This is the second installment in our pedagogy series. We invite you to join the discussion in our comments section at the bottom of the post.
At CIDE Región Centro, in 2014, when I started teaching my World history I course, I wanted to incorporate a Borderlands history perspective into my lectures and class discussions. Imperial frontiers is a topic that I have long found fascinating, and now given the chance, I wanted to explore it further with students. One of my favorite readings on this subject, which I assigned to students for group discussion, was Porfirio Sanz Camañes’s “Frontera, límites y espacios de confrontación en la América Hispana durante el siglo XVIII.” In it, Sanz examines the conflicts that occurred in the region of Río de la Plata before a new treaty was signed between Spain and Portugal. Sanz considers how the concept of the “frontier” and “border” evolved during the colonial period. It’s a great essay that also helped me conceive my lectures on the colonial empires in South America.
Another reading that has been very useful in conceptualizing borders and frontiers in my World history class is Nelson Eduardo Rodríguez’s “El imperio contraataca: las expediciones militares de Antonio Caballero y Góngora al Darién, 1784-1790.” Rodríguez contextualizes the Darien region of Panama as a colonial frontier where indigenous people and smugglers resisted and bedeviled settler officials who tried to subject the region to the crown’s authority. Throughout the eighteenth century, this porous “borderland” pertained and became a site Great Britain exploited to pressure the geopolitical power of their Spanish rivals in the western Caribbean.
Many of the students who I teach grew up in central Mexico and the region of the Bajío, which includes the state of Aguascalientes, where I live and work. When I’m developing my classes on New Spain, David Weber’s work, especially Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment, remains an important resource for writing and revising lectures. The discussion of frontiers that Weber uses really helps me to add an appreciation of “empire” as a process constructed through cultural and economic change as well as the application of violence to subject indigenous people to colonial power. In this context, I emphasize to the class the critical role that the Bajío played in facilitating the deployment of Spanish power to northern New Spain.
Likewise, Peter Sahlins’s excellent, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees, has been very useful when I’m covering the development of nation-states. I urge students to identify the historical context of creating borders and the often bloody impact of this work. One of my favorite moments during the semester is when students really grasp the constructed and artificial character of the nation-states that we consider to be almost “timeless” monolithic entities.
Ultimately, I want to use the themes of borders and frontiers in World history to help students conceptualize the political relationships that marked the early modern world and gradually influenced the evolution of nation-states. I see it as an opportunity to connect present-day debates around borders and migration to the historical context of these issues in the colonial period. In this sense, a Borderlands history perspective has helped me to make connections across different regions and time periods in the lectures and discussions we have in the course.