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Charlie Thompson’s Border Odyssey

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Dr. Charles Thompson, Professor of the Practice of Cultural Anthropology, is the director of Duke's Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship Program as well as the undergraduate program at the Center for Documentary Studies.

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Last Tuesday March 1st, Charlie Thompson, author of Border Odyssey: Travels Along the U.S./Mexico Divide (University of Texas Press 2015), met with students in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures to discuss his travels along the border between America and Mexico.

Charlie was inspired to embark on his journey by an interaction with five young men who came to help him harvest blackberries on his own farm, located in Pittsboro NC in 1985. These young Hispanic men became his employees, but through his wife Hope, who spoke fluent Spanish, they also became his friends. Touched by the experiences they shared, he realized that their story was the start of his own journey. “Why did they have to go three thousand miles to help someone harvest blackberries from Chapel Hill?” he wondered. “That’s how I started on my Border Odyssey. The border crossed me in 1985.”

Accompanied by Hope, Charlie followed the border all the way to California, documenting experiences and photographing the border and people on the other side of it. His trip involved run-ins with border security, meeting the Braceros who lined up for portrait-style photographs one by one, and a young man sliding through the fence to collect a soccer ball before returning to a party on the other side of the border.

One of the largest impacts of the journey on Charlie was learning a new language. “I think, to use a cliché, that I have become more of a global citizen than I was. To know another language means that you get to know your own. To look at another country means that you get to look at your own differently.”

Despite the amazing opportunity this was for Charlie, it also provided haunting insight to the problems surrounding current border policies, not only for those the border is meant to keep out, but for the ones being held inside as well. On the second day of his trip, Charlie and Hope stopped to photograph a gap in the fence that they had been driving along. Within minutes, border patrol approached them, questioning their motives to be there with some suspicion. “As a US citizen,” he recalled, “it was the first time that I felt like a trespasser on American soil.” 

Toward the end of his presentation, Charlie reflected on a what he described as a “lesser-known” verse of the popular Woody Guthrie song, “This Land is Your Land.” He recited:

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing-
This land was made for you and me.”

He then gave the audience a piece of advice: “The land between the wall and the border was definitely not made for you and me.” He also explains that the situation is much more complicated than most imagine. “We’re more connected and interdependent than people give credit for,” he said. “Our stories are much more similar, and it’s just about getting in the car and going. Before you make up your mind about immigration, get to know at least one immigrant. That’s how it happened to me.” 

Charlie’s visit and talk was organized by Spanish professors Shelley Garrigan and Jordi Marí. It is part of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures’ commitment to provide NC State students with opportunities to engage in academic debates that enrich our community by improving our understanding of how people around the world interact, migrate and express themselves.

More information on Charlie’s many projects and publications can be found by visiting his website.

By Jasmyn Morere

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