Book Review: River of Hope: Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands

Valerio-Jiménez, Omar S. River of Hope: Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. 384 pp. Paperback. $26.95


In River of Hope: Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands, Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez offers readers an excellent study of the eastern U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Valerio-Jiménez chronicles the history of the region beginning with the foundation of the Spanish colony of Nuevo Santander and continuing into the nineteenth century as independence transformed it into the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The work also examines the legal, economic, and social consequences of U.S. westward expansion and the impact of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on everyday lives in the region.

The earlier chapters remind us of Juliana Barr’s superb Peace Came in the Form of a Woman, exploring the interactions among settlers and indigenous groups in the colonial borderlands. Whereas Barr focused her work on these relationships as they existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much of Valerio-Jiménez’s River of Hope is concerned with the social and regional transformations that occurred, first, after independence from Spain, and later when the land was politically divided in 1848. Charting the changes in individual and communal identity as Spanish subjects became Mexican citizens, Valerio-Jiménez emphasizes the everyday consequences of this process. When he writes about contested citizenship, pragmatic and practical mobility across the border, and the social construction of a region’s sense of itself, River of Hope is at its strongest.

Exploring on the broader history of Texas and Tamaulipas, Valerio-Jiménez writes across two historiographical divides. First, he ties the colonial and post-independence epochs together; the discussion of the region’s transition from one kind of empire to another in chapter three is one of the strongest parts of the book. With that said, although Valerio-Jiménez does much to bridge the two historical periods, River of Hope is most clearly anchored to the nineteenth century, particularly focused on the years following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The second point of historiographical convergence that Valerio-Jiménez engages is the excellent use of U.S. and Mexican sources to build the spatial narrative in River of Hope. His study of the eastern borderlands comfortably pivots across political dividing lines to understand the region as a whole. Here, Valerio-Jiménez nicely draws on aspects of Peter Sahlin’s theoretical framework studying the French-Spanish border to articulate how U.S. and Mexican citizens in Texas and Tamaulipas forged distinct, but also fluid, national and regional identities. Perhaps, the one failing of River of Hope in this area is that after 1848, Valerio-Jiménez focuses his analytical gaze largely on the U.S. side of the border. The rich legal and political narrative he draws out of these U.S. sources, often left this reader wanting to know more about whether analogous processes were underway in Tamaulipas.

In conclusion, Valerio-Jiménez’s River of Hope brings much for Borderlands scholars to consider. The excellent case studies utilized in this work serve well to illustrate the larger social, cultural, and economic trends underway and provide a rich narrative of the region. By writing across multiple historiographical divides and drawing on scholarship from other border regions, River of Hope serves as an example of how historians of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands can engage sources broadly to break out of a given archival or analytical niche.

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