The more I return to my childhood home, the more I think of it as a time rather than a place. I’m from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, on the U.S. border with Mexico. Like many border regions, it is a strange place. Not quite the United States, not quite Mexico — it exists somewhere in between. And we like it that way.
At its finest, the Valley is the best of both worlds. People from “El Valle” are warm and friendly, enjoying the freedom and protections of Anglo America, but also the rich culture and faith of the Hispanic Southwest.
You might be surprised by this rosy picture. Many people in the United States, after all, associate the border with drugs, walls, families divided by immigration policies, and deaths in the desert. And they would not be wrong. The border is a profoundly poor and troubled place, beset by many troubles. El Valle is no exception.
Indeed, the very problem with the border is that it is a border. It’s not just where the United States and Mexico meet: it’s the space they share, albeit not very well. The conflict has a long history, starting with centuries-old territorial disputes between Mexico and the United States. The current spate of issues, I hardly need add, lacks easy solutions.
Sometimes I get discouraged by this complex history; and I when do, I find solace in one of Pope Francis’ favorite sayings: “Time is greater than space.” In his different uses of the phrase, the pope seems to highlight a common theme: rather than seeking to claim a space — through institutions and power for my gain — we should take the time to consider what long-term benefits exist for all of us. This entails communal dialogue, and dialogue begins with an encounter.
The applications of this idea to the border are obvious.
First, the great conflicts in our society are precisely over those spaces where rivals lay claim. So if we enter conflict with a desire to occupy space, we are accepting the terms of the game as it is already being futilely played. This scenario rapidly devolves into a zero-sum game, in which my win is your loss.
Living on the border, one might think that one is forced into occupying space. “This river separates us, and we have to protect our side of it.” In fact, many of us Americans who have lived on the border do not think of ourselves as living on the border. Rather, we think of living on the “U.S. side” of the border. But one does not really live on a “side” of a border: the sides do not exist independently of each other. Rather, it’s a border because of the space we share.
Second, when we fight over space, we demand that people take sides: “Are you with me, or against me?” But when we draw others into conversation, relationships with them can deepen our appreciation for who they are and what they need. They don’t have to choose between being my friend and being my enemy — they are too busy trying their best to make it through lives as themselves.
In the case of the border, the questions are clear: do we see those on the other side of the border as problems to be solved? Do we question the loyalty of those on our side of it who sympathize with the other side? In that case, we’ve chosen space instead of relationship, and power instead of conversation.
How can we reject falling into the trap of demanding space? Yes, the border is a space, and we want to ensure our place in it. But it is more than territory to be fought over. It is also a place where people come to meet. And those people are not just miscreants to be feared. They are our neighbors, who desire stability, security and prosperity as much as we do. As Greg Boyle writes in Tattoos on the Heart, “here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”
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Indeed, there is an ethical challenge to living on the border: to be a good neighbor. And while all are called to that challenge, those who live on the border have a special temptation. We are tempted to deny responsibility for our neighbors precisely because they’re foreign.
But if we can think of a border as a common home — and suspend thinking of it as a space to protect — then we can begin to spend time with others, entering into conversations that will deepen our mutual understanding, and allow us to better help each other. Boyle dreams of a place where there is,
“no daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.”
That’s how I understand “Time is greater than space.” The pope is not invoking some grand idealism or quasi-Marxist faith in history. He is placing his faith in the human person to overcome the provincial fears that plague us when we meet people who look, act, and speak differently from us. And we overcome fears not by building fences, but by choosing to spend time together — time to discover those ties that bind us as fellow sons and daughters of God.
El Valle is not quite the United States, and it is not quite Mexico — it exists somewhere in between. And we like it that way.
Title photo taken by author.