In January 2015 I visited the border city of Brownsville, Texas, driving eight hours south of my hometown of Dallas with a friend to visit his father. During this brief winter visit I was unexpectedly introduced to the Doble Rueda (Double Wheel) bicycling collective operating within Matamoros, Tamaulipas, the Mexican city that shares the border with Brownsville. I joined a social bicycle ride within Matamoros, the first of many, full of unexpected turns and encounters which profoundly shifted my own perception of the place. This introduction spurred a year-long collaboration between members of Doble Rueda and myself, a collective research endeavor that methodologically took the form of many exploratory bicycle rides, lots of hanging out, a few formal interviews, and various modes of filmmaking.
This essay compiles varied lines of inquiry that emerged from these collaborative experiences on the bicycle in Matamoros. The text journeys through personal prose, ethnographic observations, socio-political history, and spatial border theory, unraveling in sometimes unexpected ways that mirror the experience of bicycling as an inherently aleatory form of mobility. Besides bicycling and scholarly research, filmmaking emerged as a third aspect of this project. While bicycling in Brownsville and Matamoros, I collected film materials in a variety of formats, and the resulting footage has itself become a research tool that continues to reciprocally inform the study of space, mobility, and mediation in these two border cities. Clips of this visual research are embedded throughout this essay, meant to not only illustrate the ideas but to stand as their own unique form of visual research and analysis.
I begin this essay with descriptions of my own initial visits to Matamoros, the first in a car and the second on the bicycle. These anecdotes illustrate different sensorial and (re)mediating experiences within the two forms of mobility, and I will continue the essay with a discussion of their potential ideological implications. I follow this with a brief account of the current socio-political situation in Matamoros, and an exposition of Doble Rueda and its organizing beliefs and strategies. This research illustrates how the group, operating within a place fractured by violence and corruption, utilizes the visceral and connective capacities of bicycling to build community and re-narrate their city.
I consider bicycling as a praxis—a specific way of moving and thinking in tandem—that can reach outside the limits of representation through its material and corporeal immersions in space. I posit that this holds unique implications on the border, a place defined by representations of binary restrictions, not only territorial but social and psychological as well. This binary logic, largely based in conceptions and representations of “safe” and “unsafe” is ubiquitously felt in Brownsville, where a fear of the nearby “other side” is palpable. I posit that this binary logic is specious. Surely, uneven power distributions run deep and have violent implications, based on a historical context of multiple and ongoing colonizations and racial violence. My identity (as a white, female American) offers me specific privilege within this ongoing history. This research hopes to challenge the increasingly violent rhetoric and material divisions, historically and currently perpetuated to support both ideological white supremacy and economic subjugation. Through a case study of the bicycling community in Matamoros, I hope to shed light on material practices that resist this logic of division. Bicycling is not an equalizing force; but as a communal and spatial practice, it manifests an understanding of difference as multifaceted and textural. Furthermore, as a fluid and affective mode of mobility, it softens and permeates the hard edges enforced by the border infrastructure and its accompanying transnational corruption.
I finish this essay with a comparison of spatial control, infrastructure, and cultural considerations of space within each of these two cities. In Brownsville, a border wall cuts through the south end of the city and inhibits access to the Río Bravo Del Norte (the Spanish name for the Rio Grande River, which demarcates the national boundary). The border wall, and its securitizing infrastructure, seeks to striate space, to delimit and control it based on fixed lines. The river, an enduring, fluctuating, serpentine topography inherently contradicts the demarcating logic of the border and the nationalist enterprises imposed on it through the 1948 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.1 I was lucky to explore the river alongside bicyclists in Matamoros, who regularly traverse and race along its banks.
The bicycle afforded me access to Matamoros, a place regrettably underrepresented within research surrounding the border due in large part to the current situation surrounding drug trafficking. The bicycle offers expanded access to mobility in Matamoros, where it flows through societal and institutional loopholes, apparently overlooked by the various violent undercurrents of power existing there. I’m very grateful to the members of Doble Rueda who offered me a bicycle and welcomed me as a friend with graciousness, honesty, and criticality. The many communal bicycle rides I undertook with Doble Rueda in Matamoros, and the footage gathered along the way, reveal many practices and paradigms of thought that resist or lay outside of the violent divisions built up by the powers that be. Special thanks to Andrés Cárdenas, Leslie Zamoram, and Rocio Contreras Garcia for their help with research, translation, and fact checking; as well as Joel Isaias Fragosos, Elida Garcia, Luna León, Carolina Luna, and Moi Mendez Valdez, who appear in the videos throughout this text.
Two Visits Across the River
Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Tamaulipas are two trans-border cities that are so close to each other they could be one. Roughly twenty-five miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, the Río Bravo del Norte runs between the two cities, demarcating the international border between the United States and Mexico. A geographer from Matamoros mentioned to me once that while many people speak of the river as “dividing” the two cities, it’s more accurate to consider the two cities as “brought together” by it. The two cities are indelibly connected, historically and currently functioning within a complex socio-economic and political symbiosis. Brownsville and Matamoros used to enjoy a rich degree of cross-city exchange, reaping the benefits of the nearby Gulf Region’s tourism industry. In recent years, however, movement between the two has become ostensibly uni-directional, flowing predominantly from Mexico into the United States. As a result, the cities are increasingly considered as separated rather than entwined.
I first visited Brownsville in January 2015 with a friend who had lived there briefly as a teenager in 2001. My friend’s father lives in Brownsville but commutes daily to his job as the manager of a maquiladora—a free-trade factory—in Matamoros. Prior to moving to Brownsville, he worked in the manufacturing business in upstate New York, but that industry largely collapsed in the 1990’s after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and so my friend’s father followed the factories to the U.S.’ southern border.2
We arrived expecting to cross into Mexico as my friend had in his teenage years, but his father vehemently warned us against doing so. He relayed detailed stories of kidnappings, shootings, and carjackings resulting from the cartel presence in the city. In an effort to further deter us from crossing, he recorded a video of his daily commute and workplace with a point-and-shoot camera and brought it back to show us what the city was like.
Looking over his steering wheel through the windshield of his car, my friend’s father narrates his understanding of the city: mostly geographic notations, focusing often on army presence in order to emphasize his assertion of the city as a place defined by illicit activity. He drives through the “industrial park”, an expanse of factories, and describes some products manufactured—airbags, snowplows—that will subsequently be exported to the U.S. Inside his factory, he and his camera loom over women sitting at sewing machines working on textiles, the repetitive nature of their labor reinforced by the sounds of the machines stopping and starting.
That evening, he screened each clip for us at his house in Brownsville, hoping his travelogue would suppress our own desires to visit Matamoros. The next day, we drove over the border anyway. We never told my friend’s father, but given his avid attempts to deter us, we were scared. We crossed through Brownsville’s Gateway checkpoint and drove around Matamoros nervously for about an hour. As the city passed by through the car window, I imagined that at any moment we might be pulled over and robbed at gunpoint. The fact that we were in Mexico held a dark, ominous overtone, colored by the anecdotes we had heard.
We did find a very different city from the Spring Break destination my friend remembered. In previous years, many young Americans vacationing at the nearby coast would cross into Matamoros to take advantage of the low drinking age. Now, the bars and clubs near the border are closed and boarded up. Armored pickup trucks patrol the city with clusters of standing masked soldiers in their beds, the Policia Federal, ominously clad entirely in black, faces covered, holding machine guns. As we drove, we were cautious not to stray far from downtown. We watched some young girls light firecrackers near the levee of the river. We got out and peeked over the embankment to look at the river timidly. We visited a tourist shop near the border checkpoint and then we left.
Somehow, despite Matamoros existing in such close proximity to Brownsville (the distance between the two cities’ downtown areas would be an approximate ten-minute walk), it felt extremely distant, an impenetrable and scary city. The more often I visited the region in the coming year, the more I realized that this is how most of Brownsville currently relates to Matamoros—fearfully, from a distance, with very little visitation.
A few days after our first visit across the border, I met an acquaintance in Brownsville who told me about a social bicycle ride that was organized weekly in Matamoros. Despite more stern and cautionary advisories from an eavesdropping stranger, I was loaned a bicycle, and on a wet and cold Thursday evening I accompanied Andrés back through the Gateway crossing into Matamoros, this time on two wheels. Andrés, who was originally born in Matamoros but now lives and works in Brownsville, is one of the core organizers of the bicycle rides.
It was cold and lightly raining, and by the time we began the ride the sun had begun to set. We joined about thirty-five other cyclists—a smaller group than usual due to the cold weather—at the Parque Olímpico in the city center. We commenced a 15km ride into the outskirts of the city, the ostensibly more dangerous areas that I was specifically warned against visiting.
I rode alongside cyclists from Matamoros, members of the Doble Rueda bicycle collective. Cyclists surrounded each other in the haphazard streets that taxis and school buses (converted into public buses) speed through. Some cycled ahead in the busiest intersections to block traffic so the rest of the group could flow through unhindered. The organizers called out in Spanish to warn of upcoming obstructions or direct us into specific lanes. I understood little of what they were saying, but reacted in accordance with the body movements of others. I was attuned to even the smallest indications of what might be coming next—a turn, a pothole. On this trip across the border, I experienced a completely different city: somehow its space seemed smoother, easier to pass through. It was vibrant and moving and we were flowing through as part of it.
After the ride, at around 9pm, Andrés and I rode around the city center together and he pointed out some notable landmarks of the city. He jokingly asked me if I was scared to be in the city, and I admitted that I initially was, but the fear abated throughout the ride. Late at night, Andrés and I crossed back into Texas. When crossing the border checkpoint by bicycle, cyclists are allowed to bypass any cars waiting in line. This is especially strategic when crossing back into the United States, a process that can take hours. That night, and many nights to follow as I crossed back into the United States by bicycle, the Border Patrol agent asked me: “Weren’t you scared?”3
Sensory Experiences, Mobilities, Mediations
My first two visits to Matamoros, the first via car and the second via bicycle, illuminate a relationship between mobility and mediation, and how they can shape each other in ways we are oftentimes unaware of, especially in places as mythologized as the US-Mexico border. “Mythology” here is meant in the Barthesian tradition, to indicate that the concept of “the border” has become defined by hegemonic signifiers and aesthetic representations, and that these hold concealed ideological meaning that reinforces the dominant socio-political and economic structure.4 The representations of the southern border, in U.S. culture, function based on a logic of separation meant to reinforce national endeavors of persuasion that, “those living north of the Rio Grande were different than those living south of it.”5 Erbert et. al. describe, in a semiotic analysis of the U.S-Mexico Border, that this representational separation has created categories of safe and unsafe, illustrated in the fearful rhetoric I encountered in Brownsville. The experience via bicycle began to undermine these discursive divisions. This process can be illustrated by considering Laura U. Marks’ revisitation of C.S. Peirce’s three categories of human perception.6
The philosopher and logician C.S. Peirce, best known for his triad of signs, developed a framework of three irreducible categories of embodied, multi-sensorial perception: Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. The three categories of perception flow on a progressive continuum. Peirce considered Firstness as immediate impression, or, as described in his 1904 Letters to Lady Welby, “qualities of feeling.”7 He elaborates: an idea of Firstness is “the unanalyzed total impression made by any manifold not thought of as actual fact, but simply as a quality, as simple positive possibility of appearance.” Laura U. Marks describes Firstness as “the moment at which the world first brushes up against our senses.”8 Firstness is unexpected, immediate sensation—an embodied encounter with the materiality of the world.
Secondness is our human ability to cognitively process sensation. Secondness allows us to “distinguish among these feelings and act accordingly.”9 Thirdness is the generalization of these impressions and feelings. It involves placing these encounters and experiences within our logic of the world. For Peirce, this semiotic process of perception is in a constant rotation between First and Third: “a rich and constant process of mediation, a continuum between impression, perception, and thought.”10
Laura Marks argues that our current age is dominated by a hyper-acceleration of flows of capital and information. Along with this acceleration, “the translation of embodied experience into disembodied information has sped up.”11 In a world oversaturated with information and corporate interests, most of our lived experiences come with pre-coded instructions on how to process them. Firstness, our rich pre-conscious field of perception, has largely dropped out of our perceptual explorations and thus many experiences begin with Secondness. Marks asserts that if “what makes us human is our ability to participate fully in the process of mediation, these accelerations appear to have a dehumanizing effect.”12
With this proposal in mind, wasn’t my first experience in Matamoros—stale and fearful—defined by Secondness? I experienced it based on the information I had received before I arrived: representations of danger and crime. This, in turn, structured an experience dominated by fear, with no direct relation to the space I was interacting with. My experience ran parallel to the form of mobility it was enacted within. The car, a confined, sensorially sanitized space, created a physical barrier to experiencing the city. This physical division is parallel to the increasing material bisection and separation between the two nations imposed in the name of U.S. border securitization. My friend’s father, in his recordings, evokes this binary logic, speaking about the city’s inhabitants as a semi-distant other always determined as an undefined “they” as he films through his windshield.
Deleuze, in his works on cinema, visualized the concept of Secondness as a binary—“something that refers to itself only through something else, existence, action—reaction, effort resistance.”13 This concept of dualisms holds significant weight when considering the border region, which is arguably defined by binaries. Most obviously, two nationalities are considered in contrast to one another. But further, we often perceive the immigrant in contrast to Border Patrol, illegal to legal, cartel to government, safe to unsafe. The delimitations created by this discourse affect our lived mediation of a place, especially when citizens of the United States, where these discourses are hegemonic.
I began to reflect on my second visit to Matamoros on the bicycle as allowing for a richer perceptual experience that operated on Peirce’s complete continuum from First to Third. The alternative mode of transport allowed an unexpected, embodied, interpersonal experience within the city. I moved through the city with the help of my body as well as my mind, the two working together to negotiate the space alongside other mobile subjects. Deleuze visualized Firstness as a singularity: “that which is as it is for itself and in itself . . . the category of the Possible.”14 My second experience by bicycle allowed for a return of Firstness: Matamoros became recognizable as a singularity, rather than positioned within a binary. I felt a sense of the city’s immediacy, its internal forces and possibilities. Cycling emerged as a praxis of integrated moving and thinking, an experience that enables a deep observation of space within rich layers of multi-sensorial perception.
My visit on the bicycle can be considered as a “shock”, in the way Walter Benjamin conceived the term. Massumi, referencing Benjamin, describes the shock as an unexpected event, no matter how minute, that “forces us to re-establish focus, re-jig our potential actions, refresh our relational field.”15 This bicycle ride was the first of many that I undertook in the upcoming year, and each ride itself was rich with micro-shocks: unexpected bumps, turns, unruly pedestrians, movements and words of fellow cyclists, ambient sounds, smells and stray dogs. Each was experienced by chance encounter and each caused disruptions in my understandings of the city’s relational field. Because of this process, cycling in Matamoros allowed me to deconstruct many of the ways preconceived codes and representations had shaped my previous experience.
My own understanding and experience of Matamoros is not of high importance—the situation in the city is pressing most of all to the everyday lived experience of dwellers on the ground. I exist in the city as an outsider of privileged race, as most residents of the city experience lower access to mobility and greater levels of precarity in their day to day lives. Matamoros’ proximity to the border has given rise to a violent context, inflicted most of all to those people living within it, but its depictions within mainstream discourse, and within Brownsville, also impact the way its residents mediate and understand their city.
The Crimes Behind Headlines
Matamoros holds a distinct place in the complex history of cartel operated drug-trafficking into the United States. El Cártel del Golfo (the Gulf Cartel) found its roots in Matamoros during the U.S. era of prohibition, making a business of smuggling alcohol across the border.16 The Gulf Cartel came to prominence as one of the dominant Mexican drug trafficking organizations in the 1980’s under the leadership of Juan García Ábrego, who institutionalized cocaine trafficking into its illicit business operations. The historian Paul Gootenberg has illustrated that the explosion of cocaine trafficking into the United States during the 1980s, and its transformation of border cities such as Juárez, Tijuana, and Matamoros into bloody battlefields of cartel competition, was precipitated by a history of U.S. policies and interferences in Latin American drug production and trade.17 Matamoros experienced one such adverse effect of U.S. intervention after the arrest of Ábrego in 1996 and his resulting extradition to the United States. In Ábrego’s immediate absence, the Gulf Cartel flourished, as Osiel Cárdenas took leadership and recruited an armed policing unit called “los Zetas”, a group of defected Mexican Army Special Forces personnel, some of which were originally trained in the U.S. Army School of the Americas, and some in the Israeli Defense Forces.18 The Zetas—whose name originates from the blue color of Mexican army uniforms—enforced the Gulf Cartel’s control of territory and trafficking routes in the region with unsparing violence until 2010 when the two cartels split.19 Much of the most extreme violence endured by Matamoros, and its surrounding state of Tamaulipas, was experienced as a result of this split. The Zetas have now progressed into one of the largest and most notoriously ruthless cartels in the world.
Currently, the Gulf Cartel holds control of Matamoros while the Zetas are situated in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. In 2006, the Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared a “war” against Mexico’s drug organizations, which has resulted in sporadic shootouts between cartel members and government forces in Matamoros, exemplified in a 2010 conflict which left around 50 dead, as reported by Brownsville news outlets.20 The situation in Matamoros is largely reported on by non-local outlets, as cartel forces typically retaliate against local journalism.
Behind the sensationalized headlines covering violence in Matamoros is a complex network of administrative entities that currently profit from the current situation. The cartel’s control is compounded by corruption within both local and federal Mexican law enforcement.21 Matamoros’ civil police force was disbanded in 2011 due to corruption and replaced by the Policía Federal. Many residents of Matamoros now believe that the Policía Federal, outfitted with boundless resources and facing little accountability, are just as co-opted by cartels as the civil police once was.Burnett, This is based on anecdotes relayed to me in 2015 by citizens of Matamoros.] U.S. administrative corruption and facilitation of drug trafficking is widespread; examples were famously unearthed during the 1997 trial of Juan García Ábrego, which revealed his connections to the F.B.I, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the Texas National Guard.22 Currently, Brownsville’s local network of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents are periodically mired with controversies related to corruption, human rights abuses and acts of extreme violence.23 The law enforcement agency as a whole faces little accountability for misconduct, while accusations and documentations of violent abuses of power are widespread.24 Philosopher Ed Casey, in his expansive ethnographic-philosophical exploration of the Rio Grande Valley as a border region, quotes one local explaining, “The border is set up to be corrupt.”25
As recently as April 2015, Matamoros was reported on as the current “ground zero” of Mexico’s War on Drugs.26 Acute threats of violence in the city are sporadic yet, day to day life in the city persists in a relatively normal way. Many residents described to me that media representations of the Matamoros as a space of danger and deviance have greatly inflated a sense of fear, creating internal divisions in the city. Many don’t visit the outer barrios of the city, which are represented as dangerous. After sundown, most streets remain empty as many are hesitant to leave their homes. A young woman living in Matamoros told me, “In Matamoros apathy just makes everybody fall asleep watching the news, TV, the internet, or leaving the town because they don’t like the violence . . .people want to go to the U.S, because it’s boring here supposedly . . .”27
¡Aburrido! Bicycling as Banality
On Thursday nights, when Doble Rueda hosts their group bicycle ride, residents wait on their porches and rooftops expectantly and cheer when as many as 350 bicyclists flood their streets. Many riders are fitted with colorful lights and several tow trailers with loud speakers or sleeping children inside. The rides are remarkably inclusive, familial, diverse in age and cheerfully noisy. The group moves slowly, which gives them the time to greet the members of the community with cheers and waves. Organizers of Doble Rueda rotate through in reflective vests, graciously “plugging” intersections against passing cars to keep the group flowing through potholed city streets with little cycling infrastructure.
The situation in Matamoros has in many ways dictated Doble Rueda’s methodologies. Working within a difficult social and political context, they have strived to organize a truly inclusive community from the ground up. The group arguably subverts the current situation in Matamoros, finding space within the vacuum of corruption and violence to build a cycling community that relies on culturally specific grassroots mobilization. Doble Rueda’s utilizes the fact that within Matamoros’ context of violence, the bicycle has proven a safer mode of transportation in the city, as compared to driving or walking. This is due to local stereotypes that glorify the car as a symbol of social status and wealth. Bicyclists are typically considered to represent lower income strata, and due to this stereotype they are at a lower risk of violent crime. Doble Rueda utilizes this stereotype, but also attempts to challenge it by routing their rides through the outskirts of the city, where many low-income bicycle laborers live, who toil long workdays on their bicycles.
The group rides are part of a burgeoning cycling community in Matamoros.28 On Doble Rueda’s group rides, bicyclists yell and cheer nearly continuously, referencing inside jokes or quoting popular song lyrics, but the most frequent word heard is an exuberant “¡Aburrido!” (boring). The phrase took hold in the group’s earliest rides, comprised of ten or less cyclists who would comment jokingly on their small size by calling their activity boring. Today, during the large and enlivened rides, the word remains an ironic catchphrase, often yelled by an anonymous cyclist and followed by cacophonous cheers as the group moves forward.
Each week, a group of cyclists of varying sizes cycle one of six pre-planned 15km routes through the city. On the rides, no cyclist is left behind and the entire group stops halfway at a local bodega for drinks and food. What sets Doble Rueda apart from other such performances—such as the (in)famous, notoriously aggressive Critical Mass rides organized around the world—is their intentionality. The group maintains respect, often joviality, for everyone they encounter in the street. They don’t shy away from the countless spaces of the city that are hard to traverse. Indeed, many of the streets they route through are the most potholed in the city. This is because because Doble Rueda purposely visits the neglected parts of the city that many will refuse to visit for fear of violence. In these neighborhoods, the cyclists pause to greet business owners, build relationships, and grow their community beyond cycling. Then they continue on their route, traveling at a slow but steady pace and verbally alerting each other of upcoming obstructions with cries of “pozo!” (pothole) or “tope!” (bump).
The city doesn’t contain much physical infrastructure for cycling. What has been built remains unfinished and ineffective due to political turnover. Despite the city’s lack of state-supported physical infrastructure, the group has built an extraordinarily rich human and social infrastructure. The participants provide bicycle maintenance for one another, economically support local businesses along bicycle rides, and the core group of organizers rotates from the back to the front plugging intersections with their bodies from oncoming traffic so the group can flow through. This practice of rotating from front to back of the large group works in a similar form to paceline rotation in professional road bicycle racing. Pacelining entails the practices of “pulling, leading a pack of riders into the headwind, or “drafting,” taking position behind other riders in zones of reduced wind resistance to conserve energy. These politics of rotation in road racing are often based around protecting and conserving the energy of the favorite rider for a final sprint. Doble Rueda’s politics of rotation remains within in an ethos of solidarity rather than speed, protecting the entire group rather than an individual.
This dynamic and the slower pace it engenders diverges from many modes of bicycling in the United States, where cycling culture often focuses on reaching higher speeds and efficiency, usually conjuring the image of the middle class commuter or lycra-clad road racer. Indeed, cyclists from the United States who join Doble Rueda’s rides often find the pace to be painfully tedious. This pace is integral to the ethos of the collective, however, which prioritizes new riders, asking them to ride in the front of the group to set the speed. The rides travel slowly because their objective is not to get anywhere fast, but to get somewhere together. And the gringos’ boredom only further elaborates the rich humor and irony of the often-heard cheer, “¡Aburrido!” There seem to be many significances to this exclamation. In the midst of Matamoros’ many complexities, this small act of declaring a communal space banal has an intensely empowering effect, illustrated in the playful excitement of its cheers.
In the unpredictable and troubled city, declaring any activity a banality is a subversion, a reclamation of activity and space from the politics, corruption, and tragic myths that hold it hostage. A Doble Rueda organizer explains, “[Cycling] alleviates a little the psychological violence that people face. Because even if nothing bad is happening in this very moment, we are bombarded by the media and our families that going out is dangerous, the streets are dangerous, if you step foot outside something bad will happen to you, you can get caught in a gunfight and get shot… But we’ve been riding with Doble Rueda every week for about two years and we’ve never been caught in a gunfight. This helps people realize that it’s ok, that they can ride. You do have to be careful, but still you can go out and ride.”
Another member of Doble Rueda describes, “People start losing their fear, once they’ve been with the group, they feel comfortable going on their own too, and that danger, which is a real one, but that is also magnified, people break away from those ideas, they take their own bike and see they can safely go twenty or thirty kilometers.” Many participants of the rides comment not only on how safe they feel in the group, but that the rides are fun. In Matamoros’ narrow streets, cyclists pedal close to each other and spend a few hours talking while music plays from speakers pulled on bicycle trailers.
The Smooth Space of Bicycling
I asked a member of Doble Rueda how she felt when riding a bicycle in Matamoros. Translated from Spanish, she says, “It is like taking step to forgetting. It is the right moment to see what is completely real.” She continues, “To leave, and only move forward.” Bicycling revives a sense of embodied autonomy, the ability of our own body to efficiently transport itself and navigate movement. Her words, describing sensations at the limits of language, indicate cycling’s relationship to affect and the ethical implications of that relationship. Cycling implies embodied movement that is inherently shaped by emergent potential. The body’s energy is transferred into the pedals, which emerges into cadenced movement that can take infinite forms, and then be disrupted by any number of contingencies within a spatial context in flux. Cycling is a form of mobility inherently open to the realm of contingency—what Brian Massumi calls the virtual, “the pressing crowd of incipiencies and tendencies … a realm of potential.”29
It is useful to consider the bicyclist as being “beside”, following Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s invocation of the word beside in the introduction of her book with Adam Frank, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy and Performativity.30 Sedgwick celebrates the word beside over beneath or beyond because the word does not imply a dualism, but instead “permits a spacious agnosticism” about many of the rules embedded in dualistic thinking.31 “Beside comprises a wide range of desiring, identifying, representing, repelling, paralleling, differentiating, rivaling, leaning, twisting, mimicking, withdrawing, attracting, aggressing, warping, and other relations.”32 It invokes the planar relationships of Deleuze, a spatial positionality. To Sedgwick, temporal and spatial thinking are not in direct opposition, but to invoke the word besides allows for a renewal of the often forgotten “rich dimension of space.”
Cyclists who frequently ride together begin to communicate non-verbally; they read the most minute twitches and movements and react based on them, navigating around potholes and making turns silently as if a school of fish. Within this communication lies something deeply connective, a knowledge of each other’s bodies and minds and how the assemblage works together within the constant flux of the space they move through. You are truly beside those you ride with, trusting in the other’s control and ability.
Doble Rueda organizer Moises, known as “Moi”, has been cycling in Matamoros since he was a 13-year-old boy in 1975. He commutes 33km every day to his job in a maquiladora and often wakes up early on the weekends for a 50km recreational ride to the beach. Moi described some of his reasons for enjoying cycling: “When you ride, you learn. I learned for example to look up at the sky . . . you can notice if it’ll rain, you learn how to observe the clouds, to feel the direction of the wind . . . or if the rain will catch you on your way. Your sight improves, you are able to notice. You get extraordinary abilities.”
Moi’s insights imply cycling’s deep sensorial immersion in space. This has specific implications in the urban context. Phil Jones lays out many of the affective capacities of cycling in his 2012 article “Sensory Indiscipline and Affect: A Study of Commuter Cycling.”33 Through participatory research with commuter cyclists, he situates urban cycling as being within a “sensescape” full of powerful affective intensities that push bodies to their thresholds of sensory experience. This occurs within the context of the increasing sensory discipline of everyday life, “a means of regulating behavior through altering the intensity of the affective connection between body and world.”34 This idea of sensory discipline is encapsulated in the static and confining atmosphere of a car.35
Smith argues that “commuter cycling can therefore be conceptualized in terms of resistance, but it is important not to portray the bike commute in an overly heroic fashion akin to de Certeau’s (1984) famous description of walkers.”36 He is referencing Michel de Certeau’s chapter “Walking in the City,” in The Practice of Everyday Life, a seminal work on the various subjective ways in which walking in the city constitutes an act of tactical agency that challenges the panoptic organizations of the city as a fixed map. He outlines practices that operate in “poetic and mythic experience of space,” which he likens to “speech acts.”37 I am inclined, contrary to Smith, to celebrate cycling as a transgressive act as well, looking deeply into what new understandings and uses of space it can capacitate. A more productive criticism of de Certeau is not his enthusiasm, but his choice of placing the performance of walking within a linguistic context, referring to walking as a “long poem” in which we articulate various pedestrian “speech acts.” It seems hard enough to describe within language metaphysical, poetic spaces and the movements and flows that create them; to prop them up and label them with linguistic signifiers seems reductive.38
Semiotics reminds us that language itself is a representation, a code that “only exists in its reaction to a non-language-material that it transforms.”39 This is, after all, the way that the world in which we are caught up functions: experience (Firstness) is codified in language (Secondness). The ineffability of non-representational experiences alludes to film’s usage in this research as a parallel mode of expression. Geographers Stuart Aitken and James Craine, in writing about affective geo-visualizations, argue “that more so than cartography, cinema produces wonders that affectively engage and absorb us—they intensify our lives, if only momentarily.”40 Film’s duration and materiality allow it not only to represent, but to perform instances that evade language, creating its own geography of affects that stem from the projected film itself.41 Much of the footage captured while bicycling was filmed with a GoPro camera extended on a stick, producing a fluidly mobile mode of filming that often destabilizes vision. It mirrors the viscosity of the mobile experience on the bicycle, as well as its aleatory nature and openness to the flows of contingency.
Cycling’s affective values on the border are demonstrated in the act of crossing the border on two wheels. This is a limited experience—some of the cyclists in Matamoros have dual citizenship, but many do not, and thus cannot cross the border checkpoints. But for those that can, the speed of crossing by bicycle effectively offers an experience in the two cities that is integrated rather than divided. Crossing from Brownsville to Matamoros there is typically no wait regardless of your mode of transport. The trip from Matamoros to Brownsville is, by comparison, lengthy and arduous. The U.S. creates the image of a hard and material border. Long lines of pedestrians and cars extend from its checkpoints. With no official infrastructure in place to accommodate them, cyclists pedal through a loophole to the front of the lines of cars. At the Gateway crossing (one of three that connect the two cities, and the easiest to pass by bicycle), cyclists wait atop a short descent for a CBP agent to call them forward. They then descend slowly, over two abrupt speed bumps, navigating carefully as to approach and stop in front of the agent, who carefully watches you approach.
One female cyclist from Matamoros, a citizen of Mexico and the United States, crosses three or four times a week on her bicycle, which can be a process a quick as five minutes. She describes, “Sometimes they can be mean to the cyclists . . . they say ‘You need to wait for three cars to cross before you pass,’ and I just go along with it because if I ask them where that rule is written they will just make the situation worse. But sometimes they’re nice, they say, ‘I wish I rode my bicycle more!’” The encounter is full of potential, whether positive or negative, sometimes miniscule. Sometimes, it results in normative displays of power. She described her discomfort with the fact that the agents often grab her backpack to search it while she is still wearing it, an occurrence that I experienced once. But sometimes, the encounter produces a rare conviviality, sometimes even a genuine curiosity. Most importantly, the process of border crossing, which usually implies lengthy or permanent moves, becomes increasingly fluid on the bicycle.42
In the book Up Against the Wall: Reimagining the U.S.-Mexico Border, Ed Casey differentiates between the words “border” and “boundary”; a border is “a clearly and crisply delineated entity”, a spatial organization based in Cartesian order and established within a larger plan.43 A boundary, in comparison, is less precisely fixed, more open to contingent surrounding circumstances, and most importantly, “is porous, admitting the passage of various substances through it.”44 On the bicycle, the border between Matamoros and Brownsville remains fixed but it becomes more permeable; more like a boundary than a border.
The Striated Space of Securitization
Brownsville and Matamoros show distinct contrasts in their urban growth and use of urban space. Bicycling in each city revealed several points of comparison in regards to infrastructure and how infrastructure constructs/inhibits both space and mediation.
Matamoros contains roughly twice the population of Brownsville in a condensed urban space, while Brownsville sprawls northward, covering tracts of land with large streets and parking lots. The surrounding area to Brownsville, known as “the Rio Grande Valley”, is isolated by vast Texas ranches to its north. In 2013, Brownsville was recorded to be the poorest metroplex in the United States, with a Median income of $30,953 and a poverty rate of 36.1%. 12.6% of Brownsville area households had an income of less than $10,000.45 Much of the residential areas near the border are made up of colonias—densely populated neighborhoods that began as unregulated settlements, on poor quality land, sold to low-income individuals.46 Higher income residents of Brownsville live in the northern parts of the city. Eighty-five miles north of Brownsville, on the main highway northward, all cars traveling north stop at a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) checkpoint for proof of citizenship.47 Many citizens in Matamoros cross into Brownsville often to shop or work, either without documentation or with visas allowing visitation to the immediate border area, but movement from Brownsville into Matamaros has drastically decreased in response to cartel activity.
There are generally more cyclists in Matamoros than Brownsville despite Brownsville containing more cycling infrastructure. The cyclists in Matamoros include, beyond recreational riders, many who commute daily and workers whose occupation requires them to ride. The compact geography of Matamoros makes it more conducive to cycling than Brownsville, but a member of Doble Rueda also mentioned that Mexican citizens are generally less reliant on insurance than Americans. They are not offered, often can’t afford and/or simply don’t consider that type of “protection” necessary, so they are not as hesitant to ride in Matamoros’ crowded streets without infrastructure. Inversely, cycling infrastructure’s existence in the U.S. reinforces the concept that infrastructure itself is actually necessary for cyclists’ safety. When the infrastructure is poorly planned or inequitable (i.e. implemented to service high income areas), it achieves the opposite of its intended effect and inhibits many from riding daily.48
Many in Matamoros cycle for economic reasons, toiling long workdays on delivery or food distribution bicycles for little pay. Cycling is not a liberating experience for everyone. Recent studies call into question that the dominant concept of the bicycle as a liberating practice is actually based in the image of the white, middle-class cyclist (a category I fit into).49 For many cyclists throughout the world, and in Matamoros, the bicycle represents a means of sustenance, employment, and often precarity, rather than empowerment. The ability to use the bicycle for exploration and liberatory practices is a privilege, but one that Doble Rueda works to make more equitable. Their methodologies and use of space illuminate this priority, especially when compared to dominant ideas of bicycle justice in the United States. Brownsville represents a small case study in this comparison; the city has, in recent years, built sixty-four miles of bicycle paths and on-street bike lanes, but most of this infrastructure extends north of the city where the upwardly mobile populations of the city continue to sprawl. The downtown area and neighborhoods close to the border, where working class and low-income communities live, remain under-serviced while the infrastructure that does exist is mostly used by white, middle class, recreational riders. In Matamoros, Doble Rueda is part of a growing and vibrant bicycling community despite a lack of infrastructure, relying instead on mutual community support.
America’s standards of insurance and infrastructure essentially inhibit contingency, framing unknown potential as threat. Brian Massumi discussed the affective presence of threat in modern Western life: “We live in times when what is yet to occur not only climbs to the top of the news but periodically takes blaring precedence over what has actually happened.”50 According to the mainstream discourse, this is for our own protection, but what do these infrastructures inhibit us from experiencing? What do we lose in a preventative structure of living? What emotions does this underlying potential of threat engender within us that are based in actuarial information, not experience? This palpable sense of threat is legitimized through the discursive creation of a common enemy to be feared, a process that often results in preemptive action. This is executed in the cycles of securitizing infrastructures built on the US-Mexico border, where CBP agents envision themselves “on the front line” of defending America, and face little recourse for acting on these sentiments preemptively.51
The increasingly militarized U.S. border infrastructure is rhetorically justified by threats of undocumented immigration, a phenomenon deemed to be a danger to national security. Sociologist Douglas Massey describes that “[f]rom 1980 to 2010, the Border Patrol budget rose 16 times, despite the fact that the number of attempted undocumented entries was not itself rising,” a trend legitimized in public discourse as responding to “illegal invasion” and its implicit threats such as drugs, terrorism, or Ebola.52 The border’s security infrastructure was expanded substantially by the Secure Fence Act, signed into law by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2006. Today, 650-700 miles of fencing and walls have been constructed on the northern side of the border between California and Texas, much of it completed during Obama’s presidency.53
Brownsville now contains roughly 56 miles of “fencing”, composed of 18 foot, rust-colored steel bars that are embedded in cement below the earth that effectively act as a wall. Due to the snaking course that the river takes between Brownsville and Matamoros, the border fence was built on top the relatively-straight line of a levee that effectively cuts off access to thousands of acres of public and private land, including a nature preserve, a golf course, and many residential plots.54
One such plot of residential land bisected by the border wall is owned by members of the indigenous Lipan Apache community west of Brownsville. This community, having endured generations of colonialist enterprises based on national/territorial expansion, historically references a time that precedes any national border formation along the Río Bravo Del Norte. The tribe has stated that its ancestral land extends across the river, beyond the banks of the other side.55
The river was decided to demarcate the international boundary between Texas and Mexico after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which effectively ended the Mexican-American War. Under the treaty, Mexico ceded Texas to the United States, along with the rest of the present-day Southwest United States that extends to California. It’s worth noting that the Mexican-American war was fueled, in part, by an effort to maintain slavery, a practice that had been outlawed by the Mexican government when it controlled Texas.
The treatment of the Lipan Apache community is one example within a long history of racial subjugation, territorial confiscation, and outright terror at the hands of white Texan elites and authorities (yet notably, this indigenous community, and others in the region, also endured violent Spanish colonialism prior to U.S. colonialism).56 The border wall was eventually built through Lipan Apache land, despite concerted and continuing community efforts to oppose it, while nearby white, wealthy neighborhoods were spared from the planned construction.57 It now effectively prohibits their access to “traditional lands, sacred sites, burial grounds, archaeological resources, religious sacred traditions and ceremonies, and languages.”58
El Río Bravo Del Norte: The Brave River of the North
The historian Richard White, in his poignant history of human relationships with the Columbia River, asserts that “spatial arrangements matter a great deal to human history. They reveal the social arrangements that help produce them.”59 He describes that early white settlers, struggling to attempt dangerous voyages along the Columbia’s rapids, regarded the space of the river as void of cultural significance. Existing indigenous communities of the region, possessing knowledge of the river’s various physical qualities and resources through bodily labor, regarded it as full of cultural meaning. White describes the subsequent history of Anglo-Saxon settler domination over both the local native populations and the river itself through power and technology. He describes power as “the ability to turn energy and work of nature and humans into your own purposes.”60 The space of the Columbia River was de-materialized through the implementation of dams, infrastructures that functioned to harness its horsepower.
I don’t intend to draw a direct comparison between the indigenous populations on the Columbia River and those on the Río Bravo. Rather, I wish to illustrate a parallel in the de-materializing effects of infrastructure on both rivers. The border infrastructure, ostensibly intended to “secure” the nation, more accurately functions to command energy and work, just as a dam does. Urban theorist Mike Davis has described that, “the Border is often compared to a dam: defending the fat suburbs of the American Dream from a deluge of Third World misery. This, of course, misunderstands the role of a dam, which is not to prevent the flow of water but to control and ration its supply.”61 The border, he describes, functions through a system of violence for the principle function of “agricultural and industrial peonage in the American Southwest” seen most recently, and very presently in Matamoros, in the post-NAFTA implication of maquiladoras, the free trade factories that manufacture U.S. exports using cheap Mexican labor.62 Indeed, the infrastructure of the Brownsville/Matamoros border allows across flows that facilitate economic benefits for those in control, such as my previously mentioned friend’s father, who possesses access to expedited crossing. Also permitted to cross are the exports produced in his factory, as well as, less visibly, various illicit substances smuggled across the border, often through the aid of U.S. officials. The construct of the border contradicts itself, imposing a militarized, nationalistic regime of force but inherently facilitating corruption and transnational crime. It sustains itself, despite this contradiction, through the discursive creation of “illegality,” the threat that it is claiming to secure the nation against.63
The Río Bravo Del Norte is an enduring feature of the region that holds many complex historical, social, and political implications between the two cities. The river has long been a source of trade, sustenance, and various layers of cultural identity and social organization.64 Rather than recognizing the river as an ecological and cultural agent of change and growth, the logic of the U.S. border construct, and the infrastructure it imposes, de-materializes the space of the river—it denies the river’s own material agency, considering it an empty space awaiting human exploits. Ed Casey invokes Deleuze in asserting that a security wall contributes to the creation of striated space: space that is strictly organized for the purpose of control, often in regards to movement within that space.65 The space between the wall and the river is now continuously patrolled by CBP cars at all hours, effectively criminalizing any human interaction with the river and acres of land at its banks.
In Matamoros, the river continues to be easily accessible and often traversed by bicycle. Bicyclists often ride atop the levee, both for recreation and for commuting, and on the banks of the levee bicyclists race up and down makeshift paths that veer terrifyingly close to its waters.
One hot and sunny day, in the summer of 2015, a friend and I rode down the expanse of the levee in Matamoros together aimlessly. We decided to dismount our bikes and venture down to its banks. I remember the expanse of the water appearing more vast than I expected as we reached its edge. We decided to haphazardly attach my GoPro camera to a long, flimsy stick, using the chord of an old pair of earbuds to fasten it. I extended the camera out over the water and slowly lowered it until it broke through the surface of the water. At the time, our motivation to do this was a lighthearted idea that we might see some fish beneath the surface (we didn’t), and I forgot about the footage for quite some time.
The shot proved to be one of the most rich and revealing materials I collected in my time spent on the border. The river’s expanse, caught in the GoPro’s wide-angle, appears in contrast to the dominant conception of the border, and the river, as a line. The aesthetic of a line implies, after all, an aerial perspective, the perspective of control. The river, when approached from the level of human corporeality, is not a line but a complex, aqueous landscape, with unseen mysteries hidden in its murky, green water. Fantastically, these mysteries are not revealed in the footage, but they persist after our camera physically and abruptly permeates the water’s surface.
A local anecdote in Matamoros states that if you drink the water of the Río Bravo Del Norte, you’ll never want to leave the city. While on the surface a quirky urban legend, the anecdote is profound in its recognition of the river’s own agency and autonomy. A degree of reverence for the river and its power is implicit in the saying, and it epistemologically stands in contrast to dominant forms of spatial control over the river imposed by the U.S. In this colloquial rhetoric, just as in the perspective of the indigenous Lipan Apache community, the river is a unifying force rather than a dividing one. This is felt most presently when experiencing the river at a corporeal level. While aerially it appears a placid line, when up close its enduring currents, however subtle, are revealed, flowing Eastward towards the nearby Gulf. Ed Casey aptly describes, “at the symbolic level, the river is the very embodiment of immanence, since it takes in and takes on all that comes to inhabit it.”66
These two cities, and their unifying river, are shaped by a history of colonialist enterprises and continued nationalist violence, based in a logic of binary separation and racial criminalization,. This logic has been imposed onto the river. But the river itself spatially resists the power attempting to control it. Its serpentine path, forever subtly shifting, creates a naturally unruly border that has continually outwitted human attempts to striate it, to use it as a fixed delimitation. Ed Casey writes, “nature favors a serpentine flow in any river, creek or stream, so as to distribute nutrients and modulate the flow of energy within the system.”67 The river’s serpentine path reveals the inefficacy and internal contradictions of the border securitization efforts, as it creates a path that a wall cannot feasibly follow. Resultantly, the wall in Brownsville is imposed in fits and starts, leaving vast tracts un-walled, effectively revealing itself as a symbol of dominance rather than an effective mode of control.
Just as the river is serpentine, so is bicycling. Whether winding through cars idling in line at the border crossing, or speeding through Matamoros’ empty nighttime streets in long, S-shaped curves, or riding in a group of hundreds, collectively capacitating each other to flow through busy streets, bicycling in this place is a spatial act that resists the dominant logic of striation and separation. Every week, Doble Rueda guides hundreds of cyclists on a perceptually rich and visceral encounter with a lively urban space, full of complex embodied everyday actions. The simple performance of being in these spaces—spaces previously divided within the city—produces an encounter, a new planar relationship, and new modes of understanding the city.
Filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha, in her 1982 film Reassemblage, shot in Senegal, explains that she does not intend to speak about her subjects, but just to “speak nearby.”68 As a model for and critique of ethnographic filmmaking, her gesture parallels Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s invocation of the term ‘beside’ as a methodology that avoids of dualistic thinking. Minh Ha is describing a spatial way of being and relating to the world, but (as a filmmaker) is also extending these gestures to the space of filmic encounters. In riding alongside cyclists in Matamoros, I experienced a geography of the city that could only be unfolded via the praxis of bicycling together. Cycling with them wasn’t an equalizer and didn’t create an imagined commonality but rather, through a more unmediated experience, allowed for a more succinct realization of our differences. Beyond the exhilaration of moving together within a busy urban environment, our bicycling bodies were reminded of their unique capacities and potential actions within the act of bicycling and beyond. This enabled not just a physical exploration unique to the bicycle but a remixing and reconsideration of our perceptions and positions. A friend in Matamoros told me: “When I ride my bike with no hands, I feel like I can do anything”. In a place so predominantly defined by restrictions, sentiments like these hold transformative potential.
Daryl Meador is a media researcher, educator, and filmmaker originally from Dallas, Texas and currently based in New York City. Her interests include urban and mobility studies, phenomenology, media ethnography and integrated modes of research praxis through filmmaking. She just completed her M.A. in Media Studies at the New School, and will begin as a Ph.D candidate in the fall.