Beating the Bounds

Susana Ferreira
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I was five, on a rare family vacation to visit relatives in Portugal, when I crossed my first international land border.

I must have been on someone’s lap, because we were six in the car, backseat safety belts hardly a concern, driving through a vast park that hugs the Norte region of the country. I recall very little of this road trip; I couldn’t tell you what the trees looked like in Peneda-Gerês National Park, if the shrubs bled onto the pavement, could not describe for you the tint of mountains in the distance. I can’t remember if we drove with the windows rolled down, if I shut my eyes against the wind in my face, or if I tried pressing an arm into the rush of air, making waves with my hand. What I do remember is a luminescent green blur of landscape, and how when my ever-nonchalant uncle announced coolly that “by the way, we’re in Spain right now,” this information felt enormous and incomprehensible to me.

In the atlas in my brother’s room back home, every country was shaded a different color, the places where they touched traced by a thick band of red or black. In Spain that afternoon, I remember my eyes moving frantically from windows to windshield, searching for a line in the terrain that spread out in all directions, for any evidence that could corroborate my uncle’s wild talk. The only other border I had experienced up to that point was between Portugal and Canada, contrasting points of family emigration and deportation stretched across an ocean, and it took an entire sleepless night of travel in a cigarette-smoke-filled plane to cross between the two places. Already by that age I understood that the movement between countries was a source of stress. But what is a border you can’t see or feel? That doesn’t slice thickly through a landscape in clean, clear division? That doesn’t make itself screamingly known?

A couple years earlier, in 1985, a handful of countries in Western Europe had signed the Schengen Agreement, abolishing the border checkpoints between them, but this wave of free-movement-Europe wouldn’t officially reach this far south until the ’90s, when Portugal and Spain signed on. (My mother, who was not on that road trip, crossed the Spanish border only once, long before I was born. “There was a cod shortage on our side at the time,” she explained when I asked recently, and I tried not to laugh at the Portuguese-ness of the scenario. She recounted checkpoints, authorities, restrictions, and having to get out of the car to walk across the dividing line to buy her salt fish.) I don’t know how deep into Spain we drove that day, but if my relatives in the car found novelty in this invisible, frictionless border, I don’t recall them expressing it. The hills rolled on. The green had not altered its shade. It all remained suspiciously, bafflingly same.

Thousands of years before the concept of states and international borderlines entered anyone’s imagination, areas around temples were announced with physical markers, signs explained where one patch of farmland ended and another began, and stones marked the limits of a local or regional authority’s jurisdiction. Until the notion of private property emerged—that is, property as a thing to covet, glorify, and fortify—boundaries were opaque, fringed by gray zones. Romulus, the founder of Rome, eschewed formal city boundaries to facilitate his aggressive expansion campaign; Numa, his successor, marked out the limits of those conquered lands and introduced a new deity: Terminus, god of boundaries. The divinity of Terminus was tied to the boundary markers he protected. He’s described initially as a guardian of property and neighborly peace, but in action he turns gruesome: to tamper with border stones was to invite untold wrath from both heaven and earth, and Roman law afforded property owners impunity to kill in retaliation. On his feast day, called Terminalia, neighbors came together to rededicate their shared borders, slaughter an animal in ceremony, decorate the stones that divided their properties with garlands, and then stain them with the sacrificial animal’s blood. In a Christian carryover from Terminalia, priests led processions around parish limits as a show of affirmation, whipping the stones—a practice called “beating the bounds”—and sometimes whipping the boys who accompanied them, planting deep the memory of that border alongside the body’s memory of violence.

“To mark something is also to do damage or leave behind a wound, no matter how small,” philosopher Thomas Nail writes in his ambitious 2016 social and historical rethinking of borders, Theory of the Border. “A mark is a kind of division: a symbol carved in a tree, a chiseled rock, a dammed river, a sign made of felled wood inserted into the earth; even the mark of footprints in the soil leaves a wound in the earth.” Borders may predate the existence of states, but our bodies are older than either. And as borders have grown to occupy more space and have shapeshifted to take on increasingly personal and personalized forms—as smart-city surveillance, as predictive policing technologies, as mountainous databases of biometric info—so, too, have the wounds they leave behind.

Is a concentration camp for children—who’ve been torn from their relatives and from any semblance of humane care—not a most muscular flexing of a border’s violent potential? Is the choice to watch a ship sink in the Mediterranean—weighed with the desperate courage of those for whom movement on land became impossible—not another? Is stop-and-frisk policing not a contemporary beating of the bounds, a reminder that the border is there and that those who control it would rather have some bodies—Black bodies in particular—on the other side? And just where, in this reality of an increasingly omnipresent and ever-mutating border, is the other side?

Portugal has among the oldest state borders in the world, set in 1297 by the Treaty of Alcañices. But the northernmost border, the one my family and I blew past on our road trip so many years ago, is even older, dating back to when the Portuguese kingdom broke away from Castile and León. An independent Portugal drew that line in 1139, following the Battle of Ourique. This battle was part of the Reconquista, a long military campaign in which Catholic Church–backed armies from Europe pushed south into Islamic Iberia, known as Al-Andalus. This so-called “reconquering” campaign was fought in part by mercenaries of the Knights Templar, a militarized and wildly powerful organization aligned with the Vatican (“Though the real invaders,” medieval archeologist Susana Gómez Martínez told me, “were the Reconquistadores”). The Templars initially gained riches and notoriety during crusades in the Middle East, rising to become the first banking and real estate multinational, then fought in the Reconquista of Iberia, including the battle that resulted in Portugal’s first border. How telling that a capitalist, religious, extremist paramilitary group, lionized by modern-day white supremacists for its violent Islamophobia, was involved in the earliest wave of border-building in Europe.

At a lecture he delivered last year in Lisbon, titled “For a World Without Borders,” historian and political theorist Achille Mbembe observed that, despite the unprecedented technology-aided entanglements of the modern world, the business of borderization is booming. “Security, if you want, has become the sacrament of our times,” he explained. “In fact, as far as some of us are concerned, everything is done to turn our very skin itself into a border.” In theory, the crooked line between Portugal and Spain that I traced on my brother’s childhood atlas hardly strayed from the one drawn in the late thirteenth century, cut into the soil around a fledgling independent kingdom that tried to define itself in contrast to what it was afraid of and what it wanted to believe it was not: neither Castilian, nor Muslim, nor Moorish. In practice, the border has morphed, through policy and technology, into pop-up microborders, giving  the original intent of that medieval line an invasive, elastic reach that might have impressed the Templars.

This spring I spent a gorgeous afternoon at a child’s birthday block party in an overpoliced Lisbon suburb, as the guest of a local—his friends call him Pear—whose grandparents had arrived there in the ’60s from Cape Verde, an archipelago more than two thousand miles south. They entered Portugal as Portuguese citizens; Cape Verde and other occupied African territories had been rebranded by Portugal as “overseas provinces” in an attempt to dodge a wave of decolonization on the continent. On the outskirts of the capital they built homes, raised kids; when Cape Verde became independent, in 1975, the border snapped back all the way north and their Portuguese citizenship was suddenly revoked. Though Pear’s parents were undocumented, their first child, his oldest sister, was born in Portugal and into citizenship. But at the same time as migration from the former African colonies—the former “overseas provinces”—was on the rise, Portugal changed its citizenship laws from jus soli (acquired by place of birth) to jus sanguinis (acquired through blood relation), and with that, the border changed its shape once more to wrap around and exclude an entire generation born within its territory but who also happened to be Black, and to include a generation born abroad to those who emigrated, as I was. My parents were able to apply for my citizenship, my right by blood, before I’d ever set foot on Portuguese soil; when I visited for the first time, I was waved through as a citizen, passport in hand. Pear—now in his thirties and part of the third generation of his family in the country—grew up carrying a temporary resident card, a wallet-sized boundary marker that he had to have renewed regularly by Foreigner and Border Services. He was confronted with this border every day of his life in ways that my foreign-born self never would be.

Pear’s neighborhood, in the municipality of Amadora, was full of cases like his. Residents of Amadora also experience heightened rates of police brutality and incarceration, and this, one lawyer told me, was no coincidence. I sat with Pear and his neighbors in the shade of several trees, sipping homemade coconut punch as the birthday girl pedaled around us on her bike and her grandmother prodded guests, Eat something, I didn’t see you eat, please, there’s so much food. A sound system boomed smooth kizomba and Afro-house hits from Angola and fast-paced funaná rhythms from Cape Verde, and I leaned close to listen while people recounted agonizingly similar stories about being undocumented: having to drop out of school, having soccer careers cut short, being barred from travel, living terrified of the police and of deportation. In the mid-’90s, Portugal did finally sign the Schengen Agreement and officially open its land borders. Any long-held insecurities over Spanish dominance and Al-Andalusian attacks had subsided by then. The change in citizenship law was its new protective political border, and fear of Portuguese of African descent the new demographic threat. Portugal’s medieval boundary, morphed beyond its original markers, was still functioning exactly as it had been intended.


I sometimes catch myself thinking back on a short story I read in high school called “Borders,” published in 1991 by essayist and novelist Thomas King. It’s about a boy and his mother who drive south from their reserve in Alberta to visit family in Utah. A US border guard greets them at the border and asks the usual round of questions, including about their citizenship. “Blackfoot,” the mother replies.

“Canadian side or American side?” asked the guard.

“Blackfoot side,” she said.

This goes on, back and forth, for some time, and mother and son are ultimately denied passage; when they turn to drive back home to their reserve, they’re denied reentry into Canada after a similar script plays out. They camp out in their car in the slim space between the two border crossings for days. The mother in King’s story rejects the notion that this border is somehow more real than the much older jurisdiction of the Blackfoot Confederacy it cuts across; under the Jay Treaty (1795), which predates the founding of Canada (1867), they could come and go across that line as they pleased without federal ID, but the agents on duty choose which boundary laws they want to perform. When mother and son are finally allowed to cross, Mel, the emotional owner of the duty-free shop, gifts them with peanut brittle and calls the mother an inspiration.

In the years since my family’s car ride through northern Portugal into Spain, I have passed across a fair number of international land and air borders, and an obscene majority have opened up to me with little humiliation. Obscene, I say, because of the contrasting frustration of those to whom this same movement is denied. I am not seen as a threat by those who enforce those borders, and the privileges of having light skin and dual passports—North American navy and EU burgundy—combine to shield me from the most terrible intimacies. This year especially, in the thick of a heavy round of travel for book research, I’ve reflected hard on what it means to define, defy, and reinforce all sorts of boundaries.

If self-care was the chorus a few years ago of my own and younger generations, grasping for new survival strategies in a pressure cooker of unrelenting anxieties, talk of boundaries and protection has since risen up to join it: protecting your energy, protecting your heart, protecting your magic. A February 2019 tweet by Maryam Hasnaa, a self-described retired empath with a large online following, stuck with me for months: “Healthy boundaries are not about fear and protection,” she posted, “they are about integrity.” I tried to imagine what that might look like, beyond our bodies and personal relationships, expanded to a larger scale. What would a healthy border look like? One that was established in the absence of petty Roman or greedy medieval mindsets, in the absence of xenophobic fears or tech-fed paranoias, but instead operated with something approaching integrity? And what is integrity but—if I may dip into a light Drake paraphrase—a form of knowing yourself? To know yourself, collectively, as a people. To have reckoned honestly with historical shames and shared scars. To reject the practice of performing borders by inflicting more harm, and to reject confusing those public wounds with an identity. To divest from the twin tyrannies of exclusion and belonging. To turn toward a healthier model for the lines between us, beyond the punishing, clumsy worship of dusty old Terminus, whose stubborn bounds were crusted by blood—and still not all that effective. His design hasn’t exactly worked out.

There are strong arguments for abolishing international borders as we know them, reevaluating their efficacy, and reorganizing them in a way that responds to the many fast-moving troubles we are collectively up against. To open them as a response to the climate crisis. To open them as reparations for environmental, economic, and political violence inflicted on vulnerable populations. In his talk last year, Mbembe appealed for a return to the organizing principles of pre-colonial Africa: where movement rather than restriction of movement was the dominating force. “What we had were networks. We had flows. We had crossroads. They were more important than borders,” he said, in English, to that room full of Portuguese. “What mattered the most was the way flows intersected with other flows.” He described what this new version of an old world might look like, and it sounded to me a lot like a prayer: “Where we will be able to embrace, eyes wide open, the inextricability of the world, its entangled nature, its composite character. In memory of this earth, which we share, and in the memory of its inhabitants, humans and not humans.”

Amen. Ameen.


I’ve asked myself why that brief afternoon drive into Spain lodged so stubbornly in my memory. So many other things happened that summer in Portugal, including a second road trip, to the southern coast, where sand burned the soles of my tender feet and strikingly low ocean tides awed me, but I know of these experiences only through other people’s photos and stories. It was the utterly unremarkable wandering over an invisible line that stayed with me—perhaps because it was so unremarkable? I would like very much to become the kind of optimist who can imagine Mbembe’s vision of a world ruled by movement and networks and affirmations of shared entanglements, full of equitably unremarkable borders. Even here, in my corner, in this north, in this west, in this loud, lonely part of the world so good at drawing reckless lines across itself and multiplying them. This shaky world that has not yet learned to know its collective, complicated self, not yet grown solid enough to draw boundaries that can reckon with its past, boundaries that leave room for its future, boundaries strong enough to intersect and tangle, boundaries that don’t beg to be performed or worshipped so harshly, boundaries courageous enough not to be seen, or felt, or marked on the body. Not yet.

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