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Visas, Jokes, and Contraband: Citizenship and Sovereignty at the Mexico–U.S. Border

  • Rihan Yeh (a1)


This article explores citizenship and sovereignty at the Mexico–U.S. border through jokes told about and around checkpoint encounters—most centrally, those staged at the main port of entry connecting Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California. In Tijuana, I argue, U.S. state recognition validates the proper, middle-class citizenship of Mexicans resident in Mexico. Attitudes towards the United States, however, remain ambivalent. I begin by exploring the checkpoint jokes of drug-traffickers as represented in several narcocorridos (popular ballads about drug-trafficking). Though this music is disapproved of by most people invested in U.S. state recognition, I show next how middle-class jokes build on the trope of the trickster-trafficker to parry state interpellation. The jokes work as performative arguments where people begin to articulate the tensions that constitute citizenship and sovereignty at the border. Finally, I examine the consular interview for the U.S. Border Crossing Card, a key site knitting together U.S. and Mexican regimes of citizenship. Folk theories of how the interview works anticipate the jokes' bald thematization of duplicity, explaining why middle-class people would turn to jokes that frame them as traffickers. Understood in the context of the BCC interview, middle-class checkpoint jokes reveal Mexican citizenship as embedded in an international system organized not by principles of authentic identity, but by ambivalence, contradiction, and undecidability.

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