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The Border Against Belonging

From the border cities of Juárez and El Paso to America’s courtrooms, Sasha Pimentel’s For Want of Water is not a collection to chart a way home. It’s a way to claim one.

The Philippines has a unique term for Filipinxs caught between borders: Balikbayan. For citizens who have lived abroad for over a year, including overseas workers, former citizens who visit home, and the children of these citizens—citizens of other countries—Balikbayan privilege offers the ability to return to the Philippines for up to one year without a visa. It’s a romantic proposition, a country that promises you can always come home. Even your children can come back. I am such a Balikbayan, the child of another Balikbayan, but my Balikbayan status is contingent on my mother. As the foreign national child of a Balikbayan, I must be traveling with my Balikbayan parent in order to claim the same privilege. As long as my mother is living, I can go back. But once my mother is dead, no authority in the Philippines will recognize my homecoming. To lose a parent is to lose your way home, forever.

Born in Manila and raised in the United States and Saudi Arabia, Sasha Pimentel is Balikbayan but her poetry collection For Want of Water is not. In this second collection, she explores the borders of American identity, a perimeter widened by American military presence, a global economy, and, perhaps most importantly, the dispersal of families across border cities. In doing so, Pimentel presents borderland as something human-sized. She presents a body able to rupture the border against belonging. We are so rarely told about the sovereignty of our own bodies. We see the body attacked. We hear threats to our safety, hear how our relationship with this county can be altered. In New Jersey this year, Baljinder Singh, a citizen, suddenly was not: an ordinary man denaturalized over paperwork. With the widening control of Immigration and Customs Enforcement from the border cities of Juárez and El Paso to America’s courtrooms, Pimentel’s is not a collection to chart a way home. It’s a way to claim one, even when home is a notion caught in America’s mythos.

For Want of Water is grounded in the bodies of speakers and populations in motion. If water is the border, as it is between Juárez and El Paso, as it is between the Philippines and the United States, then how should we imagine the human body, made nearly entirely of water, if not as a border? If water is the border, then the border is not motionless. It pushes. It erodes. And like our bodies, the borderlands move. In “Sea Change,” Pimentel constructs a border like a trick of the morning light, momentarily cast over two cities:

Morning, and light seams
through Juárez, its homes like pearls, El Paso

rippling in the dark. Today I understand
the fact of my separate body, how it tides

to its own center, my skin crumbling from thirst

Light is stitched onto the landscape of El Paso. The speaker describes Juárez as an illuminated city, but the “seam” suggests a secondary definition, the “seam” that is a vulnerable gap. Pimentel presents Juárez—a city so often defined as the embodiment of the dangerous effects of U.S.-Mexico border politics—as shining. She attaches Juárez to her own America, “its homes like pearls” on that string, not dangerous, but in danger. And in doing so, she recognizes the smallness of the Rio Grande, the shared fate of two cities strung along a border.

When the speaker asks, “When did my heart / become a boat,” she places herself as a vessel caught between countries while simultaneously becoming the vector between them. Her body is placed into the seam, the border, and yes, the body is in danger. Even within the intimate borders of a house, her body’s safety is uncertain:

through translucent bone. I walk

into a room where a man is
sleeping. I walk out,
and my mother dies. Water

hammers behind the walls and in my knees.

Crossing a threshold invokes a floodgate and yet, Pimentel guides the reader back into the body, sustained by equal pressure “behind the walls and in my knees.” The body is also a boundary, an effort of Newtonian force held against other walls. If the body is borderland, then occupying any space is a struggle for sovereignty.

The emigrant who has left their country of origin has yet to arrive at a destination.  Such is the case in “School Terrorist Exercise, 2005,” a poem whose title is immediately followed by “Sapulpa, Oklahoma,” a city name that sits on the page less as a dedication than as an epigraph—here is a poem derived from the politics of place, not dedicated to them. Pimentel gives us the expectation of disaster next to the language of absence, “the exiled,” the “emigrants.” While the poem has a pinpointed time and space, our narrator drifts through both; after all, “no matter the city my body’s in, / there is always a possible fire.” Her singular body draws one nation’s tragedy into another. Students in a school rehearse what it would look like to save themselves from an active shooter; the speaker and her mother watch the Khobar Towers bombing, an attack orchestrated under the pretext of removing an American military presence in Saudi Arabia; and they recall when Mount Pinatubo erupted, a natural disaster which in 1991 resulted in the removal of all American Armed Forces from the Philippines until 2012. Years after Mount Pinatubo’s eruption and the ensuing storm which covered the Philippines in a mixture of volcanic ash and water, she recounts the devastation in the present tense. Still, it:

is raining: So even if hugging your knees to the sound
of Lola singing each Hail Mary worked, if for such
recitation the right terrain gave way
to guide the lava away from your home, all you needed to do
to die was to step outside and breathe. Emigrants kiss
their rosaries, thinking, it wasn’t us.

And yet, it is hard to say “it wasn’t us” to a mother who “searched each of the passing faces /… as if every gray, caked oval could be / her own.”  The speaker rehearses the many moments “it wasn’t us.”  She is still practicing the moment when she’ll need to pray for “an act of god / against the other acting god,” which is to say, she is still approximating her distance from disaster. News is piecemeal with “all the calls long / distance, the wringing of hands.” Media reports are insufficient to recognize a place she knows should be familiar to her. So the emigrant manifests the events she has escaped. She fills in the gaps in official reports. It is not the speaker’s empathy that is surprising. Her lack of information is surprising. After all, these events are, at least, peripherally American: the American school, the sleeping quarters of American Air Force personnel, an American airbase buried at the foot of a volcano. She imagines “such a recitation” of holy song where “the right terrain gave way,” a recitation that takes control of her geography.

And within Pimentel’s collection, the terrain does give way. Pimentel allows the speaker to encircle her borders. In “Bodies, and Other Natural Disasters,” she  tells us how she subverts the physical terrain she lives in to protect her mother:

beyond the plane. Bodies stack upon bodies, the tide

withdraws its claim. She says, mag-ingat ka, anak,
the Wall Street Journal says the drug war’s crossed over,
don’t you know minamahal pa rin kita?, and I keep
my borderland from her, say nothing of our yielding
necks. She must see the mounding dead here

The speaker is possessive of the dangerous borderland: “my borderland.” Her proximity “here” to “the mounding dead” threatens to dehumanize her. Perhaps this is why the peripheral, the drug war (the war at all), is kept close to her mother’s love, both italicized: “the drug war’s crossed over,/ don’t you know minamahal pa rin kita?” When her mother hints at the borderland, it, too, is pushed into italics, without translation. It’s a small diversion, a protective act in which a mother shares her love and a daughter cherishes her mother’s language, an act that in itself can “guide the lava away from your home,” if we can make such invocations. Pimentel suggest that we can.

Within the same poem, Pimentel returns to an imagining of Mount Pinatubo’s eruption: “Walls break, people run, and in the middle of this, / I imagine a girl, also baring her expectant palms, her life / line, love line, crevices seeking water.” Here, the danger is historical, and expressly imagined in contrast to “the mounding dead” who the speaker doesn’t mention to her mother, the dead “here,” in El Paso, in Juárez. Pimentel provides the imagined, too, with a place in the body. When the girl she manufactures points to “her expectant palms, her life / line, love line, crevices seeking water” we know these places in our own bodies. I know that in my hand is also a place my mother has marked for future danger, a short life line, a crossed love line. In the middle of disaster, I, too, will be the girl turning to my hand to locate this eruption. Pimentel makes danger a fact for the body to know. The body tells me that the earth is a fluid thing. We are given the evidence: the volcano, the river, the body with “skin tender as water.” It is that simple. We are shown the evacuation. We are able to imagine an open hand, and we use it to read into a real future. In the future, we are the “emigrant” in America, as if we do not come from a land occupied by America. The American military’s departure from the Philippines after 94 years of occupation goes untelevised. And yet it is this proximity between documented history and the undocumented experience that Pimentel’s poetry embodies. We are shown an American experience within events dismissed as foreign broadcasts, and, as a result, we must redefine borders, alter a global scale, its allocations which define one tragedy as ours and another as someone else’s.

If we are going to talk about the emigrant, if we are going to identify our origins with our mothers, then certainly, the body is a borderland susceptible to other borders. Our proximity to one another is unavoidable: “House of her body, animal in grief. I carry my mother on my shoulder, cage her voice / against my cheek.” We carry the bodies who have carried us. We occupy the nations that have occupied homelands. So we move with them. We are moved by them, as much as the Rio Grande moves two countries beside it. And yet, the border incurs costs. A border means having to pay.

My mother, a first generation immigrant, explained to me that love in our language means expense. Mahal. Because “ours” was always a small family, I thought she meant the language of the Balikbayan. In this definition, the Balikbayan’s is a body that must produce its proof of love, and in doing so holds back language. In Pimentel’s “13 Ways of Knowing Her” the speaker can no longer ask her mother “where she is”:

I buy her a plastic owl on

It’s solar-powered, neck pivots, eyes glow.

The adult in me no longer wants to love. Like this. But I remember the
prayer of her armpit on my shoulder, her breasts crescent on my nascent
own, the smell of carpet and carrying her cramped and dragging legs. Mor-
timer!—, my mother—

her voice on the phone sobbing my name keeps
my anger still in motion, and I click for priority ship.

By the end of the poem, we have a speaker who can only “try to tell” about her mother. When she cannot make her mother understandable, the speaker looks to the body, the physical overlapping of her mother and herself, “the / prayer of her armpit on my shoulder.” Language fails, but the body manages to be memory, a shared sensation, a shared weight.

What I want is for her roving eye to keep still.

Instead I mimic her voice, my throat heaving with trill.

Language fails but language is part of the body, and to perpetuate even a mother’s failing mother tongue, that too is a form of preservation. Belonging demands being caught in one another’s borders, to know that proximity is a shared experience. Pimentel rationalizes that our bodies are enough for others to understand us. When I call my cousins on Skype, no one understands my Tagalog. I’m mimicking my mother’s voice, inhabiting a few sentences from her throat, a dialect lost half a century ago in the provinces. I have only my mother’s accent to repeat, the way I have tried and tried to resemble her, and it is enough. The people on Kaingin Rd. recognize my mother’s sound from my throat. Isn’t that also romantic, that our anatomy could make us recognizable, the border like a new skin that anyone might recognize us in and welcome us home?