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.
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