Teaching Borderlands History to Undergraduates: Part Three – The U.S.-Mexico Border as a Subject of Historical Inquiry

I began this semester thinking that I wanted my undergraduate borderlands course to be continental in scope. What I envisioned, essentially, was a course that spent roughly equal time addressing imperial borderlands in North America, the U.S.-Mexico border, and the U.S.-Canada border. Having now finished my U.S.-Mexico borderlands course, I’ve completely changed my mind.

The two major lessons that I’ve learned in teaching this class (aside from the many minors ones) are: one, for a junior-level borderlands course I now prefer to focus primarily on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands; and, two, I’ve also learned to never again naively think that I know exactly how I want to teach a course before actually having tested my pre-conceived notions in the classroom.

History is at its most effective when narrative structure is respected and remains intact. A continental borderlands course, I now believe, would require sacrificing too much important content that really should be taught to college undergraduates. The lived experiences of borderlanders must be remembered and respected. Hardship, toil, and sacrifice have marked the people whose lives have been most significantly and directly affected (or, in many cases, bisected) by the border itself.

We began the semester focusing on the Spanish period. Sacrificing historical content from the colonial period in the Southwest would be a travesty; the content itself, in my opinion, is far too important to risk losing by over-contextualizing or casting one’s net over continental imperial borderlands history too widely (as is the trend in some of the literature). Our class discussed a number of important phenomena from the colonial period, including cultural conflict, syncretism, and the ramifications of Spanish colonialism for Native Americans.

But there was some room at this point for larger, comparative questions. For example, how did the experience of living on the Spanish frontier compare to life in New England, or, New France? Those regions are, of course, important in their own right, but a brief foray into comparative history helped us as a group learn even more about life in our primary area of concern. We concluded this early section of the course with a discussion of Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire, which provided for excellent discussions of not only the nature of power relationships in a borderlands setting but also the erroneous assumptions that previous scholars of the North American Southwest have made.

The richness of the material only continued as we explored the nineteenth century and the founding of the modern borderline. Again, this period explored conflict and syncretism as Mexicans, Native Americans and Americans came together and interacted. Moving from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo into the process of land-loss, white American colonization and the systematizing of Jim Crow in places like South Texas (a particular area of interest of mine) and southern Arizona, I was really impressed with my students’ abilities at honing a deep understanding of the complexities of social and cultural collision. Cross-cultural interaction and cooperation between whites and ethnic Mexicans in South Texas was not lost under the larger and more visible phenomenon of Anglo-Mexican conflict and the predatory nature of white American dominance of this once Mexican space. The border’s relative “openness” in the nineteenth century came to be challenged when Chinese immigration became (for the most part) illegal in 1882; still, establishing the open nature of the nineteenth-century U.S.-Mexico border is essential in understanding how the nature of life in the borderlands changed in the twentieth century.

Again, by the time one gets to the end of the nineteenth century in U.S.-Mexico borderlands history it is useful to take a diversion into some comparative analysis. We spent some time discussing the experiences of ethnic Mexicans in the nineteenth century borderlands and Native Americans throughout the U.S. West. How were their experiences similar? How did they differ? The answers don’t necessarily matter here, but, when placed together, the experiences of ethnic Mexicans and Native Americans in the nineteenth-century borderlands and U.S. West are quite revealing and tell us as historians much about the nature of life and race in the nineteenth-century United States on a much more general level.

The twentieth-century U.S.-Mexico borderlands are of special interest to many Americans. Again, our class engaged in some great discussions: when did Americans start thinking about ways to “close” what had historically been an “open” border? Why did Americans want to close it? How did Mexicans become the iconic illegal immigrants when in fact there were plenty of illegal immigrants in the twentieth century who were not from Mexico or Latin America at all? These questions are obviously important to contextualize in the larger context of “both borders.” Why didn’t Americans in the twentieth century have the same sorts of fears of the U.S.-Canada border as they did of the southern border? Why didn’t Americans clamor to “close” the northern border to the same degree as the southern one? These are simple questions that can really produce some great discussion.

We ended our course discussing the effects of 9/11 on the modern border. Discussing globalization and the modern border go hand-in-thumb. Still, as the public’s interest in the border after 9/11 erupted, so should scholars and students be paying attention. With the continuously massive numbers of deportations taking place across the country, it is imperative that Americans be educated on the history of the border and the lives of the countless millions of ethnic Mexicans who are challenged by the border in some way every single day. As such, to me, as an instructor, the history of the U.S.-Mexico border remains of the utmost importance.

It’s interesting to think how relatively different this class turned out from what I had initially expected. What ultimately made this class so enjoyable for me was having a great group of polite, fun, and engaging students. Comparative analysis or the occasional “continental turn” are important, but neither do I want to neglect to cover the myriad of crucial topics that relate specifically to the U.S.-Mexico border (such as, illegal immigration, deportation, the Bracero Program, Operation Wetback, the Chicano Movement, U.S. westward expansion, or, Chinese Exclusion, to name a few). U.S.-Mexico borderlands history is critically important and should be taught in every college history department. Context and comparative analysis are important, but, to me, they shouldn’t overshadow the primary subject at hand. It goes without saying that I will be teaching it in regular rotation at my institution.

The content and larger modes of analyses in U.S.-Mexico borderlands history are simply far too important to life in modern America for universities to ignore. It’s a pleasure and an honor to share my passion for this field with my students. It is beyond any shadow of a doubt that other practitioners in this exciting field feel the same way as I do, whether they teach the U.S.-Mexico border or one of the many other borders that are important in the world today.

Tim Bowman
West Texas A&M University

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5 thoughts on “Teaching Borderlands History to Undergraduates: Part Three – The U.S.-Mexico Border as a Subject of Historical Inquiry

  1. I first learned about U.S.-Mexican history at the impressionable age of 14 when I briefly lived in Mexico, so I always have the Mexican perspective in mind, which is a perspective based on intervenciones. They even have a Museo de Intervenciones in Mexico. It’s not just racism; it’s not just language; it’s not just 3rd world country meets 1st world country–it’s all of those. I sum it up as a history which demonstrates a frequent lack of respect between nations.

  2. Jennifer Seman

    Thank-you for sharing your experience teaching borderlands history Tim. I have a question. What do you mean by “over contextualizing”?

  3. Tim Bowman

    Hey Jenny, what I meant is that I think it’s oftentimes important to emphasize content solely or primarily for the sake of discussing/learning it. Comparative analysis is important, but I think (especially in a 3000-level course) that it should really only be used as a supplement to enhance learning the specific content of the historical narrative. In other words, I don’t ever want to make the mistake of moving too quickly into some kind of comparative analysis without paying proper attention to discussing the content first. Does that make sense?

  4. Michael K. Bess

    Tim, thanks for your candid observations on how the class went. It has definitely give me a lot to think about in terms of synthesizing border histories and integrating into the narrative of imperialism, both colonial and modern. How responsive were students to thinking about the “Spanish Borderlands” within the context of a class on the U.S.-Mexico border? Was the transition from a colonial to modern narrative challenging for them?

  5. Tim Bowman

    Hi Michael: The students handled that transition quite fine. I know for a fact that there were several who preferred the colonial period, and of course vice versa. My group really got “the picture” down, meaning that they understood that borderlands history isn’t limited to interaction across a modern borderline, that it’s about interaction and conflict across time. So, with the concept writ large they were able to handle those types of transitions quite well.

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