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California is a tragic country — like Palestine, like every Promised Land.
— Christopher Isherwood
FREQUENCIES Last Monday, President Bush ordered 6,000 National Guard troops to join the 12,000 federal Border Patrol agents already stationed along the US-Mexico border. Then, moments later, in a deft now-you-see-it-now-you-don't Oval Office magic trick, he acted as if it hadn't happened. "[The United States] is not going to militarize the southern border," he told the press about the military troops he had just assigned to the southern border. "Mexico is our neighbor and our friend."
Forget that the Border Patrol is already the nation's largest federal law enforcement agency. Forget that the border has been militarized since at least 1992, when the Navy was brought to Southern California to replace chain-link fences with corrugated steel sheeting recycled from the Vietnam War. Forget that the 1994 fence that ran out into the sea from Imperial Beach was made of old landing strips from the first Persian Gulf War. Forget that 1994's Operation Gatekeeper turned the canyons and gulches at the southern edge of California into a battle zone of klieg lighting, infrared scopes, underground sensors, and digital fingerprinting systems. Forget that since 1995, the Border Research and Technology Center in San Diego has been developing "correctional security" devices in tandem with the US prison system.
This was all just flimsy history next to the real denial that came two days later when it was announced that the nonmilitarization plan was accepting bids from leading military contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, all of whom have been active in Iraq and Afghanistan. So while the National Guard may not be armed (but may be, as SNL recently joked, sipping Coronas in celebration of being anywhere but Iraq), chances are good there will be radar balloons and surveillance planes. Throw in a few crackpot Minutemen brigades and we'll be looking at the biggest domestic battalion ever assembled against a nonexistent international enemy.
After all, Mexicans come north not out of aggression or zealotry or the need for oil, but out of hope, the same hope that once fueled earlier westward migrations of Oakies and Anglos to the same plots of land. In the era of free trade, the North is the new West, or as Dave Alvin suggests in the title of his new album of California cover songs, West of the West (Yep Roc), a still emergent republic of dreams that hasn't found a stable map.
Alvin was born in Downey, outside of Los Angeles, and he's always been a firmly Californian songwriter. For all his working-class allegiance to the "California Dreaming" school — the factories, manual labor, toxic suburbs, and cement rivers of his songs never crush his epic sense of western romance — Alvin has always seemed to understand Mexican California. He's written about Mexican farmworkers and barmaids, and most presciently, he wrote "California Snow" with El Paso–Ju?