As it exists, the border between the United States and Mexico occupies a weird space in wider discourse: namely, as it relates to fearmongering over migration by White America. Every time I see my hometown on the news or Twitter, it’s in direct relation to this exact issue: whether it be Ted Cruz recently forgetting that my city- which he represents- of nearly a million people was right next to Mexico when he blasted Biden for “not visiting the border” or because a white supremacist gunned down 23 people at a local Walmart to drive the Mexicans out, it all boils down to that fear of migration. Virtually nothing else is said of our city besides that, besides the occasional token mention of it being the safest in America. No one talks about the old legends of a gold mine in the Franklin Mountains; looking out towards our sister city across the border from Scenic Drive; how our city once boasted vineyards whose vintage was popular in both Colonial Mexico and Spain. It’s always about how we exist at the edge of a warzone, that any day now violence might erupt. And frankly, this isn’t wrong, but it’s always directed the wrong way: El Paso is under constant threat of violence. Not from migrants or the poor maquiladora workers in Juarez who are endlessly exploited, but through the constant polarization and agitation against a fictitious horde of rampaging migrants. Beyond direct preaching by politicians, this theme recurs in science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and thus we are never allowed to forget that we live in the shadow of American white supremacy.
All things considered, El Paso isn’t a bad place to live when there isn’t a target on our backs. Cost of living is still relatively low (even if wages are as well), there’s a rich history to the city that demands exploration, and day in and day out folks come and go to and from Mexico despite cartel violence and the efforts of Border Patrol. Just about everyone here has visited Juarez at some point in their lives, assuming they didn’t come from there to begin with; some of my favorite memories from childhood involved my great-grandfather and his bike shop in Mexico. Even as the border guarantees certain changes are inevitable – such as how a significant portion of the population on my side doesn’t speak fluent Spanish (myself regretfully included) – there’s a strong sense of unity; it’s still within living memory that there wasn’t any sort of fence separating the cities, that very fundamentally we’re one community that’s divided by forces beyond our reckoning. Of course, none of this exists within the wider consciousness; people hear “the border,” they think “violence and migration,” with The Forever Purge being the most recent and direct reflection of this in horror.
For those unfamiliar with the film, The Forever Purge follows a white family and pair of illegal immigrants from Mexico as they flee cartel violence, only to be caught up in the annual purge just as the United States is in the throes of a rising white supremacist movement. They’re forced to flee and fight for survival, eventually being forced to flee back to Mexico before the border closes, with their port of entry being a chaotic, burning El Paso that’s teeming to the brim with white supremacists ready to gun them down. The politics of The Purge as a franchise are muddied at the absolute best of times, but The Forever Purge probably takes the bluntest, most direct political stance amongst them and still fumbles it considerably. Ignoring the deeply ugly context that filming began only a few short months after the El Paso mass shooting (thus essentially using the act of terrorism as free advertising) the movie feautures some curious creative choices.
Chief among these is that the movie seems to waffle considerably on just how responsible the American political establishment is for the white supremacists that threaten the protagonists. Although the New Founding Fathers of America (the ruling party by the time of the movie) was shown to have stoked the fires and paved the path for these nativist mobs to form, they’re shown as having fundamentally no control over them, and in fact attempt to shut them down with the police and military after they continue their efforts post-Purge night. Although the wider public does rightfully blame them for the violence, the film operates from an odd perspective in which the ruling reactionaries never truly intended to wipe out minorities and that their followers simply went further than intended; the military and police in themselves aren’t institutions of white supremacy in America that would have readily joined up with the nativist mobs as soon as their intentions became clear.
To this effect, there are two scenes which reinforce the military’s importance in keeping order against the hordes of white supremacists. The first involves a moment in which several of the leading protagonists are taken hostage in an alleyway by members of a militia and threatened with execution and it’s only through the timely appearance of the military that some characters survive. Later, the military is shown as being forced to withdraw due to becoming overwhelmed by the purgers, which, much to the dismay of the protagonists and other would-be refugees, prompts Mexico to close its borders early. Although neither scene goes especially far in attempting to portray the army as outright heroes, there is nonetheless an underlying message that they were a force for order against the tide of white supremacy. When deprived of their presence, the protagonists (and by extension, the country as a whole) suffers for it. Thus The Forever Purge fundamentally misunderstands the nature of white supremacy in America – as blunt as its critiques are, they are misplaced – though at the very least the movie posits itself against nativist sentiments, which is more than can be said of other works of speculative fiction.
Genre works have something of a history where it concerns their relationship to nativist movements, fears of the unknown, and the foreign dating back to the earliest days of science fiction, fantasy, and horror as we currently know them: invasion fiction was a thriving genre up until the First World War, entirely concerned with the fear of German invasion (with War of the Worlds having borrowed much of its framework from staples of the genre). Meanwhile, the zombie genre has experienced something of a back and forth in how it deals with worries over migration and unrest. The Night of the Living Dead, for instance, has a cognizance of how race and dehumanization relate to one another within the context of zombie films, due in no small part to its ending, which sees the sole survivor – a black man – shot dead after being mistaken for a ghoul (though Romero himself has downplayed the element of race). Conversely, the politics of World War Z are about what one might expect of a novel written by a senior fellow at West Point.
In that book Israel is the first country to take the zombie threat seriously, undertaking a policy of quarantine that involves an evacuation of occupied territory, admitting every willing Palestinian into the country, and then sealing everything off with a wall that follows the 1967 borders. Beyond the obvious farce of spouting pro-Israel propaganda (which goes as far to depict the Israeli Defence Force defending Palestinian refugees from an uprising against their entry), there exists an ugly subtext of border walls being fundamentally effective: Israel manages to endure by allowing only the “right” sort of people into the country. Meanwhile, the film adaptation hits at a very similar point.
Here, the Israeli wall is shown as having ultimately failed in holding the zombie threat at bay, though not due to the inherent qualities of such a plan. Instead, Israel falls as a direct result of having admitted Palestinian refugees: at the site of the wall, a mixed crowd of Israelis and Palestinians sing in unity. This is upturned when a young Palestinian woman picks up a microphone to play the song through speakers. Attracting the zombie hordes in greater numbers than before, they’re able to pile onto each other and climb over the wall, leading to the downfall of Jerusalem. Thus, the failure comes from within, from having admitted the ‘wrong’ sorts of people. An additional implication exists here, wherein the more peaceful, humanitarian solution is the one which dooms the city – further militarization is often the answer within these narratives. Thus, The Night of the Dead and its narrative of opposition to the Vietnam War and the militarization of American society stands in further isolation from the genre which it spawned.
Stepping away from zombies, the elephant in the room when it comes to fears of migration is 300. Critics have litigated endlessly over the film’s fascistic elements and to what extent Snyder intended to lean into them (or was even aware of them) so, to avoid contributing too heavily to the ocean of ink that’s been spilled over the matter, I don’t think Frank Miller set out to create an anti-Hispanic comic (his sights have been firmly set on hating Muslims for the better part of a few decades), nor do I think Snyder intended to film a movie that’s beloved by fascists worldwide. However, both the original work and its adaptation tap heavily into a fear of savage, brown foreigners despoiling Western civilization through force of arms (a testament to how thoroughly Classical Greece has been whitewashed in popular memory. Rather than existing as part of a wider, multicultural world, it is instead reduced to being a symbol of “The West”, and thus whiteness. Given that many of the most vocal opponents to migration from Latin America liken it to an invasion (including the El Paso shooter, who wrote about the Great Replacement in his manifesto) it isn’t terribly hard to see why the film garnered popularity with the far right in America.
All of this is not to imply that genre fiction inherently has the wrong idea concerning the border; that any and all inclusion of an invasion storyline or zombies ultimately reinforces the idea of “we need a wall with Mexico.” The issue is that a lot of high profile, big budget speculative fiction (knowingly or not) plays into imperialist narratives surrounding the border, with the idea of a civilized “us” on one side and a savage “them” on the other, with even relatively progressive works buying into these notions of border and frontier (e.g. the original Star Trek). So, what is to be done? Firstly, I would suggest familiarizing yourself with the history of the border; ensure that the stories of all those who lived or passed through it don’t fade away as they have in my town, where the last standing Bracero Processing Center has been allowed to rot due to a lack of funding (a recommendation to this effect is All They Will Call You by Tim C. Hernandez). Furthermore, within the scope of genre fiction, it is important that narratives which acknowledge the fluidity and impermanence of borders are able to find readership and thrive. Far too many works serve to reinforce the idea that the Hard Border is an absolute rather than being a grotesquerie and abnormality that has only existed in a small window of human history.
People in my town still remember being able to walk to and from Mexico freely. The fences and concrete walls which now divide us are someone else’s choice, not an inevitability.
A spiteful historian who hails from the American Southwest, Jay Hawking is a writer of various forms of speculative and historical fiction, their preference being works that straddle and blur the lines between genres. Their professional work is largely concerned with the history of science, with a particular research emphasis on the scientific advancements that originate from the periphery (whether it be the global south, poorer communities within the West, or queer scientists of all stripes). In their free time, Jay is a fan of brewing their own mead.