Why porous borders give birth to multiple identities

‘Border’ is, without a doubt, one of the defining words of our times. In this article, Giustina shares another vision of what borders could be, seeing them as fascinating windows towards the unknown, and mirrors in which one can see the contradictions on both sides.

Most people think of a border as something that closes off and sets limits—but for me, the word has always had the opposite meaning: an opening, a key to the discovery of other possible worlds. I grew up in a region of Italy bordering Slovenia, marked by a long and indelible history of commingling of people, languages, cultures—but also by times of hardening, expulsions, closure.

I was born in a land at the very edge of Italy, a little limb jutting out to the east, along which the Iron Curtain once fell. At least in part, the region defines itself by looking back with nostalgia to its Imperial past, under the Habsburgs. At the same time, it is sometimes reimagined in order to fit within a purely Italian retelling of its story, leaving out the many minorities, in every sense, that thrive there.

That border between Gorizia and Nova Gorica—two provinces kept apart, from 1947, by the fact of belonging to two different ideological worlds—was to my young eyes a wellspring of irresistible attraction, something so close to real-life magic. Me and my family, we crossed it almost every Saturday or Sunday, with our special permit—the propusnica, awarded only to locals. There, we would enjoy delicious homemade meals and relaxing walks through pure green nature, in what was then the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, the westernmost part of Yugoslavia.

I remember the excitement each time, the awareness of ‘being on the outside’, and that hint of embarrassment that came simply from not understanding Slovenian, the language of our neighbors. Much later, these memories led me to focus on those same places, and I chose to study the languages and cultures of the Balkans—one of the most neglected topics in Italian universities.

The truth is that, ever since I was a child, such a border became nothing less than a part of me, an integral part of my identity, which was from the start defined by a form of belonging that was plural, not exclusive. It was easy for me to add even more tiles to the mosaic of my identity that I built up in my head. After all, I had a Mexican mother, and a father who was himself the child of a mixed couple—an Italian mother from the borderlands, and a father who was also Italian but from the Levant, from Istanbul, himself the son of a Levantine Italian-Armenian woman—and the list can always go on.

My parents had also lived for some years in Brazil, where they conceived me, and I could still feel the call of Latin America in me—deep, ancestral, irresistible—which made me always question my ties with the Italian world I grew up in. And even more—halfway around the world, another border would mark my childhood in an unforgettable way, in an intriguing parallel to the Italian-Slovenian one: the United States-Mexican border, next to which I spent a good part of my summers, visiting my chicano (Mexican-Californian) relatives, who lived between San Diego and Los Angeles.

Stepping across that border, from San Diego to Tijuana, was an overwhelming experience for me, a true rite of initiation into what ‘exoticism’ could mean. The contrast between the two countries was truly powerful—to my eyes, the eyes of a child, this was a passage towards a universe of intoxicating color and human closeness, which had a much more direct, more accessible truth to it than anything one could find on the other side, that of the United States—as idealized as it may be.

For me, crossing that walkway was nothing less than immersing myself in another possible way of experiencing reality. The act of crossing borders was the start of a never-ending journey, a custom and a necessity—something essential to being the person I had even then decided I wanted to become.

Many years later, as a young student of anthropology, I spent some summers in an academic course organized by the Border Crossings Network in the little village of Konitsa, in the Greek region of Epirus, just a few kilometers from the Albanian border. It was there that I realized how important borders were, and the act of crossing them in particular, not only on the human level but on the academic level as well—for disciplines such as the anthropology of borders and, more generally, Border Studies.

Together with participants from all the countries of Southeastern Europe, and a few other ‘Westerners’ like me, I learned, often in exhausting detail but still with great enthusiasm, how to carry out ethnographic fieldwork in the Greek-Albanian areas, searching for whatever was really and truly a product of human interactions within—and with—such a multiethnic space.

This is how I understood, not only on an instinctual but also on a theoretical level, that a border, being only an artificial human construct, is able to set in motion, because of this very fact, a unique and valuable dynamic of resistance to the monolithic presence and self-affirmation of an individual state. The border is supposed to uphold and represent the state—yet by its dynamic it invalidates the state’s authority at the same time. All of the most remarkable contradictions within the respective countries accumulate, become concentrated, and settle like sediment on their borders. That is what makes these borders such fascinating places, giving life to forms of syncretism, if not even to some forms of cultural schizophrenia.

This is why all human activities that flourish in the borderlands are not only enriching the intercultural wealth available to their inhabitants, but also contribute to questioning the very theoretical foundations of the nation-state, and the notion of simple, exclusive belonging on which it is built. This is a fascinating paradox, infinitely complex, that I am still researching—and living—each day.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Giustina Selvelli, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.