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From both sides: Professor travels the U.S.-Mexico border and brings his story to UNM lecture

Charles D. Thompson Jr. is professor of the practice of cultural anthropology and documentary studies at Duke University.

Charles D. Thompson Jr. is professor of the practice of cultural anthropology and documentary studies at Duke University.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Almost everyone has an opinion about the U.S.-Mexican border. But Duke University anthropology professor Charles D. Thompson Jr. has a challenge for his students and anyone else before they crystallize their thoughts.

“My recommendation is simple. Before you make up your mind on immigration, get to know an immigrant – at least one,” Thompson says in a phone interview from his office in North Carolina. “The people are the border to me, the individuals I’ve talked to on both sides. You realize you are talking to people and not statistics. The reality of the lived border is much different than the imagined border that is steeped in fear and resentment.”

While his challenge is simple, he acknowledges the solutions to the myriad issues of immigration for workers and refugees, is complex. “The history of the border is sordid. It’s not all as we’ve been told. Still it isn’t simple. I know many people lost jobs to globalization in this country. I do know, if people can move past their fears, they can solve the problems. America is in danger of losing its soul to its fears.”

Thompson, a farmer turned activist, traveled the 1,969 miles of U.S.-Mexican border to follow his own advice and wrote a book, “Border Odyssey: Travels Along the U.S.-Mexico Divide,” (University of Texas Press, 2015) with companion films and a website, borderodyssey.com. “I went to talk to as many people as I could and to cross the border as many times as I could,” he says.

Thompson will speak Monday at the University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman Library in the Water’s Room. An exhibit on immigration and refugees, “I Have a Name,” is also on display there.

“The stories told and the landscape addressed in “Border Odyssey” are compelling because they reflect so many different places, people, stories, histories and lives, challenging overly simplistic views of the geopolitical boundary between Mexico and the U.S.,” says organizer Suzanne Schadl, an associate professor and curator in Latin American Collections at UNM Libraries.

In her commitment to multiple sources that move readers through time and space, she says, “I think it’s imperative to embrace storytelling. Dr. Thompson’s (book) is a tour-de-force in this regard.”

Part of what moved Thompson from organic farming to anthropology, was his love of other people’s stories.

His personal border odyssey started in 1985 on his small farm in Pittsboro, N.C., with a crop of blackberries ready to harvest and not enough help to pick them.

“I was doing most everything alone and there just weren’t enough hours of sunlight to get all the two acres of ripe berries harvested,” he says.

He knew many immigrants from Mexico had been working at a nearby chicken plant, so he went there to see if anyone wanted some work.

Five men from Mexico drove into his driveway in an old beat-up Impala. He says he was never so glad to see anybody. “I felt a powerful sense of relief wash over me. I felt like crying.”

Thompson says the men saved his crop working a few hours everyday, running to the fields and returning with filled flats of berries.

As he got to know the men, Eusebio, Librado, Faustino, Juan and Jesus, he learned they were farmers too, much more accomplished that he was. They had families in Mexico on their family farms, who relied on them to help financially, so they could hold onto their land. “I learned firsthand about their harrowing journeys and of their risk to provide money for their families.”

“The disparity began to weigh on me,” he remembers. “The borderlands overtook me personally and professionally. I cannot escape their meaning – not just down at the southern line below the United States, but the little borders everywhere in our lives, the borders especially between the people we depend on in so many ways and the policies that vilify them.”

Thompson says a wall between Mexico and the United States is unpatriotic in a country descended from immigrants and built with the ideals symbolized by the Statue of Liberty.

“It’s not a partisan issue. This is the American Dream,” he says, recalling that former President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, is known for demanding the Soviet Union tear down the wall between West and East Germany. “At the time West Germany was super developed and East Germans were desperate to cross the border. It is possible to see a country deprived of development, education and freedom become different, if we work together.”

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