Eres Mi Otro Yo:
Storytelling from the Borderlands
I want to tell a story about recognition, misrecognition, identification, disidentification. I want to tell a story about “them,” that I am increasingly realizing is a story about me, about us. I want to tell a story about experience, genealogy, memory – a story from both my heart and mind, since their separation is a fiction. I want to tell a story about now, that is also about yesterday, and tomorrow. I want to tell a story to help me consider how I recognize my ancestors and my kin, and how they recognize me. My story traverses four scenes. It begins and ends en la frontera, in the borderlands, Tijuana, Mexico.
Scene One: To the Other Side (Al Otro Lado)
Tijuana, July 2019
Gloria Anzaldúa wrote: “The U.S.-Mexico border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (1987, 6). Anzaldúa, who left us too soon due to a combination of poor health care and diabetes, lived and died, and helped us grapple with la frontera (the borderlands). As she wrote and traveled across temporalities, she seemed to intuit the increasing friction, violence, and bleeding that was just on the horizon of the new millennium.
In July 2019, in the midst of the Trump administration’s attacks on all migrants, my partner, my 80-year-old mother, and I went to Tijuana. We went to volunteer with Al Otro Lado (translation: “to the other side”). We went al otro lado to witness what was happening and to offer whatever help we could to those struggling in the trenches, in the borderlands, en la herida abierta (the open wound). Al Otro Lado (AOL) is a bi-national non-profit providing legal services to indigent deportees, migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees. AOL’s Border Rights Project in Tijuana is one of three AOL offices (the others are in L.A. and San Diego). The main task of the Tijuana office was providing legal rights trainings and support to asylum-seekers.
During our week volunteering, we encountered migrants’ whose home countries included Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela, Cuba, Cameroon, Turkey, Iraq, and Russia. Their journeys from these countries took weeks or months, depleted most if not all of their material resources, left them physically and emotionally scarred — and they are the lucky ones who made it. The bits of their stories we learned were horrible and soul wrenching. Both the adults and the children exhibited various levels of trauma, and still they were incredibly patient, hopeful, and resilient. I wondered what they knew of their possible tomorrows and how that lines up with what we know.
AOL’s main goal is to provide the most accurate information possible to empower and support migrants in making the best decisions they can about their lives. This is just one particular scene created by the larger context of arbitrary policies and intentional state-sanctioned cruelty, just one example of the bleeding of una herida abierta in 2019. As our government does all it can to dehumanize migrants, to insist they don’t belong, I wondered what they thought of us. In what ways did they recognize us, and how, through all the disinformation and ignorance, did we recognize them?
Scene Two: Chicana Falsa
Goleta, CA, October 2004
I’m on a pre-doctoral fellowship at UC Santa Barbara. I’m trying to finish my dissertation interrogating haole (whiteness) in Hawai’i. Having grown up as a haole in Hawai’i in the 1970-80s, it’s my latest attempt to interrogate myself and my responsibility to the history of colonization there. I’m trying to explain the project and my political investment in it when, in bewilderment laced with frustration, one of my Chicana friends interrupts me to say, “Wow, you really do think you’re white.”
This friend talks about eventually having a child. If the bio-father is not Latinx, that child would be a quarter Mexican (assuming one subscribes to technologies of blood quantum). So, that friend recognizes her possible child in me and is therefore even more invested in my (dis)identification with my Mexican ancestry. It would be more comfortable if I would stop claiming whiteness. Again, I am reminded of Gloria Anzaldúa:
To live in the Borderlands means you
are neither hispana india negra española
ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata, half-breed
caught in the crossfire between camps
while carrying all five races on your back
not knowing which side to turn to, run from;
Since this conversation I have often thought of myself, not as mestiza, but as “Chicana falsa” – as inauthentic, the “impure subject of belonging” (Rowe 2008, 209–210). To call myself Chicana or mestiza feels appropriative. And yet, I’ve wondered about how, in growing up haole and in developing white antiracist politics, I somehow came to deny my ancestry, my mother and grandmother in me. To whom, with whom, and where do I belong “not knowing which side to turn to, run from…”? The contradictory identification and disidentification was/is disorienting. Had I allowed one sense of belonging to supersede others? Was this one form of living in the figurative borderlands?
Scene Three: “Estela Matutina Acevedo de Kasnetsis who is of Mexican nationality”
Nogales, Arizona, United States – Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, 1926-1937
My grandmother, Estela Acevedo (also identified as Matutina Acevedo and Estela Matutina Acevedo) was born at home in Ímuris, Sonora, Mexico, on May 31, 1908, to Francisco S. Acevedo and Trinidad Galvez Acevedo. Estela went to school through the sixth grade. Her father, Francisco, a farmer and storekeeper, died when she was thirteen. Sometime after Francisco’s death, Estela, her sister, two brothers, and Trinidad moved to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.
The first documentation I have of Estela crossing the Nogales border is from May 30, 1926, when she was eighteen. The numerous documented crossings between 1926 and 1937 verify what we know from family history, that Estela was working as a waitress in Nogales, Arizona, and crossing the border daily, or nearly so, in order to support her ailing mother and younger siblings. Interestingly, unlike the first crossing card, which listed her race as “Mexican,” later crossing cards list her race as “white.” Was waitressing in Arizona a whitening phenomenon? Did she notice the contradictory ways U.S. officials identified her? Was she trying to “pass?” How did the restaurant manager recognize her: White? Mexican? Migrant? Legal?
Estela met my grandfather, George John Kasnetsis, when he began to cook for the restaurant where she worked. George was seventeen years older than Estela and had immigrated to the United States as a young Greek man with very little education. He had earned his U.S. citizenship through military service in World War I, during which he was trained and served as a cook. It was now the Great Depression, and George was one of many migrant workers scratching out a living for himself and his young son (his first wife having died young of tuberculosis).
As the story goes, they fell in love, and George proposed, but Estela turned him down because she was supporting her mother and siblings. George was so upset that he left his job and Nogales, only to come back some years later to propose again when he heard through the grapevine that Estela’s mother, Trinidad, had passed away and her siblings had moved to Ciudad Obregón. This time, Estela accepted (the first “interracial” marriage in her family) and made the familiar journey across the border, but this time as an immigrant.
The Non-quota Immigration Visa No. 51 from September 10, 1937, identifies her as “Estela Matutina Acevedo de Kasnetsis who is of Mexican nationality” and also lists her race as “Mexican.” So, when she crossed as an immigrant, the U.S. government recognized her as Mexican. She and George settled in Prescott, Arizona. There she taught herself English by listening to the radio and reading the newspaper, went through the naturalization process, and helped other immigrants become citizens. Estela and George had one child together, my mother, Georgia Estella Kasnetsis, for whom they wished all the best “America” could offer. They could not have imagined that 80 years after her birth, American policy would compel Georgia al otro lado en Tijuana. Still, I know they would recognize and be proud of her as she tried to provide some comfort and temporary safety to migrant children in AOL’s makeshift childcare area.
Nogales is now a militarized zone – a city with the unfortunate luck of transgressing una herida abierta. This border, which my grandmother walked back and forth across each day ninety years ago, is now demarcated by a huge wall, razor wire, dogs, motion sensors, floodlights, border patrol, vigilantes, and lots and lots of guns. Surviving the literal borderlands is now much harder than when Estela crossed, and even when Anzaldúa was writing.
I know some of my grandmother’s relatives – my relatives – die or are captured each day trying to make the crossing for the same reason she originally did, economic survival por la familia. I recognize them in the Mexican migrants who file into AOL. As we reinforce borders between nation-states, so too do we build walls between kin and within ourselves.
My grandmother died suddenly of an aneurysm when I was only seven, shortly after my family moved to Hawai‘i. I never got a chance to talk with my grandmother about her life in Nogales, and she never made it across the Pacific to visit us on Kaua‘i. What would she have thought about making that particular crossing? What would I have eagerly shown her of my new life, so different from hers? How would I have understood her?
My mother says I look like Grandma Estela, and yet, because of my cultural ambivalence, I sometimes have trouble recognizing her in myself.
Scene Four: Eres Mi Otro Yo
Friendship Park, Tijuana (U.S.-Mexico Border), July 2019
At Friendship Park in Tijuana, people gather to picnic, play at the beach, listen to music, drink in the bars, and eat from the street vendors. It is loud and colorful, vibrant. It could be any Mexican beach park, until you look al norte where the imposing border fence runs out into the Pacific for hundreds of yards, and technologies of surveillance are omnipresent. En el otro lado there is no color and little life save the U.S. Border Patrol agents who walk or drive along the fence, staking and re-staking U.S. claims to territory, dominance, belonging. What stories do they tell about those they watch through the steel slats? Do they consider the stories the watched tell about them? What about those agents from immigrant families? What about those who are Latinx? Are they “caught in the crossfire between camps?” Is it the myth of meritocracy that sustains them – and in what ways has it seduced me? How do their ancestors recognize them? How might I recognize them as kin?
Looking across at two Border Patrol agents I think about Estela’s crossing and the evolving biopolitics of the borderlands producing various subjectivities and citizenships. Besides the fluctuating racialization of Estela as “Mexican” or “white” (a phenomenon that reoccurs with my mother), government documents captured physical characteristics (height, weight, eye color, hair color, and “acne scars on chin”), language (read, write, speak “Spanish”), as well as occupation (“waitress,” “housewife”) and marital status. The 1937 immigration visa was apparently accompanied by a “birth certificate, good conduct certificate and medical certificate,” although we only obtained the birth certificate. At the very bottom of the visa it indicates: “I have not been in prison or almshouse” and “I have not been in an institution or hospital.” The good/bad immigrant bifurcation is not new. That visa, many of the crossing cards, and the certificate of naturalization have photographs attached, and in each Estela looks directly into the camera, unsmiling but calm, even patient. Like Anzaldúa she seems to be looking far ahead, just beyond the horizon. Does she see me there? Am I recognizable to her? Does she see the migrants/kin we encountered in the crowded AOL space?
People have gathered at Friendship Park for decades to visit with friends and family on the U.S. side. For many, because they can’t travel al otro lado, it has been the only way to see each other. Church services are even conducted here in a spiritual refusal of separation, and regardless of who is watching and recording. Those who gather recognize themselves in and through their dedication to their families and friends. Political art adorns the border fence with names, images, prayers. When we were there a large installation read “Eres Mi Otro Yo” (you are my other self).
 In this article, I have chosen not to italicize Spanish or Hawaiian words or phrases. I am following the model of code-switching and language politics forged by Chicana writers including Gloria Anzaldúa. If this feels unsettling to monolingual English speakers, part of the point of it is to decenter our assumption that texts will be immediately accessible to us.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.
Carrillo Rowe, Aimee. 2008. Powerlines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances. Durham, NC and London, UK: Duke University Press.