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 Elijah Wald

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Photo Credit:
Theo Pelletier, 2001

Your Questions   1 | 2 6 Questions

P.O.V.'s Borders visitors sent Elijah Wald these questions in response to his work and his answers to P.O.V.'s initial 6 Questions. Read on!

Question: As an average American listener, if I were to read the lyrics to a popular narcocorrido, what hidden meanings or messages might I not pick up on?

Elijah: What is an "average American listener"? If you speak fluent Mexican Spanish, you will understand the lyrics of all the older narcocorridos. After "Pacas de a Kilo," (a hit for Los Tigres del Norte, written by Teodoro Bello using self-consciously complex language) though, a lot of corridos have gone in for tricky phrasing and veiled references, and fans love to search them for hidden meanings. "The pines give me shade," a drug smuggler sings, and if you know that "Los Pinos" is the Mexican presidencial residence, that means something you wouldn't understand without that information. Sometimes, the fans are right, sometimes they are wrong, but it is an entertaining game in any case.

Now, the LA corridistas are beginning to use more contemporary urban street slang — one of Lupillo Rivera's early hit compositions was "El Pelotero," his own translation of the word "baller." Me, I'm 43 and rarely listen to rap, so I didn't know what "baller" meant any more than I understood "pelotero." Lupillo's listeners seemed to have no problem, though. Am I average enough? I get confused by quite a lot of street slang, but not as confused as I get when I listen to people who have studied modern literary criticism. "Trope" confuses me as much as "baller." Every group likes to have its private slang, to shut out outsiders. The corridistas are no better than the pinche academicos...

Question: Elijah, when you write:

"That is the tragedy of NAFTA for Mexicans, that rather than allowing people to travel, it jails them in a poor country, but allows companies from rich countries to use their labor as if they lived up here. I would reverse this, having controls on the large-scale movement of goods, but none on individuals."

I think this sounds really good on paper — but can you help me picture what this world might look like? Thanks.

Elijah: Until roughly World War I, there were no formal passports, and people were not bothered at borders unless they were carrying goods. If you were carrying nothing of value, you could walk from France to China, or vice-versa, and nobody gave a damn. So what would the world look like if we returned to that model? First off, a lot of poor people would rush to the richer countries, and Europe, the US, Japan, Australia, Canada would panic. If they could not close the borders, the only other solution would be to try to provide good reasons for people to stay home, like better jobs and living conditions.

This is not utopian. As I say, it was the norm until the Industrial Revolution created such extreme imbalances between industrial and pre-industrial countries.

Today, "free trade" is the lie used to maintain those imbalances — the myth of a world where open borders for goods would allow poor countries to level the playing field. Even if the free trade advocates were not a bunch of lying hypocrites — which they are, as witness President Bush's recent support for tariffs to protect his buddies — a world in which the fruits of labor can be shipped without control, but laborers are trapped wherever governments care to keep them is simply a neat way to create what, in the end, are little more than geographical slave plantations. That is pretty much where we are at today, with the US government ready to go to war to maintain the status quo.

But I'm getting off the subject. What would the world look like if people could move freely, but goods were controlled, rather than vice-versa? It would look like a crazy mess that everybody could wander around if they had the adventurousness and the energy. What does it look like now? A crazy mess that very few of us can see except on television, when the electricity happens to be working, because that is good business for the businessmen. Me, I'm with the Statue of Liberty: Give me the poor, the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. They are much better company than Trump or Cheney, do a lot less harm, and play better music.

Do you see the development of the European Union as a move towards a world where BOTH goods and people move freely across borders? Or do you see it as just a larger border being created to keep others out?

Elijah: Interesting question. My initial take — like, ten years ago — was that the EU would allow free movement of capital, which can easily organize across huge geographical and linguistic boundaries, while crippling labor, which is very hard to organize across such boundaries. These days, I find that it has already made Europe a lot more interesting, with all sorts of interesting folks traveling all over the place.

But that's just within Europe. In the bigger picture, no, I do not see it as a move towards a more open world. On the contrary, it is an attempt to create another big white island to balance the US. (And yes, I know that the US isn't all that white, but the folks running it sure are...)

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Next > "Myths are marvelous things, the keys to understanding a culture."

about Elijah Wald


Elijah Wald was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1959. Originally planning to make his living as a folk-blues guitarist, he went off to Europe as a traveling minstrel at age 18, and spent most of the next dozen years wandering around the world.


Find out more about Elijah Wald at his website: www.elijahwald.com