m not sure, but if you look at the writing maybe it was . . .”
The loose leaf leaves us to our theories.
The toxicology expert 20/20 hired gives the viewer a run-down of what Velazquez is experiencing: blood pressure rising exponentially, a fever spiking, the body unable to cool, delirium, the body working double-time. Chemistry kills Velazquez. The toxicologist needs to emphasize to the reporter interviewing him, “Cruz was in an immense amount of pain.” Immense: an adjective describing quantity, intensity, degrees. Immense as syllables as an adjective as a word as language tries to describe the indescribable. Futile as it may be, the toxicologist uses the word in efforts to describe to us, as best he can, how the body is bound by laws, how the body is testimony, how the body testifies.
A rock thrown across an invisible line is an act worthy of:
About to leave. E— and I are staring at photographs of the Arizona desert where many of the objects in the exhibit were acquired. Though beautiful, though sublime, photographs have a harder time of catching my attention. Too still, possibly.
I turn around from the photographs, and from E—. There are four women looking at a tire I had glossed over earlier, a tire once employed by men to help repair the walls along the U.S.-Mexico border, a tire turned museum object. I didn’t see them enter the exhibition. They look like my tías and primas. One appears to be in her late 30s, and the three others look to be no older than 15. The women are huddled around the tire. Bodies poised in attention. Their brown eyes are the eyes of concentration. What do they contemplate there before the tire? How do they do this combined effort of thought?
I look at them looking at the tire until E— asks me, again, “Can you take a picture of me, please?”