The Wild West Meets the Southern Border
Shakespeare is in New Mexico. Tombstone, in Arizona. Both are old mining towns near the U.S.-Mexico border. They came into existence in the eighteen-seventies, during the silver strike, but soon suffered the same fate as most of the other mining towns in the region: boom, depression, abandonment, and then a strange kind of afterlife.
Some years ago, I spent a summer in the Southwest with my then husband, our daughter, and my two stepsons, and we visited both places. It was 2014, the immigration crisis was very much in the news—unaccompanied children from Central America were arriving at the border in unprecedented numbers, seeking asylum—and I was beginning to do research on the situation. My husband and I were obsessively meeting deadlines, and the kids were getting impatient with us, feeling that we had scammed them into a vacation with no vacation plan. So we looked online and found that Shakespeare and Tombstone offered family-friendly activities: stagecoaches, historamas, and Wild West reënactments.
Apparently, some of the biggest legends of the Wild West had passed through Shakespeare. Dangerous Dan had been there. Curly Bill, too. And Bean Belly Smith. To be honest, I had no idea who these men were. But, reading their names out loud to the kids, I showed enthusiasm. At least I had heard of Billy the Kid, who, it was claimed, had washed dishes at Shakespeare’s only hotel—the Stratford, on Avon Avenue—after escaping from jail in 1875.
Tombstone had a world-famous reënactment show, “The O.K. Corral,” which was staged four times a day. It had museums, theatres, and another form of entertainment: “While you are enjoying the festivities you can be hung or have someone hung by the Tombstone Vigilantes at the hanging scaffold.”
We took a vote. Two adults versus three offspring. Shakespeare was closer. Shakespeare was called Shakespeare. Shakespeare won.
When we got there, it turned out that we hadn’t done our research well: the town was privately owned and open only by appointment, and only for guided tours. At some point, Shakespeare had ceased staging reënactments and had become a rehearsal space for reënactment groups from other parts of the country, a place to practice gunfights and hangings. Now it no longer served that role, either.
So we continued on to Tombstone, which, to our relief, was everything the kids could have hoped for. It was like walking onto the set of an old Western. The streets were lined with haunted brothels and restored saloons, little museums and souvenir shops. On corners, frugal cowboys smoked cigarettes down to the butt, and announced the next gunfight in loud, hoarse voices. Horse-drawn stagecoaches passed by, their mostly senior passengers gazing abstractly out the window toward an invisible but vivid past.
“The O.K. Corral” re-created a dispute that led to a thirty-second shoot-out between outlaw cowboys (the Clanton brothers, the McLaury brothers, et al.) and Tombstone’s lawmen Doc Holliday and the brothers Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp, in the course of which lawlessness was defeated by lawfulness—or, at least, by a different kind of law.
While the kids watched another reënactment, at the Oriental Saloon, I waited outside. I wanted quiet and solitude. But horse-drawn carriages kept passing by, and a man dressed as a kind of harlequin-cowboy occupied a shady corner nearby and began singing country songs. I was asked for a light, and then a cigarette, and ended up smoking with a mildly depressed and very talkative Doc Holliday. At some point, he was greeted by another Doc Holliday, who also asked for a cigarette. The town, it seemed, existed not only in a loop of embodied repetitions of odd historical moments but also in a kind of cut-and-paste of the same people. It is entirely possible that, at any given moment in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp is having a beer with Wyatt Earp.
What were these towns? Shakespeare, as we had seen, had never quite recovered from the post-boom depression, and was now a ghost of a ghost town. Tombstone had recovered, and was a tourist destination visited by almost half a million people a year, though in many ways it was also a ghost town, a kind of Hades, ruled by the law of eternal return. It was a space where the past had been replaced by a peculiar, repetitive, and selective representation of the past.
Before leaving, the kids insisted on having a family portrait taken—one of those kitsch, sepia, barrels-in-the-background, rifles, and hats kinds of portrait. We were given a menu of costumes to choose from. We could be Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, or one of the Clantons—or an “Outlaw Mexican” or a “Native American.” We had our portrait taken, and that was that for our visit. But I was, of course, left with questions and thoughts about why some people get to have a name in history while others remain a generic category, why some identities are mapped into history and others are mapped out.
I returned to Shakespeare and Tombstone again this year—with my friend Pejk Malinovski, a writer and audio documentarian with whom I’d collaborated before—looking for answers. Or maybe I was looking for better questions. Since my last trip to Arizona, the national fixation on “the border crisis” had reached a fever pitch, and the treatment of undocumented migrants at the border had hit record lows. It was a good moment to return to these places which, although they are near the U.S.-Mexico border and along the most common migration corridors in the U.S., seemed, at least at first glance, oblivious both of history and of the current political reality.
It’s late April, and Pejk and I meet in Tucson. We visit two local friends, Francisco Cantú and Karima Walker, to get their perspective on the towns by the border and on immigration. (Cantú worked for some years for the U.S. Border Patrol, and later wrote a book about the experience, called “The Line Becomes a River.”) Walker asks if we’re going to interview Chris Simcox, who was a founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a Tombstone-based civilian border militia group. After working as a reënactor in one of the gunfights performed in Tombstone, Simcox bought and began editing the now defunct Tombstone Tumbleweed. And, in 2002, using the newspaper as his platform, he issued a call to arms, inviting volunteers to take part in a new citizens’ border militia: “Join together and protect your country in a time of war!” The M.C.D.C., which was connected to the deaths of multiple migrants, disbanded in 2010, but Walker’s question reinforces my sense that there may be a connection between these places which glorify and commodify a violent frontier past and the violence that is so frequently directed toward undocumented immigrants in the area. That night, I Google Simcox and discover that he is now in prison, for reasons unrelated to his Minuteman activities. (He was found guilty of child molestation in 2016 and is serving a nineteen-year sentence.)
Vigilante and civilian patrol groups like the M.C.D.C. have existed for as long as the frontier has existed; the difference is that the perceived enemy is no longer Native Americans but undocumented immigrants, most of whom are also, by the way, indigenous Americans (from America the continent). Indeed, the nineteenth-century narrative of the “savage Indian” is not so different from that of the “illegal immigrant” today. Most of the current discourse that condemns immigration across the southern border, from the White House on down, has to do with the supposed savagery, criminality, and illegality of the “invaders.” The M.C.D.C. no longer exists, but there are other groups. Most of them have Facebook and Web pages, some of which you need to be approved for before joining. In Arizona, there is Arizona Border Recon. In New Mexico, there’s the United Constitutional Patriots, founded in 2014 and led by Larry Mitchell Hopkins, who also goes by Johnny Horton, Jr. Videos posted on the Facebook page of the U.C.P.’s spokesman, Jim Benvie, show civilian militiamen in military-style uniforms driving down dark roads at night, following and then detaining migrants, and forcing them to sit or kneel on the ground to await the arrival of Border Patrol agents. Two weeks before our trip, the group posted a live video showing its members detaining two hundred migrants, among them children, at gunpoint. Hopkins was arrested and charged with illegal weapons possession soon afterward, and, in early May, after Paypal and GoFundMe shut down the group’s donations page, the U.C.P. rebranded itself as Guardian Patriots.
The next morning, Pejk, Cantú, and I head for Tombstone. I’ve been reading a book titled “Tombstone’s Most Haunted,” by Joshua Hawley, who is the director of reënactments at the O.K. Corral, and also the director of Tombstone’s paranormal investigations. In the book, Hawley lists the instruments that ghost hunters commonly use: “Video cameras with infrared night vision, still cameras, analog and digital audio recorders, motion detectors, and thermal-imaging cameras.” Cantú tells us that most of the same equipment is used by the Border Patrol (and probably also by civilian militias) to detect border crossers. He views this as another manifestation of the way in which migrants are dehumanized, seen as ghosts—or as targets in a high-tech video game.
As we distance ourselves from Tucson, the desert stretches endlessly before us, the saguaros, creosote, and mesquite becoming more frequent. Soon, the soft undulations of the hills are interrupted by the jagged peaks of the Dragoon Mountains, their contours sharp in the clear morning light. As we park in Tombstone, we notice a young man in nineteenth-century cowboy gear walking toward us. Spaghetti-bodied, he moves with a joyful kind of skip. He’s on his way to work at the O.K. Corral, it turns out, and the first show of the day starts in less than an hour. He tells us that he’s originally from Connecticut but now lives in Tombstone. Today, he’s playing the outlaw Frank McLaury, and when we ask him if he likes his job he furrows his brow, looks romantically toward the horizon, then back at us, and says, “Well, there’s nothin’ quite like getting to shoot guns at your friends all day, and then getting up and going to have a beer when you’re done.” He also sees it as a stepping stone toward some other acting job, maybe in the film industry, and, as he says this, his mouth opens in a wide, boyish smile. When we ask him what he doesn’t like about his job, he points to his gun and says that working with real guns onstage can be a safety hazard. He smiles again, but, with his hand on his gun, his boyishness seems a little less endearing.
He is the first person we talk to, and the first to readily show us his gun. Everyone else we talk to in the days that follow will do the same, always unprompted, at some point in our conversation. Outside the O.K. Corral, a monumental Virgil Earp with a full, graying mustache and a degree in history talks to us about his fascination with the Old West—and then shows us his guns. The cowboy Billy Claiborne tells us about his acting career, and then shows us his gun. A Wyatt Earp (or maybe it was a Morgan) follows suit. And then an Ike Clanton tells us that, in addition to acting in “The O.K. Corral,” he’s in charge of “making the ammo”—blanks—for all the reënactors: “You clean the shells, we use .45 shells, prime them, pack them with gun powder and vermiculite, to keep the powder inside the shell . . . and make it boom.”
“Boom?” I say.
“Yeah, boom! ”
Going to Tombstone can feel like stepping into someone’s psychotic episode—one fuelled by testosterone and paranoia. At the same time, it’s clear that the O.K. Corral reënactors are just actors, people trying to pay the bills, or kind of; when I was in Tombstone the first time, the two Doc Hollidays I talked to told me that the pay was so bad that another Doc Holliday spent half the year being Mickey Mouse at Disneyland to supplement it.
I want to talk to a reënactor who plays Big Nose Kate, who was at some point married to Doc Holliday and supposedly witnessed the gunfight from the boarding house next door. But there are no Kates to be seen. When I ask the elderly woman who sells T-shirts in the shop next to the O.K. Corral why she thinks women are mostly absent from the reënactment scene, she tells me that women do appear, but only on special weekends, and explains that, in the Old West, “women were either housewives or prostitutes. Not visible.”
I also ask her about one of the T-shirts on display. It has a picture of two guns, with the caption “The Original Homeland Security.” She looks at me with a smile and says, “Well, guns!”
The show is about to start, so we step into the O.K. Corral and find seats in the metal bleachers, among twenty or thirty spectators. The show itself goes over my head—Clantons, Earps, Clantons, Earps—but every single one of the many gunshots in the short performance makes me jump. Perhaps because I didn’t grow up in the U.S., Wild West reënactments evoke no nostalgia in me. When I ask American friends what they know about the reënactment world, most mumble something about the Civil War. Some were dragged as kids to a reënactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, which for the past twenty-five years has taken place annually at the site where the real battles were fought. Few people I come across know that there are more than fifty thousand Civil War reënactors in the country, members of a guild with strict hierarchies and distinctions. Tony Horwitz, in his book “Confederates in the Attic,” analyzes what he calls “a period rush,” the particular adrenaline-fuelled energy that comes with being fully immersed in an authentic re-creation. Authenticity is the yardstick in reënactment culture. A “farb” is a reënactor who doesn’t spend enough time or money on props and costumes. The most committed call themselves “living historians,” and the “hard-cores” among them sometimes go on spartanlike diets in order to resemble underfed nineteenth-century soldiers; others soak the buttons that they sew on their uniforms in urine, to generate just the right amount of rust.
Towns like Tombstone began staging reënactments in the late nineteen-twenties. Military forts around the country were being converted into tourist attractions, landmarks commemorating wars and battles dotted the landscape, and some ghost towns were repurposed as life-size stages. America was mythologizing, via tourism and pop culture, its still recent past, and there was plenty of material to work with. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, nickelodeons and dime novels had featured the “lawless towns” of the West, and stories of cowboys, saloons, gunfights, and outlaws had become part of the collective imagination. Then came television and Hollywood, to further consolidate the myths of the Wild West.
Frontier towns, the mining booms decades behind them, had to choose between extinction and transforming themselves into caricatures of their glory days for public consumption. Adapting involved mapping that collective imagination back into real space, capitalizing on and commodifying the myths—along with whatever deep currents those myths activated in people. In 1929, a group of residents in Tombstone, which was approaching its fiftieth anniversary and already almost a ghost town, decided to organize a celebration of the town’s heritage, with reënactments of its epic moments. They called it the Helldorado. A success, it was repeated for a few subsequent years, and then revived, by a group called the Tombstone Vigilantes, after the Second World War; in the nineteen-fifties, the group established year-round shows celebrating the town’s frontier days.
From the O.K. Corral, we wander into a cluttered, dark store, where books, magazines, and files are stacked in columns. In a corner of the shop, we find an old man with a snowy mustache and some strands of white hair, combed and gelled back. He is Ben Traywick, the ninety-one-year-old, now retired official historian of Tombstone. He was born in Tennessee and worked in nuclear fission, before being transferred to a missile project, Polaris, in California. He later owned an explosives factory near Tombstone, where he relocated in the sixties.
Traywick is full of stories, a kind of Wizard of Oz of Tombstone, and the author of countless reënactment skits. He wrote the original O.K. Corral scene (and played Wyatt Earp for twenty years).
I ask him what he thinks draws so many people to the Tombstone reënactments.
“When I came here, in 1968, I saw that Tombstone was not being advertised,” he says. “That’s the key, right there, advertisement. So I wrote a script for all those big acts that happened here. We decided to do historical acts that really happened. We were very careful to have proper costumes, proper attitudes. . . . We re-created history. . . . Nobody got it right till I came along!”
An interesting paradox of the reënactment scene’s obsession with authenticity and historical accuracy, this “getting it right,” is that accuracy is measured in terms of the minute details of a particular event, which does not necessarily amount to historical accuracy in the broader sense. Old West history buffs may endlessly dispute whether Wyatt Earp was wearing a specific kind of bow tie during the O.K. Corral shoot-out in 1881, but may be oblivious of much of what was happening in the region during those years.
When the original shoot-out at the O.K. Corral took place, one of the U.S.’s genocidal campaigns against Native Americans, known more widely and conveniently as the Apache Wars, was under way. Chief Cochise died in 1874, but Geronimo defended the Apacheria until 1886, before being driven, with thirty of his people, onto the Fort Sill Reservation, in Oklahoma. By 1848, Mexico had lost California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming, after a war that is known here as the Mexican War and in Mexico, more objectively but somehow also more courteously, as the United States Intervention. Then, in 1853, in a maneuver to insure the construction of the Pacific Railroad, the southern portion of a transcontinental railroad, the U.S. negotiated the Gadsden Purchase, and Mexico lost southern Arizona and southern New Mexico. Tombstone lies within that portion of the country, and in the eighteen-eighties there were still many Mexicans living there. In 1882, according to a framed document in Traywick’s bookstore, there were four hundred Mexicans and twenty-eight hundred Americans living in Tombstone. Native Americans were (and are, of course) also present in the region, as were small numbers of African-Americans and Asians. When I went to Tombstone for the first time, with my family—all of us born in Mexico—we quickly noticed that there were no Mexicans being portrayed in the reënactments. No Native Americans, either. Non-whites seemed to have been completely erased from the popular narratives.
I ask Traywick why Mexicans and Native Americans don’t appear, even as enemies or adversaries, in borderland reënactments.
He stumbles a little, searching for the right words: “Mexicans were an accepted part of the problem here. They were part of the population here. Part of the civilization we had here.”
“Yes, but you know how we have Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, the Clantons—are there any reënactments in town where there is a Mexican character?”
“Well, we had Mexican characters in our show.”
“Hard to say. You have to take them as a whole. They were in our group.”
“Can you remember any Mexican characters?”
“Well, there was a Mexican here in town. He cooked the best beef in the world.”
Traywick tells Pejk and Cantú a long story about beheadings in China and shows them pictures of decapitated men, while I browse in the bookstore. There’s a Confederate flag in the back, some Mayan masks and relics behind Traywick’s desk, a few dusty mariachi hats, many framed pictures of admirals and generals—among them Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate Army general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan—and a poster of Donald Trump dressed as a cowboy, with a gun under his belt, and the slogan “Keeping America Safe Again.”
I ask Traywick his opinion on current border issues.
“Let me tell you something I would like to see, and that will answer your question,” he says. “I think that the U.S. made a big mistake. When they had Santa Anna, and had a chance to, they should have annexed Mexico. That would solidify the whole continent of North America.”
“Including Central America?”
“Yeah, get them, too!”
“That said, do you think there should be a wall between Mexico and the U.S.?”
“Yeah, I do, I do, because we have gotten so many criminals, and so many people with diseases. We need to protect ourselves. We still oughta take immigrants, but we oughta be choosy about taking them. Not take the people that have aids, and whatever.”
When we ask if there are many undocumented immigrants in Tombstone, he says, “When people come to town, illegals, they leave quickly. . . . They know that everybody here owns a gun. No trouble.”
And yet Traywick denies that there is any connection between Tombstone’s obsession with nineteenth-century vigilante justice and the civilian militia groups currently in the area. That is, he sees no connection between reënactments that celebrate hangings and gunfights as the “original homeland security” and contemporary forms of extrajudicial justice in which civilians deputize themselves to perform the tasks normally reserved for law enforcement.
I ask Traywick if he’s familiar with Chris Simcox and the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. “He had nothing to do with the rest of the people. That was his own project,” he replies starkly. “Well, when he started that it looked like a good thing, but he let it take over his life. It got all out of bounds. I think he finally went to jail, didn’t he?”
I wonder what Traywick means by “he let it take over his life”—what that “it” means. Hatred? Guns? Vigilante justice? According to an article published by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2006, Simcox was arrested in 2003 for illegally carrying a semi-automatic weapon in a national park along the border: “Also in Simcox’s possession at the time of that arrest . . . were a document entitled ‘Mission Plan,’ a police scanner, two walkie-talkies, and a toy figure of Wyatt Earp on horseback.” It seems plausible that, just as fictions about the Wild West have spilled over into real spaces like Tombstone, the fiction, repeated endlessly in reënactments, could somehow spill back into reality, be performed back into existence.
Before we say goodbye to Traywick, he takes us to the back of his shop and pulls out a long, curved black metal sword. He holds it up, looking proud and solemn, like a boy showing off his “Star Wars” lightsabre. He tells us that he had it shipped from China. “It’s a beheading sword!” he says.
On our way to an appointment with Dave Ochsenbine, the owner of Shakespeare, I read an advisory on the town’s Web page: “There is an abundance of rattle snakes, animals, mine borings and shafts that can cause you injury or death. There is also the current danger of drug mules walking from the Southern Border into the Lordsburg area. You do not want to come across or stop any person walking on the range.” “Drug mules” are one of the first things I bring up with Rod Linkous, a cowboy reënactor from El Paso, who gives us a tour of Shakespeare. He says that there is, indeed, evidence of drug mules passing through town, especially down by the arroyo, where they leave tracks.
“But they could just be people migrating, right?”
“There’s both: the coyotes and the mules.”
He doesn’t acknowledge the idea of “people,” just repeats the words “coyotes” and “mules,” terms that fit in well with the other creatures on the Shakespeare advisory list—rattlesnakes and animals. I ask Linkous if there are also civilian militias in the area. He says that they are definitely out here, too, but, he adds, “they’ve been kicked out because of . . . politics, basically. But they never threaten anybody. All they can do, under U.S. law, is effect a citizen’s arrest, detain illegals until the Border Patrol gets there. They’re doing the job. I figured it out one day: any one day there’s four thousand Border Patrol agents to cover six thousand miles of territory, Canadian and Mexican borders. That’s not a whole lot. So I can see the militia trying to help in some way.”
Shakespeare consists of nine or ten abandoned buildings, two inhabitants, and a spindly aluminum windmill. Our visit doesn’t last long, but Linkous is well versed in history, and we discuss the murky distinction between lawfulness and lawlessness in the nineteenth century. We’re talking about the history of vigilante groups in the Southwest when Ochsenbine joins us. His father-in-law’s family, the Hills, bought the abandoned town in 1935, and he and his wife, Gina, moved here from Ohio, just last year. They plan to do everything they can to keep the place alive and to preserve its history. He tells us about the Shakespeare Guard, which was formed in 1879, by a group of about seventy men, to protect the town from Apaches (the original inhabitants of the land).
When we ask the two men what they like about nineteenth-century history, Linkous explains, “Well, there’s people moving West, fighting Indians, the Mexicans, the elements themselves, and somehow producing the country that we have today.”
“Aren’t people who are coming here now the same as those independent settlers who were simply looking for a better life?” I ask.
Ochsenbine answers, “Whether they’re coming from Central America or China, they’re looking for a better life. I get that. But there’s a right way to go about it and a wrong way to go about it. And just coming over the border illegally is the wrong way.”
The mythos of the Wild West celebrates the spirit of those who sought to settle in a new land, domesticate its difficulties, and thrive. Why, I ask, is that spirit admired in some cases and condemned in others? Our Shakespeare guides protest that I’m conflating two different things. One case is “historical” and the other is . . . not.
Driving south, toward the border, we see no signs of crisis, no migrants, and few cars. We see a Border Patrol cam truck—a pickup with a surveillance camera mounted on a tall mast—and many commercial trucks, probably transporting commodities in and out of the country. The great paradox of the nafta agreement is that it has allowed for freer trade of merchandise across the border, and less freedom of movement for people.
In Douglas, Arizona, we reach the wall—or part of the wall that was constructed during the Obama Administration. There are two walls, in fact—one painted creamy white, on the American side; the other copper-colored, on the Mexican side—with a strip of land the width of about ten long strides between the two. Being there makes me feel slightly nauseated—as though my body wanted to cry, but from the belly, not the chest.
We drive west along the wall until we see a sign for an R.V. park called Twin Buttes, and decide to go in. When we knock on the door of the main office, a woman in her sixties named Beverly greets us with a neighborly smile. Pejk tells her, holding his microphone in her direction, that we are there to talk about immigration, and she says, “I can, but maybe my husband might like to talk to you, too. Oh, we know a lot about the border.” She tells us that her husband is just around the back, with some other R.V. residents. “It’s happy hour!” she adds.
Out back, there are four men and one woman sitting at a long wooden picnic table, sipping beers. They look a little surprised as we approach. Beverly’s husband, Roger Kercher, greets us, and when he hears our accents he says, “You guys aren’t from America.”
Pejk says that he’s originally Danish but is now a U.S. citizen, and Roger replies, “O.K., the accent, I recognized it right off!”
He laughs with an expansive roar. He’s obviously the alpha man of the bunch, and he’s happy to talk at length about his views on the southern border. Between 2002 and 2008, before Obama put up this section of the wall, he tells us, he and Beverly sometimes had twenty people at their front door at two in the morning, looking for help, water, food.
Beverly chimes in, “And especially for a ride to Phoenix—everybody wanted a ride to Phoenix.”
“What would you do?” I ask.
“Well, we would call the Border Patrol!” Roger answers. “And then we, well, she would give them water, bananas, bread, peanut butter, ’cause there’d be all sorts of little kids.”
Since the wall went up, he says, they mostly “get” young people, fewer kids, fewer old people. He refers to the men as “males.” He adds that all the twenty-one-year-olds who come are carrying fifty pounds of drugs on their back, and have a sniper with them. So, if you see “illegals with backpacks,” you have to ignore them: “Because someone is watching you, watching them.”
He tells a story about a Guatemalan who recently showed up, asking for a cell-phone charger and a ride to Phoenix, and boasts that he himself sent the man back to Mexico. It was the fourth time that the man had been deported. He points to one of the trailers in the park and says, “I have a Border Patrol agent who lives in that trailer, and a very good friend that’s a customs agent.” His Border Patrol friend tells him that, these days, there are Guatemalans, Chinese, and Cubans, and that “everybody is coming over now because they know they can sneak over with the other illegals.”
One of the men at the table, who has been silent until now, finishes his sentence: “And be released!”
The others, in a chorus, repeat, “And be released!”
The rule in the R.V. park, they say, is “You see one, you call one,” meaning that you call Border Patrol. When we ask Roger if he belongs to a civilian patrol group, he chuckles, and says not formally, but he surely drives out to the desert to help and support his fellow-patriots.
The main complaint in the R.V. park is that “illegals” cost money. That they are given free services everywhere, in the E.R. and in Social Security offices, where they ask for pensions, and that Americans have to pay for this. (This is, of course, not the reality of an undocumented immigrant.) Roger says that part of the problem is “bleeding-heart societies,” like the Catholic Charities, that have become an “incentive” for migrants. He suggests that all the illegals should just go to Minnesota. The others smile.
Pejk asks them what the solution might be.
Roger turns to him and holds his hand as if it were a pistol, aimed at Pejk’s chest. “I can’t shoot you, unless you’re robbing me, because then I broke the law, it’s illegal to shoot you,” he says. “But you can’t come into somebody’s country without legal documentation.”
“What would your solution be?”
“First off is, I’d go ahead and put the wall up, because it does regulate the young people and the old people, and vehicles.”
“So a solid wall, all the way?”
“Would be a good start,” Roger says, but he has more ideas: “Like the Guatemalan guy I sent back the fourth time, he’s gotta go to prison, and he’s gonna spend some time. . . . All right, well, let’s put ’em on a chain gang and let ’em cut the road ditches, and teach ’em a lesson!”
The R.V. park has thirty R.V. stations, a recreational area, and marked walking paths. Roger heads off down one of them, but says he’ll be back and instructs us to wait for him. The sky above is vast and cloudless.
When Roger returns, he is driving a golf cart. It has a blue siren light stuck to the top and a bumper sticker that says “Tombstone, Arizona: Justice Is Coming.” As he steps out of the golf cart, he explains that the other residents say he’s like the sheriff around there, so, as a joke, they gave him the siren light and the bumper sticker. As we thank him for his time and begin to say goodbye, he reaches into the glove box of the golf cart and says, “By the way, wait, just to show you what the truth is . . .” He takes out a pistol. “I never leave home without one! We live in a dangerous area. One in my car, one in my golf cart.”
“Are you folks ready for a gunfight?”
“Yeah!” we answer.
Firing his gun into the air, Doc Holliday repeats, “I said, Are you folks ready for a gunfight?”
“Yeah!” we say again.
“All right! Now, before we get started, I do have to talk to you about a couple of things. First things first, these are not toys—these are real firearms.”
He aims at a soda can and fires. The can explodes.
We all go, “Ahhhh!”
And then there’s another gunshot, and the O.K. Corral reënactment officially begins.
The history of frontier towns like Shakespeare and Tombstone is one in which primarily white populations moved West, claiming territory and forcibly ejecting or killing those who were already there, then defending that territory against “invaders,” who were often the previous inhabitants—that is, Native Americans and, later, Mexicans—and, finally, establishing law. This last stage of frontier history is what is most often mined for reënactments: a Manichean representation of good (white) lawmen vs. bad (white) cowboys, which is ultimately a celebration of the founding of white America. The rest—the part about killing or banishing non-white others in order to defend claimed land—is conveniently elided. But the practice lives on, in a kind of reënactment with very real consequences, in which the protagonists are civilian border patrollers—people who feel they have a right to do whatever they can to keep others, and especially non-white others, out of this land. This vigilantism rests on the myth of the frontier, or on the idea of a place at the very edge of civilization that needs to be conquered and tamed and then guarded—with guns or with walls—against potential invaders, or bandidos. Like two mirrors facing each other, Wild West reënactments and the myths that fuel them shed light on the emotions driving the response to “the border crisis,” and, conversely, thinking about civilian border militias unveils some of the myths behind reënactment culture. The knot of intuitions I came with on this trip is finally unravelling. But, of course, there are new questions.
There are many ways of engaging politically with the world, of interacting with and establishing an emotional and intellectual connection with the communities to which we belong, as well as with communities that we don’t recognize as our own. There are rallies, classrooms, social networks, publishing spaces, sweat lodges, churches, bars, theatres, dinner parties. There are reënactments. But we’re living in a time when most forms of political engagement seem highly curated, cut sharply around the edges so as to include only that and those with whom we have a perceived affinity. I returned to Tombstone and Shakespeare in an effort to change the angle from which I approach immigration issues, to step outside my usual dynamics. In effect, I wanted to reënact my own past, in a different persona. I returned to the borderlands to look hatred in the face. But what I saw was not quite hatred. It was something more hollow, circular, repetitive. Something more like a reënactment of hate. ♦