BHIP: We speak to Mary E. Mendoza about her work and career!

Mary Mendoza picture_EDIT

Dr. Mary E. Mendoza             Photo Credit: Ernesto Chávez

A Note: While I promised to have a second installment of “19th Century Historians and the Rise of Trump” on our BHIP, due to technical difficulties, this is not possible at this time.  We are currently working to bring back our speaker to complete this project.

This new BHIP, however, is still in line with our Trumpist theme and helps us to understand the long and contentious history of physical barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.  One of Trump’s main campaign promises was to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the nearly 1,900 miles that divide the United States and Mexico. With little regard for established communities or nature in this region, Trump has not only vowed to build a wall, but expects the Mexican government to foot the bill.  Dr. Mary Mendoza is in the process of completing a book manuscript on the history of barriers, fences, and walls in the borderlands and analyzes how states, individuals, communities, and the natural world have adapted to, contested, and negotiated these man-made divisions. Although, we spent a good deal discussing her current project, I also asked Dr. Mendoza to tell us about her experiences as a junior scholar and how she manages her time between research, writing and teaching.

Dr. Mendoza received her B.A. from Middlebury College in 2006, an M.A. in U.S. History from American University in 2010, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis in 2012 and 2015, respectively.  Mendoza’s current research project explores the intersections between the natural and built environments along the U.S.-Mexico border. Specifically, Mendoza writes about the history of fence construction along the border, the ways that nature has shaped and been shaped by construction, and how fences, though practically powerless to stop the movement of dynamic nature, have become a symbol of a racialized landscape of power, control, and exclusion.  She’s received numerous research support from such illustrious institutions as the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian, the Ford Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Currently, Dr. Mendoza is Assistant Professor in the History Department at the University of Vermont.

Mendoza’s topic is a personal one.  Originally from San Antonio, Texas, Mendoza recalled her father’s work as a bricklayer and how her proximity to the border and her family’s ethnic Mexican roots informed her vision of U.S. history.  She became interested in the use of fences and barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border as an undergraduate student and decided to continue her research on this subject in graduate school. Her ideas about fencing and constructed divisions changed over time, and she began to ask questions about how these man-made barriers affected the natural world around them.  Initially, Mendoza was surprised to find that fences along the border were first created to keep out bugs and microbes rather than people. She traced the lineage of these types of enclosures to prevent the free movement of cattle across the national divide. In the early twentieth century, steers infected with a particular tick not known to cattle farther north could potentially destroy entire herds.  Mendoza describes the extreme measures taken by the United States to protect cattle in the region by creating quarantines and disinfecting stations in various outposts in order to protect cows from infestation.

Mendoza examines the ways in which ranchers used nationality as a means to avoid the complex network of inspection stations, quarantines periods, and disinfecting of cattle that had inadvertently wandered across the international border.  She marveled at the voices of ranchers who suggested that “their good ole’ American cows,” were incapable of being contaminated by ticks and diseases from south of the border.  Were these ranchers actually racializing their herds?

Mendoza suggests that the first fences were created to control the natural world. They were created to prevent the natural movements of biological organisms considered a threat to the nation’s food supply, such as ticks. Yet today, the Nature Conservancy is suing the Department of Homeland Security because they argue the fence/wall on the border is destroying the natural habitat of countless animal species like the jaguar and the ocelot. Professor Mendoza highlights the ways that this argument is now flipped since “the fencing began as a project to control a natural, environmental threat, a nonhuman natural threat and over time has become an obstacle for these kinds of desirable nature. And of course mixed up in all of that is human migration.”  Thus, Mendoza also argues that while containment methods were originally used to keep out animals, insects and diseases, later they were used as a means to control entry of human beings as they crossed from Mexico into the United States.

Dr. Mendoza wants scholars to think about that ways in which the natural environments that we live in and those that we build “shape the way that we think about and treat each other, as humans.”  Furthermore, she contends that the central tension she would like to highlight in her forth-coming book is how “ideas about race have been profoundly influenced by nature. Disease, bugs, contaminants, things that we consider bad, but also that our ideas about race change nature and landscape.”  She explained that “We develop these ideas and establish racial difference based on concerns about contamination from tiny organism and ultimately transform entire landscapes.” Mendoza concluded by declaring that “nature is not separate from culture.”

In the spirit of Women’s History Month, Mendoza and I turned to a slightly different theme in regards to borderlands history and the professionalization of borderland scholars.  As women of color we discussed the sometimes difficult road toward working with institutions that will sustain our work and our visions for our academic projects.  However, we conceded that along the way we have been fortunate to find individuals and institutions that far exceeded our expectations in their support for our research. Mendoza spoke of her strong connection with the University of Vermont and their sincere dedication to her book.  Moreover, she also suggested that as people of color we must be diligent in applying for grants, fellowships, and postdocs that will support our research and allow us time to cultivate our ideas

Of course we talked about so much more. Mendoza gave suggestions on how to teach borderlands history and U.S. history in the Age of Trump, as well as how she is revising her dissertation for the book.   I highly recommend our Borderlands History Interview Project audience to listen to our full interview on our YouTube channel.  Unlike other guests Mendoza is at the beginning of what is sure to be an exciting career and we are thrilled to be able to showcase her words and insights. Her timely historical critique of racially charged discussions about fences and barriers in the borderlands is sure to revolutionize borderlands historiography and will serve to complicate current discussions about the construction of a massive wall in the region.

Special thanks to Marko Morales for sound editing and Mike Bess for technical support.

 

Remember to like our Facebook page, subscribe to our new YouTube channel, and follow us on Twitter. Thank you all for joining us! Until next time!

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“We’re Ready to Penalize Anyone Who Drives Badly:” Monterrey, Motor Accidents, and early 1950s U.S. Border Tourism

The following post is drawn from research the author has conducted for his forthcoming book, Routes of Compromise: Building Roads and Shaping the Nation in Mexico, to be published by University of Nebraska Press (2017). For further reading, Mike has also written about this subject for the Journal of Transport History, which can be accessed here. -ed

The early 1950s represented an optimistic time for many people living in northern Mexico. Millions of dollars of investments in industrialization and transportation infrastructure that came from the United States during the Second World War promised to buttress a new period of rapid economic growth. Following years of wartime austerity, local businesses hoped to take advantage of improved mobility across the borderlands to cater to American tourists eager to visit their southern neighbor on driving excursions.

One of the fears that most concerned Mexican business leaders, however, was the perception of the country as dangerous, not only from armed violence, but also poor road conditions and a lack of police enforcement of road safety. For instance, highway robbery was not unheard of; in May 1931, thieves dressed as tourists mugged drivers who stopped to help on the road to Laredo, Texas. Nuevo León’s El Porvenir called the crime “scandalous” and lamented that the actions of these individuals damaged Mexico’s reputation, making the country appear unsafe for motorists. In 1936, the same newspaper described a “mafia” setting up occasional roadblocks along the highway, extorting motorists for payments. Federal and state governments made concerted efforts to address this issue, beginning as early as the 1920s with the creation of a road-building bureaucracy and highway police force.

Nevertheless, safety issues remained salient for many years. In the bustling industrial city of Monterrey, capital of Nuevo León state in northeastern Mexico, frustration over public safety on the region’s roads came to a head in the early 1950s. First, in June 1950, a U.S. family from Pennsylvania was involved in a devastating car accident outside of the town of Ciénaga de Flores, Nuevo León. Their 1949-model Packard sedan had been negotiating sharp mountainous curves when it collided with a cargo truck traveling in the opposite direction. Two sisters, eighteen and twelve years old, died at the scene, while Red Cross ambulances rushed the remaining family members to a local hospital for treatment. El Norte published images of the destroyed vehicle, while the public outcry that followed again expressed fears that similar accidents could irrevocably tarnish the country’s image as a desirable foreign tourist destination.

Two years later, another high-profile collision shocked the public in Nuevo León and finally forced an official response. On the morning of 31 July 1952, a crowded motorbus traveling down a major street in Monterrey collided with an 18-ton trailer that failed to heed a stop sign. The force of the crash caused the bus to roll onto its side, injuring thirty-three passengers, some with severe head trauma and others with body parts crushed or severed. Although many were hospitalized, no one died in the accident. The trucker, Javier Hernández de la Torre, told transit authorities that he had tried to slow down, but his vehicle’s breaks failed. A police officer who witnessed the scene testified that he saw the trailer moving at excessive speed and that the driver took no defensive action until it was too late. Authorities arrested Hernández along with the 18-year-old city bus driver, José Gonzalez, for having allowed too many passengers onboard his vehicle.

In its coverage of the incident, the state newspaper El Norte blamed the trucking company, Transportes Anáhuac, for its negligent driver. Reporters labeled Hernández a dangerous “loco del volante” (crazed driver) from out of state, unfamiliar with Monterrey’s roads. They also chided transit officials for not doing enough to prevent overcrowded busing.

In the coming days, El Norte decried the high rates of motor accidents in Monterrey and the rest of Nuevo León. The Anáhuac case was one of three that appeared in the newspaper’s August 1st edition; other stories published that Friday described reckless driving by an American visitor from Iowa that led to a crash with a city taxi as well as two serious accidents on the Monterrey-San Pedro Highway due to poor road and weather conditions.

Subsequently, in a front-page essay on 3 August, El Norte called July a “prodigious month” for crashes, stating that almost two hundred people had been injured and ten killed on roads in and around the state capital. It called bus drivers who permitted overcrowding “criminally irresponsible” and bemoaned the lack of adequate law enforcement of municipal and regional motorways. An editorialist asked if the situation would ever improve.

El Norte ran a dozen major stories over the next four weeks related to the problem of motor accidents. It frequently used words such as “tremendous” and “tragic” to describe these incidents, often publishing images of destroyed vehicles and occasionally of the victims as well. The newspaper took on a crusading tone, urging state and municipal authorities to do more to reduce safety risks on Nuevo León’s roads. It reported bad driving conditions on the pockmarked highway to Saltillo and complained that poor garbage pickup on city streets created unsightly roadside hazards and was “out of tune with Monterrey’s progressive beat.” It also criticized uneven sidewalks, depicting them as dangerous in a four-column article with a series of accompanying photographs, insisting city officials to act. Late-summer coverage emphasized the threat of unregulated transit spaces to public safety, calling for greater amounts of investment in road infrastructure, maintenance, and policing to mitigate harm.

Soon after, state and city officials began addressing the problems the press had exposed. In September, Monterrey’s transit chief commented publicly, “For much too long [we have] been extremely lenient… we are ready to penalize anyone who drives badly, no matter who they are.” He unveiled sweeping changes to transit laws and enforcement, raising penalties to as much as 500 pesos per infraction, depending on the gravity of the offense. The city also revised bus routes, restricted heavy trucks downtown, and made structural improvements to infrastructure while the state government increased spending on highway patrols.

The goal was to project confidence on roads for residents and tourists alike, but the new policies appeared to have been too sharp of a reaction to the status quo. Within weeks, businesses began to complain that revised bus routes in Monterrey had reduced local traffic to their stores. Picturesque streets were largely empty of tourists, while along the city’s periphery a spike in accidents was reported due to heavy traffic as trucks and buses were diverted to these areas. Moreover, businesses worried that the aggressive enforcement of driving rules would scare away tourists and foreigners.

Critics quickly turned on the reforms, including El Norte’s editorialists who called for a policy review to be carried out by local officials, the business community, and the state university. By the end of October 1952, a commission had formed to address the issue, while most of the severe enforcement activities were reined in by city leaders.

This period of frustration and inaction led to a short, sharp shock of overreaction by zealous officials who wanted to dramatically transform perceptions about mobility in their city and region. They had responded to public calls from newspapers and private businesses to do more to improve safety conditions on roads and in public transportation. The local tourism industry wanted to ensure Monterrey and nearby towns were amenable to middle-class tourists, many of them arriving from across the border. The challenges that policymakers faced, and the new problems that arose following the implementation of reforms, underscored the fact that mobility was deeply tied to considerations of power and access that had long affected (and continue to affect) everyday life along the U.S.-Mexico border. In trying to make Monterrey “safer” officials learned that their decisions could lead to unintended consequences that forced a reappraisal of the entire endeavor.

Editor: An earlier version incorrectly stated that the automobile accident in Cienaga de Flores, Nuevo León and the bus accident in Monterrey occurred in the same year. In fact, they occurred in 1950 and 1952, respectively. The post has been corrected and revised accordingly.

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The Deportation Terror: From Street Mobs to State Officials … and Back

By Ethan Blue, University of Western Australia

This essay has been reposted with permission from the author from the Religion and Ethics section of ABC.net.au. In 2012, NYU Press published Dr. Blue’s Doing Time in the Depression: Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons. For more information on Dr. Blue’s scholarship, please visit his faculty profile. -ed

Donald Trump and the U.S. Republican administration’s controversial call for a new and massively militarized deportation force harkens back more than a century. It builds on legal and extra-legal traditions of White American ethno-national cleansing.

Trump is largely uninterested in history, but he sees a hard border and a deportation force as existential necessities. “Otherwise,” he said, “we don’t have a country.”

But Trump’s narrow nationalist vision and existential crisis conflicts with diverse – and equally American – movements for social, racial and economic justice, within and beyond America’s borders.

Deportation and Trauma

In the middle of the nineteenth century, disruptions caused by European and U.S. military and economic penetration into China – the Opium Wars being a prime example – forced many Chinese to seek better opportunities in the United States, Australia, Canada and across Latin America.

There, they met white workers and the middle classes equally anxious about their own place in modernizing political economies. Wage labour was uncertain; new, monopolistic, vertically consolidated corporations paid white male workers – accustomed to being independent breadwinners for their families – as little as they could get away with, and their pride and families suffered.

Some white workers came to challenge corporate power, and at the same time, they blamed recent Chinese arrivals – who seemed to them strange, spoke a different language and practiced a different religion – for lowering their wages and disrupting their society.

Even though Chinese migrants did crucial work for the American economy, white mobs tried to drive the Chinese out of their communities, resorting to massacres and burning down entire Chinese neighbourhoods in the name of community protection. Anti-Chinese mobbing was an horrific expression of popular sovereignty and direct democracy – racist and violent, to be sure – reflecting a form of “people’s justice” in immigration control.

In 1882, legislators passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was a “travel ban” – to use today’s terms – which lasted until 1943. It, along with related laws, tried to regulate immigration around a range of interrelated moral, political and economic fears. In each case, legislators understood that restrictive laws were less bloody, and more effective, than mob rule. They were also less offensive to transnational businesses who wanted to profit from Chinese trade.

As the availability of Chinese workers dwindled, Mexicans became a crucial low-wage workforce for the U.S. economy. Though there had long been anti-Mexican violence as part of westward expansion (to say nothing of near-genocidal warfare against many American Indian groups) anti-Mexican mob violence was eventually absorbed into a growing U.S. border security regime.

In part, the anti-immigrant mobs who attacked Chinese and Mexican denizens were no longer necessary because state agents would do the heavy lifting. Special Immigration Agents known as “Chinese Catchers” swept through immigrant neighbourhoods looking for people to deport. Other agents combed through an extensive system of detention centres – prisons, hospitals, county jails and workhouses – searching for others to expel.

The government also developed new systems for mass removal, including dedicated “deportation special” trains – effectively prisons on wheels – to cheaply and quickly connect distant parts of the nation’s interior to borders and ports for expulsion.

The Border Patrol formed in 1924 as a new anti-immigrant police force, and offered badges and government salaries to people who, a few years earlier, had been members of anti-Mexican mobs. But the modern deportation regime would be administered by state agents, civil servants and work-a-day bureaucrats, rather than angry citizens.

Some officials still wanted to terrorize migrants, but thought the threat of deportation would do the trick. Early in the Great Depression, a Los Angeles city official deliberately wanted to frighten migrants, using fear as a “psychological gesture” to “scare … alien deportables” into fleeing. More than 1 million people were deported to Mexico – and many U.S. citizens were among them.

Another anti-immigrant movement came in the 1950s, under the explicitly racist name “Operation Wetback.” Like its predecessors, it came in response to fears about non-white immigration and the belief that Mexican migrant workers were driving down white American wages. Never mind the fact that – then as now – few U.S. citizens were willing to do the backbreaking agricultural labour Mexican migrants performed, and especially not at the poverty wages that kept produce prices so low, and that many of the workers (or their labour, at least) were much cherished by large growers.

Operation Wetback was a thoroughly militarised affair, with a series of raids, roadblocks and checkpoints across the region, and during which immigration agents increasingly positioned themselves as controlling crime, rather than immigration. It also overlapped with strident anti-communist repression of the early Cold War, when one immigrant rights advocate decried what he called “the deportation terror” levelled against non-citizen critics of the U.S. administration.

Some immigration officers sought to terrorize migrants into silence or departure. Others simply wanted to follow the law, keep their own jobs, protect the country (as they understood it) and make the deportation machine run smoothly. In any event, they managed to make a system that was effective in mass removal, as well as in creating persistent fears of deportablity among undocumented migrants.

Mass Incarceration, Mass Deportation

Since the Reagan years, Democrats and Republicans cooperated to dismantle the institutions that regulated capitalist firms even as they built up policing and prison systems. Jobs left, real wages were stagnant or declined. People who still held onto precarious factory jobs would blame so-called criminals, welfare queens and illegal aliens for their strife.

The processes of blaming “Others” – people of colour in cities and migrants from abroad – and then seeking new kinds of government repression to control them was akin to the reactionary movement Stuart Hall identified in the UK as authoritarian populism.

Bill Clinton came into office by adopting tough-on-crime rhetoric previously monopolized by Republicans like Richard Nixon, and furthering Reagan’s deregulatory agenda. Clinton famously “ended welfare as we know it” at the same time that he and his allies railed against black and Latino criminal “superpredators,” and helped build a militarized security apparatus.

By the 1990s – bolstered by new immigration legislation that would vastly increase deportation for decades to come – the U.S. mass deportation assemblage would parallel and interweave with the system of mass incarceration. Both were responses to the structural forces of neoliberalism, efforts to contain the workers made redundant by corporate flight to Mexico or China, by automation, or both.

Unemployed citizens might be imprisoned (especially if they were non-white and poorly educated), unemployed non-citizens might be deported. And people who got laid off from factory or service jobs – be they black, white, Latino, or of whatever race or ethnicity – might find steady, well-paying work with the police, as prison guards, or for the border patrol. They also got uniforms with American flags, symbols that validated their own national inclusion and distance from non-citizens.

Traditional Keynesian economics came under fire with neoliberalism, but a form of carceral Keynesianism took hold, making the livelihoods of working class people of different races dependent on expanding prison and border policing systems. But because Clinton also espoused some progressive policies – such as initial support for gay rights, from which he later backtracked – Republicans attacked him as a leftist.

Like mass incarceration, mass deportation has had broad, bipartisan support among Democrats and Republicans. Deportation accelerated under Bill Clinton. It accelerated again under George W. Bush, who oversaw more than 2 million removals.

It accelerated again under Barack Obama. As sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza has documented, the United States deported nearly 400,000 people in 2011, a number ten times greater than the deportations of 2001 – and more than all of the people deported in the entire 1980s.

Obama courted Latino support with immigration policies that provided work permits and deferred removal for long-time non-citizen residents who had arrived as children and were acculturated to life in the United States. But Obama also extended tough deportation policies for those with criminal convictions – supposedly dangerous criminals, but large proportions of whom were guilty of little more than traffic offences.

The twenty-first century deportation assemblage, built by Democrats and Republicans alike, moves faster and involves more complex systems than its predecessors. But for those whose whiteness or citizenship status insulates them from it, it appeared to be relatively bloodless. It wasn’t. Deportees face very real dangers on return to the lands they have fled; it traumatizes even U.S. citizens and tears millions of families apart.

The Lynch-mob Logic of Modern Deportation

Some might have seen this massive legal deportation apparatus refined by Clinton, Bush and Obama as adequate. But Donald Trump did not, and neither it seems did the minority of American voters who supported him. Trump’s proposed Deportation Force builds on the massive and existing militarized apparatus, but also calls for a return to nineteenth-century forms of expressive violence.

Even though Republicans are in strong positions in all three branches of government, the portent of intertwined legal and extra-legal violence loom large. Trump has explicitly foresworn the supposed niceties of “political correctness” and, in attacking a Mexican American judge’s suitability for office, has impugned the possibility of Mexican Americans being full citizens.

In addition to the flurry of constitutionally-dubious January 2017 executive orders and memos – which asserted executive power in unprecedented ways and denigrated the judicial branch – Trump’s Congressional Republican allies explicitly excluded Latino and Democratic legislators from meetings with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

It appears that to today’s white nationalists and authoritarian populists, the massive and, indeed, terrifying deportation regime of the past century – based to the extent that it was on the rule of law – hid the violence of the lynch mob too well. Despite the modern deportation regime’s fearsome effectiveness at capture and mass removal, the relative invisibility of its structural violence – invisible to many white audiences, that is – was unable to express the desired catharsis of white nationalist racial rule.

When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer promised to “take the shackles off” immigration law enforcement (an invocation eerily similar to Dick Cheney’s call to “take the gloves off” and permit torture in the War on Terror), and ensure that “people who pose a threat to our country are immediately dealt with,” his language suggested that politics itself had inhibited state agents’ ability to protect the nation from immigrants. He invoked the premises of action unencumbered by law, akin to the lynch mobs a century earlier.

The twenty-first century, post-global financial crisis conjuncture of reactionary movements against the Democratic Party’s progressive neoliberalism have therefore been channelled into racially-gendered calls for hardened sovereign borders and a militarized deportation force. Its anti-modern revanchism rejects the putative softness of state control in favour of angrier expressive forms.

The Trump administration’s conjuration of Mexican rapists and criminal aliens “who routinely victimize Americans” – while in fact immigrants are statistically less likely to engage in criminal-defined acts – as well as new promises to publicize crimes committed by non-citizens against citizen-victims, expresses but also enflames incipient gendered racisms in the language of national and personal protection. It appears to have motivated a Kansas man, who allegedly yelled “get out of my country” before he shot three men, killing one, and later telling a bartender he had killed Middle Eastern men.

And like a century ago, today’s white nationalists, who perceive themselves throwing off the politically-correct shackles of “the Washington elite” move, counterproductively, against the weakest members of world’s labour markets – migrants displaced by the longer legacies of racial capitalism. The authoritarian populist tendencies captured and unleashed by the Trumpist Republican Party (abetted by traditional Republicans) again enact the rituals and symbols of racist exclusion, expulsion, and abjection, through the terrors of mass deportation.

So we should not be surprised as the lines between legal and extra-legal violence are blurred. But people dedicated to an egalitarian America (and broader world) should be frightened to learn that anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate crimes have risen sharply. So have the number of hate groups.

In the 10 days after Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 867 hate incidents, many of them hate crimes. Of the nearly 1,100 incidents reported in the 34 days after the election, 37% made direct reference to Trump, his campaign slogans, or echoed his remarks about sexual assault.

If private citizens are using racial violence in the name of the President, state agents are also carrying out executive orders of dubious legality; one Republican official called for the extra-legal killing of campus protestors. Beyond a process of white nationalist radicalisation, little of this will address the historical forces that cause people to migrate, or that lead people to identify the United States as an enemy. They will likely make problems worse. The administration’s strident Islamophobia will surely exacerbate the fundamentalist radicalization it claims to protect against.

The Promise of Egalitarian Mutualism

But in contrast to authoritarian populism on the street and in the bully pulpit, another popular movement beckons. It is based in the traditions of egalitarian mutualism rather than authoritarian populism. Instead of racial nationalism, it draws on interrelated traditions of liberal and antiracist feminisms, LBGTQ rights, religious freedom, workers’ movements, Indigenous sovereignty and decolonization, prison abolition, civil rights and environmental justice. The millions who participated in the Women’s March on Washington (with parallel marches in deep blue and red states, and around the world) revealed Trump’s Inauguration crowds as anaemic.

Calls to racial nationalism and vigilantism have been answered by peaceful protestors challenging what they see as the Executive Orders’ racial and religious bigotry. So too have there been massive movements for sanctuary cities and campuses. Even calls for a non-violent general strike, little heard in the United States since the popular front radicalism of the 1930s, are beginning to gain a hearing. Together, these movements celebrate solidarity in struggle, not catharsis through exclusion.

It is impossible to predict the future of this regime. Trump is erratic and arguably unhinged, but his administration will most certainly continue to ignore, denigrate and criminalize the people who raise their voices and challenge its authoritarian populism with their visions of egalitarian mutualism. He may declare a state of emergency for a host of reasons and demand more power to suppress dissent in the name of national protection.

Fear is inimical to understanding. But without understanding the long trajectory of anti-immigrant nativism – in the contests of racial state power, authoritarianism, of forced removal and border violence – Americans cannot develop anything approaching a sound, ethical or effective policy. Without those, to paraphrase Trump, Americans may not have a country.

 

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Continuing the Conversation from the UTEP Borderlands History Conference 

This month The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) hosted the second annual Borderlands History Conference. The conference brings together scholars focusing on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. This years theme Shifting Borders: Gender, Family, and Community provided a broad definition of borders resulting in panels that ranged in topic, time period, and expanded the geographic scope of the borderlands.

I attended the two-day event which included an oral history workshop, a keynote by Sonia Hernandez, and a line up of interesting panels that provided a myriad of perspective on this years theme. The conference also provided ample time to network with visiting scholars and included a closing dinner at a local restaurant and cultural center, Café Mayapan.

At the end of the conference Dr. Larissa Veloz wrapped up the concurrence by providing four questions for borderlands scholars to consider. I have to say that I am still thinking about these questions in regard to my own research and my work as a public historian.

1. How does it feel to be a “borderlander”? How do people make sense of their own lives?

2. What are the creative adaptations people living on the border make? Who are the new cultural brokers that emerge?

3. How does a focus on gender, family, and community reshape our understanding of the borderland and vice versa?

4. How are images and histories of the borderland transmitted outward and what is our role as historians and scholars?

Dr. Veloz also made another comment saying, “the field of borderlands continues to inform various historiographies.” That was certainly clear from this conference; it is also important to acknowledge the breadth of the field which is still growing. I know it is easy to get caught up in one’s own area of specialization, topic, and time period. However, these questions (especially number four) help me remember that my work is connected to the image of the Borderlands that is transmitted to other parts of the world where borders look different. I wonder how fellow historians, scholars, and even people living on a broder today, feel about these questions? I hope that this platform provides a space to continue the discussion about the different ways our scholarship engages with borderlands and concepts of borders. Please add your ideas to the comments section below!

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A New Academic Institution is Born: Introducing the Center for the Study of the American West

We’re excited about the new undertaking our blog bollaborator, Tim Bowman, has at West Texas A&M. In the following post, he describes the launch of this great new center for the study of the U.S. West and Borderlands, as well as his work as its Associate Director.

I am delighted to announce the formation of a new academic institution at West Texas A&M University (WT). In the fall of 2016, a small group of scholars launched the Center for the Study of the American West (CSAW), which is housed in the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum (PPHM) on the campus of WT. CSAW is devoted to the promotion and development of interdisciplinary scholarship on the High Plains as well as the greater North American West through undergraduate and postgraduate education, research development, public outreach, and the coordination of collaborative opportunities between CSAW and the PPHM, the Cornette Library on WT’s campus, and other institutions and community partners. Our mission is a straightforward one: to promote the study of the North American West as a product of broad historical forces.

How do we accomplish this? Part of it  is through an endowed lecture series. The purpose of any endowed lectureship is to create a corpus of funds to generate an annual income substantial enough to attract noted scholars; our program, in particular, includes a public lecture, classroom lecture, and an event focused on student interaction and discussion. The biannual Gary L. Nall Lecture Series does all of the above, in keeping with CSAW’s mission. CSAW’s launch event in October of 2016 featured none other than noted western scholar Patricia Nelson Limerick, while the spring semester will feature writer, historian, and journalist S.C. Gwynne. Future Nall lectures will be given by prominent scholars such as borderlands historian Brian DeLay, who will be speaking on campus during the fall semester of 2017.

CSAW is also offering research grants to sponsor research for faculty, students and staff from WT to travel to other institutions, as well as for scholars from other institutions who would benefit from the use of WT and PPHM archives. Grants of up to $2,000 are available depending on the researcher’s need. Additionally, outside scholars will receive support from CSAW’s interns with arrangements for their stay in Canyon. Information on the grants—which include the CSAW Research Grant, the Jo Stewart Randel Grant, and the CSAW Student Research Grant—can be found here.

Another innovative program that CSAW offers is a minor field in Western American Studies for WT undergraduates. The minor is an interdisciplinary program designed to provide students a specialization in issues that are important to the region. Students will also gain experience in community involvement through an internship requirement as well as being presented with the opportunity to publish an original piece of written work in the Panhandle-Plains Historical Review, which is an historical journal devoted to studying the immediate region. Courses cover a variety of subjects, such as North American Borderlands History, Environmental Law, American Regionalism, Herpetology, Literature of the Southwest, Mexican-American History, as well as many other exciting fields of study relevant into understand the local and greater Wests.

CSAW’s director Alex Hunt, assistant director Maureen Hubbart, and myself (as associate director) are thrilled about these as well as several other opportunities and programs that CSAW is currently developing. It is my sincere hope that readers will contact me should they like any additional information about the goings-on at CSAW, the PPHM, or the larger WT campus.

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Migration and Asylum of Central Americans in the Trump Era

By Sonja Wolf

Dr. Wolf is a CONACYT Research Fellow with the CIDE Región Centro in Mexico and author of Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador (University of Texas Press, 2017).

During his campaign for the presidency of the United States, Donald Trump had taken a hardline stance on immigration. In his “Contract with the American Voter”, the Republican candidate had pledged to begin removing “the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country” and subject travelers from “terror-prone” countries to “extreme vetting”. A new “End Illegal Immigration Act” would fund the construction of a southern border wall and impose harsh sanctions on repeat immigration violators. There was widespread skepticism about whether the Trump administration would follow through on these and other outlandish campaign promises. But in his first week in office, the President has shown that he intends to do precisely that.

The Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” seeks to temporarily bar the nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, reprioritize minority (i.e., Christian) refugee claims, and exclude Syrian refugees indefinitely. When it came into effect, the Executive Order resulted in the revocation of tens of thousands of visas and disrupted travel for legal permanent residents as well as recognized refugees. Vaguely phrased and broad in scope, the document sparked protests at US airports and drew the ire of immigration lawyers and activists that condemned the travel ban for its discriminatory nature. The Trump administration appealed against a federal judicial decision that provisionally blocked the Executive Order on a nationwide basis, a federal appeals court prohibited its enforcement.

Unnoticed by many, the Central American Minors (CAM) Refugee/Parole Program was also suspended. The initiative had been launched in December 2014, a year that saw an apparently heightened influx of unaccompanied Central American migrant children flee gangs and violence to the United States. The CAM Program allows youths under the age of 21 who qualify for refugee status and live in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras to join their legally residing parents in the United States. Although the Central American countries have no terrorism concerns, the future of this program is uncertain now that anti-immigration Senator Jeff Sessions has been confirmed as Attorney General.

Even before Donald Trump was sworn in as President, Customs and Border Protection officers have been unlawfully turning asylum seekers away at the US-Mexico border. This situation has put an additional strain on shelters and public services in border cities. Throughout 2016 Tijuana, one of the busiest crossings, saw the arrival of more than ten thousand Haitians who had fled their earthquake-devastated country before abandoning recession-hit Brazil in the hope of obtaining Temporary Protected Status in the United States. They were joined by African migrants who feel unwelcome in Europe and by Cubans who became stranded at the border when in January 2017 the Obama administration ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy.

This state of affairs is bound to be exacerbated by two additional Executive Orders. “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” takes a narrow view of asylum provisions, foresees an expansion of the southern border wall, and steps up immigration enforcement. “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” targets for deportation undocumented immigrants who “have been convicted of any criminal offense” or “pose a risk to public safety or national security”, categories that would include suspected street gang members. However, this executive order also prioritizes for removal those who “have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” or “have engaged in fraud…before a governmental agency”. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, there are some 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, about 8 million of whom engage in some form of remunerated labor. To be able to do so, many may have claimed to hold a valid work permit or used a fake social security number. In Mexico and Central America there is already unease about the impact of intensified deportations of offenders. A potentially much larger pool of returnees, however, would place even greater stress on remittance-dependent countries that are struggling to create employment and effective public services.

Migration dynamics in Mexico itself are diverse, but the largest group is that of undocumented migrants and displaced persons from the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras). For many years, the economic situation and the desire to reunite with relatives in the United States, annually prompted tens of thousands of Central Americans to travel north. Increasingly, however, young people, and sometimes entire families, abandon their homes to escape gang violence. The victims, who are harassed for refusing to be recruited, rejecting extortion demands or opposing these groups in some way, generally find it impossible to relocate internally and escape gang intelligence networks. Many hope to obtain asylum in either Mexico or the United States. But gang persecution is often difficult to prove, and both countries are reluctant to grant asylum to victims of gang violence.

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio Dieciocho, the main street gangs operating in the Northern Triangle, originally formed in immigrant barrios of Los Angeles. Impoverished, overcrowded, and rife with gang activity, these neighborhoods received Central American war refugees that were denied legal status. Their children felt alienated in a foreign culture, and some turned to gangs. The United States has traditionally sought to eliminate its gang problem not through social policies, but through the removal of non-citizens. In the early 1990s stepped-up deportations exported the MS-13 and Barrio Dieciocho to the Northern Triangle. Their members encountered no insertion opportunities and absorbed some of the existing youth gangs. These were small, localized groups that had constituted no significant public security threat.

Over time, however, the gangs developed not only a nationwide presence, but also began using more sophisticated firearms, strengthened their internal structures, became more criminally involved, and committed more brutal and indiscriminate violence. Today the gangs target adolescents in marginal communities for forced recruitment and sexual violence, extort small and medium-size businesses, and exercise strict territorial control. These geographical boundaries limit access for state institutions providing municipal services, companies delivering goods, civil society groups carrying out prevention projects, and outsiders generally. Students are perhaps particularly affected, since many need to commute between rival gang territories on their way from home to school.

Central American governments have tended to tackle the gangs through mano dura (“iron fist”) policies that prioritize neighborhood sweeps and mass arrests of suspected gang members over prevention and rehabilitation. In El Salvador, for example, the strategy has proved popular with voters, but has had detrimental effects on gang evolution and homicide rates. The administrations of the leftist FMLN party, in power since 2009, have stated their commitment to pursuing a comprehensive security policy. The Funes government (2009-2014) even promoted a gang truce in order to curb the country’s homicide rate, but its failure to adopt social measures contributed to the collapse of the ceasefire. Political pressure for results and resource deficits make the implementation of a holistic security policy difficult. Worse yet, the post-truce escalation of violence has also entailed renewed gang attacks on police and “confrontations” that in some cases mask extrajudicial executions by law enforcement. US security assistance has perhaps done more to deter perceived security threats to the United States than to address inequality, corruption, and institutional dysfunctionality in Central America. As long as the climate of violence persists, migration and displacement will continue.

Under pressure from the United States, Mexico has for some time made greater efforts to detain and deport undocumented migrants heading north, most recently through the Southern Border Program. In late 2014, the Obama administration also announced the creation of the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, a co-financed initiative that seeks to boost economic development, strengthen institutions, and improve public security in Central America. While these are important objectives, making them a reality will necessarily be a long-term endeavor, even with the greatest amount of resources and political will. In the meantime, more effective ways need to be found to process asylum applications and relocate victims of gang persecution. At the moment, it is uncertain what direction US immigration and refugee policy will take under the Trump administration. It seems clear, however, that a regional approach is required that will not consider deterrence as the only possible response to irregular human mobility, but strike a balance between labor market demands and people’s need for jobs and safety. Above all, perhaps, the current era calls for greater activist and educational efforts that help immigration opponents understand why strangers make a long, perilous journey and that diversity make societies richer, not weaker.

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Site Update: Book Reviews and Conference Notes Sections

Dear readers, continuing in our mission to better serve you by making our content more easily available, we’ve added two new sections above the masthead of the blog: Book Reviews and Conference Notes.In each, you’ll find posts we’ve published going back over years.

Also, we’re always looking for new contributors and content, if you want to write a book review or conference report for the blog, write us!

We’d love to publish it and include your name in the growing list of participants. Remember, the blog is a labor of love for readers by readers. Have you voice heard!

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We’ve Updated Our Sections Content!

Dear readers, a quick note: now when you visit BHB we’ve created two new sections above the masthead. Each one offers a different collection of essays that we’ve written over the years that we hope you’ll find helpful. These include our essays on pedagogy and teaching strategies, as well as a new section on our experiences writing and researching work as we moved through graduate school and entered the job market. We also plan to keep these sections updated as we add new content. This is the first big change we’ve made in a while to our sections, but it won’t be the last. We want to make sure the blog remains a useful resource for you throughout the year!

We’re excited to unveil the new sections:

Pedagogy

Research & Development

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Bridging National Borders in North America

This summer an excellent series on Borderlands scholarship is planned and the organizers are looking for participants! Titled, “Bridging Borders in North America,” Benjamin Johnson at the University of Loyola Chicago is coordinating this National Endowment of the Humanities Summer Seminar for College and University Faculty. It will be held at Chicago’s Newberry Library and the team of scholars leading this series include Patricia Marroquin Norby, Julianna Barr, Kornel Chang, and Geraldo Cadava.

The seminar is scheduled to occur from July 10th to August 4th, while the deadline for applications is March 1st with notifications made at the end of that month. Also important to note: at least three spaces are reserved for non-tenure-track or adjunct faculty members!

From the seminar description:

The Newberry Library’s D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies will be hosting a four-week summer 2017 NEH seminar for college and university faculty that explores the history of North America’s border and borderlands. In keeping with the recent work in the field and the collection strengths of the Newberry Library, this seminar will take a broad geographic approach, framing borderlands as distinct places at particular moments in time where no single people or sovereignty imposed its will.

The organizing theme is the process of border-making. We will examine three aspects of this theme: how nation-states claiming exclusive territorial sovereignty re-drew the continent’s map; the intersection and sometimes collision of these efforts with other ways of organizing space and people; and the social and political consequences of the enforcement of national territoriality.

Two questions guide our examinations of these developments: how did diverse peoples challenge national borders, or use or alter them for their own purposes? And, how does consideration of these topics recast our understanding of the intertwined histories of indigenous peoples, Mexico, the United States, and Canada?

For more information, or to apply, follow the link

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“Why is There No Ida B. Wells of the Borderlands?”

Notes from “Linking U.S. and Mexican Histories of Violence: Extralegal Justice on Both Sides of the Border,” a panel presented at the 131st Annual American Historical Association Meeting in Denver, Colorado.

Since the publication in 2013 of William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb’s The Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928, the question of extralegal violence against Mexicans has gained significant attention in borderlands studies.[1] In the introduction to The Forgotten Dead, authors Carrigan and Webb ask a simple but profound question: why were the lynching deaths of Mexicans forgotten? The answer to this question is not that the lynching of Mexicans was few and far between. In fact, the opposite is true, as Carrigan and Webb point out:

“From the California Gold Rush to the last recorded instance of a Mexican lynched in public in 1928, vigilantes hanged, burned, and shot thousands of persons of Mexican descent in the United States. The scale of mob violence against Mexicans is staggering, far exceeding the violence exacted on any other immigrant group and comparable, at least on a per capita basis, to the mob violence suffered by African Americans. Yet despite its importance and pervasiveness, mob violence against Mexicans has never been fully studied.”[2]

This panel, chaired by Michael J. Pfeifer from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York and featuring comments by William Carrigan, presents new research on the topic of mob violence against Mexicans that contributes to filling this lacuna in borderlands historiography as well as the history of violence more broadly.

Michael Pfeifer opened the panel by posing a series of questions:

  • How can we think in comparative terms about violence in Mexico and the U.S.?
  • How did the history of conflict in the borderlands, including racism against Mexicans, shape extralegal violence in the border?
  • How do these histories of violence influence the larger history of the U.S.-Mexico border and the larger histories of these two nations?

The first paper, (Bi)national Border Rebellions, Linchamientos, and the (Bi)centennials of the Mexican Revolution by José Angel Hernández from the University of Houston, addressed Pfeifer’s questions through an examination of linchamientos (lynching) of Mexicans at the border.

Hernández asked how the use of the Spanish term linchameinto, an importation of the American word lynching, complicates understandings of extralegal violence in the borderlands. He explained that in Mexico linchameinto does not exclusively refer to a public hanging, but could be used to describe a public burning, beating, or killing. Linchameinto could also refer to a revolt or other kinds of extra-legal violence. To demonstrate the elasticity and instability of this term, Hernández described instances of extra-legal violence that took place in the connected borderlands communities of La Mesilla, New Mexico and La Ascención, Chihuahua. He described two different and distinct instances of extra-legal violence – a fight between Republicans and Democrats that took place in the 1870s in La Mesilla where nine people died and 100 subsequently fled to Chihuahua, and an instance of narco violence in 2010 that occurred in the same region – both labeled linchameintos.

Next, Hernández posed two very interesting questions:

  1. What makes a lynching a hate crime?
  2. Why is there no Ida B. Wells of the borderlands?

In response to these questions, William Carrigan offered some ways to clarify terminology. Carrigan argues that the following three things must be present in order to call an event a lynching:

  • Community support for the event
  • Premeditation (this distinguishes between rioting and lynching)
  • How the violent act is justified: is it done “for the greater good”?

Hernández added to this list, suggesting that another important characteristic of lynching is the ritualized nature of the violence committed. Further, he stated that because the meaning of lynching has changed over time, a researcher must look for patterns of ritualized violence specific to time and place to understand what lynching looked like and what it meant in specific historical contexts.

Continuing with this discussion of terminology, Carrigan spoke about how Republicans did not want the word lynching used to refer to anti-black violence in the South during the post-Reconstruction era because at that time its meaning was not strong enough to describe the violence that African Americans were being subjected to. Carrigan explained that during the nineteenth century, lynching was associated with the Gold Rush in somewhat of a positive way– it was men taking care of law and order when there was none. Republicans wanted a stronger term to describe the awful things happening to blacks in the South. However, it was the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells who took the word lynching to describe the “Southern Horrors” committed against African Americans in the South. Wells gave the word lynching the meaning it still has today.[3]

The second paper, Out of the Ashes: How the Burning of Antonio Rodriguez Led to an Increase in Anti-Mexican Mob Violence during the 1910s by Nicholas Villanueva Jr. from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, examined how the Mexican Revolution influenced cross-border violence, particularly in Texas.[4]

Villanueva described two cases of extra-legal violence against ethnic Mexicans that occurred in Texas during the Mexican Revolution. Villanueva began with the story of the lynching of Antonio Rodriguez. Rodriguez was a 20-year-old Mexican looking for work as a farmhand in Texas. While in Texas, he was accused of murder. A mob broke into the jail cell where he was being held, forcibly removed him, tied him to a tree, and burned him alive. Rodriquez had no trial, and no one in the mob who brutally killed him was charged with a crime. This enraged Mexicans. Throughout Mexico there ensued a series of anti-U.S. boycotts, riots, and the use of rhetoric such as “Death to Yankees” and “Death to Americans.” Consequently, these rhetorical “attacks on Americans” caused anti-Mexican feeling in the U.S.

Villanueva then described the lynching of 14-yr-old Antonio Gomez. Gomez was harassed and beaten by the owner of a saloon because he was lingering outside the business. While the saloon owner was beating him, Gomez took his knife out and stabbed him. A mob formed around Gomez and lynched him. The mob was not punished. Villanueva made the point that violence against ethnic Mexicans during the Mexican Revolution escalated yet was not punished. Villanueva also compared this to events today, when hate crimes against Mexicans – especially those crossing the border or deemed here ‘illegally’ – often go unpunished. However, Villanueva argues that the lynchings of Rodriguez and Gomez were not products of the Mexican Revolution, but rather, signs of the increased racist sentiments and accompanying violence against Mexicans in Texas. To demonstrate how the State, in the form of the Texas Rangers, also took part in this violence against Mexicans, Villanueva invoked the work of South Texas attorney J.T. Canales, who wrote about the corruption of the Texas Rangers and their techniques of “Mexican Evaporation,” how they “disappeared” Mexican men who were on the Ranger’s “black list.” (To answer José Angel Hernández’s question, maybe J.T. Canales was the Ida B. Wells of the Borderlands?)

The third paper, Savage Yanquis and Enraged Mexicans: Extralegal Justice and Its Representations in Mexico and the U.S., by Gema Karina Santamaría Balmaceda from the Instituto Technológico Autónomo de Mexico, connects the history of lynching to nineteenth and early-twentieth century discourse about savagery and civilization. Through an examination of this discourse in Mexican and U.S. newspapers, this paper demonstrates how lynching served as a measure of civilization in each country. In particular, Santamaría Balmaceda shows how this discourse was deployed as justification for state violence.

Santamaría Balmaceda’s paper (she was not able to be there in person, so her paper was read by a colleague) describes how in many newspapers, the Mexican Revolution represented lawlessness, and a regression from civilization into savagery. For example, the Mexican newspaper El Universal published articles about how post-revolutionary Mexico, absent the “law and order” of Porfirio Díaz, had devolved into a place of savagery. However, in the pages of Regeneracion, a Mexican anarchist paper published in the United States, editor Ricardo Flores-Magón criticized Americans with the same language the U.S. press often used to describe Mexicans and Indians. Responding to the lynching of Antonio Rodriguez, for example, Flores-Magón chastised Americans for their “backwardness,” “ignorance,” and called them “barbarians of the U.S.” because of the lynchings that took place there. He also called these Americans religious fanatics and savages – words often used by the Mexican press to describe Indians and Mexicans in rural communities believed to be under the influence of the church.

The major point that Santamaría Balmaceda’s paper makes is that representations of lynching were used by different groups on both sides of the border to make points about “savagery and civilization” in order to defend various positions. Like the other presenters, Santamaría Balmaceda argues that the conception of lynching as only American is problematic, that there needs to be a comparative dimension in lynching historiography.

There were many excellent questions for the panelists, including questions about lower levels of mob violence, or even the threat of mob violence and how that fits into the history of racialized violence at the border. One audience member asked about the chronology of lynching: when does it begin? In 1848, as Carrigan and Webb’s book has it, or might it be placed earlier than that? These questions provoked deeper discussion of the importance and difficulty of defining terms when discussing lynching and extralegal violence.

As a borderlands historian and an instructor of U.S. History, I found this panel immensely interesting. I teach Ida B. Well’s Southern Horrors in my “Multicultural America” course, where many of my students are of Mexican descent. The challenge of teaching “Multicultural America” is to shed light upon those people and events that have for too long been on the margins of history. What I learned from this panel will, I hope, help me do that with my students when I ask them, “Why is there no Ida B. Wells of the Borderlands?”

[1] William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, The Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). See also the public history project: Refusing to Forget https://refusingtoforget.org

[2] Carrigan and Webb, 1.

[3] Jacqueline Jones Royster, ed., Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (Boston and New York: Bedford Books, 1997).

[4] Nicholas Villanueva Jr., The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017).

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