Juan Llamas-Rodriguez on the Visual Politics of Border Tunnels

Dec 11, 2023

How do media representations of US–Mexico border tunnels shape immigration discourse, public policy, and anti-immigrant violence? 

To help us think through how these tunnels are represented and often overrepresented in US media, in episode 158 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Ideas on Fire author Juan Llamas-Rodriguez. 

Juan’s new book Border Tunnels: A Media Theory of the US–Mexico Underground (IoF affiliate link) was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.

When our team was indexing this book, we were struck by Juan’s argument that visual representations of tunnels play a disproportionate role in shaping border policy and anti-immigrant sentiment. 

For all of their visual obscurity and inaccessibility, border tunnels are hypervisible in media representations not only of the US–Mexico border region but also the bodies—both real and imagined—that are associated with the borderlands.

In their conversation, Juan shares his research into how border tunnels are represented in video games like first-person shooters, television news coverage like Anderson Cooper 360°, copaganda reality shows like Border Wars, and action films like Fast and Furious.

They also discuss why it is so important to think infrastructurally about media production and how designers and activists are using speculative design to reimagine what the US–Mexico borderlands are and the role of tunnels in that process.

Finally, they close out our conversation with Juan’s challenge to both media makers and media consumers alike to accept responsibility for the material consequences of representation and use it to create a world where the free movement of people across and beyond all borders is celebrated and realized.

Cite this episode: Hannabach, Cathy (host). “Juan Llamas-Rodriguez on the Visual Politics of Border Tunnels.” Imagine Otherwise. December 13, 2023. Produced by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire. Podcast. 23:39.

In this episode

  • What border tunnels are and how they are represented in US media
  • The challenges of depicting infrastructure that is not ordinarily visible
  • The real-world consequences of media representation
  • Making media that can challenge national borders
Cover of Border tunnels with title arranged in a diagonal mimicking a tunnel on a blue and orange background

About Juan Llamas-Rodriguez

Juan Llamas-Rodriguez is an assistant professor in the Annenberg School for Communication, associate director of the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication, and affiliate faculty with the Center for Latinx and Latin American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

His scholarly research encompasses media and globalization, streaming media, border studies, infrastructure studies, and Latin American film and television.

His book Border Tunnels: A Media Theory of the US-Mexico Underground (University of Minnesota Press, 2023) argues for underground tunnels as media figures that reimagine the stakes of border-making practices.

His work has also been published in journals such as Social TextFeminist Media HistoriesTelevision and New MediaFilm QuarterlyLateralCatalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience; and the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, as well as several edited collections.

Juan is the associate editor of outreach and equity for the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, a member of the Global Internet TV Consortium, and the host of the Global Media Cultures podcast.

Teaching and learning resources


Click to read transcript

[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about bridging art, activism, and academia to build more just futures. I’m Cathy Hannabach.

[00:00:14] Today we’re talking about the visual politics of border tunnels between Mexico and the United States.

[00:00:20] To help us think through how these tunnels are represented and often overrepresented in US media, I’m excited to have on the show today Ideas on Fire author Juan Llamas-Rodriguez, whose new book Border Tunnels: A Media Theory of the US–Mexico Underground was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.

[00:00:39] When our team was working on this book, I was struck by Juan’s argument that visual representations of tunnels, in fact, play a huge role in shaping border policy and anti-immigrant sentiment.

[00:00:50] For all of their visual obscurity and inaccessibility, they’re hypervisible in media representations not only of the US–Mexico border region but also the bodies—both real and imagined—that are associated with the borderlands.

[00:01:06] In our conversation, Juan shares his research into how border tunnels are represented in video games like first-person shooters, in television news coverage like Anderson Cooper 360, in copaganda reality shows like Border Wars, and in action films like Fast and Furious.

[00:01:24] We also discuss why it’s so important to think infrastructurally about media production and how designers and activists are using speculative design to reimagine what the US–Mexico borderlands are and the role of tunnels in that process.

[00:01:39] Finally, we close out our conversation with Juan’s challenge to both media makers and media consumers alike to accept responsibility for the material consequences of representation, and, in fact, to use it to create a world where the free movement of people across and beyond all borders is celebrated and realized.

[00:02:00] Thank you so much for being with us today.

[00:02:03] Juan Llamas-Rodriguez: Thank you for inviting me.

[00:02:05] Cathy Hannabach: Your new book analyzes the politics of media representations of border tunnels along the US–Mexico border. What are some of the key themes that you saw emerging in your research into that project, into how those representations work?

[00:02:21] Juan Llamas-Rodriguez: I would say one of the key motivating factors for starting this research was noticing how border tunnels seem to be showing up everywhere in all sorts of media representations about the US Mexico border, from telenovelas on Telemundo to Hollywood films to local news reports.

[00:02:41] And very quickly I began to realize that border tunnels were overrepresented in media compared to their significance within unauthorized movements across the US–Mexico border.

[00:02:54] So this kind of became an opportunity not to simply to fact check or state that, you know, this is inaccurate, but rather to ask why. What makes border tunnels a sort of favored media figure in all these different instances? And that led me to explain one of the key themes of the book, which is that the tunnels’, the structures’, physical characteristics lead to creative forms of recording and editing and representing it in media.

[00:03:26] The more that I worked on this, the more that it became clear that border tunnels actually offered me an ideal limit case to build an argument about how our political and social ideas about the space of the border are inextricable from their media representations.

[00:03:47] As opposed to something like the border wall, which those who live near the border can see more readily or have a different relationship to than those who live very far away from the border, border tunnels are inaccessible to most publics, near or far away from the border.

[00:04:04] So it kind of became this limit case about how central media is in how we imagine border tunnels to exist. And in that process, it also became important to demonstrate how the creative decisions that go into showcasing the border, or really any contentious space, are sometimes tangential to the topic itself, and yet, they have all these important implications for how we come to understand the topic, nonetheless.

[00:04:35] Cathy Hannabach: In the book, you introduce a particular methodology for studying what is essentially, as you point out, inaccessible to most of us, including to researchers, right? And you argue methodologically for the importance of what you call thinking infrastructurally about border tunnels, particularly the ways that the materiality of those tunnels and the symbolic or mediated discourses about them are always working together.

[00:05:00] I’m curious, what are some examples from this project where that kind of infrastructural thinking helps us understand the ways that these tunnels work in media maybe and beyond?

[00:05:14] Juan Llamas-Rodriguez: Right. Yeah. So broadly the book looks at two types of border tunnel representations: those made primarily with live action footage and then those created entirely with computer generated imagery and in the middle of the chapter on special effects and action films kind of does a little bit of both.

[00:05:34] So, in the case of live action footage, the physical characteristics of border tunnels limit how they can be captured on camera. They’re a very sort of cramped space, usually there’s very little lighting, there are all these safety considerations that crews have to take in.

[00:05:54] So accounting for these physical limitations, thinking about the structure itself helps us understand the creative decisions made by media makers to turn their footage into compelling television.

[00:06:08] I started by mentioning that in the first chapter how TV reports can’t rely on the usual tropes for making compelling television. There’s no way they can do a live reporting on a tunnel because they can’t access it until it’s been, you know, secured and approved by CBP. There’s no way to do any long shots, right, because the space is very cramped.

[00:06:34] So that helps us understand all the creative considerations from mixing different types of footage, smartphone footage, Steadicam, drones, to the post-production elements that shape these representations, like voiceover or editing.

[00:06:50] And then on the other hand, in the computer-generated tunnels, you don’t have physical limitations. The video game Call of Juarez creates tunnels that are far wider, far higher than anything you could ever create under the US–Mexico borderlands.

[00:07:06] Yet we still need to acknowledge the infrastructure that creates these tunnels, the very technology that allows for their design and for their sort of computational reproduction.

[00:07:17] And that automated reproduction, the fact that you can algorithmically create these very long, repetitive, sort of automatically made, hallways that represent the tunnels when you put this in the service of a specific game genre, like the first-person shooter, that also has implications for how we come to perceive and understand the function of tunnels.

[00:07:41] So when I’m proposing thinking infrastructurally, infrastructural thinking means that to critically analyze what audiovisual media is doing. It means not only paying attention to its images and sounds but also taking into careful consideration its conditions of possibility, both the sort of physical characteristics of the world it’s trying to capture and the materiality of the technology that is creating those media representations.

[00:08:15] Cathy Hannabach: You talk a lot in the various chapters of the book about how all representations of the border, and of border tunnels in particular, invariably take a political stance on a wide variety of border issues, everything from state violence to the policing of migrants to militarization, to a whole host of various border political issues.

[00:08:40] What are some of the ways that these representations of tunnels shape actual border policy and vice versa?

[00:08:49] Juan Llamas-Rodriguez: Yeah. The main concern, I think, as I was building this entire project was how is just the fact that border tunnels are overrepresented in media already shaping the kind of policies and the funding and the resources that are moving into we need to focus on the tunnel problem.

[00:09:09] During the Obama years, there used to be a specific section on White House reports on what are we doing about the tunnels? And that kind of went away after 2016. But

[00:09:22] for a more specific example, one of the shows that I analyze is Border Wars, which was this hugely popular series on National Geographic, it spawned endless replicas in the last decade.

[00:09:32] And people who have written about Border Wars have always made the argument that this serves—its entertainment, but it’s really just propaganda for the many units under the US Department of Homeland Security. And that is true. But the producers never really made a secret of that fact. The goal of the show was to present the stories of those who work in these border policing units, Border Patrol, Coast Guard, ICE, whatnot.

[00:09:57] So I make the argument that part of why we see a rise in these types of TV content, especially during the Obama years, is as a response to the growing immigrant rights activist movements, which were very new, media savvy, and very smart about how using media could affect change and change public opinion.

[00:10:19] So this kind of TV, reality TV content, was a strategy to make the border policing apparatus the main character again, which could lead to, you know, more political capital and maybe increased budgets, and so forth.

[00:10:33] And in this specific case of media about border tunnels, these kinds of shows actually serve to cast the border agents as the real people in danger, to show how they were always at risk of physical harm when they were trying to go into those tunnels and thereby just shifting the conversation about harm to the agents rather than the migrants who were basically the ones who were being physically harmed at the time.

[00:11:03] And one of the interesting, one of the most interesting, pieces of information I found, which I think speaks to how media creators are always aware of the impact that these productions have on broader public opinion and policy, is I was interviewing one of the former communications directors for CBP.

[00:11:23] He mentioned that officers that would be featured in Border Wars were always subject to more thorough background checks than those they had gone through in order to get hired as Border Patrol agents.

[00:11:37] So, producers of the show and the comms teams for CBP, they knew that the goal of selling the stories of these officers on the show would be undermined if the officers on screen became a publicity liability.

[00:11:54] So being known as corrupt, or affiliating with white supremacist groups, or having a history of domestic violence, these were not necessarily disqualifying for getting hired in border policing agencies, but they were disqualifying for being featured on television, or at least that was the case in 2013 when the show began.

[00:12:16] Cathy Hannabach: That’s really interesting. I mean, it’s a PR issue, right? It’s we don’t want to look bad, even in in quasi-fictionalized but kind of reality TV genre.

[00:12:27] Juan Llamas-Rodriguez: Exactly. Yes. The whole goal of the show is for us to look good, so we need to make sure that all the things that would make us look bad are dealt with, which, part of the argument is like, why are you not focusing on those things not being dealt with in the real world?

[00:12:45] Cathy Hannabach: Exactly.

[00:12:48] Juan Llamas-Rodriguez: Yeah.

[00:12:49] Cathy Hannabach: This actually brings me to my next question quite nicely because I think the TV news chapter and the reality TV chapter are both looking at conservative representations of the border. Representations of border tunnels that seek to do the work of the state and shore up the ideology and the violence of the state.

[00:13:10] But you also have this chapter on speculative design, where you’re looking at some really interesting progressive projects that also engage with representations of border tunnels, but they’re trying to do something very different. And you note that a lot of these projects center sustainability and kind of use that lens of sustainability.

[00:13:32] I’m curious what sustainability brings to those kinds of progressive multimedia projects and how does it help us push back against those more conservative or xenophobic or state-based representations of tunnels?

[00:13:47] Juan Llamas-Rodriguez: So that chapter actually also grew out of my frustration with speculative art and design projects that were at least claiming to be doing that, to reimagine and resist the border wall. But they never went so far as to imagine the dissolution of the wall.

[00:14:10] And US federal policy to today still holds that the provisions of something like the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act can be suspended if there is a need for new border constructions for the sake of quote unquote national security. It is very much privileging this militarization over any sort of sustainability.

[00:14:34] And in the borderlands, everyone from Indigenous activists to environmental scientists to residents at the border are all advocating that there is no sustainable way to maintain the ecosystems of the borderlands as long as there continues to be construction of border barriers, whether those barriers are steel walls or fences or high-tech surveillance systems of any of those sorts.

[00:15:01] So the frustration was that any sort of speculative or artistic project that didn’t actively imagine the undoing of the current physical border divisions was mostly just perpetuating the status quo or beautifying it, in the words of one of the projects that I analyzed.

[00:15:19] And then that leads me to look at different kinds of multimedia projects that instead are using the existence of border tunnels to think about different spatial configurations of the borderlands.

[00:15:33] So how do we look at the underground not only as a different physical space but also a different space of possibility? The one that I find the most generative and that I dedicate quite an amount of time to actually acknowledges the current devastation that has come from border enforcement and the construction of border divisions, and proposes that we take the ruins of the present, the fact that there’s already been some irreparable damage to the borderlands because of all the construction for the border divisions, and use those as the starting point to imagine different futures.

[00:16:20] So, in that case, what the lens of sustainability is doing is trying to get us to reframe and think about sustainability as prioritizing repair and as prioritizing care for the borderlands, rather than this sort of corporatized sustainability that is really just sort of quote unquote green alternative to border wall construction.

[00:16:47] There is no version of, well, this border wall that we’ve created is actually more carbon neutral, that isn’t just going to have all sorts of negative externalities to the border walls anyway.

[00:16:59] So how do we use multimedia to imagine, first, in this contain small way, a different way of thinking about the borderlands that isn’t about division and that is more about thinking of these interconnected life systems. And from there, start to imagine how to change the above ground as well.

[00:17:22] Cathy Hannabach: This brings me to my favorite question that I get to close out every conversation with.

[00:17:27] And I think we saw hints of it right there in these kinds of projects that you were just mentioning. So, I’ll ask you a question that’s at the heart of this podcast.

[00:17:36] So in the spirit of imagining otherwise, when you do this kind of work, when you teach your students about this kind of work, when you do all the kinds of projects in the world that you’re invested in, what is that world that you’re working toward?

[00:17:50] What kind of world do you want?

[00:17:53] Juan Llamas-Rodriguez: It’s a great question. I will say the most immediate goal I think I’m working toward, and this is part of the project of the book and also part of the courses that I teach on media and migration, is to get those involved in media, whether it’s media makers, students who are hoping to become media makers, media consumers, media critics, to get all of us to acknowledge, to become aware of, our involvement and responsibility in how contentious and politically charged issues like borders get discussed.

[00:18:36] So that means on the production side, for example, realizing that creative decisions that are made solely for the sake of attracting eyeballs or prioritizing what’s going to sell and what’s going to get clicks, all of these have real life consequences beyond the representation itself. We cannot separate those two types of effects.

[00:19:00] It also means acknowledging that good intentions are not enough if we are not critical and conscientious about how media forms and conventions can perpetuate and fuel harmful, harmful ideas.

[00:19:18] While I was finishing the revisions of the book was also the moment where there all of this rhetoric of quote unquote migrant caravans and how they were sort of, quote unquote, “swarming into the border.” I was at this panel where I asked a TV reporter um, how felt the responsibility when they sent crews to the border and basically just had a reporter standing there where there was nothing but created an entire news report around waiting for that caravan to arrive and how just buying into that rhetoric to begin with already gave some sort of credence.

[00:19:58] So, I think the goal that I’m moving toward is to get media producers to realize that responsibility and that involvement. And definitely students who are interested in getting into those industries, hoping that they go in knowing about them and hoping to affect some change there.

[00:20:18] More broadly, the world that I want is a world where the free movement of people is a social norm, is a legal and social norm, where we no longer criminalize people for moving across the world, where encounters with social and cultural differences are seen first and foremost as opportunities for collaboration and mutual growth.

[00:20:43] And I think one of the main goals that I hope to illustrate by exploring all of these representations of border tunnels and how they aid in the state project is that the world that I want to see is one where we as a society do away with this destructive attachment to the artificial construct of nation-state borders.

[00:21:10] And what I mean by that is that we no longer make political decisions based on militarizing the border as the most important thing and choose that everything else must suffer for it. In that last chapter, I get to the point of basically saying that buying into this idea that reinforcing or closing the border will actually save the nation-state is also dooming the people and the environment of the borderlands themselves to die.

[00:21:45] So valuing the closing of the border as the most important thing is actually a detriment to everyone who lives in that area. I want to see a world where we do away with this sort of destructive attachment. Because if we don’t, we will only continue to perpetuate violence against marginalized and disenfranchised people, against the environment, and against the very infrastructures that could actually make a world a more livable place for everyone.

[00:22:19] Cathy Hannabach: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of these ways that you imagine otherwise.

[00:22:25] Juan Llamas-Rodriguez: Thank you so much for having me.

[00:22:31] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for joining me for this episode of Imagine Otherwise. A big thanks to Juan as well for sharing his research.

[00:22:38] We really loved indexing his new book, Border Tunnels, and you can grab your copy now from the University of Minnesota Press.

[00:22:45] You can learn more about that book in the episode show notes on our website at ideasonfire.net.

[00:22:51] The show notes also include a transcript and teaching guide for the episode with related books, interviews, and resources.

[00:22:58] Imagine Otherwise episodes make for great syllabus additions, and our teaching guides are designed to help students and researchers explore the vibrant worlds of progressive, interdisciplinary scholarship.

[00:23:10] This episode of Imagine Otherwise was produced and edited by me, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:23:16] You can find Ideas on Fire and Imagine Otherwise on Instagram at @ideasonfirephd, as well as on Mastodon, Bluesky, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok.

[00:23:27] You can subscribe to the show on our website at ideasonfire.net as well as all of your favorite podcast apps.

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